Arena goes with experience -- and a few question marks in Gold Cup knockout phase.

By Ridge Mahoney

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.

33 comments about "Arena goes with experience -- and a few question marks in Gold Cup knockout phase.".
  1. Goal Goal, July 17, 2017 at 7:34 a.m.

    Altidore? Tell me the last time he rose to the occasion. His time has passed. Period.

  2. Ric Fonseca replied, July 17, 2017 at 3:10 p.m.

    I couldn't agree more! To soften his departure from the NT, give him a developmental team.

  3. Joe Linzner, July 17, 2017 at 9:52 a.m.

    I simply cannot understand Leadlegs Altidore getting the nod. What is it that coaches see in that guy? His scores are gimmes. Once in a blue moon, he earns a goal. Sickening!

  4. Fire Paul Gardner Now, July 17, 2017 at 10:20 a.m.

    Bashing Altidore appears to be a tradition among USMNT fans. Too bad. He's not perfect but we can do a lot worse. Other than maybe Bobby Wood, which US striker is better?

  5. Wooden Ships replied, July 17, 2017 at 12:44 p.m.

    Give me Wood, his work rate alone is a difference maker in keeping the ball in the middle third.

  6. Ric Fonseca replied, July 17, 2017 at 3:13 p.m.

    Come now guys, Jazzy has reached and way past his prime! All he does is charges into the box like a bull in a china shop. Like I said above, retire him and give him an MLS Developmental team!!!

  7. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, July 19, 2017 at 9:47 a.m.

    More irrational hatred of Altidore. Yes, Wood is better but Bruce is not calling in European based players at this stage. That's why guys like Pulisic, Cameron, Yedling, Johnson etc. are not here either.

  8. ROBERT BOND, July 17, 2017 at 10:44 a.m.

    Guzan not as good as Kann, but latter is hurt........

  9. John Lander, July 17, 2017 at 11:33 a.m.

    Too all the Altidore haters..
    Who else?
    He is the best center forward option for the US. He finishes and also assist.
    Check out the beautiful well weighted assist to Pulisic against Trinidad. He does the job better that any other option the US has.

  10. John Soares, July 17, 2017 at noon

    I too think Altidore gets bad and undeserved criticism. He is often left alone with few, if any good balls coming his way. In order to be successful lone scorer you need a much better supporting crew than what is "usually" gets.

  11. Ben Myers, July 17, 2017 at 12:37 p.m.

    There is a stark contrast here between the USMNT 2nd team in the Gold Cup and the German 2nd team in the Confederations Cup. Also, count me in among those who are not fans of Altidore.

  12. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, July 19, 2017 at 9:47 a.m.

    Wow, such insight - Germany has better players and more depth? Who knew?!?!

  13. Wooden Ships, July 17, 2017 at 12:41 p.m.

    I've always wanted to pull for Jozy, but his lack of professionalism has bothered me. Had Bradley been a stronger Captain perhaps Jozy's laziness and whining wouldn't have risen to the level it has. He would piss me off as a teammate. He has scored goals and made assists, some of them real quality. But, who has had the predominant minutes up top the last 5 years. As a coach I would have a hard time counting on him. And now, where we will have players that will provide great service will he know how to make those runs and show timely. Another thing that I hope Jozy will recognize as his remaining years loom, hustle to win the ball back, if not for your own pride, how about for your mates. You have players nipping at your heals now, turn it up a notch. One other thing, keeping Zardes and releasing Rowe is befuddling to say the least. Smart, technical, work rate, no thanks.

  14. Ric Fonseca replied, July 17, 2017 at 3:15 p.m.

    Wooden: You hit the nail on the head, re: Jazzy, and as for releasing Rowe in favor of Zardes.... 'nuff said, I will stop now...

  15. Bob Ashpole, July 17, 2017 at 12:59 p.m.

    Ridge makes a lot of good points. My thought is that, while earlier who Arena wanted to evaluate drove the selections, now Arena's choices focused more on the team than the individuals.

  16. Goal Goal, July 17, 2017 at 1:16 p.m.

    I am not an Altidore hater. I am one who thinks his time is over and has been for some time. Talking about a pass to being outstanding. That's his job. The problem is he doesn't do it often enough and his complaining gets in the way. Move on.

  17. Thomas Brannan, July 17, 2017 at 2:05 p.m.

    If with two strikers: Dwyer and Wood. After that falls off. With Jozy it's not personal it's just an opinion. Dwyer missed a PK. PK s are different.
    When Dwyer pulls away a bit and pushes away and then goes to the far corner on the ground that shows something. Dwyer's overall play and playing knowledge appear to be better than Altidore. Not a derogatory comment on Jozy. Everyone is just trying to earn a living. Just an opinion.

  18. Ric Fonseca, July 17, 2017 at 3:17 p.m.

    I'd take Dwyer over Jazzy and Zardes. So even Pele and other greats have missed on a PK, so what, this is the nature of our jogo bonito. But for keeping Jazzy.... wow!!!

  19. R2 Dad, July 17, 2017 at 5:33 p.m.

    Y'all seem to be focusing on Altidore the player, rather than the system we use that requires a target man up front.There are two notable countries that play a target up front, USA and France. The difference is Giroud has his back to the goal so he can play in speedy wingers with real quality: M'bappe and Dembele--they're very dangerous and the team is explosive and powerful due to the fact that Giroud can hold up the ball to bring these other people into play. The US uses a target man the way those teams that inhabit the bottom half of the top 100 do, with long balls out of the back for JA to chase down. That is to say, we use a target man because we don't have many options up front. As far as Jozy's physiology is concerned, he is not a middle distance runner--he is a big, powerful sprinter. He cannot run all day the way a 440 runner can, but that 440 runner is also not packing the extra 40 lbs of muscle Jozy is. When you armchair quarterbacks complain about his work rate, you're not factoring in the fact that his physiology does not allow him to run all day. Go ask a 100 meter sprinter if he can run 6-10K during a soccer match, and still have gas in the tank for gut-busting runs. Having said all that, I don't like having to rely on Jozy and think if we have to play him he would suit a 4-4-2 or 3-4-3 much better than a 4-2-3-1.

  20. Bob Ashpole replied, July 17, 2017 at 6:45 p.m.

    R2 Dad, his size does not prevent his fitness. That is just an excuse. Match fit is match fit and the one thing that is within everyone's reach if healthy. Beside he is a skinny 6'1" and 175 lbs. The Hulk is 5' 11" and 187 lbs. When I played competitively, I was a 205 lbs wing half and ran opponents into exhaustion. You are barking up the wrong tree with fitness as an issue.

  21. Jay Wall replied, July 17, 2017 at 9:27 p.m.

    Recent professional game studies, using GPS and multi-camera player tracking, document a change in the types and frequency of movement in the game. For example tracking to the nearest 1,000 of a second, players even at the highest professional levels, spend 52.3% to 60.8% of their time standing, walking or jogging in games. Percents vary slightly by report but the following data shows what attributes players in various positions should possess. > Stribers Strikers sprint 5% of the time, run fast 7.2%, run at a moderate speed 17% of the time, run slow 15.2% of the time and stand, walk and jog 55.6% of the time. > Wing Midfielders sprint 4.3% of the time, run fast 7.1%, run at a moderate speed 18.3% of the time, run slow 17.3% of the time and stand, walk and jog 53.0% of the time. > Central Midfielders sprint 3.5% of the time, run fast 6.9%, run at a moderate speed 18.4% of the time, run slow 16.9% of the time and stand, walk and jog 54.2% of the time. > Wing Defenders sprint 5.3% of the time, run fast 7.3%, run at a moderate speed 18.1% of the time, run slow 16.9% of the time and stand, walk and jog 52.3% of the time. > Central Defenders sprint 3.9% of the time, run fast 6.2%, run at a moderate speed 14.8% of the time, run slow 14.3% of the time and stand, walk and jog 60.8% of the time. >> Since all athletes rely on Fast Twitch muscles for speed and Slow Twitch muscles for endurance running and each players store of energy for each muscle type differs, the challenge is to match each players physical, mental and intellectual abilities with the positions a team is playing and the capabilities of their opponents. As Cruyff observed players who observe and understand the game are often not faster, but arrive on time more often because their ability to scan the game and to understand what they see is far better developed. A slow player who acquires and processes more information faster, understands what they observe and makes instant decisions is far more likely to arrive on time than the track star who wins Olympic medals but doesn't have the mental processing speed and decision making ability of the slower player. As Cruyff said fast runners run track, those who can anticipate faster and make decisions faster play soccer. >> So running speed is only one small part of playing speed. Pep didn't have the speed of other players but he saw everything and acted, therefore he played on one of the best professional soccer teams in the world, Barcelona.

  22. Wooden Ships replied, July 17, 2017 at 10:40 p.m.

    Good stuff Jay. There is a place in the game for empiricism, here it is revealing. I've done fartlek training as a player and a coach. Some had the deer in headlights look when you explained what we were about to do.

  23. R2 Dad replied, July 18, 2017 at 2:39 a.m.

    Bob, please don't talk about "back in the day" as rationale for your position. "Playing Competitively" is not the same as playing at the highest levels of the sport, so running the opposition into the ground might have been an achievement then but impossible today. MLS today, EPL today, IS a track meet compared to 20 years ago. I don't think that's good for the sport in either country, merely an accurate observation. But keep telling yourself professional players with 10 years on the USMNT are lazy.

  24. Bob Ashpole replied, July 19, 2017 at 2:34 a.m.

    R2 Dad, first you say Jozy is too big to be match fit, then you say MLS players today are all at the highest level of fitness and will never be exhausted. Which is it? I played on a predominately Hispanic Army team against local colleges in the mid-80s. College was the highest level in the US at that time. NCAA rules allowed 11 subs a half. Most college players were fit for 22 minutes a half. It was like playing against an all star high school team. What do you think Arena's strategy was in the last match, starting 11 fresh players against Nicaragua?

  25. Glenn Auve, July 17, 2017 at 8:06 p.m.

    For a basically meaningless tournament why not just keep letting the younger players get experience? I know Arena mentioned mixing the youth with some veterans which seems sensible. Guzan hasn't exactly been lighting the world on fire so seeing him go is not a huge problem. And it was pre-planned anyway so he can meet his teammates in Atlanta.

  26. Miguel Aviles, July 17, 2017 at 8:45 p.m.

    What it comes down to is Bruce Arena felt he could not win the Gold Cup starting Dwyer, Rowe, Corona and McCarty. Even though only 2 of those players were sent home and replaced by Altidore and Nagbe, the other 2 surely will be going to the bench now that Bradley and Dempsey are on the team. At the end of the day Arena's experimentation only went so far. It is worth pointing out no other team is making so many (six) roster changes at this stage and Mexico won't make any. We discuss these issues in more depth on the Soccer Futbol Forum:

  27. Bob Ashpole replied, July 19, 2017 at 2:50 a.m.

    Miguel, I think you are making unwarranted assumptions about Arena's thinking. Arena was using the group stage to evaluate players in competitive matches as opposed to friendlies. Evaluation is not the same as experimentation. For the knockout phase, I suspect Arena picked the strongest team that he could from the available players. (The players' club situations factor into who is available.)

  28. Ric Fonseca, July 17, 2017 at 11:57 p.m.

    Mr. Lander, surely you jest!?!?! Jazzy is NOT the answer, there are many others more worthy of playing his position, some that are not on this most recent squad, or for that matter, that kid from Seattle. Then again, I suppose one can continue to "dream on!"

  29. beautiful game, July 18, 2017 at 1:40 p.m.

    So far the only player to have shown consistency at an international level is Pulisic; and this constant argument over second and third tier players is an exercise either false hopes or inability to judge player quality. The recognition of player subtle quality nuances seems to to bury itself when NT players show a couple of good.

  30. Jim Hougan, July 18, 2017 at 1:53 p.m.

    Kellyn Rowe put more and harder shots on goal than the rest of the team put together. He was consistently dangerous every time he touched the ball.

  31. Kevin Leahy, July 18, 2017 at 2:04 p.m.

    I already know how Howard is under pressure. Would like to see Hamid get the Wednesday game. Howard is at an age where his game could disappear fast and the team will need someone soon in that role.

  32. Forever Blue, July 18, 2017 at 8:08 p.m.

    I would have kept Rowe. He was of the bright lights. Would have kept Dwyer also, not as impressed as everybody raves on but feel he earned the right to stay.
    Would have let Corona go. Probably one of the bigger disappointments. Also don't think we needed to overload with Dempsey and Altidore. One of them would have been fine. Other players still need the experience and pressure of knockout stages.

  33. Bob Ashpole replied, July 19, 2017 at 3 a.m.

    I generally agree, but you are overlooking the fact that the younger players need playing experience with the regular starters--Bradley, Howard, Altidore, Dempsey, and Nagbe--who weren't with them the last few weeks.

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