2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Featured, July 2017, USMNT

In Tampa, US Look to Upend Group Leading Martinique: The TYAC Preview

Kellyn Acosta and the United States look to rebound from a disappointing Gold Cup opener with three points against Martinique.













Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy

For the first time in Bruce Arena’s second tenure, the United States delivered what can be characterized fairly as a disappointing performance Saturday, drawing Panama 1-1 in Nashville to open play in the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The Americans struggled to deal with the plan put together by Hernán Darío Gómez, which saw Panama overload the midfield zones and the precious “Zone 11” real estate in the final third, daring the Americans to find the creative pass or challenge defenders 1 v. 1. The Yanks struggled to do so, and as such, left with only a draw. 

Bruce Arena didn’t mince words when discussing the performance of the team in Nashville, even (half?) joking that the US were a “poorly coached team” on the day.

“We certainly didn’t play well on the day,” he said in the opening remarks of his post-game press conference.

“I thought we didn’t deal well with the pressure, especially in the midfield. We turned over way too much,” the manager continued. “Our passing wasn’t good on the day … It forced us to defend more than we should have, and it takes a little bit of energy out of you.”

American players shared their manager’s sentiments, with midfielder Kellyn Acosta taking to Twitter to promise the US will do better.

It’s a refreshing amount of accountability from a team that, for all of Saturday’s issues, controls its Gold Cup group destiny well-enough, and remains unbeaten in 2017 under their new boss.

Next on tap for the Yanks? A trip to Tampa, where they’ll try to get their Gold Cup campaign back on track Wednesday evening at Raymond James Stadium (9PM, FS1).

Waiting for the Americans?

Mighty Martinique, the group leading swashbucklers from a small Caribbean island of 385,000 people that in simply competing at the Gold Cup are playing soccer at the highest level they’re allowed to play, due to the island being a French protectorate and as such, ineligible to qualify for the World Cup. 

Les Matinino, as they are known in back on Martinique, are in many ways a classic “tiny nation” side, featuring a handful of full-time professionals surrounded by semi-professionals from the homeland who hold day jobs as fishermen, cab drivers, school teachers and, according to manager Louis Marianne, at least one brilliant chef. It’s an eclectic assortment, to be sure, but not one that lacks athleticism or talent. And given the small island’s proud footballing history- Thierry Henry, Raphael Verane and former US international and current Martinique Football General Manager David Regis all trace their heritage back to Martinique- it’s little surprise the side hardly looked awed by the Gold Cup moment in easily dispatching Nicaragua Saturday afternoon.

Regis carved out a fine club career in Germany and France and gained U.S. citizenship in 1998 before being controversially included in the star-crossed 1998 US World Cup squad. He was also part of the 2002 quarterfinalist side before retiring internationally with 27 caps, mostly earned under Bruce Arena. A native of La Trinité, Martinique, Regis said the main issue is getting clubs to release players with Martinique heritage, given the side’s lack of FIFA-recognition:

“It’s a challenge to get clubs to let players go because we are only members of CONCACAF,” Regis told TYAC. “Still, there is talent and quality and you can see instantly when you watch them train. Whether it is players like Kévin Parsemain who have played in France or MLS, or Steeven Langil, who plays in Poland, there are good players, both athletically and technically.”

The US job, then, will be to put together a complete ninety minutes, and assure themselves of a chance to win the group on goal difference this weekend when they take on Nicaragua.

An (abridged) TYAC preview then- usuals and then particulars.

Series: Second Meeting. United States lead 1-0. The only meeting was, unsurprisingly, in a Gold Cup. The United States utilized a brace from Brian McBride to secure a comfortable 2-0 victory in a 2003 group stage match in Foxbrough, Massachusetts.

Weather: Tampa in July. Sooo- hot with a chance of overwhelmingly and insufferably humid. Temps will linger around 80 at kick, with a chance of a late thunderstorm pushing kickoff back. If you’re a longtime TYAC reader, you know that we’ve long supported the idea of MLS expansion to St. Pete, the smaller, more personable and quirky city across the Howard Frankland Bridge from Tampa that is currently the home to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. But like Orlando, the Rowdies’ natural rival up I-4, weather in the summer will always be unpredictable, and rain delays part of life.

What to Watch for From Martinique:

We haven’t missed a competitive match preview at TYAC since we were founded in 2008. That said, we won’t pretend that we’ve studied a bunch of YouTube clips of Les Metinino or that we’ve spent countless hours soaking on Martinique tactics on video. In fact, aside from a YouTube clip here and there, we had difficulty finding much video of Martinique football,  save a DVR copy of Saturday’s victory over Nicaragua. 

Given this, the thinking at TYAC is the best move is probably to link you to the guys at Total Soccer Show, who smartly brought in Caribbean football expert Nathan Carr (@caribbeanftbl) to discuss some of what we can expect from Martinique in Tampa Wednesday night. Give the boys a listen, will ya?

Oh, and check out this goal that Steeven Langil scored against Nicaragua Saturday in Nashville, because it was pure id.

What to Watch for From the United States:

As we alluded to in the introduction, a more cohesive and complete performance.

The US lacked decisiveness in distributions Saturday and struggled to establish any tempo or rhythm, which made it much easier for Panama to overload the center and stay compact defensively.

The main problems for the United States Saturday, as I wrote in my post-match analysis, were in the center of the park, where Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta, so good for the United States in the pre-Gold Cup tuneup game against Ghana, struggled mightily.  

Kellyn Acosta had dazzled for the Yanks against both Mexico and Ghana, but against the more compact and organized Los Canaleros, struggled to play decisive passes and find seams. He looked every bit the player who functioned well as part of a team structured to play off of Christian Pulisic, but less capable of being the distributional fulcrum of the US attack.McCarty also struggled to find influence, often getting pinned back between the CBs in a too deep US back line, resulting in chasms of space in the US midfield that made tempo and distributions difficult.

Acosta noted Tuesday that the US struggled, both individually and collectively, to deal with Panama’s game plan.

“Panama sat back and had a good game plan,” Acosta said. “They pressured us well when (Dax McCarty and I) had the ball. It was too easy for them and I thought defensively we were too soft. Godoy and Gomez had a field day and we didn’t adjust at all. We were disconnected and our positioning and spacing were off. I think individually and collectively we can do better.”

A likely deployment Wednesday evening against Martinique.

The US may opt to play a 4-2-3-1 again, so as to optimize an in-form Dom Dwyer who has done well as the solitary forward in two games as a US international. But if they do that, the Americans will need to find ways to peel shorten the gaps between the midfield and Dwyer, and they’ll want to try to peel defenders away from the center, playing with more width, whether it comes from a legitimate overlap threat from both fullbacks or the use of a pure winger like Paul Arriola instead of shuttlers like Ale Bedoya and a rotating Joe Corona/Kelyn Rowe.

Whatever the Americans opt to do Wednesday evening, playing with tempo and a bit less predictability getting forward will prove critical.

I’d also look for changes in the back, not simply because the American defense struggled Saturday in Nashville, with Graham Zusi in particular putting a forgettable shift, but also because this is a long tournament in brutal heat and the US will play on even less rest this weekend against Nicaragua. Whether or not Eric Lichaj is fit is a lingering question in this camp, but he appeared to be in the brief amount of training the media was allowed to view Tuesday night in Tampa and it would be surprising if he was included in the 23 only to remain on the bench throughout the group stage.

Changes at CB are also possible after Matt Besler’s least compelling shift in a US shirt in some time. Matt Hedges played well with Besler against Ghana, and could warrant a shift next to Omar Gonzalez, as could Matt Miazga, another player in preseason form but one very capable of deputizing for Besler after a strong loan in Vitesse.

Seattle Sounders defender Jordy Delem has scored four of his five international goals with his head on set pieces. He’ll try to add to that tally Wednesday.

Martinique Player to Watch: Jordy Delem,  Seattle Sounders 

Jordy Delem concedes that while the Gold Cup group stages may be tedious to countries like the USA or Mexico, they are a dream for him and many of his Martinique teammates.

“Playing against the United States in a competitive environment at the Gold Cup is the stuff of dreams,” Delem told TYAC Tuesday.

It’s not an unusual or surprising take for many of the players in this competition. The tournament provides an immense stage to showcase their talents for MLS, NASL and USL, and it only takes one great game to make a life-changing impression.

Delem, who was discovered by the Seattle Sounders at a 2015 Caribbean Football Union player showcase, is somewhat different in that he earned his stripes in the USL with Sounders B prior to shining on a Gold Cup stage. But the flexible midfielder still believes this tournament is a chance to make a lasting impression.

“To get the chance to compete against the players you see week in and week out in MLS is incredible,” Delem said. “We want to show we belong.”

For his part, the flexible defender has done just that for Martinique, scoring five goals in 35 caps while playing three different positions, including defensive midfielder.

Where he’ll cut his teeth Wednesday against the Yanks is on set pieces- four of his goals for Martinique have come on set plays and if his country is to spring the upset, they’ll need to capitalize in those moments.

Expect the US to look to the versatile Paul Arriola for pace and width on Wednesday night.

Jon Levy on the US Player to Watch: Paul Arriola, Club Tijuana 

You knew this one was coming. It was inevitable. One does not simply omit new TYAC golden boy Paul Arriola from the starting eleven, then ignore him when making one’s attacking substitutions.

And The Yanks Are Coming doesn’t pick its new favorites on hair and flare alone (but they can both help your cause). Paulo Pablo Paulie Arriola has an on-field game to justify our collective man-crush, and it’s just what the doctor ordered after Saturday’s relative midfield mishaps.

Don’t get me wrong, there was cause to sit Arriola after an anonymous performance in the tuneup match versus Ghana. And with Arriola’s game being what it is, he should never have a performance that can be described as “anonymous.” I mean, he could have a disastrous performance where he gets red carded or turns the ball over a ton, but it should be noteworthy even in failure.

So let’s cut the vague crap and actually talk about what Paul does.

He’s a speedy winger who’s unapologetically direct in attack. Yes, he plays for Xolos in Liga MX, but Arriola ain’t dancin’ with ya. To use a football cliche, he’s a “one cut” runner with the ball, and he hits the hole hard. And as he proved in New Zealand at the U-20 World Cup two summers ago, he’ll shoot from anywhere. But wait, there’s more. Arriola’s distinctly American lack of cha-cha tricked former manager Piojo Herrera into thinking he shouldn’t be playing all the way up the field all the time. So the Mexican national team’s old manager looked at Paul’s speed and did the US a favor, converting Arriola into a part time wing back. Now he might never play there again for the US, but learning that position rounded Arriola’s game out to the point that he was trusted by Arena to start against Mexico in a World Cup Qualifier at the Azteca. Take everything you’ve just read, mix in a dash of Clint Mathis attitude, and you’ve got a no-doubter for a TYAC fan favorite.

Oh, and in case you haven’t already done the math, Arriola’s speed, direct attack, and ability to run at defenders is something the Yanks sorely missed on Saturday. Our own Neil W. Blackmon rightly praised Kelyn Rowe for his great attacking play in the Panama match, but he also highlighted Rowe’s positional versatility. That versatility might mean we see Rowe move to a more central playmaking role, which could and should open up a wing spot for fiery Mr. Arriola.

If not, we’ll almost certainly see him as an impact sub off the bench. Duh.

Prediction: United States 3, Martinique 0. Just feels like a game where the US score early and someone, maybe Arriola, maybe Jordan Morris, maybe Juan Agudelo, breaks it wide open late.

Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy Co-Founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter @nwblackmon and @TYAC_Jon.

Neil W. Blackmon