WASHINGTON, D.C.–Somewhere in the Dallas metropolitan area last month, United States men’s national team defender Reggie Cannon paid for a cart full of groceries. The FC Dallas Homegrown Player was preparing to celebrate his 21st birthday when his phone rang with a call from an unsaved number.
He answered and heard the voice of USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter asking him to report to camp following a late injury to RB Leipzig midfielder Tyler Adams.
“It was one of the best feelings ever, getting that call, especially on my birthday,” Cannon said. “I thought Gregg was just calling to check up on me, but he told me he wanted me to get on a flight as soon as possible and help this group protect our title and find a way to win this Gold Cup.”
Ready to step up to the challenge, Cannon’s only complaint was he wished Berhalter had called just a few minutes before he paid for a month’s worth of groceries.
Cannon arrived in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the next day. He joined a national team that had more than two weeks of training and two friendlies under its belt. Immediately, he had to step in and step up to the challenge of replacing arguably the team’s most versatile midfielder, Adams, who has played a variation of right back during the few games in Berhalter’s system. Cannon joined the team having previously played during January camp, and his familiarity with the new system is what ultimately earned him the call up, Berhalter said.
“It is a moment of chance,” Cannon said. “People may say that I don’t belong here or whatever they have to say, but this is an opportunity.”
During his second start of the tournament and fifth cap overall with the national team, Cannon made a case for himself as a starter in the current tournament.
“Regardless of whether I was the first choice or the second choice, I am here and that is what is important,” Cannons said. “Gregg trusts me with this position, and I am going to take it with a grain of salt that I have something to prove something, but I am also here and not putting pressure on myself with stuff that doesn’t matter.”
When he was first asked to join camp, Cannon was not a like-for-like replacement for Adams, who has the ability to move more freely and centrally. Cannon is more of a strict outside back and is learning how to be more mobile in the midfield through Berhalter’s instruction.
“Tyler has a unique skillset. He has versatility. He can play inside. He can play wide. He is a top talented player,” Berhalter said prior to the start of the tournament. “Reggie has a different skill set. He is more vertical. He has speed. He has good crossing and a dynamic defender. They are just different defenders.”
Throughout the Gold Cup, Berhalter has utilized a 4-3-3 formation with the expectation that the outside backs can work as converted midfielders when the team is on the attack. San Jose Earthquake defender Nick Lima played the first two games of the group stage in the right back position alongside what some deemed Berhalter’s preferred starting XI.
In the final game of the group stage, Berhalter switched all 11 players against Panama, including putting Cannon in as the starting right back. Although Berhalter opted for Lima in the quarterfinals, he gave Cannon the chance to start in the semifinals against Jamaica. Similar to the day he first received the call to camp, Cannon was ready for the challenge because he has been working to perfect the positional role since January camp.
“It is almost a completely different position. You have to be aware of what is around you instead of receiving the ball on the touchline like a full back is comfortable doing,” Cannon said. “It was tough for me. I think Gregg has given me that confidence I need now to step into that midfield role.”
Cannon demonstrated just how much he learned when he lined up in the Gold Cup semifinal across from Jamaican stars Leon Bailey and Kemar Lawrence.
Before a 90-minute rain delay, the US came out with intensity and scored in the first 10 minutes. The goal started at the foot of veteran defensive midfielder Michael Bradley. With time and space, Cannon made a run in behind Lawrence almost exactly how Berhalter drew up the plan. Looking across to see striker Jozy Altidore and midfielder Weston McKennie making the late run in, Cannon one-touched the pass from Bradley to the foot of Altidore. Mckennie finished the play with the opening goal.
“Usually, Michael is world-class and spraying those balls in behind,” Cannon said. “I don’t think Michael Bradley gets enough credit for spraying those balls. They are so dangerous to spread out the opposition.”
The U.S. took down Jamaica 3-1 in its most complete performance of the tournament and earn a spot in the final against rival Mexico at Soldier Field Sunday in Chicago.
There have been questions about Berhalter and the U.S. program overall. Despite scoring 15 goals and conceding just one, the Americans still have much to prove during the tournament. With changing lineups, struggles at forward and the selection of certain players over others, the USMNT is doing its best to ignore questions about every aspect of the team.
“You can’t really pay attention to that sort of stuff,” Cannon said. “Obviously, they are going to judge with the information they have, but it is not sufficient enough. People don’t know what goes on in the camps, in these trainings, on a day-to-day basis. That is why you have to involve yourself in the group and not look outside.”
The Amerians’ final test of the tournament comes against a dominant Mexican team coached by former Atlanta United coach Tata Martino. It is the toughest test this version of the national team has seen under Berhalter. The outside expectations vary from accepting a final appearance to win-or-bust against Mexico. For the team, there is an exciting buzz. Mexico and Martino come into the final with pressure from media outlets to perform, while in contrast, there may be the first real calm around the US to just go out and play.
The exclusion of Adams is a talking point for sure, but Cannon has proved he can step in–at least in the short term–and performed when called upon. He isn’t guaranteed to start on Sunday with Lima as a viable option, as well, but he is ready to.
“It is a natural expectation for us to go in with everything we have and not hold anything back because games like this define and set the US’s future,” Cannon said. “I am excited, but I am not going to put pressure on myself. I am going to have fun and if I get the opportunity to play, I am going to take full advantage of it.”