Neil W. Blackmon
What a difference nine months makes. Nine months. Enough time to bring life into the world. Enough time to breathe life into a national team.
Last November, in a dark corridor in the belly of Costa Rica’s Estadio Nacional, the US Men’s National Team looked to be in shambles, with veterans speaking in hushed, searching tones following a humbling 4-0 loss to the Ticos. The United States had opened World Cup qualifying with two consecutive losses, including one against rival Mexico in Columbus, Ohio, where many felt the US were invincible.
Even Jurgen Klinsmann, the German-American manager whose optimism is nearly as boundless as Southern California sunshine, couldn’t find the right words.
“We have a lot to evaluate, and a lot of work to do,” Klinsmann said. “It is not the start we wanted.” Asked point blank if he should keep his job, Klinsmann offered a tepid “I think so,” noting he “still believed” he was the man for the job.
Sunil Gulati no longer believed, however, and made the change, with the US hope of qualifying for an 8th consecutive World Cup hanging in the balance.
Gulati tasked Bruce Arena, a man whose contract he once declined to renew, with putting out the fire and reviving the Yanks’ dimming World Cup hopes. Viewed as at best a pragmatic stop-gap by some and at worst a regression to days long past by others, Arena has done what New Yorkers (that’s “Noo Yawk” for you Long Island types) often do when greeted with cynicism and adversity: smirked and gone to work.
Arena put together a no-nonsense January camp, and used February to hustle around Europe conducting a host of meetings with his core of players attached to clubs in England and Germany. Then, with a blended and full roster, he oversaw a 6-0 demolition of Jorge Luis Pinto’s Honduras that erased the US negative goal differential and immediately put the US World Cup qualifying effort back on the rails. Five points in the three other qualifiers followed, including a 1-1 draw at Estadio Azteca that saw the US play with an encouraging combination of steely nerve and tactical acumen.
With the victory over Jamaica Wednesday night, Arena delivered a Gold Cup to his early haul, helping the US reclaim the title of Champions of CONCACAF and gaining vital insight into his player pool for the remainder of World Cup qualifying.
Fourteen games into Arena 2.0, and the US have yet to taste defeat. Arena, then, has done precisely what Gulati hoped he would do when he made the hire: put out the fire from Klinsmann’s second cycle and injected confidence back into a program that has long played with a great deal of self-belief.
The Gold Cup victory meant a great deal, especially to the veterans like captain Michael Bradley, who had never been a part of a Gold Cup champion, and former US captain Clint Dempsey, who in winning his third Gold Cup, silenced many skeptics while providing two outstanding performances off the bench in the semifinals and final.
“I’m older and I appreciate it more,” Dempsey told TYAC Wednesday night. “I won’t have that many more opportunities. To win a third is something I’ll remember, and to be able to say that I’ve tied the goal record during the process—three games to chip in with a goal and three assists—I’m proud of that.”
He should be. And the US should enjoy the moment.
But there’s work left to be done to secure passage to Russia next summer, and that’s not lost on Bruce Arena.
“Since I was hired, the main objective has been to qualify for the World Cup,” a pleased but focused Arena told the media Wednesday night. We’ve got to evaluate this performance in July and the next couple of weeks, and I have to select a roster for our World Cup qualifying. Then we have to win some games in September and October.”
Still, there was plenty for Arena to glean from the Gold Cup as he evaluates the US roster for the critical qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras that bookend Labor Day weekend.
A few additional thoughts on what to take away from a triumphant summer.
Clint Dempsey showed he has the mentality – and the game – to be the impactful substitute the US have been missing.
When Clint Dempsey was taken off the pitch early in the US’s 2-0 victory over Trinidad and Tobago in early June, he was visibly frustrated with the decision, staring at Bruce Arena and sharing a few choice words with the US gaffer.
Nearly lost forever after a heart condition scare last winter, Dempsey’s return in and of itself was a welcome sight to US national team followers, who wondered – with some justice – whether the team could score goals in competitive matches without him. Along with Bobby Wood, Dempsey had been the only truly reliable US goal scorer this cycle until one Christian Pulisic broke into the starting lineup against Trinidad and Tobago last Labor Day.
But Dempsey’s removal, and subsequent absence days later at Azteca, left many wondering if he would accept a decreased number of minutes in the national team shirt.
The Gold Cup did plenty to answer those questions, with Dempsey the creative difference against Costa Rica, providing a gorgeous assist to Jozy Altidore and curling in a free kick ten minutes later to tie Landon Donovan’s all-time goal scoring record. Four nights later, in the final against Jamaica, Dempsey again proved vital, again helping pry an opponent’s defenders out of a shell and giving the US more attacking fluidity. He nearly scored the winner on a perfect header in the 75th minute, only to see it parried away at the last moment by Jamaican goalkeeper Dwayne Miller. Thirteen minutes later, his presence in the box appeared to effect Jermaine Taylor, who botched a chance to clear, resulting in Jordan Morris’s winning goal.
Dempsey isn’t a number ten, and has often been criticized for it. But he is a player with the technical ability to beat a defender, the vision to find a runner, and the creativity to draw fouls and make magic out of a flash of space. His legs aren’t what they used to be, but in thirty to forty minute increments, inserted as the opponent begins to tire, the Texan showed he has plenty in the tank to make a difference.
Depth and position battles for this autumn’s qualifiers, and for Russia, are starting to take shape.
If Arena entered the summer with as many as 40 names on a list for Russia, he likely leaves the Gold Cup with that list narrowed to 32 or 33. TYAC will evaluate the search for the final 23 extensively over the next few months, but the Gold Cup was an instructive step, and perhaps an invaluable one, given Arena and the US won’t have another extended camp until January.
Acosta and Villafaña
The two players who had made the largest statements under Bruce Arena thus far—Santos Laguna’s Jorge Villafaña and FC Dallas’s Kellyn Acosta- were only decent at the Gold Cup, with the latter struggling at times, particularly in the group stage where he was tasked to run the midfield without a deeper-lying Michael Bradley as a security blanket.
Still, Villafaña had a terrific final, and the left back job appears to be his to lose, as he impressed Arena enough for the gaffer to leave Atlanta United’s Greg Garza, also on the 40 man roster, out of the team altogether. As Brian Straus wrote in a terrific piece at SI, Villafaña’s journey from reality show hopeful to first team US left back is a sportswriter and made-for-television dream. What’s better, however, is the way he gives the US a consistent presence on the overlap, and his instinctual nose for winning possession by clogging the passing lines. He has one-on-one positional deficiencies, to be sure, and his tendency to struggle against direct wide players was on display at the Gold Cup. But there are no questions about his commitment, and his value for the US over the next 11 months is a question of role, not merit.
As for Acosta, even with the Gold Cup growing pains, he’s clearly a big part of Arena’s plans moving towards the autumn qualifiers. He needs to limit his turnovers and learn that in international soccer, taking what the defense gives you and establishing rhythm and tempo is often as valuable as the seam-busting killer ball. But he’ll learn these things, and even if a move to Europe limits his match time come January, his range and ability to defend and play box-to-box give the US depth and spot-starter possibilities, given the matchup. Acosta may yet develop into a consistent chance creator. He just isn’t there yet, and given that the US have searched for a decade for a Claudio Reyna replacement, that’s okay.
Other players who made an impression include:
Kelyn Rowe, who gives the US a flexible midfielder who can help build possession, will take defenders on and can thread a pass;
Paul Arriola, who has an astonishing work rate and is constantly getting into good attacking spots, even if he is a second tardy or early to them;
and Dom Dwyer and Jordan Morris, who in different ways showed that the US has a better pool of forward depth than ever before.
Dwyer is a banger, a throwback, the guy from a pickup game that pressures everything and annoys the hell out of you. He’s most comfortable as a solo forward operating ahead of a playmaking number ten, and moves well enough to accommodate a channel-busting incutter on a wing. IF that sounds like what the US have to offer in attack, it is. He’ll be given every opportunity to make the team next summer.
Morris, meanwhile, is 22 but has been around a while now. Arena was right to credit Klinsmann for incorporating him into the side while he was still at Stanford. Morris knows what is expected at national team camps and shows maturity beyond his years. A US vet told me this month that “(Morris) is a joy to compete with and play with.”
That’s good stuff, and his mentality and toughness showed in multiple games at this Gold Cup. There was the Martinique game in Tampa where he shook off an ineffectual first half to score two goals. And in the final, Morris put an egregious error defending a set piece behind him to look dangerous throughout the second half before firing him the winning goal with aplomb.
But what’s better is the work Morris did off-the-ball at this tournament. His willingness to make the selfless, space-creating runs, and to pursue defensively, were impressive, and a side of Morris we don’t always see in Seattle. Hustle and energy are base line requirements for backup forwards at World Cups. Morris, who is by no means a finished product at 22, showed he was prepared for that role.
And what to do with Darlington Nagbe and Fabian Johnson?
Nagbe, more than any US player in recent memory, has the makeup of the Claudio Reyna possession midfielder. Unlike Reyna, he gives up plenty in physicality centrally, but what’s certain, as Bruce Arena put it Wednesday night, is that he “never loses the ball,” and is constantly reliable carrying it out of traffic or calmly moving it in possession.
I don’t know whether he has the defensive nous to play internationally as a starting central midfielder; none of us do because he doesn’t have enough high-level reps. What’s clear, however, is that the US circulate the ball better with him in the game, and while Nagbe isn’t a dazzling chance creator, you create less chances with less meaningful possession. He will have a role to play moving forward, and the fact Bruce Arena called him in late is a signpost that the Timbers man is already well inside the Arena circle of trust.
While many fans were clamoring Wednesday night and Thursday morning to deploy Nagbe wide and slot Fabian Johnson back to left back, my inclination is to tap the brakes on that excitement.
First, I think the US move the ball better and received more production from Nagbe moving central.
Second, Nagbe has been up and down in his Hex appearances, and consistency against a higher level of opposition is a critical question. As hard as Jamaica played, seeing Nagbe against higher quality was a huge reason the US losing a chance to play Mexico is unfortunate.
Third, Fabian Johnson is a really talented winger who gives the US what it lacks – a secondary chance creator. There’s a narrative he isn’t that – and it is easily refuted and not particularly debatable once you open up a stat book.
In limited time, Johnson created the third most chances per game on his club team, Borussia Monchengladbach last year, behind fellow wing Thorgan Hazard and German veteran Lars Stindl. The US haven’t always seen this from Johnson at the national team level, but it isn’t worth delegating him to fullback for that reason. The famed German publication KICKER has had Johnson rated as one of the top fifteen attacking wingers in the Bundesliga for the last two campaigns (Pulisic was 9th last year; Johnson was 7th in 2015-16), and you have to keep that in mind before you push him back to fullback.
The US would do well to focus on matchups in that regard.
Finally, the US have CB question marks.
I’ve raised those concerns fairly extensively in another TYAC piece, but I’ll briefly double down here and note that the US are in plenty of trouble if anything happens to Geoff Cameron, now 32, or John Brooks, now trying to latch on at a brand new club, with all the attendant risk that brings.
The preferred CB backup pairing appears to be Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, and while there are arguments for Besler’s steadfast positional defending or Gonzalez’s emergency D, the door is open, I think, for Matt Miazga, just loaned back to Vitesse, or Cameron Carter-Vickers, whose status with Spurs is in limbo, to make this US team. Bruce Arena has brought a young player we didn’t expect to two consecutive World Cup teams he’s selected. My guess would be one of those two busts through that door over the next several months.
Neil W. Blackmon Co-Founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.