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Dwyer provides holiday fireworks on USA debut in Gold Cup tune-up win vs. Ghana

Dom Dwyer took little time to leave a mark on the USMNT, scoring on his debut and helping the USA to a 2-1 win over Ghana in preparation for the Gold Cup.

Wearing proper national colors for the first time in a long time, the U.S. national team on Saturday afternoon kicked off the Independence Day holiday and, it hopes, a run toward a sixth continental title with a 2-1 exhibition win over a former World Cup nemesis.

In their only game prior to this month's CONCACAF Gold Cup, which they kick off next Friday, the Americans took an early lead and held on for a victory over Ghana at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Connecticut. Dom Dwyer and Kellyn Acosta each scored their first international goals, Brad Guzan saved a penalty kick and the USA looked composed and comfortable for most of the match. The performance wasn’t perfect. But it’ll give coach Bruce Arena’s squad a lift heading toward a Gold Cup group stage featuring opponents that aren’t as strong as the Black Stars.

Here are three thoughts on the win:

Plenty of fireworks on Dwyer’s debut

Dwyer left England in 2009 hoping to get an education and perhaps play a little soccer at a Texas junior college. He made his U.S. debut on Saturday, and he played with a level of vigor and energy that looked like he’d been holding something in for eight long years.

“I’ve been raring to go for a while,” the Sporting Kansas City forward said this week.

It showed. While critics can nitpick over a few unfortunate touches—Dwyer probably could’ve had a hat trick—his work-rate, ability to sniff out chances, and his energetic and intelligent running off the ball was outstanding. There’s obviously room for improvement, but it’s safe to say Dwyer made a strong case to start at the Gold Cup and perhaps challenge for a place on Arena’s World Cup qualifying roster.

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If Dwyer felt any nerves in his maiden international, which took place three months after he became an American citizen, they manifested themselves as excess energy. Dwyer had his first chance in the 14th minute but gave himself a tougher shooting angle with a hard first touch. His weak shot was easily handled by Black Stars goalie Richard Ofori. Moments later, Dwyer demonstrated his ability to draw attention from multiple defenders as he ran onto a pass from Kelyn Rowe. But Dwyer was rubbed out by Ghana’s two center backs.

Then, in the 19th minute, the fireworks. Left back Jorge Villafaña created the play with smart pressure and a few deft touches on the left. Joe Corona took the initial shot, but it hit Villafaña and popped up in the air. Dwyer volleyed it viciously over Ofori and celebrated with a backflip that reached similar heights.

Dwyer kept running. He drew what probably should’ve been a red-card foul from Ofori in the 24th. And then in the 51st, Dwyer tracked down Black Stars defender John Boye, stole the ball and fed Rowe with a smart through ball. Rowe was fouled and Acosta converted the ensuing free kick into the game-winning goal.

Dwyer probably should have tallied his second in the 58th minute as he turned on a poor touch by a Ghanaian defender, but his wide-open shot went straight to Ofori. That was the negative. The positive was that Dwyer demonstrated clearly that he offers a level of combativeness, awareness and vision the USA could use up front. Since he established himself as a regular MLS goal scorer in 2013, many wondered if Dwyer could make the transition to the national team. He’s now firmly in the mix.

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Arena’s tactics fit the occasion

Asked this week about how Arena has helped reverse the USA’s World Cup qualifying fortunes, Guzan told ESPN Arena is “making sure we’re organized and we’re ready to step on to the field and compete, and not only compete but find a way and know how we’re going to get results.”

Defender Omar Gonzalez added: “We’re a lot more prepared leading into these games. He makes players feel very comfortable right when they get into camp, and I think players are showing a lot more confidence and it’s been helping. We’ve found our identity.”

Arena’s split-squad tactics in last month’s World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico demonstrated his commitment to detail and planning. And even though Saturday’s game was a mere friendly, Arena and his staff found a way to get a good look at several players while putting them in position to succeed against the given opponent.

Knowing Dwyer plays alone up front at SKC, Arena obviously had no issue asking the forward to do similar work against Ghana. It’s rough and exhausting, but Dwyer’s ability to occupy defenders, take a beating and run in behind made a significant difference in the attack. Arena then was able to deploy five in midfield. Joe Corona played as a No. 10 in front of Acosta and Dax McCarty. The trio clogged the middle, slowing the Black Stars down and forcing them frequently to the flanks. There, Rowe and Paul Arriola were waiting. Both are willing to run but perhaps more importantly, both had the technical ability to make Ghana pay when the ball turns over.

The USA’s width, spacing and coverage was solid, and it was provided by energetic players comfortable in possession and capable of relieving pressure or hitting a quick pass through the lines that forced Ghana onto the back foot. It was a lineup that was almost conservative and yet attacking simultaneously, and it was the right way to go against a team that attacks at speed and gets frustrated when forced to play more deliberately. Structure and a bit of skill were enough to carry the day.

As a result, the game frequently was played at a pace that suited the USA, which dominated possession (58% to 42%) and created the better chances. Ghana’s goal came on a long, beautiful free kick from 2010 World Cup killer Asamoah Gyan in the second half. The Black Stars put only three shots on target, and one was the penalty saved by Guzan.

Arena and the USA now have a week to prepare for Panama.

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Making their Gold Cup case

Dwyer was far from the only player to make his case for significant Gold Cup minutes on Saturday.

Corona hadn’t played for the USA in two years, but he finished the season strong at Club Tijuana and fit in seamlessly upon his return on Saturday. Of course it helped that he had McCarty and Acosta behind him, but Corona’s ability to generate an attack or force defenders to move with his first touch was impressive. Having a player can receive the ball with a pass in mind can help any team, and it’ll be worth seeing if he can do the same against Gold Cup opponents that play more compact.

Rowe showed similar confidence on the ball. The New England Revolution midfielder, who was making his international debut, was proactive and creative in possession and helped set up Acosta’s goal with a smart cut to the right that forced the fateful foul.

Graham Zusi had some good moments at right back, getting forward on occasion and shutting down Chicago Fire attacker David Accam with a nice first-half tackle. And Guzan demonstrated that he’s still a contender for the No. 1 role with his wonderful diving save on Gyan’s penalty in first-half stoppage time. The foul was called after Villafaña tugged on Frank Acheampong’s jersey.

McCarty and Acosta were an effective center midfield partnership. The former was beaten for size and speed once or twice but was accurate and efficient with the ball and an adept organizer. And the latter, of course, scored the winning goal.