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Arena poised to rotate USA squad, offer more Gold Cup chances vs. Martinique

As Bruce Arena searches for a winning combination at the Gold Cup, more will get their chances to prove their worth, and a select few deserve a lengthy look vs. Martinique.

The first time the U.S. national team played Martinique, coach Bruce Arena had an American soccer who’s-who at his disposal. Kasey Keller was in net on that 2003 day at Gillette Stadium, and in front of him stood the likes of Carlos Bocanegra, Frankie Hejduk, Steve Ralston and captain Claudio Reyna. Landon Donovan probably should’ve scored at least a couple goals. Brian McBride did. And it was more than enough to see the USA into the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals with a perfect first-round record.

Arena and the Americans will face Martinique for just the second time as the 2017 Gold Cup continues on Wednesday night in Tampa (9 p.m. ET; FS1, UniMas). The chance at a perfect group stage has already vanished thanks to Saturday’s 1-1 tie with Panama, and Arena knows he’ll have to nudge his side back on to the title track without anything resembling the arsenal he had 14 years ago.

Only two members of the USA’s current Gold Cup squad have at least five international goals to their credit (and both Gyasi Zardes and Graham Zusi have initials that are ‘G.Z.’—that must be a world first). There are only a half-dozen Americans or so, at most, who might have better-than-average odds of playing in next summer’s World Cup. The rest have everything to play for, both over the next few days and in the long term. And thanks to a disappointing performance against Panama, a bunch will have the opportunity to do so.

“Bruce has said that we’re going to go through the whole roster, so next man up. Everybody has to be ready to take part in these games,” said midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who captained his country for the first time on Saturday. “We know that Martinique and [the final group stage opponent] Nicaragua maybe don’t offer the same as Panama, but we have to be mentally sharp and stay focused … We have to get a ‘W’ on Wednesday and a ‘W’ on Saturday."

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The wins shouldn’t be tough to come by. Martinique’s roster includes only four men who play in a first division outside the French department’s very modest domestic league. Three are in Europe (Greece, Belgium and Poland) and the fourth, defender Jordy Delem, plays right back for the Seattle Sounders. Les Matinino (1-0-0) defeated Nicaragua, Group B’s other underdog, 2-0 on Saturday. Their first victory of the tournament should be their last.

Instead, the USA's real competition should be internal. It made sense that Arena retained nine of 11 starters from 2-1 friendly triumph over Ghana that preceded the Gold Cup. Winners stay on. But the Americans—apart from Brad Guzan in goal and Dom Dwyer at the other end—were poor for long stretches against Panama.

Regardless of whether Arena had promised to play everybody, those slated to start at Raymond James Stadium on Wednesday now should know they’re not just temporary fill-ins for the preferred 11. A Gold Cup-winning side has yet to emerge. Several players will have their chance to make a real case for themselves during the match against Martinique, after which Arena will have to start figuring out how many of the six post-group stage roster swaps he’ll use in order to build a team ready to contend for a championship. Those openings weren’t necessarily a given for a good portion of the current squad, but they're now available thanks to the slow, disjointed effort against Panama.

“There’s not a whole lot I would say I was pleased with [against Panama]. I thought our goalkeeping was very good. After that, I’m not jumping for joy at the moment, so we got to get a lot of things right,” Arena told reporters. “I think we can continue in the tournament, advance out of group play and I think we will get better with every game. It takes little bit of time. But there’s no excuses for the way we played on Saturday. We have to play better than that.”

The primary issues against Panama were speed and spacing. The USA (0-0-1) played too slowly with and without the ball. That was partly due to the humidity in Nashville, but Los Canaleros played at the same time and inside the same stadium. The Americans frequently were spread too thin, making it difficult to build up much threatening possession or, once the ball turned over, to hunt it efficiently and blunt Panama’s attack.

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“We were disconnected. Our positioning and spacing was little off,” Kellyn Acosta said.

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Against Martinique, the USA will need players with skill and vigor who can break down a compact defense, and they'll need men behind them who won’t relinquish the ball at inopportune moments.

“We didn’t deal well with their pressure, especially in the midfield,” Arena said after the Panama match. "We turned the ball over way too much, didn’t do a good job establishing a rhythm [and] getting our team more involved in the game. I thought defensively, we didn’t do a good enough job getting pressure on the ball.”

The are a few obvious options among players who didn’t start Saturday. Arena praised the contributions of substitutes Zardes, Jordan Morris and Juan Agudelo, all of whom offer a bit more speed and an ability to stretch an opposing back four. Dwyer’s effort has been laudable. His knack for banging around a penalty area and finding scoring chances is well-known in MLS and has resulted in two goals in his first two internationals. But he could use a bit of help.

Acosta and Dax McCarty struggled, but absent the arrival of knockout-stage reinforcements like Michael Bradley or Darlington Nagbe, the pair remains a strong bet to start. They need more support, though. Joe Corona wasn’t able to connect with the pair against Panama, and bringing the likes of Bedoya or Kelyn Rowe inside or starting Paul Arriola might help the USA in possession.

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In back, Matt Hedges is a legitimate World Cup prospect and should get a look. Arena knows what he has in Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez. On the flanks, it’s time to get a serious introduction to Eric Lichaj, who’s been a starting right back in the English Championship for years but somehow still has only 11 caps. Zusi is still learning the position. And as good as Guzan was against Panama, the USA shouldn’t need goalkeeping heroics to beat Martinique or Nicaragua. The top two spots on the American depth chart are cemented. Will the third goalie in Russia get a game before getting on the plane? It’s time to give Bill Hamid a run.

“I thought we expected more out of ourselves and it wasn’t our best performance, but sometimes that’s how the game goes,” Acosta said. "It’s a long tournament and we still have two more games to kind of get back on track and get back to the things that we’re good at. That’s the beauty of it.”

It has all the beauty of a clean slate. Three points are close to a certainty on Wednesday, but there’s plenty else that’s now up for grabs.