Panama plays USA tight again, Dwyer strengthens case in Gold Cup-opening draw

Dom Dwyer scored in a second straight game for the USA, but a lack of overall sharpness forced the Americans to settle for one point to open Group B play in the Gold Cup.
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The excitement preceding Saturday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup opener between the USA and Panama melted away pretty quickly in the heat and humidity of mid-day Nashville. The match at Nissan Stadium became sluggish in short order, and the momentum generated by the Americans’ promising performance in last week’s friendly against Ghana dissolved soon after kickoff as well.

Coach Bruce Arena made only a couple changes from the team that defeated Ghana, deploying the experienced Alejandro Bedoya and Omar Gonzalez in place of Paul Arriola and Matt Hedges. But the USA still played tentatively and without much cohesion or connection. The hosts frequently failed to find each other, wilted too often in transition and in the end, may have been lucky to escape the Group B opener with a 1-1 draw.

Panama has proven to be a tough out for the USA in recent years, and this was the fourth consecutive 1-1 result between the sides. More concerning for Arena and Co. is the fact that Saturday’s game was only the fifth in 35 Gold Cup group stage contests that the USA failed to win. This was not a good start. Luckily for the Americans, it gets quite a bit easier from here.

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Here are three thoughts from Saturday’s disappointing draw.

Collectively and individually, the USA lacks sharpness

In March, the USA’s ‘A’ team went to Panama City for a World Cup qualifier and absorbed a bit of a beating. Los Canaleros were given leeway by the referee to be physical and they didn’t shy away.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of positive play,” Arena said of the match three months ago. “Every attack was stopped with a foul, and things got a little out of hand. My guess is in the Gold Cup, the referees will monitor the game a little closer.”

They didn’t need to. The visitors, which like the USA have entered the Gold Cup absent a bunch of regulars, let the heat and lack of American chemistry do the job for them.

Pick your poison. U.S. players lacked individual sharpness on the ball. There were too many passes sent awry or astray, including from players like Kellyn Acosta and Dax McCarty, who’d performed so soundly against Ghana. The USA’s spacing was poor, too. When they had the ball, the Americans frequently were spread too far apart and had difficulty establishing any sort of build-up or rhythm. They struggled with speed of play, and playmaker Joe Corona was a spectator.

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Absent the sort of possession that creates chances, the USA needed someone who could force the Panamanian defense to shift or make mistakes. But that player wasn’t in Nashville on Saturday. Then when the ball inevitably turned over, Panama broke out too easily and rarely was slowed down as it transitioned into the attack.

When the Americans did generate a chance, and when they took the lead on Dom Dwyer’s 50th-minute goal, they lacked the concentration and/or organization to tighten up and maintain momentum. Several of Panama’s best looks came shortly after U.S. opportunities, and Miguel Camargo’s 60th-minute equalizer came at the end of a sustained period of pressure that followed Dwyer’s opener.

“It was very tough conditions today,” Dwyer said following the game.

That’s certainly true, but it doesn’t explain the entirety of the hosts’ disjointed performance.

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Dwyer continues to make his case

The one U.S. field player who could leave Nissan Stadium with his head held higher, if he had the energy, was Dwyer. It’s now two caps and two goals for the new American citizen, whose relentless work-rate and awareness in the penalty area should keep him in frame for the Gold Cup knockout rounds and, perhaps, the final World Cup qualifiers this fall.

Absent a strike partner and any rhythm or sustained possession in the U.S. midfield, Dwyer was always destined for a lot of thankless running on Saturday. But he’s among the best in MLS at turning that energy into penalty area chaos and scoring chances, and he’s now done so in his two U.S. appearances as well. He executed a nice give-and-go with left back Jorge Villafaña in the 33rd minute that resulted in a shot from close range, and he created a chance for Acosta in the 46th with a brave header in traffic.

In the 50th, Dwyer became the ninth American—and just the fourth in the past 75 years—to score in each of his first two national team games. Left midfielder Kelyn Rowe did the more eye-catching work, receiving a throw-in on the left and beating two Panamanian defenders to the end line. But Dwyer’s contribution was exactly what one should hope for out of a goal scorer. He read the play, cut off his run and found the necessary yard of space in the penalty area and turned smartly on Rowe’s low cross before sliding the ball across the face of goal and off the right post.

Other U.S. players had isolated moments here and there (Rowe’s assist, for example), and Brad Guzan was outstanding in goal. But among those on the edge of the national team pool hoping to make a case for more meaningful minutes, Dwyer had the best argument on Saturday.

Arena now has a blank slate

The Group B title—and it matters because the winner faces a third-place team in the quarterfinals while the runner-up likely will get Honduras or Costa Rica—almost certainly will come down to goal difference. The USA and Panama now get to see who can deliver the bigger beatings to Martinique and Nicaragua (the Americans host the former on July 12 in Tampa).

If there’s a silver lining to Saturday’s performance, it’s that Arena no longer owes any of his players anything. Only Dwyer and Guzan, who would be starting in net anyway, are on any sort of roll. Everyone else left too much to be desired out on the Nissan Stadium pitch, giving Arena the opportunity to try new players, partnerships and formations. Graham Zusi had a rough day at right back, which should open the door for Eric Lichaj. Perhaps Justin Morrow should get a look as well on the left.

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Cristian Roldan is available in the middle, Gyasi Zardes may be ready for more minutes and Arriola has the sort of individual technical flair that might’ve made a difference against Panama. Up front, the U.S. could’ve used someone with the ability to stretch the Panamanian back line, not just wrestle with it while the build-up bogged down behind him. Both Jordan Morris and Juan Agudelo are available.

Then there are the six changes Arena can make to his roster following the group stage. He wants to win the Gold Cup, and the U.S. team that played Saturday didn’t look like one that can. This was the Americans’ most legitimate group-stage test, meaning Arena may now be even more tempted to send a note to the likes of Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe before the quarterfinals.