KANSAS CITY –– Striker Jozy Altidore returned to the U.S. Men’s National Team starting lineup with aplomb Wednesday evening.
The Toronto FC forward, appearing in his nation's XI for the first time since the 2017 defeat to Trinidad and Tobago in World Cup qualifying, broke a nil-nil scoreline in the 66th minute with a bicycle kick for his fifth career Gold Cup goal, giving the U.S. a 1-0 victory over Panama at Children’s Mercy Park in their final group stage match of the competition.
Defender Matt Miazga directed a header from Djordie Mihailovic’s corner kick that struck off a Panamanian defender’s head again before Altidore beat goalkeeper Jose Calderon to the punch with the acrobatic finish for the game’s only tally.
“That play was directed for me,” U.S. midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “Matt thought to himself, ‘Christian is marked, I’m going to try to make a play.’ He’s a big boy, he went to win the header and put it right back in the mix.”
It came after a ho-hum first half with both teams somewhat reluctant to press the action, both already sitting on six points and confirmed for the knockout stages. Part of the lax look was also due to entirely wholesale personnel changes by Berhalter from the 6-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday, and all but two new starters for Panama from their 4-2 win over Guyana in Cleveland.
“The decision to start 11 new players was an easy one to be honest,” said Berhalter, whose team rebounded from two losses in friendlies prior to the Gold Cup to take all nine points from Group D. “We believe in the group and that everyone can contribute to the team’s success, and we wanted to show that. The guys have been training really well and they deserved that opportunity.”
The crowd of 17,037 came to life seconds before the game-winning corner when Christian Pulisic replaced Jonathan Lewis as the first substitute of the night. Pulisic didn’t make a dramatic impact in the match’s final third, but tempo did pick up slightly after his introduction and the goal, as did the fouls from Panama, which became increasingly aggressive. They included a grab-and-drag preceding a rugged tackle that ended Reggie Cannon’s run outside the Panama area and prompted the game’s only yellow card.
Rather than bemoan the decisions of referee Abdulrahman Al-Jassim, Berhalter joked of his second-half discussion with him, saying, “We got some information about how good the referee was. We have some friends in Qatar and they gave us some feedback, so I told him a lot of guys were talking really positive about him.”
A counterattack produced the best chance for Los Canaleros in the 37th minute. Forward Jose Fajardo won a footrace with center back Omar Gonzalez and withstood some tangling of arms to release a right-footed shot from a yard inside the 18-yard box that could have beaten goalkeeper Sean Johnson had it curled and not sailed wide of the near post.
Panama head coach Julio Dely Valdes didn’t express regret over his extensive alterations, ones that may have hindered the chance to deliver just the second U.S. loss ever in the group stage of the competition after his country topped the Americans 2-1 in the 2011 competition.
“We just used common sense taking into account that [Jamaica] would be strong and have one more day to rest,” said Valdes, now in his third stint as national team manager. “We’re very satisfied. We had two new players that debuted today. We expected the U.S. to have a lot of possession of the ball and be aggressive. I think we handled it pretty well.”
That game will be the prelude Sunday in Philadelphia to the site’s other quarterfinal that pits the Americans against Curacao, the tournament’s feel-good story. A blistering volley in second-half stoppage time earned them a 1-1 draw against the Jamaicans, who won the group, and secured them runners-up in Group C on goal differential after Honduras defeated El Salvador 4-0, leaving both teams on four points.
“This is a team we can’t take lightly,” Berhalter said of the Curacaoans. “We were watching them today, and they have talent. They can score goals. We’re going to go in fully prepared.”