Even though the groups for the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup weren't left up to bouncing ping-pong balls, it still felt like fate intervened when Trinidad and Tobago popped up among the teams the U.S. national team will face this summer.
The same team that crushed the USMNT's World Cup qualifying hopes a year and a half ago will be in the way as Gregg Berhalter begins the real work of rebuilding the program he took over. The initial reaction was to see their group match as a chance for revenge, but that won't be what their June 22 meeting in Cleveland will truly offer.
The Gold Cup is about setting a new course for the U.S. national team, and about Berhalter having his side continue to learn and master his system.
The fact that the Americans are facing Trinidad & Tobago will surely offer an opportunity for some catharsis for fans who have continued to hold on to the pain of that fateful defeat in 2017. A USMNT win this summer won't really count as revenge — a win won't bring back the 2018 World Cup spot the Americans lost in Couva in 2017 — but a convincing victory would offer real evidence of a program heading in a positive direction.
And watching the Americans win in a romp would surely be therapeutic, not just for fans but for players who had to endure the 2017 loss and its fallout.
The Gold Cup is about much more than the Trinidad & Tobago match though, and Berhalter will be sure to lay out the opportunity that awaits his team. The USA’s group is arguably the toughest in the draw, but that's a welcome reality for a program that needs challenging matches to improve.
The opener against Guyana should be a cakewalk, but from there the Americans will be facing what is likely to be a five-game run of challenging opponents even if Mexico and Costa Rica are the only teams in the tournament who wouldn't be clear underdogs against the United States.
That run begins with Trinidad & Tobago, but then continues with a match against a Panama team the Americans have failed to defeat the past three times these teams have met in the Gold Cup. In 2017, the Canaleros played the Americans to a 1-1 draw in group play, and in 2015 the rivals tied in group play before Panama defeated the United States in the third-place match. Panama has seen a golden generation move on and won't be as tough as in the past, but the Central Americans won't be a pushover.
A quarterfinal trip to Philadelphia will offer a match-up against, most likely, Honduras or Jamaica. with the semifinals offering up a probable match-up against either Honduras, Jamaica or a rematch with Panama or Trinidad & Tobago. Those are all games the United States will be expected to win but matches that will test Berhalter’s squad and his system. If the USMNT dominates on the way to the expected final against Mexico, then we just might start to see the U.S. national team generate the kind of fan support and interest that has been non-existent for what feels like five years.
Of course, simply making it to the final won't make the tournament a success. Reaching the final is the minimum requirement for Berhalter. Winning the Gold Cup, and beating Mexico, is the only outcome that will do for a fanbase that has had little to get excited about over the past two years.