CHICAGO — The United States wants to be the team to beat at the 2023 Gold Cup. After all, it is the defending champion and the titleholder of the recently completed Concacaf Nations League. But it spent most of its tournament-opening match on Saturday against Jamaica chasing instead of being chased.
“I knew I had to make a movement in the box. I live for that,” Vazquez said of his goal after the match. “It means the world to me. I think we have an extremely talented group. To be able to come in and make a difference, I’m extremely proud.”
Jamaica came out strong, with center back Damion Lowe nodding home the opening goal in the 17th minute off a free kick from Demarai Gray, the Everton attacker who was making his Jamaica debut after having represented England at the youth level.
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The Reggae Boyz missed an opportunity to extend the lead in the 29th minute. Leon Bailey stepped up to take a penalty kick Jamaica was awarded after U.S. midfielder Aidan Morris committed a foul in the box but saw American goalkeeper Matt Turner dive and stop the shot. Bailey’s follow-up effort with his right foot screwed wide of the goal, and the U.S. was able to stay within touching distance of the Caribbean side.
“I think for us, it’s all about the intensity being the starting point. We were missing that in the beginning, giving the ball away, loose touches, loose passes,” Turner said. “We grew into it and started to do a much better job.
“I knew that [save] was a big moment for our team. Going down 2-0 in Concacaf is usually a death sentence.”
With the U.S. refreshed by second-half changes including Vazquez, experienced midfielder Cristian Roldan and under-20 winger Cade Cowell, the Stars and Stripes eventually were able to find a draw that Jamaica manager Heimir Hallgrimsson characterized as a fair result.
How much of a surprise Saturday’s result is depends on how it is contextualized.
This always was going to be the most difficult group game for interim U.S. manager B.J. Callaghan’s squad, not only because it comes against a Jamaica team with its strongest roster in some time but also because the Americans need to work out their chemistry. The familiarity top U.S. stars have with each other was on full display during 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 until players understand each other as well as the top team, if it ever does.
“The whole thing is we’re trying to get everybody experience. I think we have a plan put in place, how we’re going to navigate the group stage with all of the players and where they are individually in terms of fitness and the ability to recover,” Callaghan said. “So I think as we continue, everyone’s going to contribute to our success, and I think you saw that tonight with guys coming off the bench stepping in different types of circumstances.”
Some inexperience was certainly on display in the first half. Morris conceded the penalty despite being in a relatively calm situation from a long throw-in and struggled to keep up with Jamaica’s speedy attackers. James Sands was next to him and also wasn’t able to provide sufficient cover for the United States’ back line, with Jamaica winning the midfield battle in the first half.
In front of them, Alan Sonora got the starting nod in a creative role. He struggled to connect on the crosses he put into the box and committed seven turnovers from open play. He made way for Roldan in the 66th minute.
Callaghan has personnel changes planned for the rest of the group stage, which on paper profiles as a lighter lift for the Americans than Saturday’s contest. St. Kitts and Nevis, the United States’ next opponent, will make its Gold Cup debut on Sunday against Trinidad and Tobago — the other group rival and a team unable to call in as many top Europe-based talents as Jamaica even if it is a squad that has inflicted pain on the U.S. in the past.
Given its ability to rescue the result on Saturday and the talent in its ranks, the U.S. should be able to move into the quarterfinals and could still top the group. Yet, Saturday’s performance gave the U.S. a reality check when it comes to just how far its depth options can take it in the continental championship. The U.S. never thought it was going to be able to waltz to another Gold Cup title with an alternate squad like it did in 2021. Teams like Jamaica have strengthened. Mexico could desperately use a trophy for momentum. Canada wants to find its first title since 2000.
Any illusions the U.S. or its fans might have had that things would be easy this time around were dispelled on a nervous night. With its trophy case recently expanded, the U.S. can rest comfortably in the knowledge that it is currently the top team in Concacaf. It learned Saturday that being able to back that by flexing with another Gold Cup won by an alternative squad will be much tougher.