USMNT downplays budding rivalry with Canada ahead of quarterfinal showdown

If the U.S. men’s national team needed any extra motivation to beat Canada in Sunday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal in Cincinnati (7:30 p.m. ET, FS1), Reds coach John Herdman provided by insisting his squad “wanted that game against the U.S.”  

“That was the one we were looking at,” Herdman said after Canada finished second in Group D to set up the second elimination match between the North American neighbors in three weeks.

The USMNT, of course, convincingly beat the Canadians 2-0 last month in Las Vegas in the final of the Nations League, a competition for which both countries fielded full-strength lineups.

Before that meeting, Reds defender Alistair Johnston admitted that gamesmanship that has been an intentional part of his country’s strategy against its burgeoning rival.

“I think that’s one of the reasons we finished on top of World Cup qualifying in our region,” he said of Canada, which last year returned to soccer’s marquee event for the first time in more than three decades. “We were really good at winning not only on the pitch, but also the mind games on and off it.”

Yet if Herdman’s comments stuck a nerve inside the American locker room, U.S. players and staffers have done a good job hiding it. Asked specifically about the opposing manager’s words by FOX Sports in the leadup to Sunday’s contest, neither starting goalkeeper Matt Turner nor interim head coach B.J. Callaghan actually addressed them directly.

“They’re a well-coached team,” Callaghan said of Canada Saturday during his pre-game press conference. “They’re a World Cup-level opponent, so this is exactly the type of match that we want to challenge our group with.”

And this group has plenty to prove. Turner is the lone member of the Americans’ Gold Cup roster who also played against Canada last month. The visitors will also be severely shorthanded, with both nations’ Europe-based attacking stars getting a needed rest before returning to their club teams to begin preseason training later this month.

Yet while Canada has sorely missed headliners such as Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies, the U.S. has fared just fine minus Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and most of the rest of its World Cup regulars, posting consecutive 6-0 wins over Saint Kitts and Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago to clinch the top spot in Group A. The only player on Callaghan’s 23-man squad who didn’t feature in the first round was third-string goalkeeper Gaga Slonina. The overwhelming majority of them ran with the opportunity, too, which will make for difficult decisions on Sunday.

“This is one of the hardest parts of the job,” Callaghan said.  “They all performed really well, so picking tomorrow’s lineup is a big challenge.”

United States vs. Trinidad & Tobago Highlights | CONCACAF Gold Cup

United States vs. Trinidad & Tobago Highlights | CONCACAF Gold Cup

Callaghan said his entire squad trained on Saturday and will be available. That doesn’t necessarily mean center back Miles Robinson will be risked after a calf/hamstring issue limited him to just 45 group stage minutes. If Robinson, who exited halfway through the Americans’ most recent outing, doesn’t start, expect 19-year-old Jalen Neal to resume his partnership with veteran Matt Miazga in central defense.

There’s no uncertainty up top after forward Jesús Ferreira exploded for back to back hat tricks in the Americans’ last two games. Ferreira’s goal rush has kept target striker Brandon Vázquez relegated to a role as a substitute. But Vázquez has also stepped up in key moments, scoring the equalizer in the Gold Cup opener against Jamaica and adding another off the bench to complete the rout of T&T.

“I’m super happy for Jesús,” Vázquez said. “For me, it just makes me hungry. I want to go out there and do the same.”

Playing in Southwestern Ohio adds another layer of inspiration for Vázquez and Miazga, who both play their club ball with MLS points leader FC Cincinnati. In just a few short years, the city has established itself as one of the most welcoming venues for the USMNT, which beat Mexico and Morocco there on the way to the 2022 World Cup.

“Every time the U.S. has come to Cincinnati,” Miazga said, “It’s always been a good atmosphere, a good crowd.”

Rewarding the fans in attendance at TQL Stadium with a win is all the home team is focused on. A win will keep the U.S. firmly in the trophy hunt. Anything beyond that is just talk.

“We’re not looking at it as anything more than just the team that we have to play to get to the semifinal — that’s sort of been like our messaging around the camp,” Turner said of Canada. “We understand that there’s a developing history there, games that have gone both ways.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” he added. “We know it’s gonna take a great effort to get the result that we want.”

And the only motivation they need.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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