By Kyle McCarthy
First-half goals by Luis Gil and Daniel Cuevas and a late defensive stand allowed the United States to open the CONCACAF U-20 Championship with a 2-1 victory over Haiti on Monday night.
The overall performance left plenty for U.S. coach Tab Ramos to ponder ahead of Friday’s crunch clash against Costa Rica, but he will at least take the required result forward with him as he contemplates how to address the issues exposed by a game against the Haitian side in Puebla, Mexico.
As the U.S. processes its nervy display and starts its preparations for the Costa Ricans, here are three points worth noting from the Group A opener:
1. Thorough preparations paved the way for profitable first half: Although the Americans did not play particularly well in the first half, they scored twice by focusing on two profitable advantages in this encounter: Daniel Cuevas’ superiority on the left and Haiti’s willingness to move forward and leave spaces available for the counter.
Cuevas stood out as the top performer for the U.S. by prompting Luis Gil’s spot kick with a determined run after just two minutes and scoring the second goal with a driven blast, but he received ample help. The Santos Laguna man received plenty of service – particularly long, sweeping diagonals to isolate him one-versus-one against the overmatched Jude Saint-Louis – in the right spots to make an impact against a side incapable of adjusting to the threat before the interval.
Most of the Americans’ best work in the first half originated on the counter. They sat off the Haitians and waited for their work in possession to break down. When Haiti stumbled, the U.S. moved quickly through midfield and used the allotted space to their advantage. The second goal was an incisive counter sparked by a vertical pass down the right from Gil. It offered a good example of the benefits provided by standing off the Haitians, but the U.S.’s inability or unwillingness to dictate terms in possession when the conditions shifted ultimately placed the match in more peril than expected.
2. Lack of composure in midfield exposes defensive weaknesses: Haiti improved after the break and started to use its midfield dominance in a more productive manner. The problems mounted as the Americans continued to cede ground in the center of the park at a point when the focus should have shifted to retaining possession. The inability to keep the ball heaped more pressure on a back four that failed to supply proper cover, floundered in one-versus-one situations and struggled to set a proper and unified line. It didn’t take long for Haiti to carve out an opening, cut the deficit with Wilburne Augusmat’s 48th minute reply and force a tactical shuffle to protect the result.
3. Adjustments allow U.S. to close out the game: Ramos shifted away from the 4-3-3 formation when he inserted Mikey Lopez for Jose Villarreal after 64 minutes. The resulting switch to a 4-2-3-1 matched the Haitians man-for-man in midfield and provided additional cover with Lopez and Wil Trapp screening in front of the back four. Although the final quarter of an hour caused a few moments of worry, the Americans survived the scare and tucked away three vital points ahead of a difficult match against Costa Rica on Friday.