US Look to Win Group, Play Complete Game vs. Nicaragua: TYAC Preview
Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy
It hasn’t been the most convincing start to the Gold Cup for the United States. Yes, the Yanks arrived in Cleveland with 4 points through two games and a great chance at topping their group, which was the goal and expectation. But after slicing through a talented Ghana side in a warm-up friendly only two weekends ago, the Americans appeared poise to deliver lovely soccer at the Gold Cup as well, only to slog through two uneven performances in a draw against Panama and a narrow win over tiny Martinique.
The US can and must play better soccer moving forward if they are to reclaim the Gold Cup from rival Mexico. They know it too.
“Everybody would’ve preferred to be at six points and to get a more comfortable won against Martinique,” midfielder and vice-captain Alejandro Bedoya told reporters Friday. “But the reality is you have to give some credit to teams that we played against. They stepped up. Maybe we obviously weren’t sharp enough, but these CONCACAF teams have gotten a lot better since my first go-around almost 10 years go. We know it needs to get better.”
Bruce Arenea agreed the opposition deserve some credit, noting in Tampa that one thing obvious to him from his first tenure to know is how smaller CONCACAF nations have elevated their level of soccer.
“Whether it is Mexico, MLS, lower divisions, development money- one thing that you see with the smaller and Caribbean countries is the way they’ve elevated their game. It’s different and better and more difficult now than ten years ago,” Arena said.
Nevertheless, the US are capable of playing better and raising their level too. They get another chance to do that Saturday night at FirstEnergy Stadium when they take on Nicaragua (7PM, FXX). If they do, they’ll be the rare home team to bring joy to the building known as Factory of Sadness, and do plenty to dispel lingering doubts about whether this particular player pool is capable of winning a continental championship.
The TYAC preview then- abridged for the Gold Cup group stages- but no less compelling (we hope).
Series: First Meeting. The United States and Nicaragua have never met in international soccer. This is surprising, given that the Gold Cup is played every two years and given the extended World Cup qualification process. But this is only the second Gold Cup appearance for Nicaragua in the modern era (the other was in 2009), and the Americans have thus far avoided a “Sub Hex” qualification group including Los Pinoleros. Further, unlike much of the soccer mad central American universe, baseball is king in Nicaragua, which has its own professional baseball league and has produced players like “El Presidente” Dennis Martinez, who won 245 games over 22 years in the big leagues, Everth Cabrera and Vicente Padilla, a former All-Star pitcher with the Phillies. The result is that Nicaragua have a minimal history in soccer, and continue to battle limited national investment in the sport.
Weather: Lovely, actually. 70 and cooling around kick. Very little chance of rain and humidity only about 40 percent off the lake. A pretty nice night in Cleveland, which, of course, is also home to the Rock and Roll of Hall Fame, which as of 2017, is home to Pearl Jam. Here they are melting people’s faces with Dave Krusen.
What to Watch for From Nicaragua:
The Costa Rican Henry Duarte has done wonders with the Blue and White, winning eight of his fifteen matches in charge since taking over at the beginning of this World Cup cycle.
He’ll line up in a 4-4-2 that plays more like a 4-3-2-1, with a very talented and pacy player, Carlos Chavarria, who scored against Panama, joining a more lumbering Eulises Pavon behind tip of the spear Luis Galeano. None of those players is a day older than 25, and all three can hit a spot kick, which is where the Nicaraguans looked especially dangerous against Panama. The US will do well to avoid silly fouls- a good rule in any game of course but especially one against this side, who created multiple chances off corners and free kicks Wednesday in Tampa.
Chavarria, however, is suspended for Saturday’s match, meaning eighteen year old Jorge Garcia is likely to get the call, unless Nicaragua opt for a more defensive option, like no-nonsense midfielder Luis Peralta, who put in a strong shift off the bench Wednesday.
Behind the forward three are a deeper wall of midfielders led by Juan Barrera, the Nicaraguan captain and current leader in goals, who plays on the right. Barrera is decent on the incut and likes to try his luck from distance, having fired five balls from beyond the area at the goal in this competition alone. The US will need to close out better than they did against Martinique to avoid a stunner. Barrera is joined by Marlon Lopez, one of several Nicaraguans to play for the country’s best club team, Real Esteli, and Danny Cadena, the lone Nicaraguan that plays professionally in Europe.
The side’s glaring weakness is in defense, where Luis Copete, who plies his trade in Peru, and Josué Quijano, the active Nicaraguan leader in caps with 47, is a capable enough fullback on the right but there is little else Duarte has to rely on. Panama attacked the Nicaraguans ruthlessly down the left flank, and Nicaragua held on for their lives, putting in plenty of emergency tackles and sacrificing their bodies consistently, but ultimately succumbing to the relentless jabs and body blows down a technically deficient flank. This will likely be the US plan too, and Duarte knows this, so look for him to adjust by trying to cheat a defensive mid to the left and daring the US to rotate the ball effectively, which they did at times Wednesday, including on the first Jordan Morris goal.
Still, I doubt the Nicaraguans will be too conservative, knowing they need a win to have any chance to advance and knowing the chance they have as individual players to make an impression against the United States and in front of USL, NASL and MLS scouts. The Nicaraguans went toe to toe against Panama, creating eleven shots and seven quality chances Wednesday evening. If they replicate that performance, it won’t be a Saturday stroll for the Americans.
What to Watch for From the United States:
The abridged previews sometimes make playing three questions a bit easier, just in terms of focusing the lens in which one views the game. For us at TYAC, this game is about two things:
- Can the US play better in the back? Who calls the lines and how deep is that line?
The Americans have hurt themselves by playing such a deep line in the prior two matches, especially with no one to call the line and make sure it remains at least tethered to something Brad Guzan can manage without CBs in his lap.
The US have done this out of fear of lightning counters, understanding they don’t have the footspeed at their disposal that they feature when Geoff Cameron and John Brooks are in the team. But the Americans haven’t looked particularly convincing against the counter regardless, and the main result of the deep back line has been disjointed and gappy defense that is too far detached from the American midfield when the US do gain possession. These gaps hurt the US collective shape and ball movement, as either one midfielder (usually Dax McCarty) drops in even deeper to serve as a kind of escape hatchet conduit, meaning the US play with almost a back five, or no one does, and the US resort to deep balls over the top, which are bizarre given the strength of this team should be build up on the ground through the channels.
The good news was that the US seemed to recognize this in the second half against Martinique, with Arena acknowledging after the match that “we told our players along the backline to move up” and noting that “the adjustment definitely helped our ball movement.”
It appears the US have adjusted and proven the US should play higher ball movement wise. But can they defend better, from a communication and organizational standpoint. The opening Martinique goal was especially a disaster, with Lichaj calling the line and Gonzalez flat footed and and far too late to step out (30 seconds into video):
The Nicaraguans don’t have a guy with 30 international goals who it should be obvious you close out on- but that’s kind of the point, right? In a game against a technically overmatched opponent, don’t make egregious errors that let them in games.
2. Speaking of ball movement? Can the US improve midfield circulation?
The best American moments Wednesday night came when the Americans funneled the ball to a flank and let Paul Arriola, who was better than most credited him for despite a couple of poor transitions, take on players 1 v 1 or when the US moved the fullbacks up, giving a genuine overlapping fullback, especially after Gyasi Zardes heeded Arena’s halftime command to at least pretend to pinch-in a bit in possession.
The lack of US midfield circulation and quality ball movement is of course related to the backline, but there’s more than that. Kellyn Acosta has struggled as “the guy,” opting consistently to try to play the “killer ball” and not taking what a defense offers him instead, understanding that keeping the ball and attacking space will get you where you want to be in the end more often than not. Acosta also doesn’t move particularly well off the ball yet, which is related to his penchant for trying the spectacular ball more often than not. If he hits the passes he goes for, why move well after the pass?
In short, the US miss Michael Bradley as a guy that keeps things less static and (still) runs with tremendous industry in finding the ball, and they miss what this roster has always lacked, a genuine central playmaker, whether it is Pulisic or Sacha Kljestan or Benny Feilhaber or even Danny Williams, who is more a number eight but would have helped.
It was instructive that the US were instantly better when Ale Bedoya entered, and created most their dangerous chances to score with him on the field, moving off the ball and playing the simpler passes into space that Martinique were offering.
The US may have answers to these problems beyond Bedoya and Bradley available on this roster. We’ll address probably the best solution in the player to watch section.
Bottom line? If you thought the US could win the Gold Cup with Acosta/McCarty/Roldan manning the center after the Ghana game, you have now observed enough to realize that isn’t really the case. With Acosta only 21, that’s okay. And this process will ultimately help him long term. But it’s an issue for the US now.
Couple of quick hitters to close it out, too:
First, who starts at forward? Logic says Morris, Dwyer and Agudelo are three players vying for one World Cup roster spot, because yes, Clint Dempsey has value to this national team and will continue to do so if he is healthy next summer. Which one does Arena opt for now that all have shown well in the competition? And given that all of played well, does he bring Altidore in for the knockout rounds or stay with what he’s got in camp?
Next, will Bill Hamid get a game? The US are nearly assured of a knockout round appearance regardless of what happens Saturday. Would it be so bad to allow one of the backup goalkeepers to play? Brad Guzan was splendid against Ghana, solid against Panama and only okay against Martinique. And he probably should have done better on Parsemain’s opener. That’s a bad trend line. Maybe some rest would help?
Jon Levy on the American Player to Watch: Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution)
No one player on this Gold Cup squad has helped his future national team prospects more than midfielder Kelyn Rowe. Granted, we’re only two matches into this tournament, and Rowe only played in one of those two games. But the pre-tournament exhibition with Ghana was instructive, and now Rowe looks like a must-start going forward (especially relative to his hot-and-cold midfield counterparts).
Coming into his first real opportunity with the senior team this summer, we knew a lot about Kelyn Rowe, and we at TYAC had been hankering for his senior team inclusion for about two seasons. But there were valid question marks about whether he could perform at the international level. Rowe’s passing vision and well-measured service are above reproach at pretty much any level of the game, but he had to convince skeptics (read: realists) that he could execute most other aspects of the midfield craft for the US.
He’s done exactly that through two matches against tight-marking opposition. He’s done well to find space in attacking areas, keep the ball while under pressure, and mostly made the right decisions on when to play it safe versus going for the killer pass. And as referenced above, the fact that he did those things against Ghana and Panama lends a lot more weight than if he would have done the same in the Martinique match (you remember Gyasi Zardes being afforded more space than he’d be given by the Colorado Rapids, right?).
So here we are, one match away from Bruce Arena probably rounding out the first phase of his fringe player evaluation process, and Kelyn Rowe is as rested as he’s been effective thus far. Which is to say, “very.” The only question now is: “where does Bruce play him?”
The American Adam Lallana as he’s been called by one writer (me, right now), can play pretty much anywhere in the midfield, though I doubt he’ll be asked to be a number six. So let’s just assume Dax slots into that defensive midfield spot. Does Arena finally give Rowe a runout as a true central midfielder in lieu of Acosta or Bedoya? My gut says no. Which means he could be in that wing/shuttler/wide midfielder role again, and that’s worked out thus far, despite that fact that he’s not exactly a speedy player.
If I’m managing the team though, I slide Joey Beers out to one of those side midfielder spots and play Rowe as my number ten. The team needs one and Rowe has a knack for the slicing seam buster pass and is maybe one of three guys on this roster who isn’t terrified of taking a defender on 1 v. 1. The US need that right now, and will in the knockout rounds Why not now? No matter what you do Saturday, you learn something that can help you going into the knockout rounds. So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.
Prediction: USA 2, Nicaragua 0. A much better US performance capped by an Agudelo goal and Jordan Morris expanding his account to three goals helps the US narrowly win the group on goal difference.