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USMNT has slow start, strong finish in Gold Cup tune-up vs. Guatemala

The U.S. men's national team started slowly but rolled to a 4-0 win over Guatemala in a pre-Gold Cup friendly in Nashville, Tennessee. Brian Straus on the major takeaways as the USMNT prepares to defend its Gold Cup crown.

The U.S. national team started slowly on Friday evening in Nashville but eventually found its footing on the recently-installed field at Nissan Stadium.

In its final friendly before the CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off next week, the Americans fought through a bit of self-inflicted adversity and eventually got (and earned) the result they wanted. The 4-0 win over Guatemala should leave the U.S, which is favored by many to repeat as continental champion, feeling buoyant as it heads to Dallas for Tuesday's Group A opener against Honduras.

Goals from Clint Dempsey, Timmy Chandler and Chris Wondolowski followed an own goal by a Guatemalan defender, while the LA Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes made his case for a starting role.

Here are three thoughts on the win:

U.S. dominant in second half

“It’s important to us to set the tone,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of the impact Friday’s game would have on the Gold Cup to come. “It’s important to start on the right foot and get a rhythm.”

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That goal was tough to achieve at first. The U.S. had been training together for only a few days, and it showed. Plus, it was up against an opponent set on disrupting its rhythm. The U.S. began the match without the sharpness and verve we saw during the friendlies last month in Europe. There wasn’t much in the way of chemistry or energy, and the hosts failed to find consistent answers against a Guatemalan team that was comfortable absorbing pressure.

In addition, the U.S. was just loose enough in back to give Los Chapines a couple of inviting looks at goal.

Jozy Altidore missed a first-half penalty kick and, if not for defender Carlos Castrillo’s 20th-minute own goal, the U.S. would have entered intermission in a scoreless tie with the world’s 93rd-ranked team.

Cue 2013 Gold Cup winners Stuart Holden and Landon Donovan:

The players-turned-pundits were right. The Americans, who wound up winning that 2013 friendly 6-0, ran over Guatemala after halftime, thanks in part to increased comfort with each other and some timely substitutions by Klinsmann. Zardes, who replaced Graham Zusi at the start of the second half, was especially impactful, and as the game wore on Michael Bradley and Dempsey had a lot more room with which to work.

The goals were stylish—Dempsey on a Panenka PK, Chandler with a long-range golazo and Wondolowski on a lovely set-up from Zardes—and demonstrated the gap in talent between the two sides.

Even with a sluggish start, the hosts never were going to have much difficulty with Guatemala, a nation that hasn’t beaten the U.S. in 21 games dating back to the late 1980s and which barely scraped by Bermuda in home-and-home World Cup qualifier last month.

Consider the tone set. But it’s going to get tougher starting next week.

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Big nights for Chandler, Zardes

Altidore scuffed a penalty kick and was stoned by goalkeeper Paulo Motta early in the second half. Dempsey, before his penalty, drifted in and out of the game and could have done better with Chandler’s 55th-minute cross. The forwards who will be relied upon to score this month will have to be better as the stakes and quality of the opposition rise.

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It turned out to be Chandler, the mercurial right back whose routine presence in the starting 11 still elicits criticism, who was wearing the finishing boots on Friday. His 58th-minute strike, which ended the Americans’ best spell of pressure to that point, was spectacular. 

The play that led to Chandler’s first international goal started when Mix Diskerud collected a loose ball and fed DeAndre Yedlin on the right.

Yedlin played an easy pass back to Chandler who had the time and space to take a touch, look up and rip a 30-yard blast past Motta and inside the left post.

There were a couple of miscues in back. Chandler left Guatemala’s Wilson Lalín all alone on a first-half header, for example. And that should be a defender’s first priority. But the goal, (not to mention the cross to Dempsey) offers an indication of why Klinsmann keeps offering chances to the Eintracht Frankfurt right back.

Zardes seized his opportunity in the second half. The 23-year-old made his U.S. debut only five months ago but appears to have developed a quick comfort with the international game. He was quite good in last month’s wins over the Netherlands and Germany and he changed the game on Friday as he tore through the Guatemalan right.

Zardes set up Altidore for the striker’s close-range chance in the 57th and turned a beautiful give-and-go in the 86th into a run toward the end line and an assist to Wondolowski. Zardes is confident, quick and skillful. He may not be the finished product and certainly will have more opportunities to show his stuff when the opponent can’t muster much of an attack. But he has qualities prized by Klinsmann and so far, his international trajectory looks promising.

Klinsmann's lineup hints

Klinsmann said Friday’s game would provide “a really big hint toward the starting 11” in next week’s Gold Cup opener against Honduras. So what might we have learned from a relatively sloppy game against a poor team that, thankfully featured a few highlight-reel goals?

For one, it appears Klinsmann assumes that the U.S. will win the possession battle against most CONCACAF opponents.

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He prepared his team for group-stage games against Honduras, Haiti and Panama without a stay-at-home defensive midfielder. Mix Diskerud played alongside Bradley while Kyle Beckerman was on the bench. And Klinsmann played Fabian Johnson at left back rather than in midfield, meaning the manager expected Johnson to overlap and contribute to the attack while still locking down the flank. You don't necessarily want to do that against a team that's going to have much of the ball.

With Yedlin on the right, Klinsmann’s four-man midfield wasn’t designed to clog the opposition’s passing lanes. It was designed to stretch the Guatemalans, get U.S. attackers in behind and open up space where Bradley and Dempsey could orchestrate the offense. It eventually worked.

Interestingly, the last time Diskerud and Bradley partnered in the middle and Dempsey started with Altidore up front was against CONCACAF rival Panama in February. And it was an easy 2-0 win for the U.S. Expect to see Beckerman play significant minutes in the Gold Cup, however, especially against teams with a bit more threat going forward.

In back, Omar Gonzalez and John Brooks started together for the first time since November 2013. They anchored the 12th different quartet in the 13 matches since the World Cup, and while it didn’t face consistent pressure, there were momentary lapses and a few scary moments on set pieces. Guatemala had its chances.

Gonzalez was immense against Mexico during the World Cup qualifying campaign and was very good in Brazil. Even though Friday’s game was only his second this year, he’s arguably the national team’s best pure defender when he's in form and should be at the heart of the back four. We’ll know Tuesday whether Klinsmann finally has found a combination he likes, or whether he’s prepared to switch it up again.

U.S. U-20 vs. El Salvador, January 24
USWNT vs. France, February 8
USWNT vs. England, February 13
USWNT vs. Norway, March 4
USWNT vs. Switzerland, March 6
USWNT vs. Iceland, March 9
U.S. U-17 vs. Jamaica, March 15
USMNT vs. Switzerland, March 31