PHILADELPHIA — Since the U.S. men’s national team began its new era under Coach Gregg Berhalter, the group has gradually inched closer to real tests and results that have value. In the Concacaf Gold Cup, the continental championship and first official competition for Berhalter’s staff, the team has stepped toward meaningful games while still facing only minor tests.
Playing an elimination game for the first time since Berhalter took over in December, the United States defeated Curaçao, 1-0, in the Gold Cup quarterfinals Sunday night, advancing to a semifinal against Jamaica on Wednesday in Nashville.
The United States entered the match expecting to win — and it did — but only after 90 minutes that showed how far the Americans still need to go. Curaçao edged the United States in possession, and the Americans let their opponents appear dangerous at times in front of an announced crowd of 26,233 at Lincoln Financial Field.
“I have so much confidence in this group,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Sometimes you have to win games when you don’t play your best or when the other team is playing extremely well and taking you out of your game. That’s kind of what happened for us.”
Two young stars of the U.S. team — ones who will lead this squad into the future — connected to score the lone goal in the 25th minute: Weston McKennie headed in a cross from Christian Pulisic. But this team is still one that values the present — calling upon veterans Michael Bradley, Tim Ream and Jozy Altidore for the Gold Cup — rather than heading into this tournament, three years out from the World Cup, with only the future in mind.
The postgame vibe from the coaches seemed opposite from the result. Curaçao Coach Remko Bicentini said he was pleased with his group, impressed with how his players tested the U.S. team. Berhalter had to address the mistakes of his squad, which at times looked disjointed, but then he added, “Despite the tone in here, we’re happy with the result of this game.”
In the second half, Curaçao threatened, and goalkeeper Zack Steffen made a diving save in the 84th minute to keep Curaçao from equalizing. Steffen made five saves against the Caribbean island country with a population of around 150,000, and the United States still has yet to allow a goal through four games of this tournament. Meanwhile, apart from McKennie’s score, the United States had only two other shots on target, even though it opened with a lively attack featuring a couple of early chances by Pulisic.
“Everything didn’t flow as it did in the last few games offensively, but we’re going to find that rhythm,” Pulisic said. “Today, if we score a few more goals early in that game, it’s a completely different game. It opens up and we’re able to be much more calm. But they did a good job defending us.”
In earlier games in this tournament, the United States had an impressive attack, scoring four goals against Guyana and six against Trinidad and Tobago.
But Sunday, after McKennie’s goal, the United States didn’t have another shot on target until Bradley’s attempt in the 90th minute.
“I think it’s about speed, speed of movements,” Berhalter said, “having the ability to turn their defenders, having the mentality to disorganize their defense, get behind their defense. We could have been more aggressive with that tonight, for sure.”
In early June, the United States played a pair of friendlies that did little to inspire hope. But the purpose of those games was to experiment and prepare a group that didn’t closely resemble the team’s best lineup. After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, these first four performances at the Gold Cup have allowed a perhaps still skeptical U.S. fan base to exhale — even with mistakes, the squad has yet to lose.
The United States cruised into the knockout rounds after a dominant run through the group stage. The team won all three of its matches and accumulated its best group-stage goal differential (plus-11) through 15 editions of the Gold Cup. After using the same group for the opening two matches, the United States called upon an entirely new starting 11 against Panama on Wednesday, its final group-stage match, and still managed to win, 1-0.
The United States hasn’t faced serious tests yet: Its opponents early in the tournament ranked 75th (Panama), 79th (Curaçao), 92nd (Trinidad and Tobago) and 177th (Guyana) in FIFA’s world rankings.
But greater challenges are looming — starting with the semifinal against Jamaica, which beat Panama, 1-0, here earlier Sunday thanks to a penalty kick by former D.C. United forward Darren Mattocks, and certainly if the United States moves to the final, where Mexico or Haiti would await. Clinging to the lead Sunday gave the Americans a chance to show they have improved, that they’re not the same team that missed out on the World Cup, but the narrow win also gave them a reminder of the team they still might be.