KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Gregg Berhalter praised the United States' reserve-laden side for digging in to secure a 1-0 win over Panama in the Gold Cup on Wednesday, one that secured it the top spot in Group D.
With both sides having already booked spots in the quarterfinals, the two managers opted to field teams comprised of backups, with Berhalter changing all 11 players from the team that defeated Trinidad and Tobago 6-0 four days ago.
While the game was scrappy, the U.S. was in control most of the way, and finally made its breakthrough in the 66th minute. A corner saw U.S. defender Matt Miazga keep the play alive, and when Panama failed to clear, Jozy Altidore was first to react to the loose ball, scoring on a bicycle kick.
"I think they showed a couple of things," said Berhalter about his players. "First, I thought they were brave in their approach to the game.
"It was warm, and we wanted to go out and be aggressive and be attacking and try to get behind them and create goal scoring opportunities. But aside from that, I think especially when we scored, you see that guys can dig in, you see that they can keep fighting, you see that they can fight for each other, and that's important.
"That goes a long way. The team spirit is really good right now and it's been fun to watch these guys develop."
Prior to the match, there had been questions as to how many changes Berhalter would make, especially given the fact that the U.S. needed only a draw to secure the top spot in the group. But with a compressed schedule of games coming up -- including just two full days between the quarterfinals and semifinals -- Berhalter opted to rest much of his preferred lineup and trust that his reserves could get the job done. It also afforded him the chance to give game time to nearly everyone on the roster and shake off some rust.
"The decision to start 11 new players was an easy one to be honest," he said. "We believe in the group, we believe in keeping the group together, we believe that everyone can contribute to this team, for the team's success, and we wanted to show that.
"The guys have been training really well and they deserved this opportunity."
It was Altidore that made the most of his chance. The forward has been slowly working his way back from a hamstring injury , and Wednesday marked the first time he had started a match in the tournament. Berhalter continued to monitor Altidore as the game went on.
Berhalter said: "I talked to Jozy at halftime and I asked him, 'How much more do you have in you?'
"He said, 'I want to stay on the field.'
"When you hear that from a player, it makes you feel great. And then when that player goes out and scores the winning goal, it makes you feel even better because him and all the players on the field today, they wanted to win. They wanted to win for the team."
Berhalter could even afford to joke about the performance of referee Abdulrahman Al-jassim, who failed to sanction some rugged tackles with a yellow card.
"I was told that a lot of the guys were talking really positive about him and his performance," he quipped.
Up next is a quarterfinal date with tournament upstarts Curaçao, who on Tuesday finished second in Group C on goal differential after tying Jamaica 1-1 and then watching El Salvador fall 3-0 to Honduras.
"This is a team we can't take lightly; I know that for sure," said Berhalter. "We're going to go in fully prepared, we were watching them today before the game, this afternoon with the coaches, and they have talent, they can score goals.
"To me, it's a Cinderella story. They've done a fantastic job to get through this group. It's really what makes the Gold Cup special, when you have teams like that. Just watching them in the stands as El Salvador is losing the game [against Honduras], it makes you feel really happy that this is what soccer can do to a country.
"But we're not taking them lightly. We know it's going to be a difficult game and we have our sights set on advancing, so we're really going to prepare the best we can."