For the United States men's national team, Thursday's CONCACAF Gold Cup group-stage match against Martinique wasn't really about the result. The 6-1 win matters, of course, but the real value for head coach Gregg Berhalter was in seeing some young faces up close in a competitive environment.
The upcoming three-match World Cup qualifying windows in September, October and January will require more rotation than in past cycles. So while many of the first-choice spots can almost pick themselves, there are still several players fighting for meaningful roles.
"That's the whole reason why we picked this roster," Berhalter said. "And the reason why it was important for us to battle test these guys before World Cup qualifying."
Martinique, a French territory of fewer than 400,000 people, is the type of opponent the United States should handle with ease, and any takeaways need to be made in that context. For example, Daryl Dike was a dominant force up front -- he scored two goals and looked the part of possible starting No. 9 -- but that is exactly what should have been expected from him considering the level of the opposition.
While the performance won't exactly push him ahead of Josh Sargent on the depth chart, it certainly keeps him prominently in the conversation. Berhalter said as much following the win.
"I don't think it's appropriate now to make a judgment in this game," Berhalter said. "I think he performed well, scored some good goals and showed why we really rate him and we think he's an important part of our team. But we're not jumping to conclusions on anyone based on today."
Perhaps the most important performance came from 20-year-old debutant Matthew Hoppe. After breaking through at Schalke 04 in the Bundesliga this year, Hoppe was easily one of the best players on the field against Martinique. He assisted on Dike's first goal to put the U.S. up 1-0, and looked comfortable playing in an attacking midfield role, serving at times as a second forward.
Hoppe, a name frequently mentioned in transfer rumors following Schalke's catastrophic relegation last season, is one of the few Europe-based players on the roster and could have stayed in Germany for preseason, but felt it was important to earn his first cap with the U.S.
"I wanted to show the country and the world what I can do on an international level," he said. "So that's why I decided it was best for me to stay with the national team right now."
He trained with the national team ahead of its friendly against Switzerland in May and has made a positive impression on Berhalter. He has the potential to play his way into the qualifying picture if he can build off Thursday's performance with others against better teams.
"It's not easy to take in all that information and perform as well as he did. He also showed quality," Berhalter said. "The pass he had to Daryl was a high-level pass. I think he did well, and we're also bearing in mind that he is in preseason and hasn't played a competitive game. Has been at home training and this is the output you get, so overall pleased with his performance."
The United States's inexperienced starting XI featured just two players -- Cristian Roldan (21) and Walker Zimmerman (16) -- with double-digit caps to their names. Shaq Moore was somehow the third-most experienced player with the team, while making just his sixth appearance for the national team.
Left-back George Bello, midfielder Gianluca Busio and centre-back James Sands all turned in solid showings. There wasn't anything spectacular from the trio of young MLS players, but they were all good enough to warrant continued inclusion and would be interesting players to see start against Canada on Sunday, which should provide the U.S. with its most difficult test of the group stage.
The U.S. is assured of passage to the quarterfinal but will need a win to advance as the top team from Group B. Canada is also 2-0, and would win the group with a draw by virtue of having scored one more goal than its southern neighbor. Victory over Canada could be crucial, because if Berhalter's team fails to win then it finishes second in the group. This would likely put them in same half of the bracket as Mexico, meaning they would meet in the semifinal rather than the final.