FOXBOROUGH — They wanted to be two and through so they could go to Kansas City this weekend more for barbecue than for business. Not that it was without perspiration but the US soccer team got what it came for on Route 1 on Friday night. The defending champions collected 6 points from their first two Gold Cup matches and made Monday’s finale with 2013 runner-up Panama irrelevant.
“Being secured first place after two games is nice to have,” said coach Jurgen Klinsmann after his star-spangled charges defeated Haiti, 1-0, on Clint Dempsey’s 47th-minute goal before a crowd of 46,720 at Gillette Stadium to clinch their group and advance to next week’s quarterfinals in Baltimore. “Every player now knows how tricky and difficult these games are.”
The Haitians had been a troublesome opponent for the Americans across the decades. Their last meeting, in the 2009 tournament here, ended in a 2-2 draw with the hosts needing Stuart Holden’s 92d-minute goal.
“There’s absolutely no way we’re going to underestimate Haiti, not even for one second,” vowed Klinsmann, whose squad had labored mightily for its 2-1 decision over Honduras. “So we are prepared for all 90 minutes.”
The Haitians were the only regional opponent other than archrival Mexico that had a winning all-time record against the US and after they pulled off a late draw with the Panamanians in their opener, Klinsmann knew that his bunch likely would have to battle to the end. “Huge compliment to Haiti how they played this game,” he said. “It was a very intense game that could have changed any second.”
Indeed the Yanks, who’d won at the Netherlands and Germany during their seven-match unbeaten run, found themselves back on their heels for most of the first half when they were outshot by their fleet and feisty Caribbean rivals and were fortunate not to be trailing at intermission.
Had Jerome Mechack’s free kick not bounced off the crossbar in the 10th minute and Wilde Donald Guerrier not shot wide in the 20th, the hosts could have been down by two goals. “In football it’s not about creating chances,” said Haiti coach Marc Collat. “It’s about scoring goals.”
The best sniper in the stadium, of course, was Dempsey, who has been the Yanks’ go-to gunner for the past decade. He scored both of their goals against Honduras and he was front and center to provide the knockout punch just two minutes into the second half when he slammed Gyasi Zardes’s deft cross past goalkeeper Johnny Placide.
That was the difference between a country that is a perennial World Cup qualifier and one that has been on the global stage only once, and that more than four decades ago. “This isn’t a small Caribbean team we were playing,” observed Collat, who didn’t have the luxury of resting seven starters, as Klinsmann did.
When Klinsmann decided that he needed more oomph from the wings he took off striker Jozy Altidore at intermission and put in Zardes, who immediately put the ball on Dempsey’s foot for a fatal strike. It was, Collat said, about ‘‘fraicheur,’’ about the Americans’ ability to bring in fresh and experienced legs from the bench and about ‘‘the quality of our adversary.’’
The US has won this biennial kickaround five times and is playing on home soil. Sixteen men on this roster were on last summer’s World Cup team that reached the second round.
That has become the standard for an American side that no longer is content just to earn a ticket to the dance. If the Haitians, all but one of whose players are soccer expatriates, can make it to Russia in 2018 it’ll be one of the most astonishing and heartwarming sports stories in decades.
Right now making it to the quarterfinals, which Haiti likely can do by beating Honduras, would be a significant achievement. “They want to impress here and that’s what they did,” said Klinsmann. “They did it in the first game and they did it today as well. They showed their qualities.”
The Americans are supposed to win this tournament and they began by winning their foursome without having to go to the limit.
“Now we have the privilege to handle our third match the way we want to because we already won the group,” said Klinsmann, whose squad will face a third-place finisher in the quarters. “Compliments to the team but it was a lot of work, as you saw.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.