ST. PAUL, Minn. — Tuesday’s Gold Cup opener against Guyana was always going to be one of those no-win situations for the United States men’s national team.
Win big, and the response was always going to be: “Well, it’s Guyana.” Win by a less than flattering scoreline — or God forbid, fail to secure maximum points — and the worst assumptions about Gregg Berhalter’s team that have accumulated over the last 20 months would be confirmed.
As it turned out, the U.S. cruised to a 4-0 victory over the Golden Jaguars, with two goals from Tyler Boyd, and the performance was about what was expected. The home side dominated possession, created the vast majority of chances, and might have won by a bigger margin had it been sharper in terms of crossing and shooting. Defensively, the U.S. looked solid, with goalkeeper Zack Steffen forced to make just one sharp save over the 90 minutes.
The effect the win had on the team’s collective psyche is open to debate. Outwardly, the win did more than just land three points in the Group D standings, it allowed the U.S. to exhale a bit after two difficult results leading into the tournament. The Americans aren’t exactly walking with a swagger at the moment, but they have more momentum than they did two weeks ago.
Yet to hear winger Paul Arriola tell it, even after the U.S. stumbled to friendly defeats against Jamaica and Venezuela, the team’s overall demeanor remained unchanged.
“One thing I’ll say about the team, on the inside, it’s been nothing like it’s been on the outside,” he said. “[We’re] extremely confident. When we looked back at the games, we saw where we could improve, and we saw what worked and what didn’t work. I give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and what they do. The positivity around the team helps us when it’s a low time, like after Venezuela.”
There were certainly some shortcomings in the Americans’ game against Guyana, though some of that had to do with the determined opposition. While the U.S. dominated possession, there was a lack of cohesiveness that showed their attack remains in its early stages of development. Christian Pulisic, while looking dynamic with the ball at his feet, went long stretches without seeing much of it; Gyasi Zardes continues to squander decent chances and then score on absolute flukes, including Tuesday’s tally when Arriola’s shot deflected off the head of Guyana defender Terence Vancooten, then ricocheted off Zardes’ head and in.
Yet other aspects of the U.S. attack seemed to perk up. Weston McKennie was impactful in the final third during the opening 45 minutes, and it was his deft pass that set up Arriola’s 28th minute opener. (McKennie was later subbed out with an apparent hamstring injury, though he told reporters that while the hamstring is still being evaluated, “It’s looking good” in terms of him getting back on the field soon.)
Most impressive of all was the effect that the Americans’ flank play had on the match. While Arriola put in an impressive shift with a goal and an assist, it was Tyler Boyd’s night as he scored twice to give the U.S. some breathing room in the game and pad the team’s goal differential.
Boyd is the latest U.S. player to wear the mantle of “The Best American You’ve Never Seen.” His numbers while on loan with Turkish side Ankaragucu — six goals in 14 appearances — caught the eye, but how he would fit in with the U.S. side, and how impactful he could be, remained an unknown.
Tuesday’s match gave U.S. fans more to hold on to. Boyd showed off some sharp finishing, firing home in the 51st minute from Michael Bradley’s diagonal ball — the 1,000 goal in U.S. men’s national team history — and then converting with a heavy shot from just outside the box in the 81st minute. He also created three chances, and generally linked up well with his teammates.
“It’s what we’ve been talking about,” said U.S. coach Berhalter about Boyd’s performance. “The verticality, the finishing, the work rate, all those things are what we’ve been discussing, and I think it was a good start for him.”
For Boyd it was a night to remember beyond the goals. His parents had flown in from New Zealand to watch him play and were treated to his first two goals in a U.S. uniform.
“It was an unbelievable moment for me and to share that with my parents and give my mum my jersey after the game,” he said. “But I bring it back to the team. Without my teammates giving me the ball, I can’t score goals. It’s a team effort, and that’s what I put it down to.”
The task for Boyd and his teammates is to do it again. Their next opponent, Trinidad & Tobago, will make for a psychological challenge as well as a footballing one give that the Soca Warriors eliminated the U.S. from World Cup qualifying some 20 months ago. Given all that has transpired since then, overconfidence shouldn’t be an issue — even as T&T delivered a tepid performance in a 2-0 defeat to Panama.
“We’re not going to go overboard because [this was] a game that we should win [vs. Guyana], and we did win,” said Bradley. “I thought we handled things in a pretty solid way, we scored some good goals, we didn’t give away a ton defensively. Three important points, and we’ll continue to build and continue to get better as the tournament goes on.”