Fans participate in the wave as they watch U.S. and Costa Rica play a friendly match at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. U.S. won 4-0. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)
SANDY — Seconds after the United States’ latest triumph over a regional rival, head coach Gregg Berhalter led the U.S. men’s national team in a celebratory lap around Rio Tinto Stadium.
Finally, the Yanks could breathe. After eight days of simulating World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF mixed with the first-ever Nations League title, and with more than a month until the next major international competition, the American manager let his players enjoy their success of the past week.
And what a week it’s been.
If there were points and standings attached to matches against Honduras, Mexico and Costa Rica — three of the side’s toughest opponents in the CONCACAF region — the Americans would’ve walked away with nine points: three wins, no losses, and the top spot in the region.
So the celebration? It wasn’t just coming from the fans at Rio Tinto Stadium. The players, coaches and staff members felt it, too. In a match celebrating Pride month — complete with rainbow-colored jersey numbers on the U.S. kits — there was plenty of American pride on a warm summer night.
The results of the past eight days — really, the past bakers’ dozen of matches, where the United States is 11-1-1 — have been nice. But the best part about Wednesday’s match was being able to circle the pitch, lap up the cheers and applause of what Berhalter called « a great soccer market, » and realize that the United States had accomplished its biggest goal: three matches, three wins, nine points against CONCACAF opponents.
The crowd, the noise, and even « the Wave » that circled the stadium several times were all icing on top of a delicious four-match cake of Berhalter’s latest camp.
Daryl Dike scored his first career goal with the U.S. men’s national team, Brenden Aaronson, Reggie Cannon and Gio Reyna each added a goal as the United States cruised to a 4-0 win over Costa Rica in front of 19,007 fans in its regional sendoff Wednesday evening at Rio Tinto Stadium.
« It brings a smile to my face, » said Aaronson, the Philadelphia Union Academy product who saw his stock rise in last summer’s fan-less MLS is Back Tournament that became a contract in Austria with Red Bull Salzburg. « It’s been so long since we’ve had fans. It gives you that extra boost — and they were electrifying. It was awesome to go after the game, and clap everybody on; that’s what you’re supposed to do.
« It just brings a smile playing in front of supporters again. »
Brenden Aaronson opens the scoring for the USMNT against Costa Rica fresh off their Nations League win against Mexico 🔥 pic.twitter.com/42NJcsWBBz
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 9, 2021
Fitting that the crowd, then, was welcoming a new breed of U.S. internationals, a group led by the likes of Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, Barcelona’s Sergino Dest and Juventus’ Weston McKinnie — to say nothing of RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa, the academy product-turned-starter whose senior international debut was stayed for a little while longer in favor of Ethan Horvath.
Everything else, though? It was just about perfect for the national team’s first appearance on the Wasatch Front since 2017, and the national team’s program record-tying 10th straight victory over a CONCACAF opponent.
Ochoa’s absence from the pitch was, perhaps, the only downside to any Salt Lake City resident who procured precious tickets on a mid-week summer night in Sandy. But even that has a bright spot.
« I talked to David about it, and said, ‘your time will come,' » Berhalter said. « Our focus was on World Cup qualifying, on getting Ethan minutes — valuable minutes that he’s needed recently. But David’s a top prospect. He’s continued to impress us throughout camp, with his attitude and also with his play.
« We’re excited to see how he develops. »
Soccer met summer in Utah’s second week of June, combining an only mildly warm evening during a blistering heat wave with a nationally televised audience in the United States’ last match before the upcoming Gold Cup, beginning July 10.
Aaronson gave the United States the early advantage in the eighth minute, and Dike doubled the advantage in the 42nd minute to lift the Americans to a 2-0 halftime lead on a well-played ball from Mark McKenzie.
Cannon added the third goal in the 52nd minute, as chants of « USA! USA! USA! » enveloped the largest crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium since RSL’s 2020 season opener against the New York Red Bulls held less than a month before the COVID-19 pandemic brought much of the world to a standstill. The 18-year-old Reyna — the son of former U.S. legend Claudio Reyna — finished off the scoring in the 77th minute, rolling in a penalty kick moments after his substitution to become the youngest America to score from the penalty spot in program history.
Berhalter used the match to his advantage, substituting liberally and lending playing time to everyone on the roster except for Ochoa and Pulisic. Ditto for the fans, who enjoyed the largest stadium capacity since last March as Utah case counts for COVID-19 continue to drop and vaccination rates continue to climb with the soaring temperatures.
THE USMNT ARE FLYING! 🔥
Reggie Cannon’s first USMNT goal makes it 3-0 against Costa Rica! pic.twitter.com/P4iIrmL9uJ
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 10, 2021
The Beehive State’s first meet-up with the U.S. men’s national team since 2017 was long-waited — and well worth it.
« To come here to Salt Lake and have the crowd that we had, a loud crowd, was a great feeling, » Berhalter said. « A lot of the guys haven’t been playing in front of crowds like tonight. »
In many ways, it was exactly what the players needed, too, before heading off for a brief holiday — or a handful, like Ochoa, who will jump back into MLS play as early as June 18.
« It was incredible to have those fans, » said Dike, the Orlando City striker who had a breakout performance on loan with Barnsley in the English second division. « Throughout my career, I feel like I haven’t had a full stadium; everything has been limited or empty.
« Being able to play in front of fans, it’s a great feeling. I think it’s something you always looked forward to as young kids, to play in front of thousands of fans and to hear them cheering. It was just a great environment, in general. »