By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 12, 2023) US Soccer Players – The USMNT arrives at the semifinal stage of the 2023 Concacaf Gold Cup on Wednesday night in San Diego following a dramatic victory over Canada in Cincinnati. That match featured plenty of twists and turns, including the four goals scored after the 87th minute. Canada’s regulation equalizer came from the penalty spot. Jacob Shaffelburg’s 109th goal that briefly gave Canada the lead in extra time was the first goal the United States conceded in the tournament from open play.
The Americans conceded three goals through four games ahead of Wednesday’s clash with Panama in the semifinal. Jamaica scored the first from a corner kick in the group stage opener on June 24th before keeping clean sheets against Saint Kitts and Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago.
While the defensive effort in any game is a whole team affair, and American goalkeeper Matt Turner deserves a healthy amount of praise for his play in net, the USMNT’s center back corps is the bedrock of the team’s quest to prevent the other team from scoring goals.
All four of the players called in by head coach BJ Callaghan have played a role in the push to defend the Gold Cup title. The all-MLS contingent of Miles Robinson, Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, and Jalen Neal each contributed to the first four games, revealing the strength of US depth at the position.
The center back with the most minutes in the Gold Cup for the USMNT is the youngest, LA Galaxy defender Neal. At 19, he’ss getting his first experience with the USMNT in a competitive environment. Neal’s appearances in every game of the Gold Cup so far, the first a substitute appearance against Jamaica, represented his third through sixth caps with the senior team, adding to the two he won during the team’s annual January camp earlier this year.
Neal’s talent made him a highly touted prospect coming out of the LA Galaxy academy, where he moved through the ranks ahead of signing a homegrown contract with the club in 2021. A US youth international, Neal was a central part of the player pool for U-20 head coach Mikey Varas ahead of the 2023 U-20 World Cup in Argentina in May. But Neal’s rise to starter for the Galaxy’s first team precluded him from taking part in U-20 World Cup. He was simply too important for the club to let go at that point in the season.
Instead, Neal is getting his chance to prove himself with the senior team in the region’s championship tournament. Neal’s introduction to the Gold Cup was as a halftime substitute for Long in the team’s group-stage opener against Jamaica. Neal hardly put a foot wrong in that game and has started the three matches since, collecting 297 minutes in the process. Callaghan gave Neal’s play special attention following his impromptu second-half performance against Jamaica.
“From the perspective of a player that has impressed, the situation that somebody like Jalen Neal was put into coming in at halftime as a young player against a really dangerous front four and a top, top international striker in Michail Antonio, I think his performance – I wouldn’t say surprised us – but the calm and the maturity that he showed lends to a bright future for him,” Callaghan said. “For me, that was a really great moment and something that we hope to continue to foster as he develops into what we hope is a big player for the U.S. men’s national team.”
Long’s opening-match injury setback has limited him to just 75 minutes spread across two games, though the former MLS Defender of the Year and LAFC centerback did return to play as a sub in the USMNT’s quarterfinal match with Canada. Long entered for Miles Robinson and played the extra-time period as the two sides traded goals and headed to the penalty kick shootout.
That appearance against Canada pushed Long’s national team total to 33 caps over a five-year international career. Long dealt with a torn Achilles tendon during that period and worked his way back into the USMNT picture.
Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson started alongside Neal against Canada, a second consecutive start for the two-time MLS Defender of the Year finalist after serving as a reserve for the group stage matches against Jamaica and Saint Kitts and Nevis. Robinson returned to the field in the Gold Cup after dealing with a minor injury sustained in the Nations League semifinal against Mexico on June 15th.
Like Long, Robinson overcame an Achilles tendon injury. Just six months after his return from a torn ACL that kept him out of the World Cup squad, Robinson is the lone American center back pulling double duty this summer. Robinson was a central figure in the Americans’ 2021 Gold Cup triumph, playing every minute of the tournament and scoring twice, including the championship-winning extra-time goal against Mexico in the final.
When he received his first call-up to the national team after his comeback from injury in March, Robinson spoke about the difficulty of watching the World Cup unfold from home.
“At this point, I’m just happy to be back, happy to be back competing with these guys and proving myself,” he said. “I don’t really think too far in the future, personally. I kind of just take it day by day, focused on tomorrow’s session, trying to play my best, show what I can do to contribute to this team, however any coach will see me.”
For Miazga, the Gold Cup is a reward for his excellent play in Major League Soccer for FC Cincinnati. Perhaps no one else in head coach Pat Noonan’s team can be tied to the club’s improvement defensively more than Miazga. When he’s on the field, FCC is a much better team at keeping the ball out of the net.
The former Red Bulls player, who spent several years playing in various European leagues, brought his worldly outlook to the national team for this edition of the Gold Cup. Miazga got a call-up in April for a friendly against Mexico, his first camp in two years, and played 20 minutes as a substitute in a 1-1 draw.
Through four games in the Gold Cup, Miazga has served as both starter and substitute, going 90 minutes in the first two group stage matches and coming off the bench in the matches against Trinidad and Tobago and Canada. Miazga entered the Canada game for Jalen Neal in the 73rd minute and helped the Americans finish out the dramatic game that went to penalties.
With a mix of experience and youth, this USMNT center back group is getting the job done. More importantly, they have the team in a position to reach a final and defend its Gold Cup championship.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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- Preview: The USMNT’s group A opponents at the 2023 Gold Cup
Photo by Daniel Bartel – ISIPhotos.com