With the Gold Cup sandwiched between an important slate of World Cup qualifiers in June and the beginning of the European club season in August, USMNT manager Bruce Arena supplanted the stars of the squad with fringe national team talent and youngsters. By giving the shoo-ins a rest and letting these marginal players get a long run in tournament play, he can identify which players can help the Americans at Russia 2018 and which ones can't, while still competing for the title.
In the 1-1 draw against Panama in the team's Gold Cup opener on Saturday, Arena achieved the former goal more than the latter. On a hot day in Nashville, a couple of U.S. players asserted themselves while a few others squandered a chance to do so with their poor play. And although the draw isn't what the team or fans hoped for in the first match of the competition, it shouldn't hinder their chances to come out of a weak Group C.
The player who asserted himself most in the opening match of the Gold Cup run was the USMNT's newest addition, Kansas City striker Dom Dwyer.
Now, "new" shouldn't be confused with "young." Dwyer, 26, was born in Cuckfield, England -- I'll let you make your own jokes -- and grew up in Norwich City's youth system. But with his size, it seemed a career in top-level English soccer was off the books. So Dwyer opted to play college soccer in America, eventually landing at the University of South Florida, then with Sporting Kansas City in the 2012 MLS SuperDraft.
For the past five seasons, Dwyer has been one of the better scorers in MLS, with 128 goals for K.C. so far in his career. In March, after eight years of residence in the States, he gained American citizenship, finally allowing him to suit up for the U.S., like his wife, Sydney Leroux, has done for the USWNT 75 times.
He got his first cap in the USMNT's warmup friendly with Ghana last week, making him the 48th American to score in his senior level debut. Against Panama, on Saturday, he doubled his scoring total, giving him two goals in two matches in a U.S. shirt. Despite getting just 10 touches in the first half, Dwyer was able to score a true poacher's goal, an instinctual swipe that beat the Panama keeper to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the 50th minute.
Another player who elevated his standing with the USMNT was the man on the assist, New England winger Kelyn Rowe. He played with determination on the attacking end, exemplified by the moves he showed against multiple Panamanian defenders in the build-up to the goal. Along with Kellyn Acosta, he was one of the few players driving the U.S. forward into attack for most of the match.
Rowe's day wasn't all good, though. He was also beaten on the flank after an ill-advised challenge in the build-up to Panama's equalizer. And although it was a poor decision on his part, there was poorer defending by a trio of Americans in the box.
Graham Zusi was particularly bad on this goal, allowing a Panamanian player to swoop in behind him and get off the first shot. Despite a fine save from Brad Guzan -- who played his best game for the States in a while -- Zusi remained flat-footed and didn't put up any kind of challenge as Miguel Camargo pounced on the rebound to level the score. With plenty of young players knocking on the door, performances like this one will do no favors for Zusi ahead of Russia.
The U.S. was weak in attack all day, stemming at least in part from the deployment of Joe Corona at central attacking midfielder spot of the 4-2-3-1. Playing him that position was an experiment by Arena, as Corona typically plays deeper in the midfield. It's the most important spot in midfield in terms of creating chances, and Corona didn't touch the ball enough to create much of anything. He didn't destroy any future chances with his performance today, but I'd be surprised to see him start in that central spot again.
Matches with Martinique and Nicaragua remain in group play, so the U.S. shouldn't be in any danger of missing the knockout round. Arena said he plans to rotate players in every match, so we'll still see plenty of more players who haven't seen the pitch, but we might not see any more of some of the guys who got a wasted their chance today.
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Cy Brown writes about soccer and other stuff for Sports on Earth. Follow him on Twitter @CEPBrown.