If a team’s play can be as memorable as it is forgettable, the U.S. did just that in winning -- barely -- Group B of the 2017 Gold Cup.
As usual, much of the criticism directed at the streaky, choppy displays against Panama, Martinique and Nicaragua is justified, but some of it is just plain wrong. Throttling Concacaf minnows, as many American fans believe to be their God-given right, is harder than it looks. (Mexico didn’t look all the lordly scraping past mighty Curacao, 2-0, on Sunday.)
Panama’s improved quality has been evident for most of this decade and both Martinique and Nicaragua deployed three or four players quite capable of matching their American counterparts. Those teams also were not composed mostly of second-choice players with little or no experience playing together in a competitive match. The Americans were supposed to better and they were in the second and third games though certainly not dominant.
It is a source of disappointment that the U.S. didn’t do enough to blot out those foes’ strengths and overpower their weaknesses, yet head coach Bruce Arena chose his first-round squad to test players individually and observe their collective effectiveness. The first round was about observation and evaluation. Like the extensive weeding necessary to clean up an overgrown backyard, the process is not pretty even if the end product looks nice.
The attack may not have oozed flow and beauty, but in three games it did generate 21 shots on goal, and stick seven goals in the net even while squandering a pair of penalty kicks. Doing the math can be deceptive.
It took only eight shots against Martinique, but all three on goal wound up in the net. And the two goals by Jordan Morris that followed a scrapper from Omar Gonzalezwere among the best of the U.S. seven. The Americans didn’t react well to Martinique attacks that wiped out a two-goal lead but they did strike back right away to get the 3-2 victory.
Arena’s six changes raised a lot of questions, but the intriguing case is that of Morris. Dom Dwyer and Kelyn Rowe obviously did well enough to rate
consideration when Hexagonal play resumes in September, but Morris has been struggling for Seattle this season. He had apparently slid down the depth chart before tucking home an Eric Lichaj
near-post cross from a tight angle and racing onto a return pass from Gyasi Zardes and booming it high into the net two minutes after Martinique had equalized.
Juan Agudelo didn’t play in the warm-up game against Ghana but played in all three group matches, including a start against Martinique. He brings something different to the squad than does Dwyer, playing the target role unlike either Altidore or Dwyer. Similarly, Arena has kept on Corona, who played well against Ghana, struggled in the Panama game, and on Saturday notched his first U.S. goal in more than four years before failing to convert a penalty kick.
Good and bad, memorable and forgettable. This is what perhaps a dozen players gave Arena and his coaching staff in the first round. Still think coaching a national team is no big deal?
Dwyer’s emergence shortly after obtaining U.S. citizenship has ratcheted up the competition at forward.
It’s impossible to gauge how much Arena considers a player’s club situation when he makes his roster decisions; he’s taken Clint Dempsey away from the Sounders, who play two games this week. Dwyer and Rowe didn’t disappoint but Arena has options he considers superior and it’s hard to argue with Dempsey, who is within one of Landon Donovan’s U.S. record 57 goals, or Altidore, third on the all-time list with 37. They have been rising to the occasion for about a decade.
This is must-win time. Sentiment and romanticism can wait. Arena cannot call his European-based players and wants to win the competition, and for whatever reason he didn’t consider Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan as essential options. If the Americans stumble short of the title those exclusions, as well as the departures of Dwyer and Rowe, will trigger the most reaction.
Obviously, he regards Dempsey and Seattle teammate Morris essential to winning the Gold Cup and not midfielder Cristian Roldan, who showed signs of nerves in his debut against Martinique before settling into the environment. Roldan is 22 and the U.S. is well-equipped in central midfield. More opportunities will come his way.
Retaining Kellyn Acosta and Dax McCarty while also summoning Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe opens up many possible midfield combinations. Nagbe adds dribbling skills and speed, both essential elements as competition toughens. Decisions would have been different if Alejandro Bedoya didn’t leave the team to attend the birth of his second child; he unhinged Martinique, and against Nicaragua assisted on the first two goals and played a significant role in the third.
Those botched PKs by Dwyer and Corona necessitated the late heroics of centerback Matt Miazga, who punctuated a very solid showing against Nicaragua by heading home Graham Zusi’s free kick -- awarded for a foul on Agudelo -- with the crucial goal in the 88th minute. Said goal earned top spot in the group and a match against Group C wild-card El Salvador rather than Costa Rica, which instead plays Panama Wednesday in Philadelphia right before the USA match.
With all eight defenders retained, Arena has given himself the most extensive range of options in case of injuries and/or suspensions, and he’s also building depth for the last four games of the Hexagonal. The Hex resumes Sept. 1 against Costa Rica, which the Americans could meet in the semis. Lichaj looks like a contender to back up DeAndre Yedlin at right back and he has also played on the left.
A rough outing for Matt Hedges against Martinique has not prompted his departure; Arena may not give him any minutes in the remaining games but closely observe how he handles himself in training. Same, too, for Zardes, whose maddening propensity for heavy touches and bull-headed decisions is offset by flank speed and quality balls such as the one he measured and weighted perfectly for Morris.
The departure of Brad Guzan, starting a new phase of his career with Atlanta United, is significant. He has far more experience than Bill Hamid, who got his third cap against Nicaragua, and Jesse Gonzalez, whose switch of allegiance from Mexico was approved just two weeks ago. They'll back up Tim Howard in a pre-planned shuttle of keepers, a bit of a gamble for Arena. He'll go into a knockout round banking on Howard and two backups with a grand total of three caps.
At every position, Arena is looking for competition. There are a few openings in the first XI, and slots 12-20 are very much in play. In the past year, players such as Nagbe and Jorge Villafana have solidified spots high on the depth chart. For the next 11 months, Arena wants the same dynamic across the board.