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USMNT Tops Gold Cup Group but Enters Knockout Stage With Convincing to Do

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 7/18/2021 Brian Straus

The U.S. scored 20 seconds in vs. Canada and held on for the result that mattered, but beneath the surface there were some flaws that must be addressed.

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The Concacaf Gold Cup’s group stage typically is a perfunctory procession lacking in tension or intrigue. But there was the U.S. men’s national team on a warm Sunday evening in Kansas City, Kan., facing some first-round stakes.

Three points against Canada would seal first place in the group (the visitors needed only a draw thanks to their goal differential advantage). More importantly, a U.S. win would probably mean a more forgiving draw in the tournament’s knockout rounds. That’s about as much pressure as you’re going to find at this stage of the biennial confederation championship. Toss in the budding rivalry between the northern neighbors, and this was an early Gold Cup game with more subplots than usual.

“There’ll be a bit of a final atmosphere in the match,” Canada coach John Herdman said before kickoff.

If there was, then both teams played to the occasion. They produced a tight and tense affair that was dominated for significant stretches by Canada but which the Americans won, 1–0, thanks to a historic goal by Shaq Moore. Both the U.S. (3-0-0) and Canada (2-1-0) will move on to next weekend’s quarterfinals.

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U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter will have plenty to think about between now and then. His team struggled to impose itself, to hold the ball, to build possession out of the back and to bring the forwards into the game. The Canadians were dominant at times during the second stanza, and the Americans were fortunate it didn’t show up on the scoreboard. A couple U.S. errors went unpunished, and the referee denied a couple Canadian penalty appeals. The hosts survived with some desperate defending at the end and surely will have to be better in the knockout rounds.

The U.S. entered sold-out Children’s Mercy Park (the crowd included Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes) on a 12-game Concacaf win streak. The last regional defeat came to Canada, of all teams, in a Nations League match back in the fall of 2019. That loss was the clear low point of Berhalter’s tenure. It’s been a steady climb since. Canada, under Herdman, has been on the rise as well. Its program-record, eight-game win streak heading into Sunday included a 6-0-0 mark during the first two rounds of World Cup qualifying, which lifted Canada to the final phase for the first time since 1998.

“I think the resurgent teams in Concacaf are the United States and Canada,” Berhalter said Saturday.

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Many of the players who have fueled that resurgence were unavailable in Kansas City. For the U.S., this is a ‘B’ team Gold Cup. Berhalter is resting almost all of the European-based stars who will anchor the squad in World Cup qualifying. For Canada, it’s a B+ tournament thanks to the absences of Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies (injured), Lille’s Jonathan David and Besiktas’s Atiba Hutchinson, among others.

Nevertheless, the opportunity to win a continental title and make a case for minutes in World Cup qualifying mattered plenty to those involved. And there are players on this U.S. squad whom fans have been curious to see. Several of them made starts on Sunday as Berhalter merged pieces of the lineups he used in the group-stage wins over Haiti and Martinique. Among the younger men getting a second look in Berhalter’s dynamic 3-5-2 were New York City FC defender James Sands; hometown favorite Gianluca Busio, a midfielder; and Orlando City striker Daryl Dike, who tallied twice against Martinique.

But it would be Moore, a wingback starting because of Reggie Cannon’s hamstring issue, who would lift the U.S. to first place. Seconds after kickoff, midfielder Kellyn Acosta won a duel and spotted Sebastian Lletget alone in the left channel. The LA Galaxy linchpin hit an inch-perfect cross toward the right post, where Moore, a 24-year-old Georgian who plays for Spanish Segunda team Tenerife, had beaten his mark. The finish was emphatic. Moore played well against Haiti in the Gold Cup opener and was involved in the game-winning play that day, and his goal after 20 seconds against Canada not only made the difference again, it was the earliest goal scored in the USMNT’s modern era.

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But it was just about the only U.S. highlight. And it was its only shot on goal. Captain Walker Zimmerman exited with an injury in the 15th minute, and the insertion of the far-less-experienced Donovan Pines changed the complexion of the U.S. back line. By the middle of the first half, the midfield of Busio, Acosta and Lletget was starting to buckle. Duels were lost, turnovers were more prevalent and the runs and rhythm that marked the game’s opening 20-plus minutes gradually disappeared. Tajon Buchanan of the New England Revolution drove the Canadians forward, and in the second half, despite their own injury issues, the visitors carried the play.

A Pines turnover nearly led to a goal by Cyle Larin in the 46th minute, but Matt Turner made the save. Pines also was somewhat fortunate not to be whistled for a penalty after putting his hand on a falling Richie Laryea. Berhalter finally made a trio of needed changes in the 74th minute, bringing on two new midfielders and forward Matthew Hoppe, who was able to relieve some pressure with a couple of dribbling runs. Still, it was Buchanan who had the best chance late, curling a 79th-minute shot just wide of the right post.

Canada held 54.5% of possession and outshot the U.S. 14-6. Herdman was left feeling frustrated.

“It’s hard,” he said. “It’s a valiant effort and there’s a bit of pride in there. But at the same time, we’ve got to win these games. It was a good learning [experience] for us.”

The U.S., a six-time Gold Cup champion, and Canada (which won in 2000) could meet again in the Gold Cup final. They definitely will face off on Sept. 5 in a World Cup qualifier in Nashville. Meanwhile the U.S. will play either Costa Rica or Jamaica in a July 25 Gold Cup quarterfinal outside Dallas (Canada will meet the other). The Americans’ motivation to win Sunday was to avoid a prospective semifinal showdown with Mexico. El Tri faces underdog El Salvador later Sunday and, with a win, would top its group. First-place finishes for both the U.S. and Mexico would mean they couldn’t clash until the Aug. 1 Gold Cup title game in Las Vegas.

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