USMNT takeaways & player grades: New faces put on attacking clinic in Gold Cup

Sure, it was Martinique. But the U.S. men’s national team that hammered the Caribbean island nation 6-1 on Thursday should have most skeptics rethinking the “B” team label they attached to this Gold Cup squad when the roster was announced.

A handful of players logged showings that beg for an encore performance. Daryl Dike (two goals), Gianluca Busio, Eryk Williamson, George Bello, Cristian Roldan, James Sands and debutant Matthew Hoppe may not be household names, but they put on a show that will have U.S. fans buzzing. The USMNT player pool is truly deep.

“I like how the guys responded and how they had the urgency to get goals, to push the attack, to move the ball forward, to get the ball in front of goal, All those things are how we want to play soccer,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said postgame.

MORE: Gold Cup group standings

After wins against Haiti and Martinique, the Americans’ first big test of the Gold Cup will come against Canada on Sunday with first place in Group B on the line. And the USA will have to win the game to secure the top spot with Canada leading by a single goal in the goal differential column.

USMNT vs. Martinique takeaways

An attacking soccer clinic

Compared to the opener against Haiti, there was much more soccer in the group that started Thursday. The inclusion of Williamson, Hoppe, Busio and Sands from the start gave the U.S. a real injection of quality: positive touches, dribbling ability, attacking vision and passes between the lines.

The Americans were balling and the urgency was clear from the outset as they sought to make up a significant deficit in goal differential compared to first-place Canada. And they nearly succeeded. The USA’s tactical setup didn’t hurt: The new-look personnel looked comfortable in the 3-4-3 formation that Berhalter fielded.

Who earned themselves another start?

Berhalter wasn’t allowing himself to get carried away with the performance in the postgame and he’ll wait to see how the rest of the tournament plays out against tougher opposition before he delivers any verdicts on players who might have a chance to come back for World Cup qualifying in September.

But he couldn’t help but be full of praise for youngsters Busio (19), Sands (21) and Bello (19) — “These are guys that have really impressed me in camp,” Berhalter said about them — and he also highlighted the play of attackers Dike (21) and Hoppe (20).

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Berhalter said that Germany-based Hoppe (below) “did an excellent job,” noting how he was asked to play in multiple positions during the match. And when it came to Dike, who now has three goals in his last three appearances, Berhalter was doing his best to pump the brakes: “I think he performed well, he scored some good goals and he 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 tonight.”

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Busio and Williamson in midfield and Sands’ passing from the back set the tone and moved the team forward. The safer, slower, side-to-side passing that hindered the USA against Haiti disappeared with the lineup changes. A Williamson-Busio-Lletget or an Acosta-Busio-Williamson midfield would be interesting to watch if Berhalter reverts to the 4-3-3.

How does the U.S. top that?

Since Sunday is a must-win, the U.S. is going to have to come out on the front foot once again against Canada. And the Canada team that played earlier Thursday showed that its defense is vulnerable despite being on an eight-game winning streak.

It’s hard to see Berhalter disrupting the cohesion that was on display from the group that thrashed Martinique, though changes seem inevitable given the short turnaround between games. The 3-4-3 formation could be one aspect of the team that carries over given that it would match up well against Canada’s own 3-4-3.

“Today I didn’t think the second balls were good enough. I didn’t think we were competing well enough on them,” Berhalter said when asked to point out the deficiencies in the U.S. game against Martinique. “I think our positional play can improve. At times we were too open in the middle of the field. Our defensive pressure could’ve been better, and our chance conversion — we had 22 shots and we only scored six goals. These are all things to improve.”

USMNT player ratings

GK — Matt Turner: 6.5
Once again came up with the big saves when the team needed them the most. Surprising not to see him make a dive in either direction on the Martinique penalty attempt.

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LW — George Bello: 6.5
A strong outing as a starter. Although we didn’t really see his electric attacking runs and the 1-on-1 ability he shows off in MLS, the USMNT didn’t need it on this night. His work rate, the pressure he applied up the field and the defensive cover were contribution enough.

LCB — Miles Robinson: 6.5
An overall good game. He was alert and aggressive, he won his 1-on-1 battles and he even scored a goal on a recirculated corner kick.

CB — James Sands: 6.5
His high soccer IQ allowed him to excel in the middle of a center back trio. Just like with NYCFC, he was positionally aware, he read the game well and he showed timing that is not common in 21-year-olds. In the more challenging moments, he was resourceful and more often than not made the right decisions.

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RCB — Walker Zimmerman: 6.5
Thursday’s U.S. captain is typically aggressive with his defensive play, but the three-man back line perhaps allows him even more license, and he did overreach on occasion. But that approach is what makes him effective and allows him to set the tone for his teams.

RW — Shaq Moore: 6
He was the protagonist against Haiti, but this game wasn’t flowing through him. Still, he remained patient and didn’t force it. When the game found him, Moore came up with good plays, sometimes crossing, shooting or picking out teammates.

C-MID — Eryk Williamson: 7
After he settled into a rhythm with his central midfield partner, Williams really got into a groove and showed off the skill, confidence and passing ability that earned him a starting spot with the Portland Timbers in MLS. And when he wasn’t dishing passes, he was being fouled. He was caught in possession once in a bad spot, but he made up for it with a sublime stroke on the cross that led to Robinson’s goal.

C-MID — Gianluca Busio: 7
Busio was the team’s on-field leader and he gave the USMNT its attacking impulse, contributing the assist on the sixth goal. He pushed high up the field and was a real threat when he joined the attack, striking the crossbar on the play that led to the USA’s second goal. He also took most of the U.S. set pieces.

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FWD — Matthew Hoppe: 7.5
An impressive debut from the Schalke striker. His quality on virtually every touch stood out from the rest of the group. Setting aside his skill level, he did so much running, including tracking back on multiple occasions to defend. But it wasn’t aimless running: His movements were smart and he always found good positions on the field. He definitely earned another start.

FWD — Daryl Dike: 7.5
Dike was dialed in from the start, and when he’s this aggressive, he’s a nightmare for the opposition. His size (two headers that resulted in goals), speed and power (a goal on a fantastic run by the defense) were on full display. There’s no other player in the U.S. pool outside Jozy Altidore who can bring a similar game.

FWD — Cristian Roldan: 7
He was the gamer that he usually is for club and country. Roldan was productive in every situation he found himself: high up the field, out wide or inside in his own half. He delivered an excellent assist on Gyasi Zardes’ goal and was unlucky not to get a goal himself.

Substitutes

FWD — Nicholas Gioacchini: 6.5
He was in his element in the USA’s all-out attack, creating danger most times he touched the ball. The goalkeeper denied him twice, but he ultimately got his goal in the 90th minute on a smart run in the six-yard box.

RW — Kellyn Acosta: 5.5
He came in for Shaq Moore at right wing and promptly cost his team a goal. The normally dependable Acosta was beaten on the dribble by a Martinique player and pulled him down in the box, leading to a penalty kick that could wind up costing the USA first place in Group B if it can’t beat Canada on Sunday.

FWD — Gyasi Zardes: 6.5
Perhaps ignited by Dike’s strong outing, Zardes came in with loads of energy for the final 20 minutes and helped make one of the goals with a run into space and applying a striker’s finish.

CB — Donovan Pines: N/A
The D.C. United academy product made his debut, giving him a bit of a taste at the international level and allowing him to get those first few nervy touches out of the way.

CM — Jackson Yueill: N/A
It was a fun game to come into if you were a midfielder. Yueill was able to help maintain the USA’s attacking push.