Matt Besler

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How might the USMNT line up in the Gold Cup Final?

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The United States men’s national team became the favorite to win the Gold Cup when Bruce Arena called up more than 500 caps worth of experience after the group stage, but there’s one group that wasn’t improved at all by the legendary MLS coach, and that’s defense.

So while Michael Bradley and Tim Howard certainly help the unit take shape and Darlington Nagbe, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore all improve the side’s speed, passing, and creativity, no move was made to help a back line that’s done anything but thrive in this tournament.

Most of this is not Arena’s fault. John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, and Geoff Cameron were given time to focus on their European careers, and “next batch” backs Tim Ream and Timothy Chandler fit into that overseas bunch as well.

[ MORE: Palace signs Ajax CB/DCM/LB ]

That doesn’t change the fact that the easy weakness for the USMNT right now has a big chance to be exposed by opponents Jamaica, who — as funny as this sounds — are possibly a worse match-up for the Yanks than the side it upset in Mexico’s ‘B Teamers’.

While player ratings are far from the be-all, end-all, we’ve had two writers handle the Americans’ five matches of Gold Cup. Here are the ratings for the eight backs on the roster by appearance.

Jorge Villafana — 6.5, 5, 6; Omar Gonzalez — 6, 5, 7, 5; Matt Miazga — 7; Matt Besler — 7.5, 6, 8; Eric Lichaj — 5, 7; Justin Morrow — 6, 5; Graham Zusi — 6, 5.5, 4; Matt Hedges — 5, 5.

Only Besler has avoided a dud so far, and keep in mind that Arena has not subbed a back in the tournament and also loves Gonzalez.

[ WAYBACK: How U.S. lost to Jamaica in 2015 Gold Cup semi ]

Dealing with speedy Jamaica is a challenge for a group that’s looked pretty mixed up when it comes to dealing with counter attacks. This is especially challenging for one player, Matt Hedges, who is better suited for teams that want to attack through the air.

As for the midfielders and forwards, remember that Arena pulled Paul Arriola after 66 minutes in the semifinal and let Darlington Nagbe and Jordan Morris go all 90.

Considering all that, here’s how Arena may try to win the Gold Cup and put one American foot in Qatar for the 2021 Confederations Cup (That’s still happening, by the way).

Howard

Lichaj — Gonzalez — Besler — Villafana

Bradley — McCarty

Arriola — Corona — Zardes

Altidore

As a bonus, here’s how we think the subs may play out given player use in the run-up to the final. Call this between the 65-80 minute marks, and it can work with the lead or pushing for an equalizer or winner:

Howard

Lichaj — Gonzalez — Besler — Villafana

 Acosta/Pontius — Bradley — McCarty — Nagbe

Altidore — Morris

Player ratings from USMNT’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica

AP Photo/LM Otero
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The U.S. national team is headed to the final of the 2017 Gold Cup after knocking off Costa Rica 2-0 on Saturday.

Who stood out for all the right — and wrong — reasons, as Bruce Arena’s side prepares to face either Mexico or Jamaica in Wednesday’s final?

[ RECAP: Super-sub Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica ]

GK — Tim Howard: 7 — Forced to make two saves, the first of which was a hero’s intervention with Marco Ureña racing in one on one. The second came not long before the opening goal, and he did well to spill it no more than a foot or two in front of him. Howard looks at the top of his game, again.

LB — Jorge Villafaña: 6.5 — For the first time all tournament, he got forward with regularity and served the ball into the box. With the entire flank open ahead of him, Villafaña had to fill the void of width. Still, not a ton of quality. Fortunately, he was tested very little in open space.

CB — Matt Besler: 7.5 — Best of the defensive unit, perhaps so much so he’s vaulted himself back into the four-man rotation for the World Cup.

CB — Omar Gonzalez: 6 — Besler stood out as the star, hardly putting a foot wrong all night, thus overshadowing Gonzalez for the most part. Costa Rica opted to build with the ball on the ground, thus negating Gonzalez’s greatest strength, his aerial presence. That said, he wasn’t remotely exposed in the weakest facet of his game, either.

RB — Graham Zusi: 6 — Paul Arriola’s presence ahead of him was immeasurably important. I’m still bullish on Zusi as a right back, with the necessary shading of defensive help. Before you lose your mind, consider the italicized part.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

CM — Michael Bradley: 7 — Not his most influential game, but it didn’t need to be. With Kellyn Acosta doing much of the heavy lifting, in terms of covering acreage, Bradley played the part of disciplined organizer slightly deeper in midfield than we’re accustomed to seeing. It’s a role that suits him well, with the right partner ahead of him. His influence on Acosta will also benefit the USMNT for years to come.

CM — Kellyn Acosta: 7 — The kid is (still) alright, even after a couple subpar games during the group stage. As stated above, the partnership matters. Afforded a bit more time and space by the Ticos, Acosta pushed into the final third all night long and provided the extra man to play with possession high up the field.

LM — Darlington Nagbe: 6.5 — He’ll always shade more toward the center of the field, even when played as an out-and-out wide midfielder, and that’s what he did against Costa Rica. It’s nice having that extra man in the middle, but it turns the left wing into a barren wasteland. Take the good with the bad.

RM — Paul Arriola: 6.5 — You may not get a ton of final product from Arriola, but with Zusi playing an out-of-role right back behind him, it’s vitally important that the wide player on that side of the field offers defensive cover from the front. Arriola does so, and gets into (and wins) more than a winger’s fair share of 50-50 challenges. He’s a net positive in a lot of things that don’t show up in boxscores. There’s always a place for a player like that.

[ MORE: Mexico beat Honduras, book their place in semifinals ]

FW — Jozy Altidore: 6.5 — We’ve known this for a while, but Altidore is far more effective playing with a partner up top. His tendency to drop into midfield helps to link play with someone ahead of him. When he’s all by his lonesome, who/what’s he to link?

FW — Jordan Morris: 7 — Piggybacking on the above point about Altidore, Morris is the perfect complement — quick in short bursts, a burner in the open field, and a smart runner of channels on occasion. He was the best player on the field the opening 30 minutes or so. Faded down the stretch, but the strong first half earns him positive marks.

Sub — Clint Dempsey: 9 — An assist and a goal, all in 24 minutes’ work. More on the hero of the day in a bit.

Sub — Gyasi Zardes: N/A — 7 minutes on the field, with little to no real impact on the game.

Sub — Dax McCarty: N/A — 5 minutes off the bench, but he served his purpose in helping to keep possession and put the game to bed.

USMNT underwhelms in Gold Cup opening draw (video)

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Dom Dwyer recorded his second USMNT cap with his second USMNT goal, as the U.S. began its 2017 Gold Cup with a 1-1- draw with Panama in Nashville on Saturday.

The match was the first opening match of a Gold Cup not won by the Americans.

It’s far too early in the tournament to say the United States saw its depth exposed, but it’s hard to find too many strong performances short of Matt Besler, Brad Guzan, and Kelyn Rowe.

[ MORE: Player ratings3 things ]

Guzan rescued an early bit of danger in the U.S. 18, while Panama’s Jose Calderon parried a long but hard strike from Kelyn Rowe.

Panama’s Luis Ovalle slipped while trying to clear a ball, and the U.S. won a corner when Alejandro Bedoya opted for a hard tight-angled cross instead of cutting the ball back into the heart of the 18.

While Kellyn Acosta was lively in attack, he gave away the ball in the midfield in the 21st minute. That allowed Anibal Godoy to play a dangerous through ball that Omar Gonzalez handled well.

The Yanks produced a solid chance off a really good stretch of possession when Jorge Villafana cued up Rowe for a shot, but the New England player had to settle a bouncing ball and that allowed Calderon to get into position for a stop.

Play went the other way, and Guzan had to stretch to paw away a curling effort from Camargo when Zusi allowed the Panamanian attacker a bit of space and time.

Largely, however, the first half was disjointed, perhaps to be expected given the unit’s lack of game time together.

The U.S. went ahead in the 50th minute when Rowe’s left-footed cross was turned home by Dwyer on the half turn.

Guzan made a terrific save when Torres just won a battle with Zusi at the far post, but Ismael Díaz somehow shot over the bar from inside the six.

Guzan then bailed Zusi out again in the 60th minute, but Camargo put the rebound inside the far post.

The Yanks were out of sorts at the back, and made a sub at the front with Juan Agudelo entering for Joe Corona.

A few minutes later, it was Arena’s not-so-old Galaxy pal Gyasi Zardes into the fray for the injured Rowe. Zardes hadn’t scored for LA in 12 games, and both club and country were hoping for a quick fix via the international pitch.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s draw with Panama

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The United States men’s national team looked like a team without its stars and still learning to play together in a 1-1 draw with Panama to kick off their Gold Cup run on Saturday in Nashville.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

Who upped their stock, who middled, and who wasn’t much to watch on Saturday?

Starting XI

Brad Guzan — 8 — An exceptional game from the Atlanta United backstop, who — let’s face it — spared the U.S. the humiliation of an opening loss.

Jorge Villafana — 6 — Remains the side’s top option at left back for now, and the reps help for the WCQ ahead.

Omar Gonzalez — 5 — Not inspiring confidence, but not a garbage fire. Always delivers a highlight play to moves hopes upward, so we’ll withhold our Gold Cup judgement.

Matt Besler — 8 — An exceptional night for the one star man from a back line that struggled mightily.

Graham Zusi — 4 — Regardless of what’s cooking at SKC, he’s a midfielder playing right back. That’s not really on him, and he had some moments later pushed further up the pitch that saved him from an even lower number.

Dax McCarty — 5 — Some good breakups in the first half, but altogether didn’t make the expected impact.

Kellyn Acosta — 5 — Two-straight equalizers where he’s swimming upstream. He’s going to be a very good American player, and that should make this match one of his more forgettable ones.

Kelyn Rowe (Off 69′) — 7 — Was perhaps the only source of danger for the U.S. in the first half, then provided an assist before playing a significant role in Panama’s equalizer.

Alejandro Bedoya (Off 85′) — 6 — Not an awful day for the captain, who came close to earning a penalty in the final 10 minutes.

Joe Corona (Off 63′) — 5 — Some decent moments of creativity, but a touch too slow to be a difference maker on the day.

Dom Dwyer — 7 — Didn’t have a lot to do, but took his chance well to make sure U.S. fans could cheer a home goal.

Subs

Juan Agudelo (On 63′) — 6 — Provided a lift almost immediately, and will get a more prolonged chance to impress somewhere down the line.

Gyasi Zardes (On 69′) — 5 — His lacking confidence from club showed, as both he and fellow sub Morris have two goals in 28 MLS matches this year. Morris has both.

Jordan Morris (On 85′) — N/A — Still not a lot to love with the left foot.

Three keys for USMNT in 2017 Gold Cup

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Many of the familiar faces aren’t with the USMNT for the group stage of this summer’s Gold Cup, but that shouldn’t stop Bruce Arena’s Yanks from making a run deep into the knockout rounds.

Either the U.S. or Mexico has won 12 of the 13 Gold Cups, but both are sending B-sides to this edition in moves that have sides like Costa Rica, Jamaica, Panama, and Honduras hoping to make a memory.

It’s not like Arena nor suspended Mexican coach Juan Carlos Osorio have selected chopped liver in uniform for the group stages, but the list of who won’t be wearing red, white, and blue for the Yanks is a who’s who: Christian Pulisic, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Tim Howard. The list goes on.

[ MORE: Gold Cup predictions ]

That does open up the door to so many players, though, some familiar and others not. What do the Yanks need to do to make a deep run?

1) Get off on the right foot (and arrive at the quarters) — The U.S. will progress to the knockout rounds even with a stumble out of the gates against Panama on Saturday in Nashville, but winning Group B is a huge boon to those who fear Mexico’s B-side more than Costa Rica.

The Group B winners could not face the winners or runners-up of Group C — Mexico’s group — until the Final. Even if Mexico faltered big time in group play, El Tri will likely still finish in one of the top two spots. Beating Panama essentially ensures nine points and no worries about a goal differential problem from Los Canaleros.

So, yeah, the U.S. will make the quarters, when any of its roster flaws can be corrected by any number of top assets.

2) Find your central steel — Without Brooks, Cameron, and Bradley, the heart of the defense is a bit of an unknown. Seeing as a successful Yanks run would eventually need to deal with either Costa Rica’s Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell or Mexico’s Erick Gutierrez or Erick Torres, sorting it out quickly is important.

Arena will be tempted to lean on World Cup veteran and long time LA Galaxy buddy Omar Gonzalez, and Matt Besler has the experience to get the job done as well. But wild cards Matt Hedges and Matt Miazga present different styles of defense and either is four inches taller than Besler, who has been pretty great for Sporting KC this season.

On top of the center backs will likely be Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta, or perhaps Cristian Roldan in a pinch. Again, the skills are there and Acosta will likely be a USMNT player for a long, long time, but he’s still young as we saw when he made a pair of rookie mistakes on Mexico’s equalizer in the last World Cup qualifier at Azteca.

3) Finish chances early — This one’s simple and sweet: Buses will be parked by all three Gold Cup group stage foes, and it’s incumbent upon forwards Dom Dwyer, Jordan Morris, and Juan Agudelo to make sure the might of the Americans is felt within the opening throes of each match. For all of the above concerns with central steel, the absence of Altidore, Clint Dempsey, and Pulisic from the substitutes could cause nerves for the attack if it stays 0-0 for too long.