Kyle BonaguraESPN staff writer6 minute reading
CINCINNATI — There is a tendency in international soccer to draw meaning from every game. The absence of regular fixtures and the great importance of The WC has the effect. Externally, it can create an unproductive process that promotes overreaction and produces unanswerable questions.
Take, for example, the U.S. Men’s National Team’s Gold Cup quarterfinal match against Canada on Sunday night at TQL Stadium. An incredible crowd gathered to deliver a high-stakes atmosphere and a chaotic series of events made for a memorable evening. In about an hour of real time, the USA scored what appeared to be a late winner, conceded an equalizing penalty, went into extra time, got their own unlucky equalizer and then advanced on penalties (3-2) after 2. – 2 tied.
It was entertaining, it was fun, and that’s about it. The only material impact is that the U.S. will now travel to San Diego to play Panama in the semifinals on Wednesday. The USA were the better team and deserved winners, but the game was a blowout and wasn’t exactly an advertisement for what high-level soccer looks like.
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To have expected otherwise would have been an admission of naivety. With an interim coach and a speculative roster, this tournament was never going to be a collection of pure, well-crafted performances. Instead, the value of this tournament lies in exposing players to the scene and helping them understand what it takes to compete in that kind of environment.
“We have built a team that never gives up,” said midfielder Gianluca Busio. “Even with guys that are in their offseason and guys that are in their season, it’s just a good mix and I think it shows how far we’ve come as a group.”
The sentiment Busio shared was consistent with what several other players gave after the win. Brandon Vazquez, who scored to make it 1-0 for the USA in the 88th minute, spoke of the team’s resilience. Left back DeJuan Jones praised the culture and brotherhood. Maybe it’s all easy to take for granted, but it’s not always a given.
“From the beginning it’s about giving all these players an opportunity to navigate group stage, navigate the knockouts,” interim coach BJ Callaghan said. “So when we look at the players in the future that we prepare for [the World Cup in] 2026, they have all the preparations to make an impact.”
It’s a logical approach, even if few of the players on this list seem to have a realistic chance to be major contributors to the team in 2026.
Goalkeeper Matt Turner is the obvious exception. The anchored starter is the primary link between the Gold Cup squad and the first-choice version that prevailed against Canada’s top team in the Nation’s League final last month. Turner had the option of returning to Arsenal ahead of the team’s preseason, but made his case to stay stateside, get some games in and take on a more leadership role.
“When you’re in these kinds of tournaments, you’re only together as a group for a short period of time,” Turner said. “So in these games you learn so much about yourself. And I think for us, trusting the process, trusting the set pieces, trusting all the work that we’re doing.
“You can’t simulate the intensity of knockout-style games. The more experience guys have in our player pool playing in knockout games and playing in knockout atmospheres, it’s only better for American football as a whole.”
Turner is a good example of that. He noted that the last time he was in net during a shootout came in the MLS Cup playoffs with the New England Revolution, who were eliminated by NYCFC.
“I put so much pressure on myself,” Turner said. “Like I really needed to have a big moment.”
Against Canada it was different. Despite conceding a penalty in stoppage time, Turner was confident and enjoying the moment.
“Going into the penalty shootout it’s level and I felt like I’d be able to stay and wait and react to a couple of them,” he said. “I didn’t have penalty plots in my head or notes on my water bottle. I just focused on the moment. I was able to get up and it’s really important to save one down the middle early in the shootout.”
His presence has a calming effect on the rest of the team. “I think he has an aura,” said Jones, a former New England teammate. “I think he even threw [Canada] fire off. Even without saving it, they hit the crossbar. I think they are afraid that he will save it. He was huge for us tonight and that’s kind of what we expect from him.”
Expect a similar type of match against Panama on Wednesday. For the U.S. to advance to Sunday’s finals, it would take another effort that tests everyone’s will to compete. And if the thriller over Canada was any indicator, it bodes well for the USMNT.