Did the U.S. 'B Team' fail its Gold Cup test? It depends on your perspective
In the end, the United States men's national team got the result they needed. Matt Miazga's goal in the 88th minute gave the Americans a 3-0 victory over Nicaragua at Cleveland's FirstEnergy Stadium on Saturday evening. The result -- combined with Panama's win over Martinique by the same scoreline earlier in the day -- meant that the red, white and blue finished group play in first place, setting up a quarterfinal matchup against El Salvador. The win wasn't pretty, but it was enough.
"Not pretty but enough" is a good summation of the first three games for the Americans. While Bruce Arena's squad fared better than the Jurgen Klinsmann-led group did two years ago -- they outscored the opposition 7-3 compared to 4-2 in 2015, and posted a plus-18 figure in the shots category against a remarkable minus-30 during the last competition -- they were never truly dominant. The American side was only in control of games for periods of 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there.
The Americans -- ranked 28th in the world, according to the Elo rating system -- could easily have lost to Panama (49th) in the opener, before squeaking by Martinique (93rd) and dispatching Nicaragua (136th) by the exact number of goals they needed to secure the top spot in Group C. The final tally came seconds after Los Pinoleros nearly scored a goal of their own, but two attackers careened into each other while attempting to reach a free header. The Americans countered following the miss, drawing a foul outside the box that served as Luis Copete's second caution.
Miazga, finding space in the box with Nicaragua down to nine men, slam dunked Graham Zusi's cross home and gave the U.S. its precious third goal. "They took the scenic route," said play-by-play commentator John Strong. This scenic route, however, was not very pretty at all.
While the victory was fine, it was far from good. And it should be better. If the group stage of the 2017 Gold Cup showed us anything, it proved that there's a dramatic drop-off between the "A team" that contested the most recent World Cup qualifiers and the B squad deployed by Bruce Arena this summer.
The coach asked players like Kellyn Acosta (the closest thing to a first-team starter to appear in the group stage) to step up and lead the second string; Acosta failed to do so. Dax McCarty, a midfielder whom fans and media members alike singled out as a national team candidate due to his impressive consistency in Major League Soccer, played his "worst game of the entire year" against Panama. While he improved against Nicaragua, virtually the entire American team did also; no one is going to confuse Nicaragua's side with a world-class squad.
Go further down the line and you find disappointing performance after disappointing performance. Graham Zusi struggled at right-back. Joe Corona completed plenty of passes, but failed to do much with them. Gyasi Zardes lost ball after ball. Matt Hedges got lost.
Other performances were slightly better. Juan Agudelo created a few chances that his teammates promptly squandered. Dom Dwyer showed that his nose for the goal extends to the international game -- at least against inferior competition. Jordan Morris also demonstrated an ability to score in international play. He has a goal scorer's talent for being in the right place, but how much credit does the darling of the Pacific Northwest get for finding the back of the net against a squad full of semi-pros?
Alejandro Bedoya worked as hard as he has in a long time against Nicaragua. Kelyn Rowe demonstrated flashes of creativity. Chris Pontius proved to be capable on the wing. Eric Lichaj showed that he's a stout defender, and can play the ball across the box if given time.
But shouldn't there be more? After 270 minutes, arguably not a single player on the 23-man roster made the case that he deserves a starting spot on the first team. That's just not good enough.
The Gold Cup was a chance -- perhaps the last chance -- for guys to make an impression. Have some done so? Sure. A few players like Dwyer, Lichaj and maybe Miazga showed bits and pieces that could be useful for Arena as he continues to drive the team toward the World Cup next summer. That's it, though. No one stepped up and took control against two bad CONCACAF teams, and one that's decidedly middle of the pack. The B team failed the test, in most cases resoundingly so.
While that might be disappointing, it's not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, the past few games allowed Arena to cross some names off his list of prospective first teamers. He gave every player he called some time on the pitch to impress (the coach's decision to start 11 new players against Nicaragua is just about the most Arena thing to do, and it was wonderful). While they failed to do so -- indicating the U.S. still lacks any kind of quality depth -- the player pool needs to start shrinking with just 11 months remaining until Russia.
At this point, learning who can't improve the squad is just as helpful as learning who can. The Americans have talent on the first team, and have the pieces to put together a solid run in Russia. They didn't need anyone from the Gold Cup roster to dazzle, although it would have been nice to see someone do so.
On Sunday afternoon, Arena announced that the cavalry is coming for the knockout stage. He added Tim Howard, Jesse Gonzalez, Michael Bradley, Darlington Nagbe, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey to the roster, and said goodbye to Bedoya, Rowe and Dwyer. He also dismissed Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson and Cristian Roldan. Those half-dozen players will return to their MLS clubs, and while they may yet have a role with the U.S. national team in future, it will almost certainly be a minor one.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.