One would have been excused for not expecting much from the USA in its friendly against Ghana. One week ahead of the Gold Cup, Coach Bruce Arena was testing a new combination of players. His starting lineup included two debutants and seven players with fewer than 10 caps.
Yet the USA not only won, 2-1, it played cohesively for good stretches. It had 58 percent of the possession. And several players, the newcomers and those whom Arena has welcomed back into the fold, performed well enough to indicate that the national team talent pool is quite deep.
That bodes well for the Gold Cup, and for the long term.
Arena is now eight games into his second stint as U.S. national team coach and the USA is undefeated, with four wins and four ties. The ties include road qualifiers in Panama and Mexico. The wins include qualifying home victories over Honduras (6-0) and Trinidad & Tobago (2-0)
Through the Ghana game, Arena has used 34 different field players, seven of whom made their national team debuts.
In the last three games, Arena made sweeping lineup changes. He started seven players against Mexico who hadn’t started in the previous game against T&T. Only three of the field players (Jorge Villafana, Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola) who started against Ghana started against T&T or Mexico.
Despite the lineup changes and tweaks to the formation, the team still manages to find a rhythm.
Against Ghana, one of the best performances came from offensive midfielder Joe Corona. He did come into the game with 17 U.S. appearances, but the 26-year-old hasn’t played a national team game since the summer of 2015.
Corona showed signs being a true playmaker, able to orchestrate possession in midfield and also hit the lethal pass, such as his 24th-minute ball to Dom Dwyer, denied only by a foul that should have seen Ghana goalkeeper Richard Ofori red-carded.
Corona, who was fouled a game-high six times, also has the invaluable ability to beat players one-on-one.
In front of Corona, Dwyer played center forward. The 26-year-old moved from England to the USA eight years ago to play for Tyler Junior College in Texas and since starring in MLS (58 goals in 136 games), married U.S. women’s national team forward Sydney Leroux and became a U.S. citizen in March.
Dwyer opened the scoring 19 minutes into his debut -- a goal that left back Villafana (who debuted this year under Arena) and Corona helped set up -- and troubled the Ghanaian defense repeatedly.
Arriola, only 22 and Corona's teammate at Tijuana Xolos, played wide left in the attack. And Kelyn Rowe, like Dwyer making his debut, played wide right. Rowe, a 25-year-old product of the Seattle area, has been with the New England Revolution since 2012.
“Our [attacking] four players had never played together before, so that was good to get this experience,” said Arena.
Rowe hit some promising crisp passes and was fouled for the free kick that led to 21-year-old Kellyn Acosta’s free-kick goal.
While Dwyer appears to have quickly put himself high on the strikers’ depth chart, 22-year-old Jordan Morris entered in the 76th minute and reminded us of how dangerous he can be. His precise cross from the left flank to Alejandro Bedoya forced Ofori’s best save of the day.
Kenny Saief, the third player to debut on Saturday, played the last 20 minutes and showed great comfort on the ball. No doubt we’ll see more him during the Gold Cup, when 22-year-old Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan will be in line for his U.S. debut.
The USA could play as many six games in the Gold Cup and test players, such as 21-year-old defender Matt Miazga and 24-year-old striker Juan Agudelo.
Arena has already proved that he can shuffle his lineups without his team losing cohesion -- and when the USA continues its World Cup quest, we’ll have an even better idea of how deep the U.S. national team pool is.