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This year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup presented a golden opportunity to a young Major League Soccer-heavy U.S. roster. And all 12 players without an appearance in official competition made debuts for the U.S. Men’s National Team this past week.
With USMNT stars like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie taking time off after demanding club seasons in Europe, it was expected that the Americans’ Gold Cup roster would be young and picked largely from MLS teams. And it was, with an average age of 23 and just four players from European clubs.
The players on the roster averaged 13 caps overall — just five in official competitions — and 14 players on the roster had fewer than 10 caps going into the Gold Cup.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter was transparent about why he picked the roster and made good on his intention to “battle test” his young talent before the team’s World Cup Qualifiers.
So which of the debutantes made the most of their opportunity?
Several names stand out from the USMNT’s undefeated run through the tourney’s group-stage games, which concluded Sunday at Children’s Mercy Park.
The U.S. was expected to win the first two, against Haiti and Martinique, but Canada posed a bigger challenge. It was a Canadian team that had been playing together for the last month, and thus had some familiarity with one another. They were also on a hot streak, having won every game in 2021 so far, including six World Cup Qualifiers.
After scoring in the first 20 seconds, the U.S. defense staved off the Canadian attack for 90 minutes. James Sands, who made his first U.S. appearance in the 76th minute against Haiti (and then played every minute after that), certainly factored into the USMNT’s defensive success.
As the center back of the three-back formation, Sands had the composure on the ball to anchor the back line. His excellent passing ability, physicality and technical skills are part of what allowed Berhalter to run a three-back formation.
After both of Sands’ starts, Berhalter had high praise for him. He even said Sands was one of the best players on the field in the beginning of Sunday’s match.
“With James, I really liked him moving up into midfield,” Berhalter said. “He gave us a numerical advantage and we’re happy with it. I think at times it worked really well.”
Another key defender and newer face for the USMNT: Miles Robinson, who had three caps going into the Gold Cup and scored his second U.S. goal against Martinique. After a corner from Gianluca Busio made its way across the goal box, midfielder Eryk Williamson chased it down and sent it right back to Robinson, who headed it past the keeper.
Robinson’s one-on-one defense, speed and athleticism helped make the three-back successful, especially against the true test of Canada. Berhalter said Robinson has taken the next step, and now it’s about maintaining that level of play.
“When you have speed like he does, it makes it so much easier on your group,” Berhalter said. “Whether that’s stepping with a really big dynamic or it’s recovering behind you. He had a number one-v-one’s, I think of one in the second half against Buchanan, who’s a really good player, and he handled it well.”
Sporting KC star Busio impressed in every game, earning his first two USMNT starts in his first roster call-up. He even made his way onto the stat sheet with an assist to Nicholas Gioacchini against Martinique.
Busio didn’t need to start to make an impact. With his precision passing ability and deft field positioning, he’s able to direct the midfield and support the attack.
“(Sporting KC coach) Peter (Vermes has) been singing his praises for the last couple of years … and I didn’t really know what he was about until I started working with him,” Berhalter said after Sunday’s win. “And when I see this kid in training and in games, I mean, he is special. And for him to deal with the game like he did and to play the way he did, it shows a lot about his quality.
“I thought in the beginning of the game, he was excellent in his position. We asked him to have a complicated role moving up in offense and down in defense, and he was able to understand it, grasp it and perform well.”
Moving to the fullbacks, Sam Vines played an excellent game as a wing-back on the left side against Canada. He earned his fourth and fifth caps, having previously started on the back line against Haiti when the U.S. was in a four-back formation.
With a three-back Sunday, Vines was able to push up the field more often. He made himself a threat on the outside with dangerous crosses into the box. One of them created one of the USMNT’s best chances of the second half: Vines sent in a nice ball, but Kellyn Acosta was a half-second too late to it. Vines also netted a goal in his first official cap (against Haiti).
Another dynamic fullback, Shaq Moore saw serious minutes with Reggie Cannon coming off of a hamstring injury. He came up big in the U.S. squad’s two close games, sending in the initial pass that led to Vines’ goal against Haiti and scoring the lone goal against Canada just 20 seconds into the match. Despite the depth in his position, Moore has forced his name into the conversation.
His ability to impact a game both offensively and defensively is not lost on his teammates — or Berhalter, who called Moore the coaches’ choice for player of the match against Haiti.
Up top, Daryl Dike became the second-youngest player (behind Pulisic) to score a brace in the win over Martinique.
Dike subbed on during the 62nd minute against Haiti and then played the rest of the group-stage games. He was a dominating presence against Martinique but struggled against Canada, failing to get an on-goal shot (he was not the only one, of course, with the U.S. recording just six shots as a team, only one of which was on goal).
After Dike’s two-goal start Thursday, Berhalter said it wasn’t time yet to make a judgment about the forward’s place in the grand scheme of things.
“I think he performed well and he scored some good goals,” Berhalter said after Thursday’s win. “He showed why we really rate him and we think he’s an important part of our team. But we’re not jumping to conclusions on anyone based on tonight.”
The youngsters’ performances so far don’t guarantee anything when it comes to World Cup qualifier rosters, but through three wins they’ve certainly made their cases to at least remain in that conversation.
The USMNT next plays Sunday in the Gold Cup quarterfinals against either Jamaica or Costa Rica.