By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 29, 2023) US Soccer Players – The USMNT secured one of the biggest margins of victory in its history Wednesday night, defeating Gold Cup debutantes Saint Kitts and Nevis 6-0 before a lively crowd in St Louis in the back half of a Group A doubleheader at Citypark. A hat trick from Jesus Ferreira and a 2g/2a outing by Djordje Mihailovic led the way, a 4-0 halftime lead underlining the professionalism shown by the USMNT. Here are four takeaways from the current state of the USMNT’s Gold Cup title defense.
For Saint Kitts and Nevis, reaching this stage is an unprecedented triumph in and of itself. The Sugar Boyz navigated a difficult qualification road to book their place in group A, inspiring the small island nation with a domestic population comparable to that of Niagara Falls, New York on a new level.
SKNFA president, and former MLS and USL player Atiba Harris, has described this achievement as taking place “a little bit sooner than expectation.” In such situations there’s little chance of avoiding the sobering learning curve that comes with that exposure to higher-grade competition. For heavy favorites like the USMNT, games like this call for strong, relentless starts and cold-blooded efficiency. That’s by and large what interim coach BJ Callaghan got.
“From minute one, it was about being intense and trying to score goals,” Callaghan said postgame. “And I thought we were able to do that. At halftime it was the same exact message. We needed to put another 45 minutes in. There was probably more goals out there that we had in chances, but overall, you still have to be happy with the performance.”
Attackers making their case
Concerns about productivity and depth on the front line were a constant topic of conversation during the 2022 World Cup cycle. That situation has evolved rapidly in the ensuing months. With Folarin Balogun joining the program, Ricardo Pepi returning to form, Brandon Vazquez headlining MLS-leading FC Cincinnati, and Ferreira determined to stay in the mix, there are now more options at the #9 role.
On Wednesday, Ferreira became the fastest player in USMNT history to reach double-digits in scoring, with 11 goals from his first 20 caps. His was a comprehensive overall display, too, showcasing his full skill set on both sides of the ball.
“Jesus leads our line defensively. He knows exactly how we want to press and so I thought that helped him, in my opinion, get into the game offensively. And then you can see the quality that he can come down and link up play, and then obviously he’s able to score three goals tonight,” said Callaghan of Ferreira’s “complete” and “selfless” performance. “You see this now this desire from him that he understands that as a #9 you have the pressure to score goals, and that’s a pressure that he’s leaning into. He wants it, he’s driven by it.”
Mihailovic also caught the eye in the #10 role, drifting into dangerous spaces to thread passes and adeptly timing his runs into the penalty box. After a January move to AZ Alkmaar from CF Montreal, his early months in Europe were disrupted by injuries and other challenges. Here he showed signs that he’s still growing as a player, with Callaghan praising his comfort between the lines.
“When I don’t think about scoring and assisting, and I think about playing the game right and following what the coaches are wanting from me, the goals and assists will come,” said Mihailovic. “Personally, I like assisting more than scoring. So I’m happy I was able to assist a couple times today and build in this tournament.”
Youth in the back
The Yanks had ample defensive experience in the form of the night’s goalkeeper and captain, Sean Johnson, and Matt Miazga. They also had the exceptional play of Jalen Neal, Miazga’s 19-year-old center back partner, and right back Bryan Reynolds, who scored his first USMNT goal on his 22nd birthday.
Neal was quietly outstanding in just his fourth senior cap. The LA Galaxy homegrown completed 95% of his 65 passes, including two key passes, won 6/8 aerial duels and five recoveries, and committed just one foul. Reynolds caught the eye with his superb first-time finish from the top of the box after an early US corner kick was half-cleared, the Yanks’ second goal of the game, and he also capably handled his other duties. In sum, they made sure a straightforward task stayed that way.
“Our back line was challenged in a different way tonight,” said Callaghan. “There was a lot of direct play that they had to win, aerial duels, a lot of tackling. Obviously, we had fullbacks in the attack, so they had a lot of space to cover in our defensive transition, the opponent’s offensive transition. So even though they may not have felt like we were under pressure, I thought there was a lot of individual plays that they needed to make for us to continue to sustain attacks … Jalen continues to just bring the calm and the passing and some of the passes that he played to break lines and accelerate our attack … was really high-level.”
This win keeps the US in contention for the top spot in the group, pending results on Sunday, when the USMNT plays Trinidad and Tobago in Charlotte. At the same time, 2nd-place Jamaica meets Saint Kitts and Nevis in Santa Clara, California.
That standings table is a bigger topic than usual at this stage of the tournament. Since 1991, the USMNT has won its group at every Gold Cup except one. Jamaica’s resurgence has given this year’s edition a somewhat different outlook. Last weekend’s 1-1 draw between the two group favorites in Chicago created a race to stack up goal differential in order to win the first tiebreaker should they finish level on points.
So the Yanks have even more motivation than usual to hit the net as much as possible. On Sunday, they’ll try to better the 4-1 win Jamaica banked over Trinidad and Tobago, and vice versa for the Reggae Boyz vs the Sugar Boyz. At present, the USMNT has a three-goal advantage. Both teams would prefer to avoid finishing second and thus meeting the winner of Group D, which is expected to be Canada, in the quarterfinals. Dropping into that side of the bracket would also entail a likely semifinal date with Mexico. All that said, Canada’s 2-2 draw with Guadeloupe in its first match underlined that such projections are no sure thing.
This USMNT roster has a number of newer faces on it. Yet the usual expectations are being maintained. That means leaving no doubts vs Trinidad and Tobago. “I don’t want to finish second,” said Mihailovic. “It’s important for us to finish top of the group.”
More from Charles Boehm:
- Preview: USMNT opens Gold Cup defense against Reggae Boyz
- USMNT extends Mexico streak, prepares for Canada
- Four questions for the 2023 Concacaf Nations League semifinals
- “It’s always going to be bigger than the individual”: Takeaways from USMNT’s Nations League roster release
Photo by Concacaf.com