PHILADELPHIA — Maybe we need to alter our expectations for the United States men’s national team.
After all, this is a group in which the majority of players are participating in their first major international tournament, and the same can be said about manager Gregg Berhalter.
Sure, the quarterfinal win over Curacao was far from a convincing performance, but advancing to the semifinals beats the alternative in which we’re bemoaning another cataclysmic defeat for the program.
“The interesting thing about this game, when you look at both at Copa America and Gold Cup, you look at these quarterfinal matches, they’re all tight matches,” Berhalter said after Sunday’s game. “I think you guys wanted us to go out there and beat them 5-0, but we knew it was going to be a difficult game.”
“You look at all the quarterfinals so far in this tournament and Copa America,” Berhalter said. “They’re all tough games. They know there’s no tomorrow if they lose.”
Instead of struggling to break down a tough Curacao side for 90 minutes, the USMNT got a valuable first-half goal. More importantly, it was produced by the team’s brightest young stars, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie.
At times when the USMNT is struggling in the future, it is going to need players like Pulisic and McKennie to deliver bits of individual brilliance to make the difference in major games.
“I think you have games like this where you might not have your best game as a collective, but that’s when it comes down to how you react to it and your mindset and the mentality you have towards it,” McKennie said. “You might not have your best game, but you could still give your effort in terms of allowing goals. We’re still attacking. We talk about being brave and relentless and today I think we were brave and relentless in the way that we didn’t allow a goal and kept fighting until the last whistle.”
You can make the argument that the one goal wasn’t good enough against Curacao, but that also comes with the perception that the USMNT was infinitely superior to the Caribbean nation.
Maybe at one point during this World Cup cycle, the USMNT will be leaps and bounds better than Curacao, but right now that isn’t the case for Berhalter’s development squad.
In its two games before Saturday, Curacao conceded one goal over 180 minutes thanks to its disciplined defensive style, which frustrated yet another opponent on Sunday.
“[The Caribbean teams] always had good teams,” USMNT midfielder Michael Bradley said. “They’ve always had talented, skillful players. That’s nothing new. It certainly doesn’t surprise me that in a tournament like this, you see teams like Curacao, Haiti. That’s football.”
Although the 1-0 final is concerning from an optics standpoint, the game never felt out of the USMNT’s grasp.
Curacao outshot the USMNT 14-10 and had five shots on goal compared to three from the Americans, but only one of them significantly challenged Zack Steffen, and he rose to the occasion with a leaping save of a Leandro Bacuna shot.
“That’s one of the things when you get into quarterfinals, semifinals, it’s a different level to the game and different also the meaning of it,” McKennie said.
“You’re in a quarterfinal of the knockout stage,” McKennie said. “The teams that are in this now in the final four are quality teams. They are teams you that want to do the same things that you want to do. They want to win. They want to get the championship at the end of the tournament.”
If the USMNT won 1-0 over other continental foes that are perceived to be at a higher level, like Mexico or Costa Rica, we wouldn’t have batted eyes at the scoreline.
It was not the most flattering performance from Berhalter’s squad, but the reality is it has four straight shutouts going into the Gold Cup semifinals.
No other team can boast that. Mexico has conceded in each of its past three games, Haiti has one clean sheet in four matches and Jamaica has alternated shutouts in its four contests.
When you take a step back and look at the tournament stats, the USMNT has outscored its opponents 12-0, and it has been able to grind out a pair of 1-0 results to win the group and earn a quarterfinal victory.
“The importance on a night like tonight is getting through to the next round,” Bradley said. “That part everybody feels good about. Obviously we’ll look closely at some things and make sure we understand some things that can be better as we move along here. In a tournament, you have to know how to win games in different ways, you have to know how to rely on the mentality of the group and so in those ways, that part was good.”
If you alter your perspective from lofty expectations to more realistic ones for a group with so little experience, you’ll have more of an appreciation for how well the Gold Cup is going.