CINCINNATI -- There is a tendency in international soccer to derive meaning from every game. The absence of regular fixtures and the outsized importance of the World Cup has the effect. Externally, that can make for an unproductive process that fosters overreaction and brings about unanswerable questions.
Take the United States men's national team's Gold Cup quarterfinal game against Canada on Sunday night at TQL Stadium, for example. An incredible crowd assembled to deliver a high-stakes atmosphere, and a chaotic series of events made for a memorable night. In the span of about an hour of real time, the U.S. scored what seemed like a late winner, conceded an equalizing penalty, went down in extra time, got its own fluky equalizer and then advanced on penalties (3-2) after the 2-2 draw.
It was entertaining, it was fun and, well, that's about it. The only material impact is that the U.S. now heads to San Diego to play Panama in the semifinals Wednesday. The U.S. was the better team and deserved winners, but the game was a slog and wasn't exactly an advertisement for what high-level soccer looks like.
To have expected otherwise would have been an admission of naivety. With an interim coach and a speculative roster, this tournament was never going to be a collection of clean, well-drilled performances. Instead, the value of this tournament is in exposing players to the stage and helping them understand what it takes to compete in these kinds of settings.
"We've built a team that never gives up," midfielder Gianluca Busio said. "Even with guys who are in their offseason and guys who are in their season, it's just a good mix and I think it shows how far we've come as a group."
The sentiment Busio shared was consistent with what several other players relayed after the win. Brandon Vazquez, who scored to put the U.S. up 1-0 in the 88th minute, spoke of the team's resiliency. Left-back DeJuan Jones praised the culture and brotherhood. Maybe that's all easy to take for granted, but it's not always a given.
"From the beginning, it's about giving all of these players an opportunity to navigate group play, navigate knockouts," interim coach B.J. Callaghan said. "So, when we look at the players in the future, as we prepare for [the World Cup in] 2026, they all have the preparation to make an impact."
It's a logical approach, even if only a few of the players on this roster seemingly have a realistic shot at becoming major contributors for the team by 2026.
Goalkeeper Matt Turner is the obvious exception. The entrenched starter is the primary link between the Gold Cup squad and the first-choice version that cruised to a win against Canada's best team in the Nation's League final last month. Turner had the option to return to Arsenal ahead of the team's preseason but made his case to remain stateside, get some games in and take on more of a leadership role.
"When you're in these kinds of tournaments, you're only together as a group for a short period of time," Turner said. "So in these games, you learn so much about yourselves. And I think for us, trusting the process, trusting the set pieces, trusting all the work that we do.
"You can't simulate the intensity of a knockout-style games. The more experience guys have in our player pool of playing in knockout games and playing in knockout atmospheres, it's only better for U.S. soccer as a whole."
"I was putting so much pressure on myself," Turner said. "Like I really needed to have a big moment."
Against Canada, it was different. Despite conceding a penalty in stoppage time, Turner was confident and enjoying the moment.
"Going into the penalties, it's level pegging and I felt like I was going to be able to stay and wait and react on a couple of 'em," he said. "I didn't have penalty plots in my head or notes on my water bottle. I was just focusing on the moment. I was able to stand up tall, and saving one down the middle early in the shootout is really important."
His presence has a calming effect on the rest of the team. "I think he's got aura," said Jones, a former teammate in New England. "I think he even threw the [Canada] guys off. Even without saving it, they hit the crossbar. I think they're scared that he'll save it. He was huge for us tonight, and that's kind of what we expect from him."
Expect a similar type of game against Panama on Wednesday. For the U.S. to advance to Sunday's final, it should take another grind-it-out effort that tests each individual's willingness to compete. And if the thriller over Canada was an indicator, that bodes well for the USMNT.