KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Jozy Altidore, one of the United States men’s soccer team’s stalwarts, rescued a listless game against Panama on Wednesday night. His bicycle kick goal off a corner kick in the second half was the difference in a 1-0 United States victory, helping the Americans top their Gold Cup group and advance to face Curacao in the quarterfinals in Philadelphia on Sunday night.
United States coach Gregg Berhalter started an unchanged lineup in the first two games of the regional tournament — victories against Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago — but opted for a wholesale change against Panama, starting 11 new players. Panama followed suit, changing out nine players from its last match. The temperature at kickoff was 84 degrees and it was quite humid, with players and coaches remarking after the match how tough the conditions were.
On the field, the new lineups and swampy conditions showed. The game was played at a languid pace, with United States players dominating possession and often enjoying several seconds on the ball before being pressured. The teams combined for just three shots on goal, and neither goalkeeper was troubled outside of Altidore’s goal.
American star Christian Pulisic made a 25-minute cameo, entering the game just before Altidore scored, but Berhalter was able to otherwise rest his starting eleven and still top the group.
Here are four things we learned from the match.
Resting the Starters Paid Off
Before the game, both the United States and Panama faced the same dilemma: Whether to go for the win, or to rest key players instead.
Both teams had already qualified for the quarterfinals, but the group winner would face Curacao — which qualified for the knockout round for the first time — while the runner-up would play Jamaica, one of the region’s tougher teams. There is a significant gulf in quality between the two possible opponents.
In the days beforehand, Berhalter was coy. He said the team wanted to win, implying he would select a strong lineup, but also said it wasn’t a situation he had faced before.
In the end, both managers opted for rest. Tournaments are taxing, especially ones played in hot conditions and across a country as large as the United States, and there are just two days between the quarterfinals and semifinals. Besides, the United States should be good enough to have their sights set on teams far better than Jamaica and Curacao.
“The decision to start 11 new players was an easy one, to be honest,” Berhalter said. “We believe in the group.”
None of the Reserves Made a Case
It was a prime opportunity for a group of second-choice players to stake their claim on a starting position for the quarterfinals, but few players made the most of it.
“I think we were a little bit sloppy, maybe because we hadn’t played in a little while,” said midfielder Christian Roldan after the game.
Matt Miazga concurred. “We could have been a bit more ruthless,” he said. “I thought some plays were a bit sloppy.”
Miazga was one of the better players on the night, assuredly handling his defensive duties and winning the header that led to Altidore’s goal. Another was right back Reggie Cannon, who was only added to the roster after Tyler Adams withdrew with an injury. He got in behind Panama’s defense a few times, and most United States attacks went down his side.
The Coach Has a Sense of Humor
Neither team seemed particularly happy with the referee, Abdulrahman Al-Jassim of Qatar. The Americans felt a number of tough challenges went unpunished, and both Altidore and Jordan Morris were incensed about what they thought were soft calls against them.
Berhalter spoke to Al-Jassim in the second half, and after the match he was asked if they talked about Panama’s tough challenges. He gave the following answer with a straight face:
“No, we got some information about the referee, about how good he is and from Qatar. We have friends in Qatar that gave us some feedback. I just told him that a lot of guys are talking really positive about him and his performance.“
The Path Ahead Looks Easy
The United States will face Curacao for the first time since 1984, back when it was still called the Netherlands Antilles. With a win, they would get the survivor of Panama versus Jamaica in the semifinals, with a likely showdown against Mexico looming in the final in Chicago.
Also in the other half of the draw are Costa Rica, Canada and a surprisingly strong Haiti squad.
But ultimately this Gold Cup is like all other Gold Cups. There are a bunch of teams the United States is expected to defeat, and Mexico. If it is a United States-Mexico final, it will be the first time since 2011, when a 4-2 Mexico win ended Bob Bradley’s tenure in charge of the United States.
Email Kevin Draper at k[email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @kevinmdraper.
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