CHICAGO — The United States aims to be the team to beat in the 2023 Gold Cup. After all, they are the defending champions and defending champions of the recently concluded Concacaf Nations League. But most of Saturday’s tournament opener against Jamaica was spent chasing rather than being chased.
That comeback was rewarded in the 88th minute when US forward Brandon Vazquez scored a 1-1 draw, preventing a US team’s second loss in the group stage of the Gold Cup.
“I knew I had to move in the penalty area. That’s what I live for,” Vazquez said of his goal after the game. “It means a lot to me. I think we have an extremely talented group. It makes me very proud to be able to come here and make a difference.”
Jamaica performed strongly, centre-back Damion Lowe scoring the opener in the 17th minute from a free-kick from Everton attacker Demarai Gray, who made his Jamaica debut after representing England at youth level.
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The Reggae Boyz missed an opportunity to extend their lead in the 29th minute. Leon Bailey stepped forward and took a penalty. Jamaica were awarded after US midfielder Aidan Morris committed a foul in the box, but US goalkeeper Matt Turner dived and stopped the shot. Bailey’s right-footed rebound attempt went wide and the Americans were able to stay within range of the Caribbean team.
“I think the main thing for us is that intensity is the starting point. We missed that at the beginning, we gave the ball away, loose touches, loose passes,” said Turner. “We grew into it and started doing a much better job.”
“I knew that [save] was a big moment for our team. A 2-0 loss in Concacaf is usually a death sentence.”
After USA were refreshed in the second half with changes like Vazquez, veteran midfielder Cristian Roldan and Under-20 winger Cade Cowell, the Stars and Stripes were eventually able to secure a draw that Jamaica coach Heimir Hallgrimsson described as a fair result.
How surprising Saturday’s result is depends on how it’s contextualized.
Jamaica had a squad full of Premier League attackers like Bailey, Gray and Michail Antonio, but their winning streak stretched to 11 games across all competitions.
This was always going to be the toughest group game for US interim coach BJ Callaghan’s side, not only because they’re up against a Jamaican team with the strongest squad in a long time, but also because the Americans need to figure out their chemistry. The intimacy among the top US stars was evident in victories over Mexico and Canada in the Nations League Final Four earlier this month; But with just five players from that roster at Soldier Field, it will take some time for the players to get along, both with each other and with the top squad, if they ever do.
“The whole thing is that we try to gain experience for everyone. I think we have a plan in place for how we’re going to get through the group stage with all the players and where they are individually in terms of fitness and health and ability to recover,” Callaghan said. “So I think as we go on everyone will contribute to our success and I think you saw that tonight when the guys came off the bench and performed in different situations.”
A certain inexperience was certainly evident in the first half. Morris conceded the penalty despite being in a relatively calm situation after a long throw-in and struggled to keep up with Jamaica’s speedy attackers. James Sands was at his side and also failed to provide adequate cover for the USA defense as Jamaica won the midfield battle in the first half.
USA owed it to Brandon Vazquez, who salvaged a draw with a late equalizer against Jamaica on Saturday. AP Photo/David Banks
Before them, Alan Sonora got the go-ahead in a creative role. He struggled to hit the crosses he placed into the penalty area and lost seven turnovers from open play. In the 66th minute he made room for Roldan.
Callaghan has scheduled personnel changes for the remainder of the group stage, which on paper are seen as an easier step-up for the Americans than Saturday’s competition. St Kitts and Nevis, the United States’ next opponents, will make their Gold Cup debut against Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday – their other group rivals and a team unable to field as many top European talents as Jamaica, even if it were, is a force that has caused much suffering in the US in the past.
Given their ability to salvage Saturday’s result and the talent in their ranks, USA should be able to progress to the Quarters and still lead the group. But Saturday’s performance gave the US a reality check on how far they can go with their depth options in the continental championship. USA never thought they could claim another Gold Cup title with a different roster like in 2021. Teams like Jamaica have stepped up. Mexico could do with a trophy for momentum. Canada is aiming for its first title since 2000.
Any illusions by USA or their fans that it would be easy this time around were dashed in a nervous evening. With the trophy case recently expanded, USA can rest assured that they are currently the top team in the Concacaf. On Saturday it became clear that it will be much more difficult to back this up with another Gold Cup won by an alternative team.