Robinson, Acosta, and Turner lead the USMNT to improbable Gold Cup title
August 02, 2021
COMING INTO THE GOLD CUP, many were questioning why the United States was not sending its best players while Mexico was. There were vague labels of the “B team” or the “C team” and that Gregg Berhalter was not in this tournament to win in.
But against the common narrative, the United States defeated Mexico 1-0 on Sunday night in a thrilling Gold Cup final that saw them win both the Nations League and the Gold Cup with very different teams against a very strong Mexican team.
Berhalter made a few changes from the lineup he used in the previous knockout stage. He brought in different fullbacks in Reggie Cannon and George Bello. Gyasi Zardes started up top in place of Daryl Dike, who hasn’t looked at 100% since the shoulder injury against Canada. Then he also elected to play Eryk Williamson in place of Gianluca Busio – which shouldn’t have been surprising since Berhalter said after the Qatar win that Williamson offered “poise” and “ball-winning.”
In the first half, Mexico had the better of play but the U.S. team had the best chance when Arriola took advantage of a turnover and hit the post.
In the second half, the game was far more even but with the U.S. team still having the better of chances. Arriola came close again, Hoppe was dangerous, as was Zardes. Meanwhile, Matt Turner did not have to make a save in the second half.
In extra time, the U.S. team was winning a huge majority of second balls and duels in the midfield. This yielded chances, corners, and free kicks. Then in the 117th minute, it set up the eventual winner on a perfect free kick from Kellyn Acosta to the head of Miles Robinson.
From there, the U.S. team was able to kill off the remainder of the game, controlling the ball and taking it to the corner. The whistle would soon sound, and the U.S. team was awarded the 2021 Gold Cup.
Old fashioned USMNT win
For fans of the USMNT back to the early years of the millennium (which were successful years), this win was reminiscent of those types of efforts.
The heart this #USMNT team played with was off the charts. This was unbelievable— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) August 2, 2021
It sounds cliché, but this was a win based on heart, grit, and determination. When there was a need for a defensive run, the U.S. made it. The duel-winning and second ball winning starting in the second half was remarkable.
Yes, of course, there was skill on top of it. The U.S. team had the best chances in the game and Turner did not make a save in the second half. But the U.S. team had the better body language and were far more optimistic as the game moved on. Mexico looked frustrated and confused as the game wore on.
Defense & late goals
It was a run built on defense. The U.S. team conceded just one goal in 570 minutes (with zero goals conceded from the run of play). This wasn’t an easy run. Qatar, which plays like a club team, are the Asian champs and didn’t score on the U.S. team. Jamaica is a physical and athletic team, they couldn’t score – and nor could a vastly improved Canadian team.
When you consider that coming into this tournament, Matt Turner had one cap, Sands and Bello had zero caps, Robinson had three, Vines had three, Moore had three caps (and zero under Berhalter), it was a completely green defensive unit. The team’s best defender, Walker Zimmerman, had to be removed because of a hamstring injury.
For the team’s defense to play the way it did with such little experience is saying a lot
From there, the U.S. was able to find the goals in needed for wins. Five of its six games were 1-0 wins. Offense and finishing weren’t always there but this team lacked options. Arriola still hasn’t play much soccer since tearing his ACL in early 2020. Hoppe isn’t a winger. Daryl Dike wasn’t the same after his shoulder injury against Canada.
The team could have produced more offensively, but it did what it had to do to win.
Robinson: Gold Cup’s best player
Hector Herrera was named the tournament’s best player by CONCACAF but that was a controversial decision. To people who watched all the games between both of the finalists, the argument is very strong that Miles Robinson was the tournament’s best player.
Robinson, 24, was simply a rock in the back and his athleticism bailed the U.S. team out of a lot of dangerous situations. His speed and aerial ability were at an elite level. It was only fitting that he scored the winning goal.
Against Mexico, Robinson had 11 clearances, won seven out of 12 duels, won five of nine aerials, had four interceptions.
His stock has never been higher, and it would be shocking if he was not called into the September World Cup qualifiers. He’s likely earned a lot of trust.
Will he earn European offers from this? It’s possible although I don’t see him being moved until January at the earliest.
Turner’s stock soars
Matt Turner answered a lot of questions at the Gold Cup. He’s the best keeper in MLS and now, without a doubt, he belongs on the national team. He was far and away the best goalkeeper at the Gold Cup and the U.S. team does not win the Gold Cup without him.
He could move to Europe although Bruce Arena will surely keep him in New England for the rest of the season. For the U.S. team, it is best that he remains at a club where he will play week-in and week-out. As of now, both Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath are backups at their club. It’s good to have at least one of the U.S. national team goalkeepers be a starter for his club.
Turner clearly puts the heat on Steffen and Horvath, and that’s a good thing. It wouldn’t be surprising if he’s the No. 2 right now.
What a summer Kellyn Acosta has had. He started both the Nations League final and the Gold Cup final, went the distance in both, and won both.
In the final of the Gold Cup, he delivered the winning assist on the free kick to Miles and was the Man of the Match for either team. He played the defensive midfield position very effectively and, on the defensive side, was flawless. He had seven interceptions in this game, and simply clogged up the middle of the field with ease.
Even when his passing was there, it was easier to accept because his defense was so good – and that’s the primary need for the position. He needed to shield his inexperienced backline and he did that.
In terms of leadership, Acosta was the leader of this team and you could see how the team sort of gravitated towards him at critical moments.
One of the big questions of the USMNT player pool has been who is the back-up to Tyler Adams? And that is an important question because Adams is one of, if not the most, important U.S. player. Adams has also dealt with injuries in recent years and there has been a need for a backup.
Nothing is ever permanent, but for now Acosta is clearly the backup to Adams. He’s just gotten the job done in 2021 and he can be trusted defensively.
Who else helped their case?
We know that Turner, Robinson, and Acosta all helped their cases withing the U.S. national team depth chart. They were not the only ones and others should be getting called up during the qualifiers.
Sam Vines didn’t start the final against Mexico, but came off the bench and had a very nice tournament. His move to Antwerp should be announced very soon. If Berhatler wants to call-up two natural left backs, it is hard to see Vines not making that cut.
James Sands was not as impressive as Miles Robinson but given that he turned 21 at the start of this tournament, he is still young. It might take a bit of an effort to get called up but if Berhalter is contemplating a three central defender formation, Sands seems to be suited well for that.
Shaq Moore had a good tournament. He started well, tapered off, and then played well off the bench against Mexico. Right back, however, is crowded. Sergino Dest is still the top option but if Dest moves to left back, Moore will have to beat out Cannon, DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Araujo, Bryan Reynolds, and others.
Sebastian Lletget is a polarizing figure but this was a tough tournament for an attacking midfielder. The U.S. team did not have many wing options and the forward position was unsettled. He still did enough, however, to keep him in the mix on the U.S. national team – most likely as a backup.
Matthew Hoppe is another player who had a flawed but still very positive tournament. The energy he brought to the games was very important. He brought swagger and confidence that rubbed off on his teammates. In the final, Mexico had to pay attention to him and this opened the other door for others. On the flip side, he dribbled into trouble too often and looked for the referee to bail him out too many times. He will learn and remains a serious option – perhaps down the road – but he’ll be back with this team.
Other players were mixed. Gyasi Zardes was feisty and a handful to defend at times, but he wasn’t as clinical as he could be. Gianluca Busio showed skill on the ball, but his defense and ball-winning was a bit of a step behind a player like Eryk Williamson. Nicholas Gioacchini was a tough player to defend off the bench and made things happen – it will be interesting to see if he gets more opportunities but his position is very crowded at the moment. George Bello, meanwhile, is behind Vines but is also younger. He might struggle for call-ups in qualifying but deserves to be on the radar and at 19, his stock could change quickly.
Some players hurt their chances moving forward. Jonathan Lewis and Jackson Yueill all but disappeared as the tournament progressed. Daryl Dike’s struggles can be chalked up to him being worn-down and injured. He needs rest and when he returns, he needs to produce. That being said, he’s behind Sargent, Pefok, and Zardes right now.
It’s about depth
The biggest takeaway right now is that the U.S. national team is in remarkably good shape. This team can dig deep through the player pool and still win games.
This upcoming World Cup qualifying campaign is going to be remarkably different. With the three-game international windows, there will have to be rotation and depth. The U.S. now has shown it can win at many different levels.
What’s particularly exciting is that the U.S. team hasn’t even scratched the surface of the promising 2003 birth year (Caden Clark, Ricardo Pepi, Justin Che, Kevin Paredes, Moses Nyeman, Cade Cowell, Jonathan Gomez, etc). The depth is only going to improve in dramatic fashions.
Being able to send out largely two complexly different teams and defeat a motivated top Mexican team is unprecedented. Then when you consider what the U.S. team has in the pipeline, it’s crazy.
There is a lot this can be attributed to but the growth and the production of MLS academies is near the top of the list. These players are getting solid development on the domestic front, many MLS teams are playing young players, these players are then getting sold to places where they contribute regularly.
The best part is that it simply isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
The Starting Lineup
Matt Turner: The New England goalkeeper made some big saves in the first half and had the confidence of his backline. It capped off a great tournament. Rating: 7.5
Reggie Cannon: While he didn’t get forward many times, he still was very effective in shutting down Mexico on his side of the field. Rating: 6.5
Miles Robinson: A career defining performance from Robinson who cleared everything from danger that came his way and used his athleticism to cut back on Mexico’s chances. Then, of course, he scores the winning goal. Rating: 8.5
James Sands: While not as strong passing out of the back as Robinson, Sands still had a lot of clearances and smart defensive plays to preserve the cleansheet. It was an improved performance from the Qatar game. Rating: 7.0
George Bello: The Atlanta United teenage left back got the surprise start over Sam Vines. He ventured in the attack more often than Cannon but also had a few more defensive mistakes. Still, being part of this win was a big part of his development. Rating: 6.0
Kellyn Acosta: The Colorado central midfielder was probably the best player in the game against Mexico. Defensively, he owned the middle of the field and Mexico had possession but struggled to get anything going in through the middle of the field. Acosta cut off passing lanes, forced turnovers. He was 37/49 passing and sometimes wasn’t as sharp as he could have been there but he made up for it with the winning assist. Overall, he was the MOTM for his defense and leadership. Rating: 8.5
Eryk Williamson: The Portland midfielder only had 19 passing attempts as a No. 8 midfielder but he gave Berhalter what he wanted – more ball-winning, more of a presence with duels, more physicality. He fouled often (four fouls) but they were smart fouls. When he had the ball, he applied pressure on Mexico’s defense. Rating: 6.0
Sebastian Lletget: The LA Galaxy midfielder didn’t have much of an offensive impact but he was the player most eager in the midfield to take defenders on in the dribble. He improved in the second half before running out of gas. Rating: 5.5
Paul Arriola: The Californian was part of the best U.S. chances but couldn’t execute on the shot or the final pass. He hit the post in the first half, he had a close shot saved in the second. He also skinned his defender to get into the box but couldn’t connect with the final pass. His effort to get into these positions was good and he was dangerous, but he needs to finish. Rating: 5.0
Matthew Hoppe: Like Arriola, he was dangerous but was missing the final product to deliver a goal. His swagger and confidence is great and he is clearly going places. Too often he dribbled into trouble and looked for a bailout from the referee. Rating: 5.5
Gyasi Zardes: The Columbus forward was a handful at times but also failed to capitalize. 38 touches over 120 minutes isn’t good but he fought for his duels hard, pressed, and still looked threatening in situations . Rating: 5.5
Shaq Moore: As part of a trio of subs that came into the game in the 65th minute, Moore continued to add solid defense. The U.S. team also ventured further into the attack while he was on the field. Rating: 6.5
Sam Vines: Vines capped off a solid tournament with a good performance off the bench on both sides of the ball. Rating: 6.5
Cristian Roldan: Helped create a very dangerous chance to Gyasi Zardes while also contributing on both sides of the ball. Rating: 6.5
Gianluca Busio: Busio definitely gave the U.S. team some poise in the middle of the field with possession. He helped the U.S. team not get stuck on its back foot. Rating: 7.0
Nicholas Gioacchini: Certainly added a physical offensive presence that gave the Mexican defense a handful. He was fouled to give the U.S. team its winner on a set piece. Rating: 7.0
Henry Kessler: A time wasting sub. Rating: NR