USMNT 1, Panama 0: Jozy Altidore is back, and USMNT remains perfect at Gold Cup

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Jozy Altidore's overhead-kick goal gave the U.S. a 1-0 win over Panama at the 2019 Gold Cup. (Getty)
Jozy Altidore's overhead-kick goal gave the U.S. a 1-0 win over Panama at the 2019 Gold Cup. (Getty)

Gregg Berhalter said he wanted to win the group. His team selection on Wednesday night, in many ways, seemed to disagree.

But Jozy Altidore’s second-half goal dragged a second-string U.S. men’s national team to a 1-0 win over Panama, and to the top of the 2019 Gold Cup’s Group D.

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Takeaways were few, and groans many. Berhalter made 11 changes to his lineup, resting every single player who’d started against Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. The byproduct, in large part, was a snoozer.

But it was also a win. It topped off an unblemished group stage – 11 U.S. goals scored, none conceded. And maybe, just maybe, it will make Berhalter comfortable starting his top striker moving forward.

Jozy Altidore got the goal to punctuate his starting case

We broke down the Altidore vs. Gyasi Zardes debate on Tuesday. The main conclusion: Altidore should not have to prove he is better than Zardes. Almost every ounce of evidence from the past decade suggests he is.

But he may, in the immediate term, have to prove he should start. He is still making his way back to full fitness. He had not started for the USMNT since Couva. He had played 61 career minutes under Berhalter entering Wednesday. Zardes had played over 3,000. His comfort in the system – and Berhalter’s comfort with his former Columbus Crew forward – was noticeable, understandable and meaningful.

So Altidore needed to show something on Wednesday. And in the end, he did with the goal.

Gregg Berhalter's U.S. men's national team won Gold Cup Group D with 11 goals for and none conceded. (Getty)
Gregg Berhalter's U.S. men's national team won Gold Cup Group D with 11 goals for and none conceded. (Getty)

On the whole, he was decent. Certainly not vintage Altidore, though. He didn’t look injured, but there’s a certain imbalance and choppiness that comes with a lack of match fitness. Footwork isn’t automatic. Actions don’t flow from first touch to distribution.

He had two first-half chances. On the first, his movement was good. He opened up his body on the right side of the penalty area, and struck his shot well, but past the far post. The second chance, however, he’ll want to have back. He got his feet right, but not the finish.

That said, Altidore still looked better with the ball, between the 18s, than Zardes often does. And he didn’t have much in the way of creativity around him. He did what he could with minimal service.

Now all eyes turn to a quarterfinal against Curacao. The striker spot is Berhalter’s one true selection dilemma. Given the strength, or lack thereof, of the opponent, there are reasonable cases to be made for both players.

For what it’s worth, we’d go with Altidore. But we suspect Berhalter might ultimately disagree.

Different personnel = different shape

The USMNT’s shape was pretty defined on Matchdays 1 and 2 at the Gold Cup. It was an asymmetrical 4-3-3. In possession, right back Nick Lima pushed high while left back Tim Ream stayed at home. Michael Bradley sat in front of what had become a back three, creating something of a 3-1-#-# shape – the front six variable and difficult to define.

(Screenshot: Fox Sports 1)
(Screenshot: Fox Sports 1)

But that shape had evolved to suit players’ skill sets. Remember, when Tyler Adams was healthy, he was playing as an “inverted” right back, tucking into midfield when the U.S. had the ball. Berhalter’s first preferred in-possession shape was a 3-2-2-3 (or 3-2-4-1).

So it’s no surprise that the USMNT’s structure evolved again when the personnel did on Wednesday. Previously, with Ream at left back, a left-to-right rotation created the back three. With Daniel Lovitz, a more traditional fullback, in the position against Panama, a split sometimes created it. Berhalter appeared to direct the shift around the 20th minute.

(Original video: Fox Sports 1)
(Original video: Fox Sports 1)

Thereafter, center backs Matt Miazga and Omar Gonzalez began to part. Defensive midfielder Wil Trapp dropped in between them. Here’s what it looked like building from the back:

(Original video: Fox Sports 1)
(Original video: Fox Sports 1)

The goal was presumably to get both fullbacks higher up the pitch. To complement the tweak, Djordje Mihailovic – playing the No. 10 role – dropped much deeper than Christian Pulisic often does. So did Cristian Roldan. Wingers tucked inside or occupied opposing fullbacks. And boom – there was that 3-2-4-1 shape again.

(Original video: Fox Sports 1)
(Original video: Fox Sports 1)

This version of the USMNT simply had a different method of sliding into it. Or, as Berhalter might say: The system is still the system, even when the formation changes.

Berhalter has developed a reputation as a system coach. Some believe he’s that way to a fault. But he’s shown a willingness to adapt and accommodate the players at his disposal. That’s a requirement for a national team coach. And this, therefore, is a welcome sight.

USMNT lineup

Back to from, left to right, 4-3-3 (subs in parentheses):

Sean Johnson; Daniel Lovitz, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Miazga, Reggie Cannon; Wil Trapp, Djordje Mihailovic, Cristian Roldan; Jonathan Lewis (Christian Pulisic), Jozy Altidore (Gyasi Zardes), Jordan Morris (Tyler Boyd).

Other notes

  • Matt Miazga, who was one of a few borderline first-stringers on the field, was solid. Playing next to Omar Gonzalez made him look quick.

  • Jonathan Lewis’ pace and energy occasionally brought the first half to life. But his one big chance was blocked, and he faded after halftime.

  • An interesting post-match note, given that both right backs have looked strong and both left backs have looked ... not great:

  • Noted soccer fan Patrick Mahomes was in attendance, rocking a USMNT jersey:

  • The U.S. will play Curacao in the last of four quarterfinals. Kickoff is 8 p.m. ET on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The winner will take on either Panama or Jamaica in a semifinal in Nashville.

  • Here’s the full bracket – with Mexico vs. Costa Rica the pick of the quarters:

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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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