Saturday July 11th, 2015

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The record will show that the U.S. national team won its CONCACAF Gold Cup group after only two games. But the scoreboard doesn’t begin to show how difficult it was to do so. Three days after struggling to beat Honduras, the Americans squeaked by a dangerous Haitian squad, 1-0, before 46,720 fans on a temporary grass field at Gillette Stadium.

Clint Dempsey scored his third goal of the tournament—he’s the only American to find the net so far—and goalkeeper Brad Guzan made a spectacular second-half save to rob Haiti (0-1-1) of a draw it probably deserved. The U.S. (2-0-0) will move on (not before playing Panama on Monday) but has plenty of work to do to find its championship form.

Here are three thoughts from Foxborough:

Dempsey does it again

Dempsey’s "This is Your Life" Gold Cup tour continued Friday in the stadium where he launched his pro career.

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On Tuesday in Frisco, Texas, a few hours northwest of where he grew up and not far from where he played soccer as a youth, Dempsey scored both goals in the Americans’ 2-1 win over Honduras.

Three days later, he brought some welcome relief to his struggling team with the game-winner at Gillette Stadium, where he starred for the New England Revolution before heading to England in 2007.

Dempsey started the game in midfield, playing behind forwards Jozy Altidore and Aron Jóhannsson. He drifts back to find the ball frequently anyway, so U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann likely felt that Dempsey’s skill, along with two outlets in front, might facilitate the possession and attacking pressure the U.S. lacked in Frisco.

It didn’t work. The U.S. frequently found itself bogged down in midfield and lacked the width and the movement up front to threaten Haiti. Instead, it was the visitors’ speed and inventiveness on the counter that nearly broke the game open. Les Grenadiers came close to taking the lead on a couple of occasions, and both teams were lucky to be level at halftime. Haiti missed its chances, and Jóhannsson had a perfectly legitimate goal called back by some trademark CONCACAF officiating in the 34th minute.

Klinsmann removed the ineffective Altidore at halftime, put LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes on the left wing and brought Mix Diskerud into the middle alongside Michael Bradley. Dempsey pushed forward, where he’s more dangerous, and within two minutes the U.S. was in front.

Left back Greg Garza hit a looping ball to Zardes in the penalty area, and the 23-year-old chested it down and hit a smart pass back toward the 18-yard line. Dempsey found the seam and hammered home a first-time shot. It was his fourth goal in three games since his five-month break from the national team, and it was enough to win a very close game in Foxborough. Zardes, meanwhile, continued to demonstrate the potential he demonstrated in last month's wins over Netherlands and Germany.

• Full 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup schedule

The lineup changed but the struggle continued

With three group-stage games scheduled in seven days, it was no surprise that Klinsmann overhauled his starting 11 on Friday. Bradley, Altidore and Dempsey were the only outfield players to return (Guzan remained as well). Meanwhile, the back four was entirely new (Tim Ream earned his first U.S. start in four years) and the speed of Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin, which was preferred against Honduras, was replaced by the passing and pragmatism of Diskerud and Graham Zusi. Bradley played in a more withdrawn position than he has in recent U.S. games.

The Americans were plodding and ponderous, unable to break through while finding it difficult to keep up with the Haitians on the break. The U.S. had nearly 70% of the ball in the first half, but other than Jóhannsson’s “goal,” wasn’t able to do much with it. Meanwhile, forward Duckens Nazon lead a stylish Grenadier attack that was unlucky not to score.

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​Mechack Jérôme, who plays for the USL’s Charlotte Independence, grazed the crossbar with a 10th-minute free kick and Nazon saw a good chance blocked six minutes later. In the 21st, Wilde Donald Guerrier shanked his open look at goal. Haiti kept coming, and was effective slowing or fouling the U.S. when the ball turned over.

The game opened up more in the second half. Dempsey got his goal and the U.S. had a bit more room to work with once Klinsmann opened up the midfield.

But Haiti still created a couple of good chances. Guzan came up huge in the 57th, stoning Nazon on a point-blank shot, and the visitors looked every bit the favorites’ equal despite falling short in the end.

Klinsmann and his players said repeatedly following the Honduras game that Haiti would present another tough challenge. The Americans noted the speed and unpredictability they would face in Foxborough, not to mention the discipline that saw Haiti hold Panama to one goal in the opener. It wasn’t lip service. Haiti was the real deal, and the U.S. once again will be left feeling happy about the ultimate result, but frustrated it wasn’t able to take consistent control of the game.

Time to rest and evolve

The 1-1 draw between Panama and Honduras earlier Friday, plus the U.S. win, clinched the group for the Americans. Monday’s group-stage finale against Panama in Kansas City now is meaningless to the U.S., which will play its quarterfinal on July 18 in Baltimore. That gives Klinsmann a week, plus 90 minutes against Panama, to find a combination that works.

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Bradley and Dempsey, who went 90 minutes against Honduras and Haiti, may get a rest on Monday. Three games in a week wouldn’t be easy, but then again, testing different combinations without those two on the field won’t be very informative. There are questions. Is Altidore’s hamstring the reason for his sluggish performances? Is Alejandro Bedoya (knee) close to returning? And what of the six changes Klinsmann can make to his roster prior to the knockout stage?

Almost a quarter of the team could change over between the Panama match and the quarterfinal.

The U.S. has survived and advanced, but it hasn’t impressed. It was unable to keep the ball against Honduras and unable to create much against Haiti, which looked like the more dangerous team for significant portions of the match. Now there’s a bit of a breather, and the story will be less about the result against Panama than about the choices Klinsmann makes next week. Much like the women’s national team that just claimed the World Cup title, the U.S. men are in good shape, but an unknown quantity, two games into their tournament.

GALLERY: U.S. Soccer in 2015

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