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I’ve got the Gold Cup blues

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The Gold Cup returns home. But what can we glean from the USMNT’s run and future?

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup -USA  at Jamaica Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When Bruce Arena was announced as the new head coach of the United States Men’s National Team, I joined a bunch of US fans and soccer followers and celebrated the news with great optimism.

In retrospect, Jurgen Klinsman’s tenure as head coach was a decidedly mixed bag. There were moments of pure joy, like advancing out of group play in the 2014 World Cup, and then there were the rumors of discontent, weird management style, the defeats to “minnows” of CONCACAF, and occasional bouts of maddening inconsistency. Even if you didn’t like Jurgen, he deepened the player pool in some significant ways and was able to get the players up against bigger FIFA opponents.

Bruce Arena, at least to me, offered a sort of compromise, a tick back toward some of the more conservative play of the Bob Bradley years without sacrificing any attacking gains gleaned from more recent years. US Soccer might for once find that special blend and balance, moving forward with a “renewed” trust and appreciation in MLS players too. In my mind, the biggest thing that Arena would bring to the table is that he has done this before. It’s not new territory, and in the time since his last stint as USMNT Head Coach, he has had the opportunity to work with quality players like David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Giovani Dos Santos, and Robbie Keane (not to mention American legend Landon Donovan).

Could he use his tactical wisdom and his more recent experience managing a diverse roster of players of varying skill into a cohesive whole?

I imagine this is much of the challenge of managing a national team that fans don’t see - the giant egos, the high ambition, the moments when some players are just not at the right level to compete but you need someone to fill that role. Maybe Bruce would have some new insight to make this work.

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup -USA  at Jamaica Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

During these past couple of weeks, we got a glimpse of Bruce Arena tactical wizardry as he led a decidedly B-team on a Gold Cup victory route.

Though I am out of the country and on a different side of the world, I made every effort to get up and watch the games. Because I am such a FC Dallas homer, some of my extra effort was about Matt Hedges, Kellyn Acosta, and Jesse Gonzalez, but I was excited to see our national team make some progress with young players. How would Arena handle some of the “minnows” of the CONCACAF?

Disclaimer time - I know this Gold Cup was overall a pretty poor soccer tournament to judge anything on, so I won’t. This certainly wasn’t an A team for the USMNT. Many other countries did not play their best either, but I do think we got to see a glimpse of some things. So instead of judgments, I’ll toss out some questions.

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup -USA  at Jamaica Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Some have lauded the US as the best attacking team in the tournament. Is that something to be excited about?

Well, yes, we did score 3 goals against Martinique, a team of amateurs... and barely won. I don’t think I necessarily disagree with Matt Doyle via the overall stats and results, but I do think looking at the overall poor quality of the competition this year makes that a less than exciting moniker to embrace. For large stretches of matches, the USMNT didn’t always look like they were sure how to go after opponents. Sometimes, it was pretty bland soccer, running at defenders or waiting too long for that next pass. Again, it’s not like Pulisic was out there, so let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Adding a bit of confusion, one of our better attacking forces, Kellyn Rowe, gets sent home after the group stage, despite showing pretty decently. It’s just... interesting.

Later in the final, the USMNT faced a defense-minded Jamaican squad and struggled a bit, getting a goal off of a scintillating free kick by Jozy Altidore followed by another goal off of a flubbed clearance by a Jamaican defender. I wouldn’t call it an offensive tour de force, but it was enough to secure the championship.

Ben Jata, whoever you are, is right - did we see a tactical style that will bring success against stronger competition? I don’t know - struggling against Martinique is not exactly a confidence vote for Bruce Arena early on, although again, let’s not make this Gold Cup mean something more than whatever it meant this year. Still, I definitely went from great optimism to a sense of caution after this stretch of games... at least for now.

Why can’t Bruce Arena get center backs to play decently?

This tournament for the US seemed to cast doubt on whether the central defense is a source of strength for the national pool. Our center backs didn’t look particularly good over the course of the Gold Cup, especially disappointing considering the quality of the competition. Matt Hedges, our beloved FC Dallas hero and MLS Defender of the Year, looked out of sorts. Omar Gonzalez, who spent years being groomed under Arena, didn’t exactly inspire confidence either. Every defender has a bad game here and there, but when it spans across matches against inferior opponents, you begin to wonder. What is Bruce asking them to do? Why were they hesitant to step up?

It’s probably fair to lay a bit of the blame on outside back play too. Our national left back situation is nearly a crisis, and our right back situation isn’t a whole lot better. Hell, Hernan Grana made the All-Star team in MLS, so the US player pool is not exactly overflowing with talent there. Our back line at times felt disconnected and out of sync - maybe that’s just where it is right now.

Soccer: 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup -USA  at Jamaica Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Why did I find myself rooting a bit for Jamaica in the final?

Jamaica was impressive as the final dragged on. I really enjoyed their sense of organization and cohesiveness. It was inspiring. And they did that without a “Hall of Fame” coach or deep player pool. In some ways, they kept things simple, scrapped and fought, and took their chances. When Jamaica equalized, was anyone surprised? The goal came from former FC Dallas man, JeVaughn Watson, who would never make an American roster if eligible. Despite some claiming that the US dominated, a 2-1 scoreline is not domination in any sport, especially in soccer. The number of shots don’t matter. In fact, sometimes they mean you are playing into your opponent’s hands (damn you, stupid Football Manager 2016). Ultimately, Jamaica was aiming for extra time, and they were pretty close to making it happen.

If Jamaica keeps playing like this, I see them emerging as a pretty exciting competitor in future CONCACAF matches. Kudos to them and their coaching staff.

What would it look like if the US played with that same sense of organization?

Why didn’t Clint Dempsey start the final?

If there was any game to ignore the super sub role and just give the American and Texas legend a start, it was this one. I imagine we might have looked a whole lot more offensively dangerous throughout if he had started from the first minute. I’m with fellow writer on here, Ben “The Punching Bag” Lyons - you can’t be a tactical genius if you keep your best offensive player on the bench. How committed is Bruce Arena to Clint Dempsey as a super sub?

I liked what Bobby Warshaw offered in one of the post-game shows - “Did we learn anything?”

In the end, I am more cautious than optimistic now, but no, I don’t think we learned a lot. Did anyone play themselves into contention for a World Cup spot? I don’t know. Jordan Morris, despite the late game heroics, wasn’t really that good over the course of the campaign, and his poor defending is what put the final into doubt in the first place - but he’s a young’un. Kellyn Acosta did not look good, another question mark about what Bruce was asking him to do - even if the team probably need to thank him for creating the near goal that led to Andre Blake being forced unfortunately with an injury - but Kellyn is young and will definitely grow from this. I don’t think Matt Hedges gets another look, barring injuries or another gear in his play in MLS down the stretch. Did Kellyn Rowe play himself into a spot? Probably not considering he got sent home. Graham Zusi hardly looks serviceable as a RB, but he and Matt Besler would be a veteran presence. Jorge Villifana looked to be alive most of the time he played, but can he get playing time for his team? Who else stood out? Other than regulars like Jozy Altidore (who is far better than we deserve), Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard, I can’t really name a lock from this Gold Cup squad off the top of my head. Future qualifying matches may give us clues as to what Arena is thinking.

Again, I am left with more questions about Bruce Arena and the future of the USMNT. Winning the Gold Cup is a good momentum builder for the program. Do I have optimism about what is to come? Of course. There are many exciting matches to come and intriguing players that are poised to break out onto the world’s stage in the red, white, and blue, but let’s hold off a bit before we make sweeping proclamations and crown Bruce Arena tactical genius of soccer.

  • What questions were you left with after the Gold Cup?
  • Is the Gold Cup even worth it?