There was a lot to like about the USA's match against Martinique Thursday night at the Gold Cup.
Five players (ages 24, 21, 20, 19 and 19) made their first starts for the USA, and all acquitted themselves well in a 6-1 win over Les Matinino.
Matthew Hoppe, Eryk Williamson and Gianluca Busio each earned their first international assists, George Bello was involved in the first two goals, and James Sands, starting in the three-man backline, was smooth on the ball.
In just his second international start, Daryl Dike scored two goals and momentarily was credited with another goal until it was properly recorded as an own goal by Samuel Camille, whose acrobatic attempt at a clearance of Dike's header ended in the goal.
The USA has often struggled to bury Concacaf foes at the Gold Cup -- its two previous wins over Martinique at the Gold Cup were 2-0 and 3-2 -- but its youngsters did not let their foot off the gas against Les Matinino. If anything, the 6-1 result was disappointing, given the U.S. domination -- Martinique is easily the weakest team in the group -- and the fact the big win wasn't enough to overtake Canada atop Group B.
The USA will face Canada on Sunday -- on Fox and Univision -- and it will need to win in order to take first place in the group, something it has done 14 of 15 times in past Gold Cups. (The USA finished second in 2011 after Panama handed it its first and still only defeat in the group stage, 2-1.)
Whether the USA finishes first or second in its group, it will likely face Costa Rica or Jamaica -- two Octagonal opponents -- in the quarterfinals.
But finishing first or second in the group might be the difference between a potential date with Mexico in the final and the semifinals, something that hasn't happened since the memorable 2-0 U.S. win over El Tri in the 1991 Gold Cup that triggered the modern rivalry.
But that's getting way ahead of ourselves.
Berhalter said many of the young players have impressed him in training camp and he loved how they took advantage of the opportunities given to them against Martinique. By the same token, he said the performance on Thursday was far from perfect.
"I didn't think the second balls were good enough," he said. "I didn't think we were competing well enough on them. I think our positional play can improve. At times, we were too open in the middle of the field. Our defensive pressure could have been better, and our chance conversion -- 22 shots and only scored six goals."
To that could be added a couple of other defaults: how easily the young midfield was often beaten off the ball by the veteran Martiniquais and how wasted most of the 15 corner kicks were. (Think of the service on corner kicks in the Concacaf Nations League final, and the USA would have had a dozen goals against Martinique if it had been replicated.)
Berhalter cautioned about thinking in terms of where players stand in the U.S. depth chart and how one good game might have moved them up. His focus is taking advantage of the tournament format -- with now a minimum of four games and a maximum of six -- and seeing how the team can improve from game to game -- which was probably the most encouraging aspect to Thursday's win on the back of the inadequate 1-0 win over Haiti on Sunday.
"It was just about getting better, improving," he said, "and we still need to get better from tonight's game. But I like how the guys responded. I like how they had 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. I can understand the nerves in the first game. All we're asking is -- just get better at this game. And we saw that. It's about, can we keep that progression, no matter who we're playing, and still continue to grow?"
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire