CHARLOTTE, NC – Let the actual tournament begin.
While the US men’s national team didn’t want to disrespect their partners in Gold Cup Group A, there was never any real concern on the part of the team that they would not make it to the knockout rounds. Sunday’s dominant 6-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago showed why.
For USA, the group stage was all about integrating players, building relationships and preparing the team for their fourth consecutive Concacaf title.
“I think the message was clear from the start that we’re giving as many players as possible the opportunity to experience this group stage,” said interim coach BJ Callaghan on Saturday. “With this experience, we know that it only pays off in the short term, but also in the long term.”
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Jesus Ferreira is the best example of this. In the short term, it was the forward’s consecutive hat-tricks in the last two games that allowed the USA to win the goal difference tiebreaker with Jamaica and move to the top of Group A. These accomplishments are a positive sign that the strength of the USMNT is improving over the long term at the site.
During the last World Cup cycle, the forward was a glaring problem for the USA. During qualifying, no one understood the role he played in the starting XI and he was the team’s most obvious weakness at the Qatar tournament.
Ferreira was, of course, part of that equation. It’s not like he’s worked his way into the 26-man World Cup squad as much as other options. Nonetheless, there was much debate about his inclusion and when he finally saw the field – as a starter in the round of 16 against the Netherlands – the stage proved too big.
Given the circumstances, his performance was not surprising. Asking a 21-year-old MLS forward to make his World Cup debut against one of the tournament’s most talented defenders unintentionally set him up for failure. And that left a lasting impression that can only be created on the biggest stage in sport.
Since then, Ferreira has responded as best he can. He scored against Mexico in a friendly in April, continuing the team’s six-game unbeaten streak in the rivalry. He is third in MLS with 10 goals in 18 games. His six goals in three Gold Cup games sets the record for most goals by a player in a tournament by a player under the age of 23 (with possibly three games remaining).
“I think all forwards are primarily measured by the goals they score,” Callaghan said. “And when I see his movement and confidence in the penalty area, you can see the game has slowed down for him and he’s only placing balls in the back area and that’s a positive sign. It shows us all that he’s focused.” and has set himself the goal of being a goalscorer for us.
There are obvious caveats about the level of competition. His three career USMNT hat-tricks, which give Landon Donovan the most hat-tricks in team history, all came against overpowered Caribbean opponents. That reality is important context, but it also doesn’t mean that scoring six goals in 88 minutes isn’t worth it.
USMNT players have also had opportunities to score against lightweights Concacaf in the past, and few capitalized on those opportunities as well as Ferriera. He is the first to ever record two hat-tricks in a row. He has scored 14 goals in 21 career games. He has also proven to be a selfless player. This quality was a big reason coach Gregg Berhalter brought him to Qatar. After his first-half hat-trick put the game out of reach and it was clear the USA would retain goal difference in the tie-break against Jamaica, Ferreira was perhaps the team’s most active player trying to regain possession.
“I think it helps the team. It shows we’re still there and it gets everyone going again,” Ferreira said of his defensive performance. “I know people are tired. I’m used to playing in the heat so maybe I have a little more energy than the others.”
“I always want to be the guy who can bring energy to the team and spread that energy. We always say that someone’s energy can be contagious, so for me it’s always that person who can energize everyone.”
It didn’t go unnoticed by Callaghan.
“All the work he does is lead our line defensively, drop down and help build the game,” Callaghan said. “For me he has played a really complete tournament so far and we will continue to improve him.”
It also doesn’t mean that he will replace Folarin Balogun as a presumptive starter on the full USA team any time soon. That doesn’t mean he’s a better option as a pure striker than his former Dallas team-mate Ricardo Pepi. However, it is encouraging for continued depth improvement at the site.
There were also memorable performances from other offensive players. Cade Cowell and Gianluca Busio scored their first senior goals as the USA kept the pressure up until the last minute. Cowell’s goal in particular showed what he can do, using his speed to get free on goal before getting past the keeper and the only defender in the box.
“He ran relentlessly at the defenders,” Callaghan said of Cowell. “He could go inside, he could go outside. He was able to create a combination game and is then rewarded with the goal.”
As the winners of Group A, the USA will play against the runners-up from Group D on July 9 in Cincinnati. That opponent will be determined on Tuesday when Guadeloupe (four points), Guatemala (four points), Canada (two points) and Cuba play (zero points). Of these, only Cuba was eliminated.
Alan Sonora, who pulled a hamstring against St Kitts and Nevis, will not continue with the team in the knockout stages, Callaghan said, but his replacement in the squad has not yet been finalized. Jordan Morris came on as a substitute on Sunday and will remain with the team along with Miles Robinson, who started and played in the first half.
Midfielder Aidan Morris has left the team for personal reasons, the team announced on Sunday, and it’s unclear if he will return during the tournament.