Underwhelming USMNT win over Curacao feels like a step back

PHILADELPHIA -- Just over a minute into second-half stoppage time, the U.S. was clinging to a 1-0 lead in its Gold Cup quarterfinal against Curaçao, and U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter opted to make his second substitution of the night and bring on defender Omar Gonzalez for midfielder Paul Arriola.

Logically, the substitution made sense: Gonzalez's aerial ability would help see the game out. It paid off as the U.S. ultimately prevailed but emotionally, the effect was much different. The move encapsulated a night that was utterly underwhelming.

In this match, the U.S. wasn't facing one of the region's heavyweights, it was facing Curaçao, whose national team was only formed in 2011 after the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles and its roster graced with veterans of the Eredivisie. Sure, Curaçao had been the tournament's surprise package by reaching the knockout stages of the Gold Cup for the first time in its history, but it was still ranked 79 by FIFA and considered one of the minnows.

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Tournament play is about "survive and advance," as the late collegiate basketball coach Jim Valvano was fond of saying. On this occasion, the U.S. did thanks to Weston McKennie's 25th-minute winner, and now it finds itself in the Gold Cup semifinals with a match against Jamaica in Nashville this Wednesday.

"When you get to the knockout stages, everyone wants to move on to the next round, and they're going to give absolutely everything," said U.S. midfielder Christian Pulisic, who assisted on McKennie's goal. "Curaçao, 100 percent wanted that today. You could see that in the way that they played. We came out with the win and we're on to the next one. That's all we're looking at."

None of those facts can excuse this U.S. performance, however.

This was not a win that involved a 40-shot barrage and an opposition goalkeeper having the game of his life to keep the game close. Rather, this was a win in which the U.S. limped across the finish line, content to cede possession to the tune of a 59.7%-40.3% disadvantage in the second half.

Putting on an extra defender to secure a victory against a relative minnow was sobering to say the least. Despite the win, and fourth consecutive clean sheet, it felt like step backward.

Granted, this was a night when the Americans' press wasn't working, with Curaçao keeper Eloy Room proving adept at finding the open man, enabling the visitors to play out of the back. But the problems went deeper than the U.S. being unable to force turnovers.

McKennie and Michael Bradley looked out of sync defensively in the U.S. midfield, allowing Curaçao to play through them at times with relative ease. On more the one occasion, one could see Bradley desperately trying to chase down a Curaçao attacker from behind, as clear a sign as any that all was not well with the U.S. defense in transition.

What was curious -- and disappointing -- was Berhalter's response to it. With a 1-0 lead, the U.S. sat deeper and dared Curaçao to break them down.

Afterward, Berhalter was asked if ceding possession was intentional, and he responded by saying: "We weren't going to press the goalie. You saw in the first half that the goalie didn't want to play the ball forward. We were happy not to fall into the trap of trying to press them. It would cost us more energy than it was worth, so we dropped off and mostly didn't press goalkeeper."

Left unexplained was why the U.S. couldn't be the team to keep possession, make Curaçao chase, and prey on their desperation to score a goal that would even the match.

Certainly against high-caliber teams it can be argued that the U.S. isn't adept at the possession game, but it's a task that seems doable in a tournament like the Gold Cup. Even Pulisic sounded a bit conflicted by the approach. "As long as they weren't breaking us down, we were OK in the end," he said. "But obviously we would like to have the ball more than we did today."

It's also not what Berhalter has been preaching since he took over, yet here his conservative impulses took over. It isn't the kind of dynamic play to win fans over either.

The extent to which the approach doesn't bode well for the semi is debatable. Jamaica has skillful attacking players, but they aren't as good in possession as Curaçao. The Reggae Boyz are also willing to use their speed on the counter and, as a recent friendly between the two teams showed, they are savvy with their timing in terms of when and where to pressure the U.S.

But the onus will be on the U.S. attack, one that seems as dependent as ever on Pulisic. On this night, Tyler Boyd was energetic, but didn't take good care of the ball; Arriola, aside from one telling cross that was skied over the bar by Gyasi Zardes, was barely noticeable.

Berhalter acknowledged improvements to the U.S. attack are needed. "I think it's about speed, speed of moments, having a mentality to turn their defenders, having a mentality to disorganize their defense and get behind their defense," he said. "We could have been more aggressive with that tonight for sure."

One obvious change would be to get Jozy Altidore on the field from the start given his holdup play and, more importantly, his ability be a playmaker when he drops deeper into midfield. That would relieve Pulisic from shouldering all of the creative burden and provide another conduit to the wingers.

Yet Berhalter, for whatever reason, seems reluctant to go that route. U.S. Soccer insists Altidore is healthy; Berhalter said that the team's intention in the second half to utilize transition opportunities in attack didn't suit Altidore, so that was why he wasn't used in this match. But with each passing game, it seems Berhalter simply prefers Zardes, as mind-boggling as that sounds.

Heading into the Gold Cup, reaching the final was considered the minimum in terms of success for the Americans. Getting there now will require a performance well beyond what was delivered in the quarters.