Survive and advance. It's the standard mantra of tournament play, but for a team that enters a tournament expected to dominate and at least reach the final, simply surviving can provide a false sense of security, especially when tournament waters get deeper and more dangerous.
The U.S. national team is the only remaining team at the Gold Cup with a completely perfect record. Four matches. Four wins. Four shutouts.
What is missing from that record is a truly complete performance, which in itself is a worrisome trend considering the level of opponent the Americans have faced, and given the reality that Wednesday's semifinal opponent, Jamaica, and potential final opponent Mexico will require better performances to defeat.
The team's opening blowout wins against Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago followed similar scripts. The USMNT struggled to break down inferior opponents in the first half, finally breaking through as their opponents wore down physically, riding dominant second-half efforts to pull away. Facing a Panama B team in the group finale, the Americans deployed a reserve team that couldn't generate many chances.
Then there was Sunday's quarterfinal win against Curacao, a match that saw the Americans actually put together their best start to a match so far in the Gold Cup, only to cede possession and be pushed to the brink by a Curacao side that passed through the U.S. team's attempts at a press with relative ease. Ultimately, Curacao was done in by a lack of quality in the final third, which kept the Caribbean side from being able to capitalize on its control of the match's second half.
So what will the Americans do when they face an opponent that they won't be able to simply tire out by being physically superior, a team with the speed and attacking weapons to punish a weak press and the suspect spacing that has left gaps in the U.S. setup?
We will find out on Wednesday, when the Americans face Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinals at Nissan Stadium.
The Americans will be looking to improve on a lackluster performance in their 1-0 quarterfinal win against Curacao. USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter praised Curacao for their play, but on Tuesday he made it clear there were things he felt his team could have done better to produce a more comfortable victory and sharper overall performance.
"I think we could have been more efficient with our midfield line, moving closer to our forwards to press more," Berhalter said. "I think we could have been tighter with our backline, pushing up more. We allowed too much space. We allowed them to play balls into the striker too easily, and that would have made things easier for us in the game."
Berhalter did credit Curacao's man-on-man approach for helping to disrupt the U.S. team's tactical spacing, but made it clear it is something his team needs to improve on.
"We became disconnected, and a lot of times in build-up you saw either a 4-1-5, or a 3-1-6, where Michael [Bradley] would either drop on the other side of the attacking line and have only Weston [McKennie] central. Or Michael would be central and we’d have five guys high and that’s just not proper spacing. It becomes very difficult to get any type of offensive flow when that’s what your shape looks like."
"We noticed some stuff in the things we can improve on for the next game," Weston McKennie said. "We realize what we can prevent, and what we can do more of offensively with better spacing as well."
Jamaica is a much different challenge stylistically than Curacao. The Reggae Boyz won't pass it around as well as Curacao, but they have more dangerous attacking weapons, including Bayer Leverkusen star Leon Bailey, who is competing in his first international tournament with the Reggae Boyz.
"It’s very similar opponent to what we’ve been seeing in terms of some strength, and some speed," Berhalter said of Jamaica. "Their wingers are high-quality players, I think they have maybe a different gear of speed than we’ve seen in this tournament in particular. That’s why it was good to see them in the beginning of June, to see what that looks like."
Bailey has been slow to make the kind of mark on the Gold Cup expected of him when he announced his plans to join the Jamaican team, but Berhalter knows what the young speedster can do, and is fully aware of the threat he poses.
"I don’t think we’ve seen his best yet," Berhalter said of Bailey. "I think he’s got another gear. I’ve seen another gear in Germany. It’s just him getting integrated to the team, him feeling comfortable, him being used the right way."
Berhalter will be hoping his defense can hold off Bailey's coming-out party for at least one more match, while also maintaining the USMNT defense's impressive run of shutouts at the Gold Cup. He knows his team will need to play better than it has been playing in order to beat Jamaica and bring the team a step closer to its goal of winning another Gold Cup title.
"The success of this team will be measured by whether we win this tournament or not," Berhalter said. "We want to get to the final, we want to win the final. If you asked me a month ago, the answer was still the same."