It hasn't always been easy, eye-pleasing, or all that fun, but the U.S. men's national team found a way to get the result it needed against Nicaragua on Saturday to top its group in the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
A 3–0 win at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland was capped by Matt Miazga's 87th-minute header, which vaulted the U.S. ahead of Panama atop Group B via the goals scored tiebreaker. It came on a day when coach Bruce Arena made complete set of 11 changes to his lineup, though many of the same problems and strengths persisted in the win.
Joe Corona and Kelyn Rowe also scored for the U.S., which made life tougher for itself by having two penalty kicks saved.
Here are three thoughts on the USA's victory:
An easier quarterfinal is in the cards
With Panama taking care of Martinique to the tune of a 3–0 win earlier Saturday, the U.S. knew what it needed to do in order to top its group and avoid playing against Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. A win by three goals would pull the team even with Panama on points, and even on goal differential, but ahead on the second and all-important tiebreaker. Despite not being at its best, the U.S. got it done.
After a shaky opening, Corona opened the scoring with a scrappy, deflected effort that eeked by Nicaragua goalkeeper Justo Lorente. Kelyn Rowe doubled the advantage in the second half with a creative finish, and Miazga scored the clincher–a header off a pinpoint free kick service from Graham Zusi late in the game. It came moments after Luis Copete was sent off for bodychecking substitute forward Juan Agudelo and after another Nicaragua player was off injured, giving the Americans a temporary two-man advantage on the set piece. It isn't often that a late third goal in a 3–0 win means all that much. But this, I suppose, is the magic of the Gold Cup.
The U.S. will be happy that magic exists, especially considering the difficulties that a veteran and star-laden team like Costa Rica could pose. Winning Group B means that the team will head to Philadelphia to face a third-place finisher, thus creating a much more palatable path to a sixth regional title.
Two PKs, two saves
It didn't have to be this tough for the USA, which wasted two penalty kick gifts.
The first came from Dwyer, who fell to the ground after getting half a hug on a run into the box in the second half. The PK call was correct (if a little weak), but Dwyer's effort from the spot failed to take advantage. What at first looked like a good save from Nicaragua 'keeper Justo Lorente is revealed on second viewing to be somewhat easy for a goalkeeper that guesses right, as Lorente did. The shot was at a good height, came in at a good pace, and was too far inside the post to cause him any trouble.
Alejandro Bedoya earned the U.S.'s second PK of the night after a sliding challenge from Josué Quijano resulted in a handball. Again, an unlucky call on Nicaragua, but the right one. Corona stepped up to take the penalty, and somehow managed to hit an effort even worse than Dwyer's.
Luckily for the U.S., it didn't matter, but it could provide food for thought should a knockout match go to penalties.
More changes, more of the same
If there was any doubt that Arena was using the group stage as a warm-up for the knockout stage and an opportunity to survey his entire roster, it was erased upon seeing his lineup for this game. Arena made 11–yes, 11–changes from the starting XI that faced Martinique, with Miazga and goalkeeper Bill Hamid each making their tournament debuts, and Chris Pontius making his first start of the Gold Cup at right midfield after coming on as a sub against Martinique.
Getting a look at 22 of the 23 players called in will be good for Arena as he considers who could make the trip to Russia next summer if and when the U.S. qualifies for the World Cup. Over the course of three games, he now has an up close and personal look at the depth available to him, and he now knows how those players perform together in games that matter.
Just like against Panama and Martinique, it wasn't pretty. The U.S. played down to its level of competition for much of the game. It missed big chances, looked disjointed in possession and committed silly giveaways that led to Nicaraguan scoring chances. But just like against Panama and Martinique, the U.S. did enough to get the job done.
Of the players given a chance to shine in the group stage, perhaps no player saw his stock jump more than Rowe. The New England Revolution playmaker was at the center of so much good in the final third for the U.S., displaying the inventiveness and technique that has made him a joy to watch for several seasons in MLS. His goal, an outside-of-the-boot finish at the near post, was a perfect example of that, as were several dangerous balls he served into the area throughout the game.
Dwyer and his two goals made an impact, but Rowe's versatility means there will be plenty of places Arena could plug him in during future games. Whether they stick around for the knockout stage, for which Arena can make up to six roster swaps with players on his 40-man preliminary roster, could provide a glimpse into what the manager thinks of the two.