The cavalry has arrived. The bizarre chapter that was the Gold Cup group stage now seems a distant memory.
The United States somehow managed to finish atop Group B. Their seven points and +4 goal differential don’t look too shabby. Their overall performance in their opening three matches, particularly the first two, was pedestrian.
An uninspiring 1-1 draw with Panama in Nashville was followed by a memorable (for all the wrong reasons) 3-2 win over Martinique in Tampa Bay, a strange Wednesday night roller coaster ride on Florida’s west coast.
The Yanks came to play against Nicaragua in the team’s last group match in Cleveland this past Saturday, washing away the sourness of barely scraping past a remote extension of France that is not recognized by FIFA, a 3-0 win against Los Pinoleros Albiazules doing just enough to help the Americans win the group, thus drawing El Salvador in this Wednesday’s quarterfinal in Philadelphia as opposed to a highly touted Costa Rica team, the winners of Group A.
U.S. Manager Bruce Arena spoke during his side’s speed bump riddled group stage of the purpose of this Gold Cup.
“One of the things we’re trying to do in this tournament,” Arena said, “is look at players in our pool we haven’t seen much of.”
The B-team roster for the continental showcase was filled with players looking to make an impact, perhaps doing enough to earn spots on a World Cup Qualifying squad in the not so distant future. After the first two matches, it didn’t feel like there were too many players who had done themselves any favors in this regard.
Adversity was in the air, and the U.S. answered the call in Cleveland, albeit just barely, the Americans needing to win by at least three goals to assure first place in the group table.
In addition to the final score, and despite two missed penalties, the win over Nicaragua saw some quality individual showings, including that of attacking-midfielder Kelyn Rowe. The New England Revolution man was electric, influential in the flow of the game and looking to be one of the only U.S. players capable of the kind of tight-knit control in the final third that could actually break down a bus-parking defense, as well as looking more than able to provide a piece of magic in front of goal.
Rowe ended up scoring the second goal of the match, his first in a U.S. shirt, adding to his Gold Cup stat sheet which already included a marvelous assist from the 1-1 draw with Panama.
Rowe was a perfect microcosm of U.S. motives in the 2017 Gold Cup. He was battle tested. He shined. He stumbled. He fell on his face (quite literally in an unfortunate moment against Panama). He got back up (literally and figuratively). He shined again. He poured his heart into the mission of performing on the pitch for his national team. He went through all of this only to be sent home.
As the U.S. prepare for their quarterfinal showdown with La Selecta, Rowe is back with the Revolution. He was part of a significant personnel switch (incredibly completely within the bylaws of the tournament) that saw six players leave the Gold Cup squad and six reinforcements get called in, including five bonafide first-teamers and four players with ample World Cup experience.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC)
Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Christian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution)
Forwards: Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City)
Goalkeepers: Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids)
Midfielders: Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers)
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)
So, what’s the deal?
It seemed as if the point of this Gold Cup, at least when reading the words of the manager, was to cut the teeth of players who lacked experience at the international level, giving them a unique stage on which to prove their worth.
With the seismic shift in the roster, it appears as if the breeding ground narrative has been left in the waste-bin. The objective at this juncture is clearly winning the whole damn thing. Why else would the cavalry be arriving?
Is it ethical?
If we’ve learned one thing about Bruce Arena over the years, it’s that he really doesn’t care what you think.
Do the roster changes seem a bit hypocritical? Yes. Did Rowe, and for that matter Dom Dwyer (who gave the Americans a real fighter’s punch as a forward and scored in both of his first two matches in a U.S. shirt) get a raw and unfair deal in all this? Yes. The whole thing feels extremely unethical.
Did Arena do anything wrong? Certain aspects of that question are up for editorial debate, but technically the answer is no. The Gold Cup has some farcical niches within the rules, this player change for quarterfinalists being one of them. Arena and his staff simply took full advantage of a faulty system, the same way any of the other seven remaining countries could have done themselves. The U.S. coaches have strengthened their squad significantly and look primed for a three match flurry through the knockout rounds.
The objective was always to win. Now the expectation is to win, and those aren’t just the expectations in the U.S. camp. The Yanks are now marked men, pegged by the masses as the clear-cut favorites to lift the champion’s trophy on July 26th in Santa Clara. It’s a whole new brand of pressure, one quite different from what was felt by U.S. players going into the Group B finale with Nicaragua. With the likes of Bradley, Howard, and Dempsey in the team, finding leadership in critical situations shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.
What about La Selecta?
El Salvador had an interesting Gold Cup run thus far, losing 3-1 to Mexico in their opener in San Diego, then defeating Curacao 2-0 before drawing 1-1 with Jamaica to assure a birth into the knockout rounds as one of the two best third place finishers in the tournament’s group stage.
La Selecta have looked capable and potent for large spells in the competition, including the opening half hour against Mexico. While they are certainly the heavy underdogs against the U.S., they have some attacking players who could very well wreak some havoc and possibly nab a crucial goal against the run of play.
Look out for Nelson Bonilla, the 26 year-old forward who scored the lone goal against Mexico. He has bags of pace and loves attacking through the middle. U.S. center-backs must keep an eye on Bonilla, and prevent him from getting in behind the defense.
29 year-old foward Rodolfo Zelaya has been a poster-child for this generation of Salvadorian Soccer, and he has a good history against the United States. In fact, Zelaya has scored against the Yanks in a Gold Cup quarterfinal. That goal came in July of 2013, El Salvador going into the dressing room trailing 2-1, only to end up trounced to the tune of 5-1 in gloomy, stormy Baltimore.
Darwin Cerén has been a tempo setter in the midfield, and was quite impressive with a gritty performance accented with some fine displays of technical skill against Mexico. The lone representative of Major League Soccer on the El Salvador roster for the Gold Cup, the San Jose Earthquakes man will be a key figure in disrupting the American flow in Philadephia. For inspiration, Cerén should look no further than his Quakes midfield partner Anibal Godoy, the Panamanian who gave the U.S. fits in the tournament opener with a performance rich in physicality. El Salvador need something of the sort from Cerén if they are to pull off the upset.
USA v. El Salvador
2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup Quarterfinal
9 PM ET / 6 PM PT
TV: Fox Sports 1
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