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Jozy Altidore highlight-reel bicycle keeps United States unbeaten in Kansas City

USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter: “The guys feel good right now.”

The United States men's national will face Panama at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City.
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The United States men's national will face Panama at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City.

The job will confront Gregg Berhalter with situations unique to his coaching background, with decisions distinctive from those required in past jobs on his resume. As the United States men’s national team arrived in Kansas City this week, it had already secured a spot in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, but one group-play match remained.

So inside Pinnacle training facility, Berhalter met with his team and opened the floor for a discussion. They debated the potential approaches to a group-play finale with Panama at Children’s Mercy Park.

The conclusion: Give the reserves a shot.

On a night in which the United States rested literally all of its starters, Jozy Altidore provided a moment of brilliance, a highlight-worthy bicycle kick goal for a 1-0 victory at Children’s Mercy Park.

The Americans remained unbeaten in eight trips to Kansas City and won Group D in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. They will face Curaçao on Sunday in Philadelphia in a quarterfinal.

“The decision to start 11 new players was an easy one, to be honest,” Berhalter said. “We believe in the group. We believe in keeping the group together. We believe that everyone can contribute in this team and the team’s success. We wanted to show that.”

And so in preparation for the knockout stage, the U.S. rested everybody. Changed all 11 starters from the unit that grabbed a 4-0 result against Guyana and a 6-0 blowout against Trinidad and Tobago. That meant no Christian Pulisic, no Michael Bradley, no Zack Steffen.

At least not initially. The biggest ovation in the first 65 minutes appeared as Pulisic removed his training top and approached midfield to sub into the match. The preceding hour offered a crowd of 17,037 — shy of a sellout — little for which to respond.

A much louder eruption came afterward.

A corner kick pinballed in the penalty area. Defender Matt Miazga got a head on it to direct it back in the mix, before a pair of Panama players failed to clear it. Altidore contorted his body to unleash the bicycle, striking it perfectly to whip the ball into the back of the net.

“Jozy does what he does best,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said.

The play was actually intended for Roldan, but Miazga called an audible. He saw a defender marking Roldan and opted to retrieve the ball himself.

“So I thought, ‘Let me take a stab at it, sit back, and if it comes to me, I’ll win it and put it back in,’” Miazga said. “That’s how it happened.”

It supplied the one noteworthy moment from a game that lacked much energy otherwise. And that’s at least in partial credit to the United States defense, a new-look backline that gave virtually nothing to Panama. Panama placed just one shot on goal and had zero corner kicks, completely lifeless in the attacking half.

“I’m proud of the group. We (hadn’t) played much together,” Miazga said. “We played the hardest team in the group, and we prevailed and got a good result.”

In selecting the 23-man roster for the Gold Cup, Berhalter prioritized evaluating younger players, those who haven’t been regulars with the national team. He took that to the extreme Wednesday, allowing the opportunity for newcomers to push their way into future lineups. The defense made its statement, though the predecessors had, too. The United States heads to Philadelphia yet to concede a goal in the tournament.

Next up: The tournament darlings.

Curaçao had never won a Gold Cup match before this year. Now, they find themselves in the quarterfinals.

“This is a team we can’t take lightly — I know that for sure,” Berhalter said. “They have talent. They can score goals. To me, it’s a Cinderella story. They’ve done a fantastic job to get through their group. It’s really what makes the Gold Cup special. ... But we’re not taking them lightly. We know it’s going to be a difficult game. We have our sights set on advancing.”

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