The U.S. certainly struggled on Thursday night, but the squad survived once again with an oft-criticized forward proving the hero
Gyasi Zardes might not be the perfect all-around player, but he cannot be accused of failing to produce goals as he's matured in his late-20s, and on Thursday night, he provided yet another crucial finish to bail out the U.S. men's national team.
The 29-year-old, so often criticized for other aspects of his game, scored the Gold Cup semi-final winner for the USMNT after 85 minutes to earn a 1-0 victory and end Qatar's Cinderella run as CONCACAF visitors.
Qatar was, in many ways, the better team, and the 2022 World Cup hosts probably deserved at least a goal or two having created the better opportunities. However, with the match in the balance, Zardes popped up to do what he seemingly always does to provide the go-ahead finish.
Over the years, the forward has been targeted by many supporters because of his perceived lack of skill. The Columbus Crew forward isn't exactly Lionel Messi, of course. He's not a player that dazzles with his first touch or fancy flicks. What he does, though, is score goals in a variety of ways, from the comical to the clinical. No matter the level, no matter the situation.
"He works his tail off, which I think is amazing," said USMNT winger Paul Arriola. "And not only that, I think he's a great footballer. I think he doesn't get enough credit, but I'm glad that he continues to show his worth."
His latest was his 14th career goal for the USMNT, and likely his most important other than his game-winner against Ecuador at the Copa America Centenario. He's also notched double-digit MLS strikes in the past three campaigns.
And it was a typical Zardes finish. Played in brilliantly by Nicholas Gioacchini, he needed just one touch to book a spot in the tournament final. His sliding effort looked no different than many he's had both with the U.S. and in MLS, a goalscorer's goal from a true goalscorer.
However, Zardes didn't start for the USMNT on Thursday night. That privilege went to Daryl Dike, a player who has emerged as the next big thing in American soccer and, quite possibly, the starting No. 9 going forward.
"One thing I never do, I never question the coach's decision," Zardes said of his role as supersub. "They are the ones that do months of research on teams and game models and methodologies of how we like to play.
"If they have me starting or on the bench, that's a fair decision. I'm gonna do whatever I can to try to make a difference and if it's preparing the starting group to start the match, I'm going to do the best I can to prepare them. I have full faith in the coaching staff and I'm just going to keep being the best player I can be."
But, carrying a shoulder knock, Dike looked well off the pace as he put in his second-straight subpar performance. Dike will likely have plenty of good days in a USMNT jersey, but this wasn't one of them, as he couldn't quite overcome the injury that has derailed him throughout the knockout rounds so far.
With Dike and the attack stumbling and with the midfield frequently misplacing passes against a dangerous Qatar team, it was Matt Turner who looked like he'd be the USMNT's hero. The New England Revolution goalkeeper made two massive saves in the first half, the second of which was a miraculous diving stop on a deflection that he had no business reaching.
Having allowed just one goal all tournament, from a penalty no less, Turner may just be the USMNT's No. 1 going forward as he, at the very least, has earned a competition with Zack Steffen for the right to start when World Cup qualifiers roll around.
But the biggest chance of the game for Qatar was one Turner couldn't reach. After a foul from James Sands in the box that was awarded after a lengthy VAR review, Hassan Al-Hayados stepped to the spot with Qatar in total control. He missed, giving the U.S. the exhale needed to kick start their late surge.
Credit to Gregg Berhalter for aiding that surge by nailing his substitutions. The inclusion of Zardes, obviously, paid off, but so too did Cristian Roldan and Eryk Williamson. This was a game that required a little something from everyone, as young and old grinded out another win amid a busy summer.
The Stars and Stripes now have the chance to grind out one more with a trophy on the line. A USMNT B-team loaded with young players and veterans further down the depth chart has played its way into a Gold Cup final. Has it been perfect? Absolutely not, but the U.S. is still alive, one game away from achieving a goal that it has had to fight for every step of the way.
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