Jamaica gives USMNT reality check in Gold Cup opener

John ArnoldJune 25, 2023, 1:38 AM ET5 minutes of reading

BJ Callaghan: Half time response played a part in finding a point

Interim USMNT head coach BJ Callaghan says no major changes were made to him, but the players responded well after the break.

CHICAGO — The The USA wants to be the team to beat at the 2023 Gold Cup. It is, after all, the defending champion and title holder of the recently concluded Concacaf Nations League. But it spent most of its tournament opener on Saturday against Jamaica chasing rather than being chased.

That pursuit was rewarded in the 88th minute when U.S. forward Brandon Vazquez scored to secure a 1-1 tie and avoid what would have been just the second loss by an American team in the Gold Cup group stage.

“I knew I had to make a move in the box. That’s what I live for,” Vazquez said of his goal after the game. “It means the world to me. I think we have an extremely talented group. To be able to come in and make a difference, I’m extremely proud.”

Jamaica came out strongly, with centre-back Damion Lowe nodding the opening goal in the 17th minute from a free-kick by Demarai Gray, the Everton forward who was making his Jamaica debut after representing England at youth level.

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Reggae Boyz missed an opportunity to increase the lead in the 29th minute. Leon Bailey stepped up to take a penalty. Jamaica were awarded after US midfielder Aidan Morris fouled in the box, only to see US goalkeeper Matt Turner dive to stop the shot. Bailey’s follow-up right-footed effort went wide of the mark and the USA were able to stay within touching distance of the Caribbean side.

“I think for us it’s about intensity being the starting point. We lacked that at the beginning, giving the ball away, loose touches, loose passes,” Turner said. “We grew into it and started doing a much better job.

“I knew that [save] was a big moment for our team. Going down 2-0 in Concacaf is usually a death sentence.”

With the U.S. refreshed by second-half changes including Vazquez, experienced midfielder Cristian Roldan and under-20 winger Cade Cowell, the Stars and Stripes were eventually able to find a draw that Jamaica manager Heimir Hallgrimsson characterized as a fair result.

How much of a surprise Saturday’s result is depends on how it is contextualised.

Jamaica came in with a list full of Premier League strikers such as Bailey, Gray and Michail Antonio, but it saw a winless run extend to 11 games in all competitions.

This was always going to be the toughest group game for interim U.S. manager BJ Callaghan’s men, not only because it comes against a Jamaica team with its strongest roster in some time, but also because the Americans need to train their chemistry. The familiarity America’s top stars have with each other was on full display during wins over Mexico and Canada in the Nations League Final Four earlier this month; but with only five players from that roster at Soldier Field, it will take some time for the players to understand each other as well as the top team, if it ever does.

“It’s all about us trying to get everyone to experience. I think we’ve laid out a plan how to navigate the group stage with all the players and where they are individually in terms of fitness and the ability to come say,” Callaghan said. “So I think as we go forward, everybody’s going to contribute to our success, and I think you saw that tonight with guys coming off the bench and stepping in different types of circumstances.”

There was definitely inexperience in the first half. Morris conceded the penalty despite being in a relatively calm situation after a long throw-in and struggling to keep up with Jamaica’s speedy forwards. James Sands was next to him and was also unable to provide sufficient cover for the USA backline, with Jamaica winning the midfield battle in the first half.

The USA had Brandon Vazquez on the left to thank after a late equalizer salvaged a draw against Jamaica on Saturday.AP Photo/David Banks

Ahead of them, Alan Sonora got the starting nod in a creative role. He struggled to connect on the crosses he put in the box and committed seven turnovers from open play. He made way for Roldan in the 66th minute.

Callaghan has planned personnel changes for the remainder of the group stage, which on paper looms as a lighter lift for the Americans than Saturday’s contest. St. Kitts and Nevis, the USA’s next opponent, will make its Gold Cup debut on Sunday against Trinidad and Tobago – the other group rival and a team unable to call upon as many top European talents as Jamaica, although it is a team that previously inflicted pain on the United States.

Given its ability to salvage the result on Saturday and the talent in its ranks, the U.S. should be able to advance to the quarterfinals and still top the group. Still, Saturday’s performance gave the U.S. a reality check when it comes to how far its depth options can take it in the continental championship. The U.S. never thought it would be able to waltz to another Gold Cup title with an alternate team like it did in 2021. Teams like Jamaica have been strengthened. Mexico could desperately use a trophy for momentum. Canada is looking for its first title since 2000.

Any illusions the US or its fans might have had that things would be easy this time around were dispelled on a nervous night. With its trophy case recently expanded, the United States can rest comfortably in the knowledge that it is currently the top team in Concacaf. It learned on Saturday that it will be much more difficult to back it up by flexing with another Gold Cup won by an alternative team.

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