Gyasi Zardes didn't wait long to make an impact for the United States in its Gold Cup match against Haiti on Friday night.
The 23-year-old forward entered at the start of the season half for Jozy Altidore, who is still recovering from a hamstring injury. Less than two minutes later, the forward with the blond-streaked Mohawk turned a pass from Greg Garza into a perfect setup for Clint Dempsey's goal, sending the Americans to a 1-0 win that clinched their group title.
"Gyasi has the special talent to take people on," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said, calling Zardes curious and eager to learn. "He has a lot of talent and a lot of potential. We just want to tell him every day, 'One step at a time.' ... It's a real joy to work with him."
Dempsey scored in the 47th minute and Brad Guzan made a pair of point-blank saves in the second half for the defending champions, who improved to 2-0 in the opening round and clinched a spot in a July 18 quarterfinal in Baltimore.
The Americans have won six in a row, are 30-1-2 in Gold Cup group play and have reached the knockout stage of all 13 Gold Cup tournaments. They have one game remaining in the group stage, against Panama on Monday in Kansas City, Kansas.
"It's a nice feeling, knowing that we are already in. But we are not slowing down," Klinsmann said. "We know we have an influence on who's going through. ... So we will not take our foot off the pedal."
Zardes started in the Gold Cup opener against Honduras, which the U.S. won 2-1. But Klinsmann shuffled his lineup liberally — including the whole back line — to keep his players fresh after the three-day turnaround.
On Friday, the coach came out of his office at halftime and told Zardes to warm up. "I just prepared myself to step on the field and try to make a difference," said Zardes, who is in his third year with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The goal didn't need so much as a word.
Zardes said he made eye contact with Garza, then gave the defender a head nod before he lofted the ball toward the penalty area. Zardas ran onto the ball and cut a pass backward, knowing that one of the forwards would be cutting toward the goal.
It turned out to be Dempsey, who scored with a right-footed shot from about 12 yards.
Dempsey has scored in the last four games he's played for the U.S. national team, one shy of the record Altidore set two years ago. Dempsey's 44 international goals are 13 shy of Landon Donovan's American record.
"I love being with this group of guys; they're top players," Zardes said. "I'm just trying to pursue my career and hopefully be like them."
Haiti, which is 0-1-1, will play Honduras on Monday, with the loser finishing last in the group. Klinsmann said he will try to balance the need to keep the team's momentum going with his players' need for rest.
Chief among those will be Altidore, who injured his hamstring on May 16 and is trying to get back into game shape.
"He will get stronger still. I'm not worried about it," Klinsmann said. "He's still in the process of becoming Jozy Altidore. We know he's going to score some goals."
The U.S. nearly went ahead in the 34th minute, when Aron Johannsson beat goalkeeper Johny Placide. Johannsson was ruled offside, but replays showed he was onside when Altidore passed the ball to him.