Expectations for the United States men's national team are high in the Gold Cup, regardless of who actually suits up. Not only is the U.S. expected to win every game in the tournament's group stage, but by clear margins as well. Fail to reach such a level, and the tendency to look at the players askance begins.
Sunday's Gold Cup opener against Haiti was a case in point. The U.S. labored to a 1-0 victory over a side that was not only reeling from the assassination of the country's president, Jovenel Moise, but coping with the fact that five players -- including starting forward Frantzdy Pierrot -- had been ruled out due to positive COVID-19 tests.
Granted, Haiti have proven to be a tough team to get by in recent editions of the tournament. Les Grenadiers reached the semifinal stage two years ago, and the quarterfinals four years prior to that. So for a U.S. team giving minutes to players further down on the depth chart, Sunday's encounter was going to be a trickier task than it might look otherwise. And yet if those players are going to convince U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter that they deserve to be called up to the full team, they're going to need to step up and excel against opponents like Haiti.
To be fair, there were some solid performances to pick out. Walker Zimmerman impressed with his defending, distribution and presence on set pieces. Kellyn Acosta was active in the U.S. midfield. And Shaquell Moore proved to be menace down the right flank, and bailed out the U.S. defense a couple of times by defusing some transition opportunities for Haiti.
Of the three, Moore was the most unlikely to stand out. He's been toiling quietly for Tenerife in Spain's Segunda Division, accumulating first team experience while the likes of Barcelona's Sergino Dest and Boavista's Reggie Cannon grabbed most of the U.S. minutes at right-back. In fact, not only was this Moore's first camp under Berhalter, but Cannon was expected to start as recently as Saturday, only for him to be sidelined by a right hamstring injury.
"Shaq got the notification that he was in starting XI hours before the game, and to come in and have that performance ... I think he made a great effort, and there's more to come from him," said Berhalter.
Even more impressive is that with Moore's season having ended back in May, he was training on his own prior to getting called into camp for the Gold Cup. But you never would have known it given how he was bombing up and down the right flank. While his deliveries into the box needed to be more precise, the hope is that those passes will be sharper with more game time.
"We've been putting in the work," said Moore about the time spent with his trainer. "It's never easy. [It's a] different level, different speed coming in. I think I did alright. It's a good [starting] point obviously. I'm still working my way up to match fitness, but I think as the tournament goes on, I'll be alright."
But in terms of the team performance, there was much to be desired. The U.S. started on the front foot, and deservedly broke through in the eighth minute when Sam Vines headed home after Gyasi Zardes kept Moore's deflected cross alive in the box.
But the U.S. failed to build on its early advantage. The early right hamstring injury to Paul Arriola didn't help matters, but a passivity soon crept into the U.S. attack, with the home side settling for safe passes. So even as the U.S. created some turnovers with its press, they didn't translate into looks at goal. Haiti eventually crawled back into the game, and created some decent chances in transition.
"I missed the urgency to score more goals, to be dangerous, and to first pass it forward and be aggressive," said Berhalter. "To me it was way too slow, way too backwards, and not enough intend to turn Haiti around and get them defending in the penalty box. And then once we're in the penalty box, I didn't like the runs, the movement in the box. I didn't like the service. So from the attacking end, we were disappointed with the intent that we showed tonight."
It wasn't until the second half introduction of hometown star Gianluca Busio, making his international debut, that the aggression and bite returned to the U.S. midfield. He also nearly brought the house down with a scorching drive that goalkeeper Brian Silvestre punched away. Eryk Williamson added some energy as well.
"I think it was is a really special feeling for me," Busio said about his first cap. "I thought it was a really a good game for me to get into, and get used to CONCACAF. It was a little chippy, but I'm happy we can get away with the win and to do it in front of my home crowd."
Such was Busio's performance that it wouldn't be a surprise to see him get the start against Martinique. Jackson Yueill was among the biggest culprits in the safety first approach, and he doesn't offer as much defensively as Busio does.
Wing play will also be an area of focus. By Berhalter's own admission, the position was thin heading into the tournament. Jonathan Lewis had little impact, and the sight of Zardes moving out wide revealed just how diminished the ranks there are, though it should be noted that the Columbus Crew forward has seen considerable time out wide earlier in his career for both club and country. Nicolas Gioacchini, who came in for Arriola, didn't look comfortable. Will Matthew Hoppe -- another forward being penciled in on the wing -- get a look?
The next match against Martinique -- 4-1 losers to Canada in the day's first match -- seems an ideal time to experiment.
"It's about being patient. It's about learning. It's about gathering information on the players and the way we can play with this group," said Berhalter. "And then adapting."
Berhalter will be looking for an improved team performance as well.