As the 2022 World Cup qualifiers approach, Coach Gregg Berhalter has a good idea of his perfect starting lineup for the U.S. men’s national soccer team. The competition for the striker’s role, though, remains up for debate.
The former University of Virginia standout Thursday continued to make a strong impression, scoring twice and playing a part in another goal during a 6-1 victory over Martinique in the group stage of the Concacaf Gold Cup in Kansas City, Kan.
Dike, 21, not only finished his opportunities; he displayed the tools needed for the rigors of the regional qualifiers, a 14-game sprint starting in September. Other strikers under consideration include Josh Sargent, Jordan Siebatcheu and Gyasi Zardes.
Dike (pronounced Dee-kay) made his national team debut in January, then went on loan from MLS’s Orlando City to Barnsley and, with nine goals in 19 appearances, almost led the English club to Premier League promotion. He rejoined Orlando this summer but could be transferred to a European club in the coming weeks.
Berhalter declined to project where Dike stands in the big picture.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate now to make a judgment,” he said. “I think he performed well. I think he scored some good goals. He showed why we really rate him and we think he’s an important part of our team, but we’re not jumping to any conclusions on anyone based on today.”
The United States (2-0-0) clinched a quarterfinal berth and on Sunday will face Canada (2-0-0) for first place in Group B. Canada needs only a draw to win the group: Both teams have a plus-six goal differential but Canada has scored more goals (8-7).
Berhalter has made no secret about using the Gold Cup as a proving ground rather than going all out for the regional title. The aim, he said, is to test less experienced players and expand the player pool before the qualifiers begin.
His roster selections and lineup decisions have reflected it. After the Americans labored to a 1-0 victory over Haiti on Sunday, Berhalter made seven lineup changes and afforded first international starts to five players.
The group included German-based forward Matthew Hoppe, 20; Sporting Kansas City midfielder Gianluca Busio, 19; and Portland Timbers midfielder Eryk Williamson, 24, an Alexandria native and former University of Maryland standout.
Hoppe, a revelation at Schalke in the Bundesliga last season, made his U.S. debut.
The only starting holdovers were goalkeeper Matt Turner and defenders Shaq Moore, Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson.
The average age of the starters was just over 23 and their average number of appearances for the senior squad was five.
For Martinique (0-2-0), the Gold Cup is as big as it gets. The island is an overseas territory of France and, because it’s not recognized by FIFA, Les Martinino is not eligible for the World Cup. It is, however, free to participate in the Gold Cup and Caribbean Cup.
The Americans set the tone through possession and high pressure on Martinique’s back line.
“I like how the guys responded,” Berhalter said. “I like how they had an urgency to get goals, to push the attack, to move the ball forward, to get the ball in front of the goal — all of those things are how we want to play soccer. I can understand the nerves in the first game and all we’re asking is: Hey, just get better this game. For us, can we keep that progression and continue to grow as a group?”
The first goal came in the 14th minute when Hoppe drove a left-side cross to the edge of the six-yard box, where Dike angled a header into the far side of the net.
Nine minutes later, Hoppe made a back-heel pass in the box to Busio for a 15-yard blast off the crossbar. Dike beat goalkeeper Gilles Meslien to the rebound and nodded it toward the target.
In a desperate attempt to steer the ball away, retreating defender Samuel Camille knocked it into the net for an own goal.
Robinson extended the lead in the 50th minute with a header from close range, assisted by Williamson.
Nine minutes later, Cristian Roldan worked a combination with Dike, who exhibited strength, speed and touch in scoring his second goal. He beat one defender, then another, then chipped the ball over the advancing Meslien for his third goal in five international appearances.
Martinique answered in the 64th minute on Emmanuel Rivière’s penalty kick, which followed a foul by substitute Kellyn Acosta, a central midfielder playing right wing back.
Zardes, Dike’s replacement, answered in the 70th, and Nicholas Gioacchini added a 90th-minute goal.
“For us, it’s about: How do we keep getting better?” Berhalter said. “We have a goal to win the group and to be able to do that, we’ve got to beat Canada.”
Notes: D.C. United defender Donovan Pines (Maryland) made his U.S. debut in the 79th minute. … Reggie Cannon and United’s Paul Arriola, who are among Berhalter’s top players, were not in uniform because of hamstring ailments. Cannon, a right back, has missed both matches, and Arriola, a winger, left after 14 minutes Sunday.
CANADA 4, HAITI 1: In Kansas City, Kan., Cyle Larin scored in each half as the Canadians rolled to a second consecutive three-goal victory. Stephen Eustáquio and Junior Hoilett also scored against the Haitians (0-2-0), who trailed by just one goal until the 74th minute when Larin scored his second.