ST. LOUIS — In international soccer lingo, Wednesday night’s Gold Cup match between the United States and St. Kitts and Nevis was, technically, a competitive one. Anyone who watched the Americans’ 6-0 win can appreciate the irony of that designation.
Not that anything that transpired was surprising. Ever since the teams were drawn together two months ago, the game never had serious potential to deliver something more than a glorified exhibition. Even with the United States’ first-choice players vacationing all over the world, it wasn’t realistic to allow for the possibility that St. Kitts and Nevis — a Caribbean nation of roughly 50,000 people — would serve as much of a hurdle.
For the Sugar Boyz, No. 139 in the FIFA World Rankings, it was a significant accomplishment just to qualify for the tournament’s group stage. They reached the qualification phase through their performance in the 2022-23 Concacaf Nations League C — made up of the 13 lowest-ranked teams in the confederation — and beat both Curacao and French Guiana on penalties early this month to advance. And while they’ve made great strides in recent years, including a respectable showing in 2022 World Cup qualification when they won their first-round group, both sides understood the reality of the gulf in talent.
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Under different circumstances, the United States might have been content to secure the three points and shut it down, but after drawing with Jamaica on Saturday there was a goal differential incentive in play. That factor combined with a U.S. roster made up of less established players looking to improve their standing with the national team made for an even longer night for St. Kitts and Nevis.
The winner of Group A will play the second-place finisher from Group D — Canada, Cuba, Guatemala, Guadeloupe — in Cincinnati on July 9, while the second-place finisher will take on Group D’s winner. Perhaps more importantly, the second-place finisher will likely end up on the same side of the bracket with Mexico in the knockout rounds.
“We knew from the results against Jamaica we need to pick up some goals because it’s an important tiebreaker if we get the job done in the next match,” midfielder Djordje Mihailovic said. “But that’s something that we spoke about before, when one comes to try to keep going as much as we can.”
Prior to the U.S.’s game, Jamaica scored three first-half goals against Trinidad and Tobago before it settled for a 4-1 win, which leaves the U.S. ahead by three on goal differential heading into the final match of group play against Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday in Charlotte. The Americans have outscored T&T 13-0 in the last two meetings since their infamous 2-1 loss in 2017 to be eliminated from World Cup qualifying.
Using Wednesday’s performance as a possible indicator of what’s to come for this U.S. team doesn’t make much sense. However, there were several promising performances to build from with Mihailovic’s perhaps the most meaningful. After scoring in his debut in 2019 — which doubled as coach Gregg Berhalter’s first game as head coach — and featuring five times that year, Mihailovic had just one cap (El Salvador in December 2020) in the years since leading up to this tournament. Against St. Kitts and Nevis, he was the U.S.’s most influential player, scoring twice and assisting twice in a strong 90-minute performance.
“I thought he showed his quality,” interim U.S. coach B.J. Callaghan said. “He’s a player that is really comfortable in between the lines and as he gets closer to the penalty box, he becomes a real threat, whether it’s from running behind the line, arriving in the penalty box. So, I thought the performance we saw from Djordje was the performances that we expect from him.”
Both of his assists set up Jesus Ferreira, whose hat trick put him in historic USMNT company. Following his four-goal game against Grenada last year in the Nations League, Ferreira is just the team’s fifth-ever player with multiple career hat tricks, joining Landon Donovan (3), Jozy Altidore (2) Peter Millar (2) and Clint Dempsey (2). He also became the fastest to ever reach double-digit goals (20 games).
“It means a lot,” Ferreira said. “Obviously, growing up you always want to join the big names and want to join the exclusive lists and join those lists that barely any people touch. And for me to do it here in the U.S. shirt scoring goals, it means a lot.
“This is a national team that gave me the opportunity to represent a country on the biggest stage and a country that gave me that joy of playing at the highest level possible. So, I’m just excited and happy that I can give that back to the fans and excited for what’s to come.”
As dominant as the scoreline suggests, there was an acknowledgement afterward from Callaghan and multiple players that it could have easily — and perhaps should have been — even more lopsided.
“I think it was important that we got a goal early and a lot of goals early, but with our quality, I think we could have scored 10 goals,” said right-back Bryan Reynolds, whose first goal for the U.S., a rocket from outside the box made it 2-0. “It’s good that we won, but we always want to see things that we can improve on.”
One obvious area for improvement is on the wings. Both Cade Cowell and Alex Zendejas were able to get into some dangerous areas, but their play in the final third — finishing, passing, touch — was mostly subpar. Again, there is very little to learn long-term, but having a poor game in this type of game might be more instructive than playing well.
“With Alex, I was just super proud of how hard he worked for over 90 minutes and, yeah, of course he’s going to be frustrated that he wasn’t able to finish his chances,” Callaghan said. “But again, we continue to pound this message of we’re just going to try to get better each and every time. So that’s an aspect that we’ll work with Alex and look to get better, but he put in a great performance defensively with all of the pressing and some of the little passing combinations you saw in the middle of field.
“So, he still made an impact on our team, even though he’s probably disappointed.”
Ferreira and Mihailovic are grasping their USMNT opportunity