Saturday might have been the best performance of Bruce Arena’s most recent tenure. Facing the toughest test of this ongoing Gold Cup run, the U.S. Men’s National Team shined from top to bottom continuing a recent hot streak with what seemed like the team’s first truly good performance.
The USMNT is bound for the Gold Cup final thanks to Saturday’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica. Were there moments of doubt? Sure. Jordan Morris’ early shot off the post seemed like it could come back to haunt a USMNT group that dominated possession but had little to show for it. However, at no point did the USMNT seem in any danger as only the threat of penalty kicks seemed to lead to anything but a USMNT victory.
Eventually, the breakthrough came from Jozy Altidore, removing any doubt as the USMNT cruised towards a Gold Cup final. It was a game and a performance that showed just how good even this current weakened group could be, a positive sign headed towards a chance at claiming a trophy.
Here’s a closer look at the big takeaways from Saturday’s match:
For the past year or so, there’s been plenty of debate over where Clint Dempsey fits in with this current USMNT but, if Saturday showed us anything, it showed that Dempsey has a major role to play in 2018 and perhaps several years after.
Dempsey finally equaled Landon Donovan’s goalscoring mark with his second half free kick but, in many ways, it wasn’t his goal that stood out. From the second he stepped on the field as Bruce Arena’s first substitute, the game changed. The U.S. was suddenly more dangerous and more crisp simply because Dempsey was on the field. Jozy Altidore’s goal soon followed on a majestic Dempsey through ball and, from that moment on, it was hard to see a way where the U.S. wouldn’t win Saturday’s game.
It’s a role that fits Dempsey well. Even at his age, Dempsey remains one of the team’s fiercest competitors. Few players play harder and commit more, and that’s what has made Dempsey so special for all of these years. Can he do that for 90 minutes each and every night? Probably not. But off the bench, that’s a weapon and a luxury that few teams have.
Dempsey will get his chances, sure, but keeping him off as a bazooka off the bench seems to be an ideal fit for both the player and the group. His minutes may dwindle, but Saturday showed that Dempsey can still make as big an impact as anyone in a USMNT jersey.
Would anyone complain if the USMNT midfield looked a lot like that on a more consistent basis? Yes, Christian Pulisic was gone, taking away the spearhead in the attacking third, but the three players that ran the show on Saturday might have offered a glimpse into how the USMNT can start in Russia 2018.
At this point, you can pencil Michael Bradley in and, regardless of what you think of his overall game, his performances this season have been worthy of it all. Under Arena, Bradley has been an absolute star in the defensive midfield, building on his successes with Toronto by helping guide the USMNT through this unbeaten run.
Next to him, Kellyn Acosta simply looks better when he isn’t tasked with being the midfield leader. When played next to Bradley, Acosta steps his game up each and every time, becoming a force that has the legs to jump from the attacking to defensive ends with ease. At some point, he will be asked to become “the man” in the midfield, but he doesn’t have to be yet. Acosta can simply play his game, pick his spots and help the USMNT win midfield battles like they did on Saturday.
The same can be said of Darlington Nagbe, whose technical ability continues to shine through. Nagbe has his faults, sure, and his inability to use his superior skillset to simply take over remains frustrating, but there are few players out there as good in tight spaces.
When Pulisic returns, would anyone complain of a diamond featuring him and the three players above? It may or may not be the look for Russia but, right now, it might be the best midfield setup for the USMNT.
BESLER EFFORT FURTHER COMPLICATES CENTERBACK PICTURE
Matt Besler was in need of a big effort. The centerback depth chart gets deeper and tighter by the week and, as one of the group’s veterans, Besler was at risk of falling down the depth chart with the World Cup a year away.
He provided one of his best USMNT performances in recent memory. He had one bad touch in the first half, but Besler immediately settled down and became the rock of the USMNT defense. He made several vital clearances and never got truly beat by a group of weakened but still dangerous Costa Rica attackers.
It was extra good for the U.S. as Omar Gonzalez had his first down game of the tournament. It happens, and Gonzalez’s standing as the third centerback is all but locked down at this point. One decent but not great performance is going to do little to harm that.
With players like Matt Miazga, Matt Hedges and even Walker Zimmerman chasing, Besler and Gonzalez have shown well this tournament, demonstrating why they may possibly be back for a second World Cup.
HOWARD SHOWS WHY HE REMAINS NO. 1
If there was any doubt remaining over who should start in goal for the USMNT, it should be well gone after Saturday. Tim Howard is and has been the best goalkeeper in the USMNT picture, and he’s going to be until someone takes that throne from him.
After making a game-changing one-on-one save against El Salvador, Howard made a pair of wonderful stops on Saturday. Even on obvious goalscoring opportunities, Howard just seems to be there, sliding off his line to make a spectacular save.
With Howard in goal, and this isn’t a knock on Brad Guzan, the defense just seems to play better. There are less errors, fewer mistakes. There’s more confidence, and that just shows the impact Howard has and how it resonates through each player in front of him. He has a presence, and it’s felt.
Now, a lot can change now that Guzan will be getting regular playing time. Guzan has been joining USMNT camp relatively cold each and every camp for the past year or so, and that obviously impacts a player. His first performance with Atlanta United was a very good one, but he’ll have a lot of work to do if he wants to unseat Howard after performances like Saturday’s.
ARENA CONTINUES TO PUSH THE RIGHT BUTTONS
There was plenty to criticize from the USMNT’s first four Gold Cup matches. They were largely ugly affairs, devoid of much chemistry and rhythm. There was little to criticize on Saturday, though, as Arena’s long-term roster-balancing seemingly paid off at the right time.
It’s been easy to see the USMNT’s deficiencies over the last few weeks. The group was largely disconnected, and it should be expected given the lack of familiarity. Still, Arena continues to shift and reshape his lineups, starting a whopping 27 players along the way. Now, it seems to be paying off as the USMNT heads into Wednesday’s final relatively fresh.
In the nearly eight months since he took over, Arena has yet to push a wrong button. He remains unbeaten through his second tenure as USMNT boss. Despite all of the defensive issues that have seemingly popped up, the U.S. has allowed just seven goals in 13 games. Veterans look energized and new MLS-based faces have moved in.
Obviously, every coach has a honeymoon period. Arena’s has, thus far, been an extended one, mostly because he has yet to truly slip ups since taking charge of the national team. Now, the USMNT faces a Gold Cup final, a match that could swing the dynamic, but make no mistake: the USMNT seems to be on the right track.