Neil W. Blackmon
The United States Men’s National Team finalized Gold Cup preparations with a 2-1 victory over Ghana Saturday at Pratt & Whitney Stadium. Bruce Arena fielded a largely experimental lineup in his fourth different formation since taking charge of the Yanks for a second time, and the US rewarded him by controlling the game throughout. A pair of American internationals scored their first goals for the Yanks, with Sporting Kansas City’s Dominic Dwyer scoring on his American debut and 21-year old Kellyn Acosta capping the US scoring with a brilliant free kick in the second half.
Here are TYAC’s four thoughts on the win, and what it means as the US begin play at the Gold Cup next Saturday in Nashville.
This team has plenty of creative options in the midfield, and Bruce Arena laid a blueprint for Gold Cup success by putting them in positions to succeed against a quality opponent.
The US lined up in a 4-2-3-1, initially tasking Club Tijuana midfielder Joe Corona as the central attacking playmaker. On paper, it was a questionable play. Cesar Farias asked Corona to do that when he first arrived in Tijuana several years ago, but the San Diego State alum’s most effective moments in Liga MX have always come as a deeper, wider midfielder who can create playing off a primary central playmaker.
Corona struggled inside initially, but the US quickly adjusted, slotting Kelyn Rowe of the New England Revolution inside and letting Corona start attacks from deeper and wider positions. Paul Arriola was less effective in his moments inside, but the fact he was given license to do so is more the point. The rotations made the US made the US attacking three behind Dominic Dwyer less predictable, and allowed Corona to play where he functions best and Rowe to excel in an imaginative, central role.
The inclusion of Corona, off one of his best years in Mexico, was expected with this Gold Cup side for months.
The inclusion of Kelyn Rowe, and his performance today, is more interesting moving forward. Rowe is having his best year in MLS by far, but it is his versatility, especially in the small sample size of international soccer tournaments, that is so useful. He’s played four different positions for Jay Heaps in New England this year alone, and in one hour on Saturday showed why, gliding seamlessly from wide positions to central ones, connecting passes and making dangerous runs. It was Rowe’s run that drew the foul setting up Acosta’s free kick goal, which ultimately proved decisive in the game.
The US will likely see better play from Paul Arriola in the Gold Cup. That his off-day didn’t matter much is a positive sign.
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What’s perhaps most worth noting regarding Rowe’s performance- and that of a few other players Saturday- is that they are yet another sign of how much better Bruce Arena knows the MLS portion of the US player pool than his predecessor.
Really perplexed that Rowe is just now getting his first cap….Great performance
— Amobi Okugo???? (@amobisays) July 1, 2017
That’s captured in Amobi Okugo’s pertinent tweet, but also evident in the effective positioning of Kellyn Acosta, the seamless partnership of Matt Besler and Matt Hedges, and the fact that…
Dom Dwyer delivered on his debut.
Soccer is a simple game we sometimes overcomplicate.
International debuts- maybe even more for an Englishman who attended college in America and fell in love with his adopted country- are often filled with nerves and “too much adrenaline”- the types of intangibles that diminish the quality of play.
Now on cycle three as an international manager, Arena understood this.
As such, the thinking here is the 4-2-3-1 was at least in part about Bruce Arena knowing that Dominic Dwyer plays alone up front at Sporting Kansas City, and the manager felt keeping things simple for Dwyer would give him the best chance to succeed on his debut.
It worked. Asking Dwyer to do a job similar to the one he does ahead of Benny Feilhaber for Peter Vermes, the Kansas City man looked immediately comfortable, making two early threatening runs at the Ghana goal. He continued to hammer away throughout the evening. It’s tedious work, but Dwyer’s ability to occupy defenders, take a beating and run in behind made a significant difference in the US attack.
Arena helped the team by helping the player, which is basically the one sentence description of a manager’s job.
Kellyn Acosta and Dax McCarty played well together against a quality side.
The starting central midfield duo controlled the game, pulling the strings in transitions and putting pass after pass on the feet of attackers.
Dax McCarty completed 95.4% of his passes (62-65), highest rate by #USMNT outfield starter in a game since Brooks & Orozco vs BOL last May.
— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) July 1, 2017
McCarty’s dazzling passing numbers are a credit to the effectiveness of the partnership. McCarty isn’t tasked to do too much in attack playing behind the higher FC Dallas man, and he can remain in comfortable positions on the pitch because he believes that Acosta (as well as a terrific Matt Hedges and Matt Besler) will compensate for the areas he can’t cover defensively.
There were two moments in this match, one at the beginning and one at the end of the opening half, where McCarty’s weaknesses internationally showed a bit. He lacks size and he lacks good foot speed, which makes him vulnerable if he gets too high, or if the US are forced to press and hurl bodies forward, which is apt to happen in international soccer games. Put differently, he’s liable to swift counterattacks against pace. But the US dealt with a similar issue from a tenured starting midfielder last cycle in Kyle Beckerman. Having Dax as a capable number two is a good feeling.
As for Acosta, his usually reliable set piece service was largely poor, save the splendid free kick goal.
— The American Outlaws (@AmericanOutlaws) July 1, 2017
What’s more important with Acosta is that he had a good rhythm with McCarty and he kept the US tempo up in attack, making quick decisions and playing lovely balls, frequently between the lines, that carved seams in the Ghana defense and helped the US attack the Black Stars from multiple angles.
It’s the partner for Michael Bradley we’ve long waited for, and his position in the US starting eleven is looking increasingly secure.
Brad Guzan’s penalty save on Gyan shows what a bit of self-belief can do.
First, the disclaimers.
It wasn’t the best penalty.
And in addition to taking Ghana’s penalties on occasion, Gyan was in the Premier League for a while and took four penalties in that league, so it isn’t unreasonable to think Guzan had a bit of video on the Black Stars forward.
Still, Guzan had to stretch and did well to not only get a hand to it, but force the ball out of play. It conjured memories of the type of shot-stopping Guzan became known for when he saved Aston Villa from relegation just three years ago, or when he made thirteen saves against Panama in a third place Gold Cup match two years ago.
What’s more- Guzan commanded his area in the air- looking quick and decisive gathering crosses and set pieces.
Guzan, in short, looked a confident keeper, and it’s hard not to think a solid performance against Mexico last month didn’t help, even if he may have been caught in-between a bit on Carlos Vela’s brilliant goal.
Guzan is only 32, and could have marvelous soccer ahead of him. As he heads into a crucial twelve months, this is a performance to build upon.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.