In the midst of a difficult sophomore MLS season, Jordan Morris has kept the faith. And he came to life just in time Wednesday night, scoring two second-half goals and saving a disjointed U.S. national team from what could’ve been a historically humiliating result against tiny Martinique. Instead, the 3-2 win at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa leaves the Americans (1-0-1) in good position to move on to the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinals as expected.
Not much else is certain, however, as coach Bruce Arena’s makeshift squad still hasn’t found its footing.
Here are three thoughts from a strange night:
USA in first as expected–but after a bizarre evening
The path was unpredictable, surreal and far rockier than it needed to be, but at the end, Arena and his team are where they expected to be after two games—atop Group B. But they’re there by a sliver, leading Panama (1-0-1) on the second tiebreaker (goals scored) heading into Saturday’s finale. Finishing first matters. The group winner meets a third-place qualifier in next week’s quarterfinals. The runner-up likey will be facing Costa Rica.
Considering the stakes, it’s alarming that the USA was unable to put together a side after two weeks of training that could take the game to semi-pros representing a country that’s not even a FIFA member. This was a game the hosts easily could have lost. A tentative opening 45 minutes—during which the U.S. attack was static and predictable—gave way to a wild, entertaining and infuriating second half.
Both teams squandered open looks before defender Omar Gonzalez lifted the USA into a 53rd-minute lead. Morris doubled the advantage 10 minutes later. Then the Americans collapsed. Maintaining momentum following a goal or scoring chance was an issue in Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Panama, and it bit the USA again on Wednesday.
Martinique forward Kevin Parsemain was the best player on the field for either team, and the former (very briefly) Seattle Sounder took advantage of goalkeeper Brad Guzan’s late reaction in the 66th and then a fortunate deflection in the 74th. Just when it was setting in that the five-time CONCACAF champs had blown a two-goal lead to a country of fewer than 400,000 people, Gyasi Zardes and Morris combined to score the game-winner.
Typically, teams adopt a survive-and-advance mantra during tournament, and the USA has done that. But it’s been far more tense than it should’ve been, and there’s nothing to suggest the U.S. won’t be hanging onto first place for dear life when it plays Nicaragua on Saturday. Arena and his players promised a better showing following the Panama game. They delivered the win, but failed to make a statement.
“I think we made it really tough on ourselves. We could’ve done much better. That’s the disappointing part, the fact that we let up two goals,” Gonzalez said following the game. “Moving forward, there’s a lot to learn from this, and I’m happy that we never gave up. But there’s definitely things we could improve on.”
Morris sticks with it
Morris has only two goals this season for the Sounders, but his glorious 2016 rookie campaign, obvious potential and Arena’s decision to leave his top strikers at home meant the second-year pro would get his Gold Cup shot. During Wednesday’s first half, it appeared Morris was going to waste it.
But good strikers stick with it even when shots aren’t falling, and Morris’s game-winning brace was as much about relentlessness and maturity as it was about speed or skill. Both goals came thanks to his willingness to run hard, keep things simple and trust his teammates—all things that can be difficult for a scorer in a slump.
In the 64th, Morris recognized a smart run by right back Eric Lichaj and was there in a sliver of space between a Martinique defender and goalie Kevin Olimpa for the near-post finish. In the 76th, two minutes after the visitors leveled terms, Morris fed Zardes through the left channel then maintained his run into the penalty area. Zardes cut a good cross back toward the center and Morris was there for a composed and accurate first-time finish into the roof of the net.
Strikers have to be right in the feet and in the head. Morris made the difference his team needed on Wednesday because he maintained the latter until the former caught up. Now we’ll see if Arena will pair Morris with Dom Dwyer, his other Gold Cup scorer.
Arena left with some difficult decisions
The forward pairing is just once choice Arena faces during what might be a fitful few days for the USA manager. He surely hoped that his group-stage squad rotation would result in several players rising to the fore and claiming knockout-round spots. But that hasn’t happened. He’ll feel good about Morris’s second half, but should be concerned about Zardes’s often wasteful touches in the attacking third and Paul Arriola’s odd decision making.
Juan Agudelo worked hard but lacked solutions and faded. Kellyn Acosta improved from his performance against Panama, but he was unable to impose himself or consistently orchestrate the buildup. To be fair, Arena asked more of him Wednesday than FC Dallas typically does.
Morris and Lichaj, who was playing in his first competitive international (and fourth U.S. match overall) in six years, were the only American men who seemed to raise their level as the game became tougher. Guzan had been the Gold Cup MVP before his second-half mistake. Matt Hedges struggled to stay with Martinique’s quick forwards, and it took left back Justin Morrow way too long to find the right moments to jump into the attack. Against a team like Martinique, those solutions should be easy to spot and implement. When the hosts did finally create the occasional attacking overload, they seemed so surprised by the fortunate turn of events that they lost their composure.
That can’t continue to happen if the USA has a shot at winning this Gold Cup. After two games, it appears Arena will have to start making some phone calls to the eligible veterans on his 40-man preliminary roster. It’s tough to imagine Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore making a game like Wednesday night’s game so difficult.