USMNT 4, Guyana 0: Takeaways from a promising Gold Cup opener

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<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/29288/" data-ylk="slk:Tyler Boyd">Tyler Boyd</a>'s competitive debut for the USMNT was everything fans had hoped for. (Getty)
Tyler Boyd's competitive debut for the USMNT was everything fans had hoped for. (Getty)

ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was far from perfect. Not always dynamic. And certainly not definitive proof of progress or a full-fledged turnaround.

But the U.S. men’s national team’s first competitive game under head coach Gregg Berhalter ended with four goals, three points, and enough encouraging individual performances to satisfy a fan base starving for positivity.

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The U.S. beat Gold Cup first-timer Guyana 4-0 in its tournament opener on Tuesday night at Allianz Field in Minnesota.

It labored, at times, through a first half defined primarily by final-third imprecision. But Weston McKennie set up Paul Arriola for a well-struck deadlock-breaker:

The Yanks then put away the game with two goals in quick succession from Tyler Boyd and Gyasi Zardes on 51 and 55 minutes. Berhalter got Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley off after hour-long shifts – as he’d planned to do all along. Boyd added his second, and the team’s fourth, with 10 minutes remaining.

Berhalter, speaking postgame, called it a “fine performance. ... A decent starting point. Not much more than that.”

“We’re not going to go overboard,” Michael Bradley said. “Because it’s a game that we should win. And we did win.”

The only potential scar on a feel-good night was McKennie’s left hamstring.

Weston McKennie’s hamstring injury ‘should be OK’

The Schalke youngster sunk to the turf in the second half, his fingers gnawing at the hammy. He waved away a stretcher and walked off, but didn’t return.

Berhalter said postgame, however, that McKennie “should be OK – it looked like it was a little bit of a cramp.”

McKennie, speaking about 90 minutes after the match, said it was “feeling better. Still getting evaluated, but as of right now, I think it’s looking good.

“Just a little tight, that’s about it,” he added.

A serious injury was the one thing that could have made Tuesday a net-negative for the Americans. This doesn’t appear to be one. So the USMNT’s first-ever night at Allianz was a success.

Tyler Boyd is already the USMNT’s best winger

Tyler Boyd had not met a single one of his current international teammates when he boarded a flight to the Washington, D.C., area earlier this month. A mere two weeks after arriving at his first USMNT camp, he already looks like the team’s best winger.

Is that statement overreactive? Perhaps. But it’s not solely based on Tuesday night. And on Tuesday, Boyd showed off a full attacking repertoire that no other USMNT attacker not named Pulisic has. He started on the right. He occasionally swapped flanks. He snuck into crevices of space as right back Nick Lima pushed high. He got on the ball in those pockets, or ran onto it in behind.

And, oh by the way, he scored two very nice goals. Here’s the second:

The first, though, is what makes Boyd so valuable to this USMNT: “The verticality, the finishing,” as Berhalter said postgame. Yes, he can cut inside from the left, or sneak into a No. 10 position and provide. But it’s his out-to-in runs that make him a multi-faceted threat.

They’re also runs that Bradley expertly picks out out. Bradley-to-Boyd could be one of the more important American connections at this tournament. And, after only 50 minutes of in-game relationship building, it put the U.S. up 2-0:

Boyd came inches away from a hat trick in the 89th minute. It was a memorable competitive debut for the 24-year-old winger nonetheless.

Boyd was born in New Zealand and raised in Southern California. He moved back to his birth nation as a pre-teen, and represented it at youth levels, but filed a one-time FIFA switch last month to fulfill a childhood dream. His parents flew to Minnesota from New Zealand to see Tuesday’s game.

Boyd couldn’t find them in the crowd immediately after his goals. But he did following the game, and presented his mom – who is American – with his jersey.

Berhalter, during phone conversations, had won over Boyd with nuanced tactical discussions. After the change of association, he was immediately given a chance to win a starting winger spot, and appears to have done just that.

Heck, he was already on corner duties – from both sides – and his delivery – inswinging or outswinging – was consistently very good.

If Pulisic is a No. 10 – which he is under Berhalter until further notice – the U.S. needs a playmaking, goalscoring, backline-stretching winger to emerge. Boyd might just be it.

Weston McKennie, developing playmaker

Combining on the right with Boyd for much of the opening hour was McKennie, one of the USMNT’s most promising prospects. He’s not a superstar, but has more above-average tools than the vast majority of his 20-year-old peers. What that description inevitably leads to is the “versatile” label – which can, in some ways, be a developmental hinderance.

Nobody’s quite sure what McKennie is, or what he’ll become. At Schalke, he’s played basically everywhere except goalkeeper and striker. (The positional switches were especially difficult as he endured the first losing season of his entire life.) With the U.S. over the past 20 months, meanwhile, he’s run the gamut of midfield roles. Each requires specific skills – skills that must be learned, and can’t be learned overnight.

For McKennie to play as a No. 8 in Berhalter’s system – a position that’s much closer to 10 than 6 – he must improve his chance-creation. Playing on the half-turn, in the half-space. Drifting wide and playmaking.

“I haven’t had an opportunity to play a lot in that type of system,” McKennie admitted postgame.

But he played well in it Tuesday. Albeit against Guyana, FIFA rank 177, of course. That’s the caveat to all of this. But McKennie showed an ability to handle the position’s demands.

The most memorable instance was the opening goal. Another, though, minutes earlier, was just as notable. McKennie picked up the ball in an inside right position, and turned around a Guyana defender with a splitting through-ball to Boyd.

About 10 seconds later, he was racing back to the edge of his own penalty area and making up for Michael Bradley’s waning pace to cut out a Guyana counter.

He still doesn’t quite look comfortable in the role. But “that’s what I like to do,” he says of “playing as a high 10 ... and defensively stepping in as a double-6 with Michael.”

“I definitely think what Gregg has me doing here fits me really well.”

Notes and postgame quotes

  • Zardes is not the greatest finisher. Unless, that is, the ball is smacking him flush in the temple off a deflection and zipping just underneath the crossbar ...

  • Was it “intentional”? “Of course,” Zardes said with a laugh. “Right off the eye.”

  • Berhalter, with a smile: “It was a great reaction from him. You see strikers, they can just smell things like that.”

  • Tim Ream looked a half-step slow, and/or hesitant. He switched off as one cross bounded toward him, which led to Guyana’s most dangerous attacking moment.

  • The center backs had very little to do.

  • Michael Bradley captained the team. Berhalter said postgame that decision “was an easy one.”

  • Bradley, on why nobody will remember the Jamaica and Venezuela losses that had fans panicking the past 10 days: “Because one of two things is going to happen: We’re going to win the Gold Cup, [and] we’re going to have enough in the bank over the next few weeks to where those are the last two games anybody’s going to be talking about. And if we don’t, then we will have lost more important games that ultimately will be looked more closely at.”

  • Arriola, referencing external criticism after the Jamaica and Venezuela games: “On the inside” – meaning within the team – “it’s been nothing like it’s been on the outside.”

  • Berhalter made an appearance at the American Outlaws’ night-before party on Monday. “The first thing was thanking them for their support,” he said Tuesday of the visit. “I remember when I was playing, it was just starting out, this fan club. And to see how it’s grown over the years has been amazing. I have a lot of respect for them and how they support the national team program.”

  • On Tuesday, those American Outlaws created a pretty good atmosphere at a not-quite-full Allianz Field:

  • This Pulisic elastico was, as the kids say, fire:

  • Guyana coach Michael Johnson spoke passionately about his side’s performance against a soccer federation with “a budget we couldn’t even dream of. ... We’re playing against a team with over a 100 million-pound budget against our 1.5 million-pound budget. ... Some of our players have to go to work [other jobs away from soccer]. ... The guys have done damn bloody well to reach this point.”

  • Johnson thought center back Terence Vancouten was “the best player on the pitch.” And while that might be a slight exaggeration, the 21-year-old Stevenage defender did boss Zardes around.

USMNT lineup, Altidore’s absence

Back to front, right to left, 4-3-3, with subs in parentheses:

Zack Steffen; Nick Lima, Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, Tim Ream; Michael Bradley (Wil Trapp), Weston McKennie (Djordje Mihailovic), Christian Pulisic (Christian Roldan); Tyler Boyd, Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola.

The big name missing was Jozy Altidore, who is still working himself “up to speed,” as Berhalter said. His absence half explained by fitness, half by the fact that Bradley and Pulisic were already on minute limits. Berhalter couldn’t go into a competitive match with three pre-planned subs. At his day-before news conference, he acknowledged that it would “be difficult for every player to play in all” Gold Cup games.

“So we’re going to have to manage the workloads,” he said. “And we’re prepared to do that." Expect Altidore to start against Trinidad.

Up next

In Group D’s other Matchday 1 encounter, Panama outplayed and beat Trinidad and Tobago, 2-0 – meaning the group could be settled on Matchday 2.

On Saturday in Cleveland, Panama gets Guyana (5:30 p.m. ET, FS1) while the U.S. reacquaints itself with Trinidad (8 p.m. ET, FS1). Wins for the favorites would put them on six points and send them through to quarterfinals in Philadelphia, regardless of the outcome of their showdown on the final matchday.

So let the flashbacks to Couva and talk of the rematch commence. The Yanks are off to Ohio.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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