CINCINNATI – There is a tendency in international football to make sense of every game. The lack of regular game dates and the outsize importance of the World Cup have an impact. Outwardly, this can lead to an unproductive process that encourages overreactions and raises unanswerable questions.
Take, for example, the USA Men’s National Team Gold Cup Quarterfinals match against Canada on Sunday night at TQL Stadium. An incredible crowd gathered to ensure a high quality atmosphere and a chaotic series of events that made for a night to remember. In about an hour of real time, the USA scored what appeared to be a late winner, conceded an equalizing penalty, went down in extra time, scored their own unfortunate equalizer and then progressed on penalties (3-2) to a 2-2 draw.
It was entertaining. It was fun and that’s about it. The only significant impact is that the USA will now travel to San Diego to play Panama in the semifinals on Wednesday. The USA were the better team and deserved winners, but the game was a grind and not exactly a promotion of what top-flight football looks like.
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To expect otherwise would have been an admission of naivety. With an interim manager and a speculative roster, this tournament would never be a collection of clean, well-rehearsed performances. Instead, the value of this tournament is to introduce players to the stage and help them understand what it takes to compete in such environments.
“We’ve built a team that never gives up,” said midfielder Gianluca Busio. “Even with guys who are off-season and guys who are in season it’s just a good mix and I think that shows how far we’ve come as a group.”
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The opinion shared by Busio was in line with that of some other players after the win. Brandon Vazquez, who gave the USA a 1-0 lead in the 88th minute, spoke of the team’s resilience. Left-back DeJuan Jones praised the culture and the brotherhood. Perhaps all of this is a given, but it’s not always a given.
“From the start it’s all about giving all these players a chance to settle into group play and the knockout rounds,” said caretaker coach BJ Callaghan. “So if we look at the players of the future we are preparing for [the World Cup in] In 2026 they all have the preparation to make a difference.”
It’s a logical approach, even if few of the players in this roster appear to have a realistic chance of making significant contributions to the team through 2026.
Goalie Matt Turner is the obvious exception. The established starter is the key link between the Gold Cup squad and the first draft, which clinched a win over Canada’s top team in last month’s Nations’ League final. Turner had an opportunity to return to Arsenal ahead of the team’s pre-season but made a case for staying in the United States, playing some games and taking on a bigger leadership role.
“When you’re in tournaments like this, you’re only together as a group for a short amount of time,” Turner said. “You learn so much about yourself in these games. And I think for us: trust in the process, trust in the set pieces, trust in all the work that we do.”
“You can’t simulate the intensity of a knockout game. The more experience the guys in our player pool have of playing knockout games and playing in a knockout atmosphere, the better it is for US soccer as a whole.”
Turner is a good example of this. He noted that the last time he was in the net during a shootout was in the MLS Cup playoffs against the New England Revolution, who were eliminated by NYCFC.
“I put so much pressure on myself,” Turner said. “Like I really needed a big moment.”
It was different against Canada. Despite conceding a penalty in added time, Turner was confident and savoring the moment.
“It was a tie before the penalty shootout and I felt like I could stay and wait and react to a couple of those,” he said. “I didn’t have any penalty plans in mind or notes on my water bottle. I just focused on the moment. I was able to stand upright and at the start of the penalty shootout it’s really important to save a penalty in the middle.”
His presence has a calming effect on the rest of the team. “I think he has an aura,” said Jones, a former New England teammate. “I think he even threw that [Canada] boys gone. Even without saving, they hit the bar. I think they’re afraid he’ll save it. He was great for us tonight and that’s what we expect from him.”
Expect a similar game against Panama on Wednesday. Another grueling effort will be needed for the USA to advance to Sunday’s final, testing everyone’s competitive spirit. And if the thriller about Canada was any indicator, that bodes well for the USMNT.