ST. PAUL, Minn. — A brace from Tyler Boyd plus goals from Paul Arriola and a fortunate Gyasi Zardes ensured the U.S men’s national team’s 2019 Gold Cup opener went as planned. The 4-0 win over Guyana will raise no eyebrows among fans, and neither did it for Stars and Stripes’ staff and players.
For the visitors, Guyana’s Gold Cup debut was more than a respectable showing for a national team with a $1.5 million dollar operating budget that presently includes a few non-league players that work outside of soccer to make ends meet.
“We’re playing against a team that we are 125 places below in the FIFA rankings,” Guyana head coach Michael Johnson said. “Some of our players have to go to work [second jobs], and we’re playing against a team that did constantly qualify for big competitions — this is our first time.”
Johnson’s pride in his players’ performance was evident and he spoke highly of them throughout his press conference. When a member of the Guyanese press suggested right back Jordan Dover had a horrible game, Johnson forcefully stated that none of his players had horrible games, with mistakes expected against an opponent like the USMNT.
“[The guys] worked their socks off tonight and each of of them should be patted for not only what they’ve done before [to qualify], but for tonight. But now, moving forward, you gain the confidence from tonight and go, ‘OK, we’ve got a great chance with lesser FIFA-ranked opposition. Let’s go again. Let’s dust the cobwebs down. Let’s learn the lessons, and let’s try and apply ourselves again for the next game.”
Johnson’s counterpart, USMNT head coach Greg Berhalter, took a somewhat similar view of the game as a first step into the tournament.
“I thought it was a fine performance,” Berhalter said. “I thought we got stronger as the match went. I like how we kept going and for the most part stayed organized, and focused on not getting too stretched, even thought the scoreline was what it was.
“The first game of a tournament is always a little bit nervy. You know, I remember back in the day, youth soccer tournaments, the first game is always — it’s always a little bit nervy. So we expected a lot of the same. And we told the guys, you know, enjoy the experience. It’s competition time. And I felt we slowly got out the nerves and started playing.”
The lone goal of the first half came in the 28th minute when Weston McKennie fed winger Paul Arriola, and the U.S. would finish the opening period with just four shots on target from eight attempts. In the visiting locker room, it was the kind of first 45 that Johnson was hoping to deliver.
Cognizant of the cloud that has hung over the USMNT given its struggles over the past 18 months, Johnson thought a close match might provide an atmosphere that favored the Jaguars.
“I don’t mind telling you part of the game plan,” Johnson said. “We knew if we could stay within a goal down on the hour, then that would have been a great opportunity for us to really have turned up the heat with substitutions coming up. We knew that the crowd could potentially turn against them. So, the idea and the focus was to try and stay in it — stay in amongst it.
“The second goal is the one, and then the third goal tears that apart.”
That second goal was Boyd’s first of the night, courtesy of a well-weighted ball by captain Michael Bradley.
The third involved a bad Guyana bounce.
In the 51st minute, Arriola sent a driven shot toward Guyana’s goal. Centerback Terence Vancooten intervened, but the 6-foot-1 defender’s header rocketed off Zardes’ eye and into the Jags goal.
It was an unfortunate moment that will likely define what was an otherwise gutsy performance from Vancooten.
“For me, Terence Vancooten was the best player on the pitch,” Johnson said. “Tackled, passed the ball incredibly well, and very good upstairs against tough opposition. And I thought he was outstanding, He really, really was.”
Asked if his goal was intentional, Zardes cracked a wry smile and claimed it was. Asked if he remembered his celebration, Zardes candidly conceded he didn’t, given how much discomfort he was in following the play, and added he was thankful he did not have a concussion.
The Jags earned a small victory in the 69th minute when Keanu Marsh-Brown logged Guyana’s first shot on target in a Gold Cup, prompting a two-handed diving parry from Zach Stephen — the U.S. keeper’s only save of the night.
In the 81st minute, Arriola would find Boyd for the latter’s second of the evening and extend the Americans’ lead to a more acceptable four goals.
Afterward, Boyd reflected on his brace and man of the match performance.
“I had my parents in the crowd,” said Boyd. “They came from New Zealand. So it was an unbelievable moment for me and to share that with my parents and give my mom my jersey after the game. It was just a very special moment, but I bring it back to the team. Without my teammates giving me the ball I can’t score goals. It’s a team effort and that’s what I put it down to.”
For Bradley, one of the more experienced players on the USMNT’s roster, it was a professional result. Asked if the evening’s win would help fans and the press get past recent poor results, Bradley chose to look forward instead of behind.
“The first game is always a big one in terms of getting off to a good start, starting to gain some momentum. You guys know how it works, and in a few weeks nobody is going to be talking about Jamaica and Israel, because one of two things [are] going to happen: we’re going to win the Gold Cup, and at that point, we’re going to have enough in the bank over the course of the next few weeks to where those are the last two games anyone’s going to be talking about; and if we don’t, then we’ll have lost more important games that will ultimately … be looked more closely at. Lead-up games are just that.”