Morale may have been at a premium heading into the tournament, but the U.S. men’s national team have been able to keep the naysayers at an arm’s length in marching to the 2019 Gold Cup final, all the while conceding a solitary goal. While there have been several bright spots through five matches, Sunday’s date with Mexico will provide an unparalleled litmus test for Gregg Berhalter’s squad since he took the helm in December.
Fresh off a rather lethargic performance in a 1-0 win over Curacao, the Yanks came out with their ears pinned back against Jamaica and from the opening whistle were looking to move the ball quickly, make intelligent runs into space, and quickly regain possession in the opposing half of the field. Those efforts paid off with a beautiful team goal in the ninth minute, their quickest tally of this summer’s tournament.
The near-90 minute weather delay could not have come at a better time for Jamaica, who were in desperate need of a chance to regroup and formulate a new roadmap for navigating the remainder of the match. The Yanks lost their foothold for a spell in the second half and saw the Reggae Boyz pull one back with just over twenty minutes to play, but Christian Pulisic’s brace was enough to secure their spot in the final by a two-goal margin.
The majority of discussion heading into the tournament surrounded the striker and right back positions. U.S. supporters wasted no time in expressing their disappointment on social media when budding young talent Josh Sargent was excluded in favor of Gyasi Zardes. That subject can be left for another day, because at the moment the current jockeying for position at right fullback warrants the attention of the U.S. Soccer community.
Since making the move from Tottenham to Newcastle United in 2016, Deandre Yedlin has taken his game to new heights and remains the strongest right back option in the U.S. pool. When the 25-year-old underwent a groin operation in May and was forced to skip the Gold Cup as a result, Berhalter looked set to slot in Tyler Adams and continue playing him in a hybrid role that sees him step into central midfield in possession.
Sounds great, right?
Well, not so much considering the RB Leipzig start received the highest WhoScored rating of any defensive midfielder in the Bundesliga over the second half of the season. As capable as he might be of fulfilling the hybrid role for the U.S. it runs the risk of diminishing his influence in his preferred role and one of the most influential positions on the field.
Furthermore, the emergence of two MLS defenders appears to have the U.S. with a stable of options to allow Adams to play in the middle of the park when he returns. Arguably the biggest beneficiary of Berhalter’s takeover in the early going was San Jose’s Nick Lima, who earned Match of the Match honors in his debut against Panama in late January and churned out another fine performance six days later against Costa Rica.
Lima was quickly brought down to earth when new San Jose coach Matias Almeyda kept him on the bench for a string of matches and he missed out on the U.S.’ March friendlies. He has since recaptured a starting role for his club, albeit at left back. When news broke that Adams would miss the tournament through injury, Lima not only became the presumed starter at right back, but also was dubbed by many as player who could play a key role if the U.S. were to defend their 2017 title.
Lima started the opener against Guyana and put in a solid stint, which earned him the higest rating of any defender and the third best on the team. He provided several overlapping runs, nearly got on the score sheet himself, and comfortably dealt with the opposition’s forays forward.
Just when it appeared all of the talk surrounding the right back position could be put to bed for the time being, in steps 21-year-old Reggie Cannon. The FC Dallas Homegrown Player has excelled in MLS since earning a starting role at the start of 2018, and he was handed a deserved surprise callup when Adams had to withdraw. Cannon made his Gold Cup debut against Trinidad & Tobago when he came on for Lima in the 84th and wasted no time in making his presence felt.
With passage to the knockout stage already secured, an entirely new starting XI against Panama saw Cannon make his first start and he did everything in his power to convince the skipper that he should move ahead of Lima on the depth chart. Those who have long been campaigning to see more of Cannon at the international were vindicated and left wanting to see more in quick succession. Nevertheless, Lima who returned to the lineup in the quarterfinal and, despite looking shaky on a couple of occasions, helped the defensive unit record a fourth consecutive clean sheet.
Fast forward to the semifinal and it was once again Cannon who was providing the spark on the flank, this time impressing from the outset with a deft first-time ball that found Jozy Altidore in a pocket of space who set up Weston Mckennie for opening goal. For the remainder of the ninety, Cannon looked strong in dealing with the pace and movement of Jamaica’s counterattack and logged arguably his best outing for the Stars and Stripes.
The ongoing competition at right back bodes well for a team looking to progress under a new manager and philosophy. Either Lima or Cannon will face their stiffest test to date when they line up against either Rodolfo Pizarro or El Tri’s breakout star Uriel Antuna. Berhalter has plenty of work to do in the months ahead and Sunday’s match will tell us a lot more about where his squad stands, but he just may have something on his hands that has been a major point of concern for the U.S. in recent years: depth at the right back position.