At the conclusion of Wednesday night’s Gold Cup Group B encounter between the United States and Martinique, what will go down in the record books as a 3-2 win for the Yanks, U.S. Manager Bruce Arena had some interesting things to say.
“I thought we played well tonight,” said Arena. “We’re guilty of making the game more difficult than it needed to be. But give Martinique credit.”
Here is some credit to Martinique. It is well deserved. The fighting spirit of Les Matinino was palpable, their sheer effort a pleasure to watch. They had their moments of fine football as well. Alright, now onto the Americans.
First off, did the U.S. really “play well” on Wednesday night? Second, what does a lack of public criticism from a head coach mean in the grand scheme of things?
On a humid night in Tampa Bay, a squad of seasoned professionals, albeit a squad without much experience at the ever-hyped international level and without much time playing together as a unit, took to the pitch of Raymond James Stadium. That squad was then outworked and often outplayed by a team of glorified amateurs, a roster filled mostly with players from the Martinique Championnat National, the domestic league on the small Caribbean island of 385,000.
The U.S. showing in the first half was inauspicious, bordering on atrocious at times. They were wasteful with the few half chances they were able to create going forward, while a simple three-man high-press from Martinique rattled the nerves of the American backline on more than one occasion in the opening 45 minutes, Gold Cup debutant Matt Hedges looking particularly shaky in the center of the defense.
Martinique were unlucky to not go into their dressing room with a one goal lead at the break. Kévin Parsemain put a deflected shot off the post in the 32nd minute, while an attacking flurry in the closing minutes of the first half could have easily put the minnows in front.
The unit on the pitch in red, white, and blue clearly lacked cohesion. What was significantly more troubling is that the individuals on the field seemed to lack a certain bite.
“One of the things we’re trying to do in this tournament,” Arena said post-match, “is look at players in our pool we haven’t seen much of.”
With the so-called “B-team” representing the United States at this 2017 Gold Cup, one might believe that an individual and collective hunger wouldn’t be hard to see or feel. Players throughout this roster know that these Gold Cup matches serve as a platform, a bright stage on which to make statements of intent as the home stretch of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying nears, and competition for potential World Cup spots in Russia heats up.
That hunger was nowhere to be found, and with the halftime whistle came a slight sense of relief from the fans inside Raymond James Stadium, a late night crowd of over 23,000 anxious to see a fresh chapter written after the restart.
The energy picked up for the U.S. in the second half, but with that rush of adrenaline came a susceptibility to being carved apart by the number one thing Martinique had going for themselves: speed.
After Club Tijuana winger Paul Arriola hit the crossbar on a close-range slide in the 48th minute, Martinique came flying down the pitch and nearly put one in.
The end-to-end flow continued, as Jordan Morris was thwarted by Martinique goalkeeper Kévin Olimpa just a minute later, the former Ligue 1 goalkeeper making four saves on the night.
The U.S. forced in the game’s opening goal in the 53rd minute, Omar Gonzalez poking home in traffic from inside the six yard box after Olimpa parried Paul Arriola’s deflected shot straight back into the goal mouth.
One American player who put in a fine shift was Nottingham Forrest right-back Eric Lichaj. His outstanding overlapping run and low cross in the 64th minute led to Jordan Morris scoring his first Gold Cup goal, the Seattle Sounder striker making a smart run to the front post, crashing and redirecting into the back of the net with exquisite form.
Arena’s side were 2-0 up with 25 minutes plus added time to go, surely cruise control time for a side of this relative caliber playing against a hearty group of Championnat National all-stars. Not so fast, said a certain 29 year-old marksman from Golden Lion FC.
Parsemain scored his second goal in as many group games just over a minute after Morris netted at the other end, his low drive from outside the eighteen leaving Brad Guzan with a bit of egg on the face, the American goalkeeper slow to get down to his left and getting a touch on the ball before watching it roll in to cut the U.S. lead in half.
It was Matt Hedges who was left with his tail between his legs eight minutes later. A sweet turn and flick from second half substitute Steeven Langil put Hedges in a foot race with the Martinique speedster. The race went in the favor of Langil, who impressively left Hedges in the dust before sending an outwardly curling right-footed ball to a Parsemain racing toward the back post. Looking to double his tally and equalize in the process, Parsemain’s close-range attempt was stopped by an outstretched leg of Guzan, only for Parsemain to somehow score three seconds later, while lying on the ground no less. Barely in an onside position, Parsemain managed to redirect teammate Johan Audel’s shot up and over a scrambling Guzan to make the score 2-2.
The Martinique bench was euphoric. The peak of their happiness was extremely short-lived.
The U.S. came back with a purpose in the moments following the equalizer, leading to a gorgeous left-footed cross from Gyasi Zardes being hammered home by the right foot of Morris for his second goal of the night. Morris doubled his career goal total for the national team with the brace, and picked up his first Budweiser Man of the Match award. (Morris had been chosen to receive the honor on the night of his U.S. debut, a 2-0 win over Mexico in April of 2015 in which he scored the opening goal, but he was only 20 years of age at the time, thus ineligible to receive an award sponsored by an alcoholic beverage company.)
When the final whistle sounded, you could hear the American Soccer exhales far and wide, as the now first place Yanks look forward to their final Group B fixture against Nicaragua on Saturday.
The story of what happened on Wednesday night in Tampa Bay may change tones depending on who you talk to. Bruce Arena said the team played well.
An overseas department of France with a national team not recognized by FIFA took the United States to the brink of historic embarrassment on Florida’s west coast.
They say there’s no such thing as a bad win.
(Stay tuned to SoccerNation.com and follow on Twitter @Soccer_Nation for more coverage and analysis of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup.)