The USA contested its first official international in the summer of 1916 and somehow, through that century of soccer history, it’s managed to avoid playing the largest country in Central America.
That odd bit of sporting trivia can’t be pinned on the Americans. Nicaragua, which first took the field in 1929, hasn’t really kept up its end of the bargain. Los Pinoleros have struggled to find their footing in a country that’s traditionally paid more attention to baseball, and the results are indicative. Nicaragua just scored its initial CONCACAF Gold Cup goal in Wednesday’s 2-1 loss to Panama, a solid 26 years after the championship was first organized. It’s never finished among the top four in the Copa Centroamericana—and Central America has only seven teams—and didn’t even bother to enter qualifying for the World Cup until the 1994 cycle.
Still, one would think that at some point, in a preliminary qualifying round or something similarly modest, the USA might have crossed paths with Nicaragua. The Americans’ wild 3-2 win over Martinique on Wednesday in Tampa was the second meeting between those teams, and Martinique isn’t even a FIFA member. The USA also has played the likes of Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Bermuda, and Grenada more than once. But never Nicaragua—until Saturday night in Cleveland, where the pair will meet in a Gold Cup group stage finale with plenty on the line (7 p.m. ET; FXX, Univision).
This has been an odd tournament for USA coach Bruce Arena and his team. It always made sense to give the regulars a rest following a taxing recovery in World Cup qualifying, just as it made sense to use the Gold Cup as an opportunity to further evaluate the player pool a year out from the big show and around six months in to Arena’s second tenure. With only one group-stage loss in Gold Cup history, it’s not like the Americans would be risking their title prospects with a bit of first-round experimentation.
And those prospects remain. But it’s been tougher than many anticipated. Panama’s ‘B+’ team gave the USA JV all it could handle in another 1-1 draw between the sides, and Martinique overcame a two-goal deficit only to fall to Jordan Morris’s second strike of the evening. Mexico has had a similar experience. El Tri’s reserves were shut out by Jamaica on Thursday.
"Everybody would’ve preferred to be at six points and to get a more comfortable won against Martinique. But the reality is you have to give some credit to teams that we played against. They stepped up. Maybe we obviously weren’t sharp enough, but these CONCACAF teams have gotten a lot better since my first go-around almost 10 years go. We know it needs to get better," midfielder Alejandro Bedoya told reporters Friday.
“All the Central American and Caribbean countries have improved. If anything comes out this tournament for me, I think that’s a real positive for CONCACAF, because you see how the small countries have elevated their football,” Arena said in Tampa.
The USA (1-0-1) now leads Panama (1-0-1) on goals scored—the second tiebreaker— in the Group B standings, and it’ll have the advantage of knowing what it needs to claim the top spot on Saturday. Los Canaleros and Martinique finish group play ahead of the USA-Nicaragua nightcap. Finishing first matters. The Americans would rather face a third-place qualifier in next week’s quarterfinals in Philadelphia than the Group A winner—likely Costa Rica.
"We want to be able to face maybe one of those third-place teams and then be able to move on to the next stage," Bedoya said. "Being first in the group is a priority."
Having used 19 of his 20 field players across the first two games, Arena should have a good idea of who gives him a better shot at a good result in Cleveland. Up front, both Dom Dwyer and Morris have impressed with their effort, focus and nose for goal. They haven’t lined up together but could be complementary—Dwyer can harass and challenge defenders in the penalty area while Morris looks to stretch the field.
Dax McCarty should return to anchor the midfield after making way for debutant Cristian Roldan on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Bedoya and Gyasi Zardes have experience in meaningful games and each helped set up a goal against Martinique. Arena hasn’t found a midfield lineup that’s clicked consistently, but that shouldn’t be reason for panic. There are players on this USA roster who are new to each other and in some cases, to international soccer in general. Arena, now 5-0-5 in his second USA go-around, has a history of identifying effective combinations.
That’s only half his job, however. With one eye on Nicaragua (0-2-0) and the top spot in the group, Arena will have the other on the 40-man preliminary tournament roster he submitted six weeks ago. CONCACAF permits quarterfinalists to make six permanent substitutions following the group stage. It’s a quick turnaround. The USA will have just three days to prepare for its quarterfinal. That means that regardless of the performance against Nicaragua, Arena must have at least some idea following the first two games what he might need to make a run at the Gold Cup crown. The Americans have been good enough to squeak past Martinique and should be able to secure all three points against Nicaragua. But at the moment, the USA doesn’t look like a team ready to win a title.
It's made isolated defensive errors. It’s had difficulty maintaining momentum following a goal or scoring chance. Midfield spacing has been poor in general, and some of the attacking decision-making and composure during build-up has suffered. Captain Michael Bradley would help with some of that and after being left behind to lift the Canadian Championship trophy with Toronto FC, he seems a likely reinforcement.
Morris and Dwyer certainly have had their moments under Arena. But wouldn’t U.S. partisans feel good about having Jozy Altidore and/or Clint Dempsey available to face Mexico or Costa Rica later on? Darlington Nagbe would inject some class and consistency into midfield. Chris Wondolowski is in very good form and would provide smart running and leadership up front. Arena has several options, and he’s likely going to call on veterans able to adjust and fit in seamlessly as the USA heads to Philadelphia.
Nicaragua, after a pair of losses and with only hope of a third-place group finish, would need a miracle to make the quarters. It has won only two of 13 games played in 2017 and its first continental championship run in eight years (and second overall since 1967) is probably drawing to a close. Los Pinoleros will be missing goal scorer Carlos Chavarría, who will be suspended Saturday, and likely will play quite a bit more conservatively than Martinique did in Tampa.
For any USA players who fail to make their case to Arena on Saturday, or for the team as a whole if first place isn't locked down, there will be no excuses. But at least whatever happens in Cleveland will be historic.