The United States was in an awkward position after their draw last Saturday against Panama. With the strongest two teams in the group having played each other, the following two games were turned into a competition for who could crush the minnows harder in order to take that first place spot (and almost certainly avoid Costa Rica and Mexico until the semis). There was a bit of good luck for the USMNT going into this match, with Panama managing to beat Nicaragua just 2-1. This match, against tiny Martinique, presented a big opportunity for the team to beat on a team made up almost entirely of domestic players and drive up that scoreline.
However, nobody stepped up to grab hold of the game and really force Bruce Arena into thinking about their name down the road. The offense was stale and wasteful. The midfield was disconnected, dysfunctional, and left the defense exposed. This was Martinique. A tiny island nation fielding semi professionals. The USMNT barely beat them. A win is a win, but that does not mean I will be charitable to the players. This was a bad performance and the lessons we've learned are not the ones we were hoping to be talking about before the match. With that, let's get started.
Bruce Arena's USMNT Has a Clear Identity
The team scored three goals. The first came from some slightly scrappy clean up after a set piece. The second after a fullback pushed hard into the final third and then crossed for the striker. The third goal also featured some play between a fullback and a striker before Jordan Morris played Gyasi Zardes in. There was also a plethora of balls over the top for runners to track down. This is a USMNT that wants to focus on counterattacking and snatching goals from set pieces. When forced into possession, the desire is for the wingers to come inside while the fullbacks push forward hard. We've seen this pretty consistently from Arena’s teams. Whether we’re talking about friendlies, World Cup qualifiers, or this B team for the Gold Cup, the USMNT has a clear and obvious style that it wants to play.
There Is Not Enough Creativity
There might be a clear identity for the USMNT as a counterattacking team, but that leaves an open question of what the team will do when forced into having possession. Martinique let the USMNT have the ball, but the Americans had very few ideas. In the first half, the team mostly resorted to playing Zardes into space and letting him overhit a cross towards the back post. The second half got more open, with Martinique putting numbers forward. In the first part of the second half, the USMNT began to combine through the fullbacks who had begun to push forward. After the hour mark, the team resorted to playing Morris in over the top. Juan Agudelo was the only player consistently combining in the final third. Agudelo was too isolated up top to effectively create chances. And that goes into a problem that the USMNT had for some time going back into Klinsmann's reign.
Until Christian Pulisic emerged onto the scene, the midfield was easily shut down and the attack stuttered. The USMNT was only dragged forward to the semifinals of the last Gold Cup out of the will and nerve of the striker, Clint Dempsey. There's a lot of talent in this group of midfielders, but there wasn’t the kind of player who drives the attack forward and connects enough against Martinique. When presented with a tight and organized defense that is content not to hold the ball, the team runs out of ideas. Pulisic helped break that problem, but the question of what happens if he can't play or if a team figures out how to shut him down still remains. We've learned that this midfield pairing of Cristian Roldan and Kellyn Acosta isn't dynamic enough to generate chances (though this may be able to improve with repetition) and that Paul Arriola, while hard working and useful, isn't really the guy for creating goals. The team needs to find ways for that depth to connect and get in between the lines.
USMNT Needs that Speed on the Wing
One of the clear problems in the Panama game was the lack of pace. That wasn't the case today, with Morris and Zardes finding acres to plow through. The back 3 that Martinique played allowed for them to pack the box, but it left only a single man outside to cover for Zardes (and Arriola and the fullbacks). Morris also helped expose the defense by repeatedly getting in behind and on goal (though that's not how he eventually scored his brace). All of this gets the defense backpedaling, creating space, and stretching the midfield and defense apart. You can see this most clearly on the third goal, with Morris checking back to receive a pass from Justin Morrow and setting Zardes on a run to the byline.
But the players stretching the field need to be much more effective. Zardes had so much space in the first half because Martinique couldn't be bothered to mark him. He stayed out wide, blocking Morrow from making overlapping runs. He himself didn't make runs until the ball was played into him. At that point, he usually put in a cross that led to nothing. He didn't take players on or drive forward. He didn't use his physicality as a real advantage to boss the defense. For the most part, he played it safe. That is, until he was played in by Morris in the 71st minute. We need more driving play forward, more attempts to stretch the field.
Morris made more out of this performance, threatening on goal and bagging a brace. But as I'll touch on later, much of it was ineffective. He wasn't able to break in behind, instead capitalizing on cutbacks with late runs. And that was the extent of his game. If you are going to be in the striker position, there needs to be more substance.
The Kids Aren't Quite Alright
There were a lot of pretty young players getting playing time here. All three of Arriola, Roldan, and Acosta are, at most, 22. All three underwhelmed. You might as well add Morrow and Matt Hedges to that list as they each have a limited number of caps. Roldan was fairly bad, unable to exercise sway in the match and committing defensive errors. He looked overmatched and overawed, even against inferior talent. Acosta was not nearly as bad as he was against Panama, but this was his opportunity to grab a hold of the match. And he let that opportunity slide, putting in a pedestrian performance with mediocre service, passing, and defense. Arriola was, I suppose, fine. While he covered a lot of ground, he didn't do a lot to break through that defense. And Hedges got exposed twice, including on the second goal.
This Gold Cup was supposed to be an opportunity for fringe players to make a name for themselves and audition for fringe spots on the World Cup roster. That process hasn't gone as planned, with poor performances in each of the first two group stage matches. In particular, the central midfield depth seems glaringly thin, but that doesn't mean that there isn't some potential for improvement. Some of these partnerships can hopefully improve and develop chemistry with practice over time. There were also points where we maybe learned of some good opportunities.
The Fullbacks Have Potential
I am reluctant to say that Justin Morrow or Eric Lichaj were actually good. However, they have some potential. Morrow was solidly invisible in the first half. After the break, in contrast, he pushed forward hard and helped create more room in the final third. But his positioning frequently overlapped with Zardes. The result was the winger going mostly invisible.
On defense, this was a solid problem, with Morrow and Zardes frequently covering same-ish space. The first goal from Martinique was a result of a failure for the defending players to rotate and cover into space. The goal is a stunning collapse of marking space from a plethora of players, but the lack of communication and initiative between Morrow and Zardes here has me particularly furious. In the moments before the highlights start, Martinique played a ball wide, out onto the USMNT’s left flank. Zardes was well behind the initial switch, giving the winger time to get on the ball. After the ball was cleared and fell to another Martinique player on the left, Zardes remained deep, marking the earlier winger. Morrow ends up halfway between Hedges and Zardes, defending nobody. With time and space on the ball and Zardes failing to press in his part of the field, both Roldan and Alejandro Bedoya get sucked in towards the ball. That leaves a gap between the midfield and defense, the ball gets played in, and Parsemain pegs one back. This wasn't the only defensive error. There was a foul in a dangerous area in the closing minutes, with Martinique pushing to steal a point. Along with Hedges, Morrow kept Parsemain onside for the second goal. It was not the kind of performance one hoped for or expected.
Morrow has the opportunity to take a run at the left back spot. Jorge Villafana currently appears to have the inside track with Fabian Johnson slated as a midfielder. But, recently, Villafana's defending has been found lacking at times. Morrow has made a name for himself as a high attacking fullback/wingback in MLS. If he can show a combination of attacking drive and defensive solidity, then that spot could be his. But, based on this appearance, that appears to be a big ask.
Eric Lichaj had a much more solid game. He was more defensively aware, solidly marking the right side for effectively the first hour. He pushed hard at times, making the run and the cross for the team's second goal. However, he was badly beaten on the second Martinique goal. The ball whizzed past him THREE times before rolling into the net, leaving him flailing in a sad little circle.
Both Agudelo and Morris are Flawed Specialists
One of the big plot lines for the Gold Cup was the battle over striker. Juan Agudelo, Jordan Morris, and Dom Dwyer are all competing for probably one spot on the World Cup roster, behind Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey (Deuce may be in a different role by then, but we'll see about that). Dwyer has already shown well, with good, battling performances, complete with a goal in each of his two caps, including against Panama. Agudelo and Morris had a prime opportunity to show what they could contribute. Both of them put in decent performances, standing out as better players compared to the mediocrity of the rest of the team.
Morris was able to bag two goals, along with breaking in on goal a few times. But he contributed little else to the game, disappearing in build up play and occasionally giving the ball away. It was a bit like seeing a version of Michael Owen again. Blazingly fast, slightly skillful at times, and that's it. But the game has changed since Owen's heyday, back around the turn of the millennium. Since then, the game has moved on. Morris might be able to terrorize Martinique with his speed, but he's got to show more for the national team in order to get past stronger and smarter defenses. He's had a rough season so far with the Sounders, with some injury struggles and loss of form, so a pair of goals is certainly welcome. But as a striker, he needs to bring in a little bit more. Morris can also appear on the wing. And, to me, that's really what his play looked more like: effective wing play.
In contrast, you have Agudelo. He's silky on the ball. He fights and physically contests against defenders. He checks back, holds up the ball, and feeds his on rushing teammates, but he isn't scoring. He isn't really even shooting. Now, Agudelo's had a solid run of form, bagging goals with the Revolution. But he's got to bring that to the national team as well. Morris has the advantage of being something different from the other options up top. He's a bit of a second striker and speedster. While Agudelo's not exactly slow, he's competing against Altidore, Wood, and Dwyer for a spot as a hold-up man. There's some flexibility, with Agudelo also hypothetically able to play on the wing. He can also play in both a single striker or dual set up. But, unlike the other competition, he's not bagging the goals right now.
What do you think? Did you have different take aways from the game against Martinique? Do you disagree? Talk about in the comments!