After watching Canada topped by Haiti, and Mexico pushed to the brink by Costa Rica, it's a safe bet that Gregg Berhalter's U.S. national team will not be looking past underdog Curacao when the two sides face off in Sunday's Gold Cup quarterfinal.
El Tri needed penalty kicks on Saturday night to avoid falling in the quarterfinals, a result that would have sent shockwaves throughout Concacaf, and also spoiled the highly-anticipated potential final between Mexico and the United States. Now it is the USMNT's turn to avoid a shock stumble by disposing of a Curacao side coming off an impressive showing in the group stage.
Berhalter's decision to rest his first-choice squad in Wednesday's group stage finale against Panama is looking like a stroke of genius now as he brings a rested group to Philadelphia, but the Americans will need more than rest to try and put together their first complete 90-minute performance of the tournament.
The USMNT has three straight wins, and hasn't allowed a goal in the Gold Cup, but all three victories followed a similar script: a lackluster first half followed by a stronger second half courtesy of a fading opponent. Sunday will show whether the Americans are ready to take things up a notch and dominate proceedings from the start.
That won't be easy against a Curacao squad that is arguably the toughest team the Americans will have faced so far in the tournament, particularly given the fact the United States faced a Panama reserve team in the group finale. Curacao came through a tough group, earning a victory against Honduras and draw against Jamaica along the way.
“I don’t 'think' (Curacao) could be a dangerous team, they ARE a dangerous team,” Berhalter told reporters on Saturday. “It’s a good team, a lot of flexible movements offensively. They get into high positions with their fullbacks. The wingers are tucking inside, overloading the middle of the field and they have good players.”
PSV goalkeeper Eloy Room has been one of the standouts of the Gold Cup, while Feyenoord defender Cuco Martina anchors the backline. Cardiff City midfielder Leandro Bacuna and ADO Den Haag midfielder Elson Hooi lead the attack.
Curacao has shown an ability to attack, but has also looked vulnerable defensively, with Room coming up with a plethora of top-notch saves to keep Curacao in matches.
The Americans will welcome back Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie to the lineup as the lead playmakers, but Berhalter will need to make a decision on who to play as his target striker in front of them. Gyasi Zardes played well in the first two matches of the Gold Cup, but Jozy Altidore is coming off his first start and is seen as the team's top striker and the player to lead the attack if the Americans make a deep run.
The striker position is Berhalter's toughest decision, but not necessarily his only decision. He must also decide between Walker Zimmerman and Matt Miazga in central defense, where one of them will partner with Aaron Long. Zimmerman was solid in the team's first two victories, but Miazga put in a strong shift against Panama and is the better passer or the two. Miazga also has experience playing in the Netherlands and will be familiar with some of Curacao's players and their style of play.
Here is a look at the lineup Berhalter could deploy against Curacao:
So why insert Miazga when the Long-Zimmerman tandem has worked well together? It is an opportunity to see the Long-Miazga pairing, which would then help Berhalter evaluate which combination would be better suited for a deep run in the tournament.
The Altidore-or-Zardes question is a tricky one. Starting Zardes against Curacao wouldn't necessarily preclude Berhalter from still inserting Altidore as his starter later in the tournament, but getting Altidore another start would help him build up his fitness heading into a potential run to a final.
The rest of the lineup appears to be pretty set in stone. Jordan Morris has made a good case for a starting spot, but Paul Arriola and Tyler Boyd have looked extremely sharp in their winger roles, which should keep Morris as a lead attacking substitute option.
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen should return to his starting role, while fullbacks Tim Ream and Nick Lima return in time to face what should be a good challenge from Curacao's wide players.