2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Featured, July 2017, USMNT

US Midfield Struggle in Gold Cup Draw with Panama: TYAC Analysis

Dominic Dwyer scored a second goal in as many games, but the US managed only a draw in their Gold Cup opener.

Neil W. Blackmon

The United States Men’s National Team opened Gold Cup play Saturday afternoon with a hard-fought 1-1 draw against Panama in a choppy, physical game played in sweltering Tennessee heat. The result means goal difference will likely settle who wins Group B, with both the Yanks and Los Canaleros expected to handle the other two sides in the group, Nicaragua and Martinique.

After a first half where neither team generated terrific chances, the US broke the deadlock early in the second half. Dom Dwyer, again starting as the lone forward, scored his second goal in as many games in a US shirt, whipping in a beauty of a half-turn at the far post. Kelyn Rowe, who was easily the best American player on the day, collected the assist with a deft little deke and cross of his own on the goal.

Panama’s response was immediate. Thanks to the influential midfield play of Anibal Godoy and longtime vet Gabriel Gómez, Panama generated a flurry of quality chances nearly immediately after the US took the lead, and, after a series of stunning misses and a pair of spectacular saves by Brad Guzan, justly leveled proceedings when Miguel Camargo buried a rebound in the 60th minute.

Bruce Arena went for the result, making multiple attacking substitutions in Juan Agudelo, Gyasi Zardes and Jordan Morris in the final half hour, but despite plenty of the ball, the US couldn’t find a final product and a game winner.

The game wasn’t like the last USA-Panama Gold Cup meeting, when in 2015 Panama outshot the US 25-5 before winning in penalties to capture third place. But it was, nonetheless, a frustrating game, and one that at least slows the substantial amount of momentum the US has been building under Bruce Arena.

Credit Panama, who put together a good game plan and executed well defensively. But all told, the US will have plenty to think about as the tournament proceeds.

A few final thoughts on the draw.

Saturday was the first speedbump in the meteoric USMNT rise of Kellyn Acosta.

First, as referenced in the match preview- this game was a significant test for the McCarty-Acosta central midfield pairing. It was a tough night for Kellyn Acosta.

Kellyn Acosta has been one of the best stories in US Soccer in 2017, whether it be his dazzling play in the CONCACAF Champions League or for FC Dallas or his meteoric rise with the national team. Many- TYAC included- have penciled him as a starter alongside Michael Bradley for the full-strength senior side moving forward.

Saturday night wasn’t a rebuttal of that work, to be sure. But it was a brake tap, that moment on a mountain road where you realize you can still go too fast even with all-wheel drive.

Acosta was subpar, forcing things and delivering consistently poor set pieces for the second consecutive match. While his passing was dreadful from a percentage standpoint (31-34 is good), it was negative, lacking the incisive probing balls US fans have grown accustomed to seeing this year.

And an even tougher one for Dax McCarty.

Meanwhile, Dax McCarty was stuck far too deep to help his midfield mate much.

The Fire midfielder was 35-36 in his distributions, another brilliant number on paper, but nearly half of those passes were backwards, and nine came from positions within the American final third, meaning he was often stuck between the American CBs.

This problem created gaps in the American linkup play in possession, and made life easier on Panama when they had the ball, as the US, sitting deep, did very little in the way of applying pressure or making life difficult in possession.

Further, McCarty had four turnovers, despite missing only one pass. That means he lost the ball in possession three times, and when you do that and you start in deep areas, it helps the opponent create chances

When the US did lumber forward, they were often caught out in transition, with McCarty struggling to deal with the pace of Panama’s transitions. This created other issues, as Zusi and Villafana were often hesitant in possession, determined to be there to help should Panama break.

To some extent, this is the risk with Dax McCarty in international football.

It isn’t a popular opinion, to be sure, but it’s one I’ve hinted at in both my Ghana recap and the preview I wrote for this match. For all the things Dax does well as a calm distributor and no-nonsense positional defensive midfielder, the US also must adjust tactically to playing him as a deep six. Today, that meant playing what ultimately was too deep a back line to compensate for his lack of footspeed on breaks.

The net result of this was the Americans never made Panama uncomfortable when they had the ball, and when the Americans did have the ball, they struggled with spacing in the midfield. Joe Corona’s frustrating and abbreviated evening is proof of this, as he was consistently caught between the choice of playing underneath Dwyer and helping peel defenders away from his forward, or dropping deeper and helping Acosta and McCarty connect.

For the Americans, there won’t be another opponent with the midfield ability to test the United States centrally in the group. After this performance, it’s hard to imagine how Bruce Arena won’t include Michael Bradley in the team for the knockout rounds. His presence was missed Saturday, both from a tactical and a leadership standpoint.

Bruce Arena’s changes and adjustments couldn’t solve the Panama riddle Saturday afternoon.

For the first time in his second US tenure, Bruce Arena didn’t get the adjustments or the changes right.

The US needed to ratchet up the tempo in this game, and they needed pace and width to peel Panama away from the overloads in the midfield zones and zone eleven in front of the Canal Men goal.

One way to speed up play would be to move the defensive line higher up the field, increasing the pressure on Panama in possession in an effort to create chances on the break. The US opted not to do this, sticking to a deep line with McCarty almost swallowed by the gap-prone CB pair of Gonzalez and Besler.

Another way would have been to remove one of the wide players- Rowe or Bedoya- who were playing more as tucked-in shuttlers- and bring in a purer wide winger.

The removal of Kenny Saief due to injury certainly limited Arena’s options, but the choice to bring on Jordan Morris and, Gyasi Zardes, in favor or Paul Arriola were truly odd, given Arriola’s propensity for smart and pacy runs down the flank.

But Arena is a self-reflexive manager, even if he joked about being a “poorly coached team” after the game. He’ll evaluate the changes, and the US will quickly move forward, in a strong position to win the group.

And at least the Americans didn’t get outshot 25-5.

The US should consider some defensive changes for Wednesday’s match in Tampa.

Graham Zusi made a spectacular play early in the game when the US had been caught out, but was otherwise largely ineffective on the evening, and bad enough helping in the channels that the US CB pairing was gap-prone, with Gonzalez often drifting to help Zusi wide. Zusi’s adventurous evening also limited the influence of Bedoya getting forward, as the Union midfielder was clearly instructed to “help Graham” first.

Zusi’s teammate in Kansas City, Matt Besler, also struggled, getting consistently beat to 50/50 balls and failing to deal well with Panama’s speed and physicality. His positional defense on Camargo late may have saved the US from a humiliating defeat, but with Matt Hedges on the bench and Steven Birnbaum available at home, the US may want to explore other options in the center.

Meanwhile, it’s time for the US to give Eric Lichaj a look at right back. The thinking here is only preseason fitness issues are holding the Nottingham Forest FC fullback out at present, but the US have two games against lesser opposition to work through those issues ahead of the group stages, and playing a natural fullback who plies his trade in the Championship is a formula that already works for the United States (see Yedlin, DeAndre). Why not again?

Finally, Kelyn Rowe looks like a guy who will make the World Cup roster, should the Americans qualify.

He was the best American player by some distance Saturday, testing Jose Calderon, typically the backup keeper for Panama, from distance early and consistently finding himself in threatening positions His touch, deke and precision cross to Dom Dwyer were as lovely as the goal itself, and were a just reward on a night where he was often the only American midfield player willing to take defenders on and try to create.

His flexibility is the stuff smart World Cup managers like Arena dream about too- he can play wide, central, advanced, deep- even fullback in a pinch- and he’s smart with the ball in traffic. The US will fall behind at a World Cup or, at some point, have twenty minutes or so to find a winner. Kelyn Rowe is a player that can help you find goals, and showed again Saturday he’s a strong candidate for that role.

Neil W. Blackmon is the Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.