Gregg Berhalter gave 11 new players a chance on Wednesday to state their case to crack the U.S. national team first-choice lineup, and the player who made the strongest argument was the one who was already the closest to being a starter.
Jozy Altidore scored an acrobatic game-winner, delivering some much-needed quality on a night where wholesale lineup changes by both the USMNT and Panama led to the inevitable disjoined affair you would expect from a group stage finale between teams that had already secured their places in the quarterfinals.
Realistically, of the 11 Americans on the field to start the match, Altidore had to know he was the one with the most to gain from a strong performance, and knowing that may have contributed to some missed early chances. Altidore sent one promising shot just wide in the 16th minute, then another right at the Panama goalkeeper.
That Altidore even found those chances was impressive on a night when the U.S. attack was disjointed and lacked sharpness. Altidore did his part, holding up the ball well and putting himself in good positions. That work paid off in the second half, when he scored on an overhead kick for his first USMNT goal since October of 2017.
"It's been a rough time waiting," Altidore said after the match. "I'm just trying to earn an opportunity again, so to get out there, to score in these colors again, it means everything to me."
The 2019 Gold Cup means more for Altidore for a multitude of reasons. Consider the fact Wednesday marked his first USMNT start since the nightmare loss to Trinidad and Tobago that cost the United States a place at the 2018 World Cup.
Altidore spent 20 months having to wait for his chance to reclaim his place as the national team's lead striker, and while his performance on Wednesday isn't necessarily enough to help him unseat current starter Gyasi Zardes just yet, it was clearly a step forward for the veteran striker.
Altidore was one of the few bright spots on a night when we saw just what sort of talent gap there is between the U.S. team's first-choice players the options available to replace them. Jordan Morris had a solid night, but not enough to truly threaten current wingers Tyler Boyd and Paul Arriola, while Matt Miazga put in a steady shift in central defense to make an argument for unseating Walker Zimmerman as Aaron Long's partner on the back line.
Aside from that, the rest of the USMNT reserves left plenty to be desired.
Jonathan Lewis was wasteful and lacked sharpness on the left wing. Wil Trapp and Cristian Roldan failed to take hold of a game they should have been able to make more of an impact on. Reggie Cannon showed solid defensive work but lacked the attacking quality needed to really threaten current starter Nick Lima. Daniel Lovitz held up decently on the defensive side of things, but was once again completely ineffective in the attack, making him far from a threat to unseat current starting left back Tim Ream.
Then there was Omar Gonzalez, who was handed the captain's armband, but moved around like the armband was a 50-pound weight. He looked a step slow for much of the night, and while his veteran savvy helped him to limit the number of times he was exposed, we saw enough of those scary moments to dread what would happen if Gonzalez was on the field against a team with good forwards, like Mexico or Costa Rica.
As lackluster as the U.S. team's overall performance was, Berhalter had to leave Children's Mercy Park extremely happy. His team secured another shutout victory, he was able to rest his starters and the striker he needs to get back into top form delivered a memorable winner. Throw in the fact the squad came through the group stage healthy and without any players drawing suspensions and the USMNT finds itself sitting in much better shape than most would have envisioned after the team lost both of its two pre-Gold Cup friendlies.
With the group stage now over, Berhalter will have his first-choice squad rested and ready for the knockout rounds, a potential stretch of three matches in eight days which begins on Sunday in Philadelphia against Curacao. The Americans will be highly-favored against the Caribbean upstarts, but tougher challenges are looming in the semifinals and final. Those are the matches where the USMNT will want a fully fit and in-form Altidore in the lineup for, and while he may not yet have unseated Zardes as the USMNT's lead striker, he sent a clear message on Wednesday that he's working his way back.
And the United States will be a more dangerous team if he can finish the comeback the way he finished the game-winning bicycle kick on Wednesday.