KANSAS CITY, Kan. –– Focus after the completion of the Gold Cup group stage could easily be on the U.S. Men’s National Team’s have-nots in defense.
Right back DeAndre Yedlin, the nation’s most-capped active defender (59 appearances), underwent groin surgery in May that forced him to miss the tournament. World Cup veteran center back John Brooks (knee ligament) is also absent, as is Tyler Adams, who U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter has said he envisions on the back line rather than in central midfield.
Discussion hasn’t swirled around Berhalter’s choices in the back four, though, after the Americans pitched a clean sheet throughout their group stage matches, capped off by Wednesday night’s 1-0 victory over Panama at Children’s Mercy Park.
“It’s a good thing when throughout the group stage we’ve let in zero goals,” said U.S. center back Omar Gonzalez, who wore the captain’s armband for the first time. “We don’t want them talking about us. That’s a great thing. They can keep talking about the attackers because we have very talented players.”
It was a productive shift for a foursome that hadn’t seen the field in the tournament except for Reggie Cannon, who played the final six minutes of the landslide triumph over Trinidad and Tobago. The FC Dallas back, aggressive and productive at times up the right flank against Panama, was only called up to be part of the squad after Adams’ injury on June 11th.
True, the Panamanians got numbers behind the ball rather than put the defensive unit under fire for 90 minutes, but with the exception of one or two nervy moments, the Gonzalez pairing with Matt Miazga -- Aaron Long and Walter Zimmerman was Berhatler’s preferred couple in central defense for the other games -- worked out, even with both pressed up as high as the halfway line in attack.
“Panama didn’t really pressure much and were protecting the middle of the field, so it was pretty difficult to find passes into the middle,” Gonzalez said. “Once we did get the ball there, I thought they did well to pressure us and turn us over a couple times, but I think for the most part we had good possession.”
Miazga also provided his head to the corner that bounced off Panama's Kevin Galvan before landing in position for Jozy Altidore’s bicycle kick that gave the Americans all nine points out of Group D.
Gyasi Zardes got on the scoresheet three times in the first two matches of the tourney, but while Christian Pulisic and Paul Arreola should be penned into the starting XI for Sunday’s quarterfinal against Curacao, Berhalter will have a decision to make on who will man the point of attack. Altidore has had a history of being plagued with inopportune injuries during the Gold Cup, but the program’s third-leading scorer (42) still looks like its best striker when health is a non-factor.
Berhalter had plenty of praise in his press conference for Curacao, calling them the competition’s “Cinderella story.” He spoke of their players’ Dutch roots, their ability to score goals and to inspire a nation. But the Americans’ sights, as they should be, are set on what lies beyond. A win in Philadelphia would position the U.S. for a rematch against Panama, or a date in Nashville with Jamaica, who won a 1-0 friendly between the sides on June 5th in Washington D.C. and also bounced the Americans from the semifinals in the 2015 Gold Cup. The U.S. defeated the Reggae Boyz two summers ago in the final for their sixth Gold Cup title.
If CONCACAF’s two powerhouses are to meet in the final in Chicago on July 7th, Mexico will have to first get past Costa Rica, then the winner of Saturday’s other quarterfinal in Houston between Canada and Haiti.