The Gold Cup is complete, and after a topsy-turvy, 120-minute battle in Las Vegas on Sunday night, Gregg Berhalter’s U.S. team walked away deserving winners over rivals Mexico and made it two trophies out of two attempts over their neighbors this summer, having won the CONCACAF Nations League at the beginning of June.
With the trophy won, the confetti swept away and the players slowly heading back to rejoin their club teams around the globe, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, Eric Gomez and Kyle Bonagura reflect on the tournament’s highs and lows, as well as wondering if it’s no longer just a competition for U.S. and Mexico to dominate.
Biggest takeaway from the competition?
Jeff Carlisle: The U.S. player pool is deeper than originally thought. Heading into the tournament, there were a lot of question marks about certain positions and while a few still linger — namely who is going to claim the starting striker spot — more questions were answered. Miles Robinson looks like a player who can be a real contributor at center-back. Kellyn Acosta is a solid backup for Tyler Adams in defensive midfield and given Adams’ difficulty with injuries, could very well be called upon to play. Goalkeeper Matt Turner can give Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath a run for their money between the posts, too.
Berhalter also has the luxury of identifying players who can excel in “supersub” roles, be it a midfielder like Cristian Roldan or an outside-back like Shaq Moore. It all gives Berhalter something of a selection puzzle when it comes to naming a roster for World Cup qualifying, which begins in September, but he has many more options than he had before and that is a positive development.
Several of Gregg Berhalter’s young champions, like Matthew Hoppe, Robinson and Turner have likely played themselves into the USMNT World Cup qualifying rotation after their stellar performances. On the other side, Mexico fans can only look on wistfully towards the under-23 team playing so well in Tokyo. They will rightfully wonder what their fortunes would have been like if the Olympic side had suited up instead of the groggy, aging group we saw throughout the Gold Cup.
Moving forward, it seems more and more like this summer served both teams as a long audition for qualifiers. The United States will revel in adding in players to their established mix of young stars, while Mexico will scramble to swap out pieces of an aging core.
Kyle Bonagura: From an American standpoint, the whole point of the roster construction was to identify players who could play roles during World Cup qualification and not only did goalkeeper Turner showcase he’s talented enough to be relied on, he made a strong case to be the No. 1 as well. Other players improved their stock, too, but because of the nature of the position — only one guy plays — it was Turner’s performance that could have the most impact on a first-choice starting XI.
Steffen has been viewed as the locked-in starter for a while now, but after Horvath came up clutch in the Nations League final and Turner’s run through the Gold Cup — the New England Revolution stopper didn’t allow a single goal from the run of play in six matches — Steffen’s standing should no longer be a given. Especially considering that when qualifying begins in September, Steffen will likely still be in a backup role at Manchester City, while Turner (and possibly Horvath) will have been getting consistent playing time.
Is anyone going to challenge the USA and Mexico moving forward?
Carlisle: Canada looks to be the team best-positioned to threaten the U.S./Mexico hegemony. The Reds had already made some noise in the CONCACAF Nations League when they defeated the U.S. at home. Then, they arrived at the Gold Cup without two of their best players (Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David) before being depleted further when forward Ayo Akinola went down with a torn ACL. And yet Canada pushed both Mexico and the U.S. to the limit, losing both matches by a single goal.
Tajon Buchanan was already looking like an immense talent at the club level with the New England Revolution. Now he’s showing the same at international level. Stephen Eustaquio impressed, too. When Canada gets its full team together, it could prove formidable indeed.
Gomez: Canada is already there. As was the case with Mexico and the USMNT, Canada was without several of their biggest stars for the Gold Cup. However, they showed they’re deeper than ever and boast an electric group of young talent — Buchanan was a revelation, rightfully winning the tournament’s Best Young Player award — who will challenge to make their first World Cup since 1986.
Meanwhile, Central America is also experiencing a changing of the guard, yielding an interesting preview of what’s to come in World Cup qualifiying. Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras have lost quite a bit of steam, while El Salvador was a welcome surprise under manager Hugo Perez. Beyond the three North American countries, La Selecta will challenge Jamaica for the playoff spot and make life difficult for every opponent along the way.
Bonagura: Even without its two best players, Canada advanced to the semifinal, where it had its chances to beat Mexico before losing at the death. So, the short answer is: Yes. Canada is on the rise and will be a tough opponent for the United States and Mexico for years to come. Canada hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1986, in Mexico, and the expectation this cycle should be for that to change.
There is lots of progress to be made but this generation of Canadian players has the potential to change how Canadian soccer is viewed in CONCACAF and beyond.
Biggest surprise or biggest disappointment of the competition?
Carlisle: El Salvador is another team that looks like it is moving in the right direction. Manager Perez — a former U.S. international, mind you — not only has Los Cuscatlecos more organized, but taking more risks as well, and to good effect. El Salvador was another team that provided a difficult test to not only Mexico, but also reigning Asian champions, Qatar. El Salvador won’t be a pushover by any means when the Octagonal begins in September.
In terms of disappointment, while Costa Rica claimed top spot in their group with three wins, it looks like a team caught between generations, and were soundly beaten by Canada in the quarterfinals. How long can players like Celso Borges and Bryan Ruiz carry the load? The start of World Cup qualifying should give us an answer.
Gomez: Tata Martino. After losing the Nations League final to the United States in June, Mexico’s manager found himself caught between a rock and a hard place. Knowing his player pool would be diminished as the under-23 team played the Olympics, Martino felt pressure for the first time in his stint as El Tri manager.
Whereas the United States opted to rest all of their main talents, Martino felt he needed to bring as strong a team as he could to the Gold Cup to make up for his previous loss and risk further fatigue. The result was predictable. The Gold Cup is already as near to a zero-sum competition as there is for Mexico, and after Hirving Lozano went down with injury during the tournament’s opening game, even more pressure was mounted on the Argentine coach to deliver a trophy, which ultimately never came.
Bonagura: Costa Rica might have gone 3-0 to win its group, but at no point during the tournament did it look like a team capable of making a threatening run in the knockout stages. The 2-0 loss to Canada in the quarterfinals was not an upset by any stretch.
Part of Costa Rica’s uninspiring showing can probably be chalked up to introducing a new coach without any time to prepare, but it’s hard to look at the aging roster and come up with many good reasons to expect things to improve significantly in qualifying. This is a country that reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2014 and is but a shadow of what it once was.
Player who impressed you the most?
Carlisle: Miles Robinson. The U.S. center-back should have been named the player of the tournament. (That honor went to Mexico’s Hector Herrera instead.) Not that it matters that much to him as he’ll gladly settle for being part of the Gold Cup championship team, but Robinson was dominant in every game, putting out constant fires and delivering composure on the ball.
In the final, Robinson even showed off his ability to carry the ball forward into the attack. And he was central to a U.S. defense that conceded but one goal — a penalty kick, at that — the entire tournament.
Will it be enough to break into the U.S. starting lineup? There is an open slot alongside John Brooks, and Robinson’s mobility could make him an ideal replacement for the injured Aaron Long. There is competition as well, though, and Mark McKenzie and Matt Miazga won’t give up without a fight, but Robinson’s emergence was the most positive development for the U.S. in the Gold Cup.
Gomez: While Canada’s Buchanan was spectacular throughout the Gold Cup, Qatar’s Almoez Ali continued his prolific run with his national team, raising many eyebrows along the way.
The 24-year-old striker won the competition’s Golden Boot award and displayed a mix of speed and skill that enthralled observers and rankled defenders throughout. Ali walks away as the only player to win the top scorer award at both the Asian Cup and CONCACAF’s premier national team competition.
Lastly, it would be a glaring omission not to talk about Turner’s amazing goalkeeping throughout the Americans’ title run. Especially in the knockout stages, the New England Revolution man looked unbeatable. He’ll definitely remain at the top of Berhalter’s list for any game where Manchester City’s Steffen is unavailable.
Bonagura: Setting Turner aside, I think there are two players who really played their way into the United States’ World Cup qualifying conversation: Matthew Hoppe and Robinson. Robinson was deserving of Player of the Tournament honors by being the guy we see regularly in MLS and Berhalter likely comes away from the last month with confidence he can slot him next to Brooks.
With that understood, I found myself more impressed by Hoppe. Not because he was more impactful than Robinson, but because we got to see a version of him that didn’t get to regularly emerge at Schalke. While breaking through as a 19-year-old in the Bundesliga was impressive, it was tough to get a good read on how he could potentially fit into the USMNT because Schalke was truly horrific. Their basic inability to progress the ball with any regularity rendered him obsolete more often than not.
In the Gold Cup, Hoppe’s confidence and willingness to take people on stood out, and he’s earned a spot this fall.