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Gold Cup Semifinal Preview: Five Thoughts on the United States and Canada

Canada’s breakout players are looking to erase the ghosts of World Cup cycles past while the USMNT is still kind of trying to break out.

Costa Rica v Canada: Quarterfinals - 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

Tonight the 2021 Gold Cup semifinals will kickoff and for the first time in the modern/Gold Cup era, CONCACAF’s regional tournament will not feature a side from either Central America or the Caribbean.

In all the tournaments going back to 1991, even with South American and other invited teams, there was always a Costa Rica or Jamaica or Trinidad or Panama or even a Guadeloupe in the final four. Not so this year, with all three North American teams and invitee Qatar left in the bracket, the hierarchy of CONCACAF has changed.

For that and other thoughts, we continue down below.

TV SCHEDULE

730PM EST - Qatar vs United States, FS1/Univision/TUDN, Q2 Stadium, Austin TX

930PM EST- Mexico vs Canada, FS1/Univision/TUDN, NRG Stadium, Houston TX

1. Canada CAN NOT park the bus

If there is one thing I do not want to see tonight is Canada trying to sit back against Mexico and just absorb pressure. Canada, please do not be scared to lose tonight, go down swinging. Get out on the counter, let Tajon Buchanan run rampant at players like he has all year.

Do not let past qualifying cycles affect your actions tonight. A lot of these players have no ties to those dismal failures of years past and those distant memories should remain in the past where they belong. Mexico are the favorites tonight there’s no question, but this is not going to be a walkover for them.

Yes, Canada is really, really thin at striker and dealing with a lot of injuries up top which just makes an upset that much harder to pull off. But Canada has been setting the stage this year for a tremendous qualifying campaign and it would be a shame if they sat back and ruined some of that momentum tonight. If you’re going to lose, do it by playing the same way that got you into the semifinals.

Even if El Tri counters you like six times in a blowout. It’s okay, it’s not going to be like all those other years. I have complete faith this is a changed team enough to say the following...

2. Regardless of tonight’s result, Canada is in CONCACAF’s Top Three

A position long held by a committee of Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and I’ll throw Panama in there too...not one of these national teams has really established any true dominance to the spot behind the USA and Mexico.

The Ticos have the World Cup appearances but little else to show for their regional prowess, Honduras has been steady with their Olympic U23 side and consistency in The Hex at the senior level, but it’s Panama and Jamaica that have had more Gold Cup success. Costa Rica has been mostly dismal in the past decade and a half in fact, only reaching the Gold Cup semifinals twice since 2005 while Jamaica and Panama each have two finals appearances.

Enter Canada, who a handful of years ago were an absolute mess at the senior level are now stocked with not just young talent, but young elite talent at that. And several of those players are in Europe for preseason and not with the squad including but not limited to Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David.

Canada will have ample time to cement their status in the Top 3 and I think even challenge the USA and Mexico in qualifying which they haven’t had a lot of opportunities to do since they haven’t qualified for The Hex this century until the current expanded 2022 cycle with The Octagon or The Ocho or whatever we’re calling it. And Canada had to go through qualifying for that too, sweeping Haiti on aggregate 4-0 in a pair of games. I think the experience this side gains this year and possibly at the 2022 World Cup will be instrumental to a great homestand in 2026 with North America hosting.

3. Stephen Eustaquio is my player of the tournament

I know that Qatar’s Almoez Ali might eventually win said award, or even Mexico striker Funes Mori, but Eustaquio has been a true breakout player in this tournament and one of my favorite players to watch this summer.

Born in Canada to Portuguese parents but raised in Portugal, the do it all midfielder has featured in the middle of the field but has put in defensive work like a #6, efficient passing as a #8 and an all around playmaker/finisher like a #10. We here at TBM stan Tajon Buchanan and his barnstorming runs but I hope to see Eustaquio in that Canadian midfield for years to come.

For a player with not a lot of international experience, most of Eustaquio’s caps have come in 2021, this has been a breakout tournament for him with three goals and I’m not sure how many official assists. Tajon’s speed and potential were on display during Olympic qualifying and that’s carried over into the Gold Cup as well giving Canada two true breakout players this tournament.

4. The USMNT Needs a Breakout Performance to Win The Gold Cup

Breakout performances in this tournament have been in short supply for the United States.

Okay, so Shaq Moore has been good to great most of the tournament, Miles Robinson certainly looks capable of filling the Aaron Long sized home in the centerback depth chart, and Matt Turner has probably wrapped up one of the three goalkeeper spots with Steffan and Horvath for World Cup qualifying.

But aside from those three, the USMNT has had players who have put together good games or shifts or halves...but not necessarily good or great overall tournaments. We know what kind of MLS veterans Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget, Gyasi Zardes and Kellyn Acosta (heck let’s add Christian Roldan here too) bring to the squad. But aside from Zardes whose spot on the striker depth chart is pretty stable, I don’t think anyone here really elevated themselves even if I’d still be fine with any of them starting a WCQ.

Younger players like Gianluca Busio, Daryl Dike, Eryk Williamson, James Sands and Sam Vines haven’t hurt their long term status but I think might have more of an impact in the 2026 cycle or but certainly could be useful off the bench in this fall and next spring. But for a lot of these players it’s been a mixed bag with Sands playing more centerback than midfield, Busio not having a clear enough role in the midfield at times, Williamson for some odd reason just not playing enough, and Vines personally I think just gets stranded or isolated on the left too often and that’s not always his fault but I’ve been low on him so far this tourney compared to others. Matthew Hoppe I think has the best chance to really push into that winger/attacker conversation with another great game or two like he had against Jamaica when he really was impactful and trying stuff all game before getting a deserved winner.

While I don’t think anyone has truly played badly or hurt their stock (Jackson Yueill perhaps the one exception here after the Haiti match), I was hoping for a lot more individual excellence and major takeaways rather than a lot of group rather than a lot of group “okay’s” and “not bad” and a lot of tinkering and fixing. Which leads us to...

5. Gregg Berhalter Needs to Get His Lineup/Tactics Correct From the First Whistle

Some of what I talked about above I think has come down to less than ideal starting lineups and tactics. Some of those issues are injury related but a lot of it in my opinion came down to the original squad selection which was light on true wingers in a system that kind of needed them. GGG has been solid on his substitutions and adjustments, but that only shows us glimpses of what the US could have been doing for most of the game, rather than a paltry few minutes.

GGG has rotated his starting lineups and formations which has gotten a lot wins but not a lot of great team performances particularly in the attack. Scoring two early goals against Haiti and Canada and holding on for 1-0 wins and stealing the match late against Jamaica with not a lot of great chances in between doesn’t inspire confidence like the 6-1 pasting of Martinique where the USA were running wide open and creating chances regularly.

I appreciate the USMNT’s dedication to playing out of the back but quite frankly it’s gotten them into more trouble this tournament and they’re lucky it hasn’t lead to a flurry of goals into Matt Turner’s net. The United States at the World Cup level won’t be a great possession team and that’s okay, this current squad should be more than capable of creating off the counter attack if they wanted to and yet they seem committed to slow things down and always build up with the ball. And it’s very frustrating to watch for three out of the four games so far.

Against Qatar and especially against Mexico in a potential final, the US will give up goals if they turn the ball over in their defensive third and should have done so against Jamaica in the first half if not for the timely intervention of Turner and a couple of fluffed shots. The US is going to have to counter aggression with their own aggression and I haven’t seen this team really prove they’re capable of that style of play consistently yet in this tournament and I don’t think they get to the final without a few great breakouts the other way.

So if Berhalter handcuffs his team again into the build from the back stuff, I think the USMNT doesn’t advance out of the round. The US needs a more potent, open style of play to match Qatar and likely Mexico’s tactics and style if they want to win this tourney.

I know winning the Gold Cup isn’t the overall goal here, but rather finding out what the players on this squad can contribute to a potential WCQ roster. And the only way to do that is let them play the same kind of soccer the first team does. And so far what I’ve seen is very far from that and it seems to be by design. So while I’m disappointed in a lack of overall individual performances, a lot of that blame falls with the coaching staff for not getting their players into the right setup for success.