We all, somehow, survived the Gold Cup group stage. The United States squeaked by to win Group B with a squad that could charitably be described as somewhere between a B and a C team. It was ugly and at times painful to watch, but it’s over and the team avoids Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. Along with that, there’s a crop of new players added to the fray specifically to raise the attacking level of this team. However, along with these veteran players, Bruce Arena has made...interesting choices of which players should be replaced. So, what do the changes tell us about the team and Arena’s coaching philosophy in regards to this Gold Cup?
Arena Wants to Win
You don’t call in Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard if you’re using this tournament purely as a proving ground for players. Jesse Gonzalez? Sure. Darlington Nagbe? Maybe so. I can even see calling in Michael Bradley as another means of testing how the younger players on this Gold Cup squad react to playing with another starter from the first team. But Dempsey and Howard have a combined age of 72. They’re the only two current players that Arena also coached in his first tenure as USMNT head coach. There’s no reason to send them out to the Gold Cup to “see what they’ve got.” Both of these guys have proven that they still have more to give to the national team, and if anyone knows exactly what they bring to the team, it’s Bruce.
Alongside that fact, however, is that Bruce has continually preached rest for the both of them. Dempsey in particular has seemed unhappy when Bruce has erred on the side of giving his legs a break, but both players are at an age where recovery time takes longer. Taking them away from their clubs to jet around the country and potentially play 3 games in 8 days is not something that Arena will do flippantly, and signals real intent. This isn’t just some no-reason tournament. If it was, you keep Dom Dwyer and Kelyn Rowe and bring in younger, lesser players. Bruce wants to win the whole thing.
Don’t Look Back in Anger
Just because people like Dom Dwyer and Kelyn Rowe are leaving camp does not mean they didn’t impress or that Arena thinks other players he’s keeping were better than them. The people who have left camp have pretty specific replacements coming in for them, and many questions seem to have been answered about them. We know Dom Dwyer is a strong, goal-scoring forward that will work relentlessly and can play the lone-forward position. He also played a lot of minutes in the group stage, and with Dempsey and Jozy Altidore coming in, Bruce can afford to give him a rest. Same applies to Kelyn Rowe. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks Paul Arriola or Chris Pontius outplayed Rowe in the group stage. But Rowe also played more minutes than the other two, and Nagbe is a more than competent replacement. Cristian Roldan got his 90 minutes, but makes way for the Captain, and two keepers are replaced by another two keepers.
I don’t claim to agree with the philosophy at work here (what does Chris Pontius bring to the national team besides Google searches that come up with a member of Jackass? Not a rhetorical question), but it at least makes a bit of sense. The players kept were, by and large, people that Arena has worked with on the national team before this Gold Cup, players that didn’t get as many minutes in the group stage, and still have question marks lingering around them. So sure, I would rather have Rowe and Dwyer with the team the rest of the way. But I don’t think for a second that this tournament was a failure for them, either.
The flip-side of this is equally important. Arena was surprisingly gentle with people like Arriola, Pontius, and even Joe Corona and Gyasi Zardes, who started this camp slowly but seemed to have grown more into the tournament as games have gone on. To say Arriola in particular has been a disappointment so far this tournament would be a massive understatement, as the positive play and dependable crossing he provided in his cameos with the first team over the last year or so have dried up with bad giveaways and a lack of composure on the ball. All of these players still have much more to prove in order to gain a spot with the USMNT A team. They’ll need to take advantage of Arena’s grace in order to win them.
One area of concern where no help will be arriving is the U.S. defense, and that was probably the biggest problem in the group stage. If the defense looked weak against Panama, it looked like a wet paper towel against Martinique. The game against Nicaragua offered a little reprieve thanks to Nicaragua fielding the tried-and-true parked bus formation, but with no new defenders called in, just who is Arena’s back four? We’ve seen Jorge Villafaña, Justin Morrow, Matt Besler, Matt Hedges, Omar Gonzalez, Eric Lichaj, Graham Zusi, and Matt Miazga start at some point in the group stage, Arena’s full complement of defenders. It seems like he’s most comfortable moving forward with Villafaña and Zusi on the wings, and Matt Besler looks like he probably has the left centerback spot to himself, but who partners with him? Omar Gonzalez has the experience, Matt Hedges has the MLS pedigree that Arena likes, and Miazga has youth and promise, but all three have made their share of missteps.
This is a similar question to the one dogging the USMNT in the spring, when an injury bug forced Arena to play a back four of Villafaña, Tim Ream, Gonzalez, and Zusi in Panama. The absences of John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, and DeAndre Yedlin are huge, and there seems to be a steep drop-off in talent past the few first-choice players in defense. If any player can step up during the knockout round games, they have a good chance at riding that wave all the way to a potential World Cup roster spot. If not, Arena will be left to answer for the defenders he did bring along, and how they got it so wrong.