Omar Gonzalez

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Trouble brewing: USMNT trails T&T after early Omar OG (video)

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All the U.S. national team had to do to officially qualify for the 2018 World Cup on Tuesday was to avoid falling flat on its collective face.

[ MORE: 3rd? 4th? 5th? USMNT scenarios on the final day of WCQ ]

Through 30 minutes of Bruce Arena’s side’s Hexagonal finale, it’s not gone according to plan. After failing to control the game through possession whatsoever, the USMNT went a goal down when Omar Gonzalez looped the ball high over the head of Tim Howard and into the back of the Yanks’ goal in the 17th minute.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USA 4-0 PanamaThree things we learned ]

Gonzalez looked lost on the botched clearance, but Howard has never before shown his age so severely… or so costly.

Player ratings: Pulisic, Altidore star as USMNT routs Panama

AP Photo/John Raoux
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Almost as badly as they needed a result and the accompanying three points, the U.S. national team needed to put forth a performance that once again inspired confidence — not only for USMNT fans, but for themselves as well.

Simply put, Bruce Arena’s bunch responded in a manner that left absolutely nothing to chance. Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore will (rightly) garner all the headlines, but they were far from the only standouts on Friday night…

[ MORE: Three things we learned ]

GK — Tim Howard: 6 — Asked to make only two saves on the night, but he did so with relative (to the 2014 game against Belgium, at least), and staked his claim to the no. 1 shirt after being selected ahead of Brad Guzan once again. It might just be a godsend the Colorado Rapids won’t sniff the MLS playoffs this year, as he’ll be 39 before next summer’s tournament kicks off.

RB — DeAndre Yedlin: 7 — So that’s what it’s like to have a right back who’s meant to be playing right back. I’ve defended Graham Zusi, Right Back, on a number of occasions (and I’ll continue to do so), but there’s no two ways about it: Yedlin, at age 24, is the right back of the present and the future. In a game that got a little too stretched for most Americans’ liking, his recovery speed snuffed out would-be chances before they could be taken on a number of occasions.

CB — Omar Gonzalez: 5 — I think Gonzalez could be good — I really do — in the right system which features a midfield that sits deep and clogs the space in front of him and beside him. Unfortunately for Omar, a midfield diamond where only one of the four actually plays centrally isn’t that. As an opposing attacker, face him up one-on-one, and enjoy.

CB — Matt Besler: 6 — Didn’t struggle as badly as Gonzalez, mostly because he’s more accustomed to playing in open space, but playing alongside Gonzalez really highlights his most problematic deficiency: a minor lack of pace and athleticism. A healthy Geoff Cameron should complement Besler very well, should the two partner one another between Tuesday and next summer.

LB — Jorge Villafaña: 5.5 — What’s to say about the left back position right now? Villafaña will continue to play there because no better option exists. If the midfield can remain solid in possession as they were in this one, limiting the direct counters thrown at him, he can pretty regularly avoid being a net-negative.

[ RECAP: USMNT routs Panama to boost World Cup dreams in a big way ]

CM — Michael Bradley: 6 — He was asked to do a lot in this one — run the entire middle third of the field as the only truly central midfielder — which he struggled to juggle at times in the first half, but that’s an impossible ask. He doesn’t need to be a 9/10 performer every night for the USMNT succeed. In fact, they need him to play a smaller part more frequently, and allow every one else to carry their own weight. He can still be Superman when it’s asked of him, but it’s not necessary all the time.

CM — Paul Arriola: 7 — Every team needs a Paul Arriola. The defensive cover he provided down the right side allowed Yedlin ample freedom to venture forward and stretch the field. His relentless pressing and winning of 50-50 balls makes for an uneasy evening for any opposition midfielder, and most importantly, takes that responsibility off Bradley’s plate, allowing him to sit deeper, read the game and dictate tempo.

CM — Darlington Nagbe: 6.5 — *checks boxscore* *checks boxscore again* Yup, Nagbe did indeed play on Friday. Nominally deployed as a shuttler in a diamond(-ish) midfield, it’s not the worst thing in the world to go unnoticed. He remains tidy with his passing and forever an outlet when Bradley is harried. You can make the case he’s “too talented” for such a role, but at this point in time, this is his role and he’s done it masterfully.

CM — Christian Pulisic: 9 — 10/10 ratings are reserved for hat tricks (or three goals and assists combined, at the very least), so the wonderboy checks in with a 9/10 for the parts he played in the first (scoring) and second (assisting) goals, plus the attention (and fouls) he now commands are truly game-changing for everyone else in the attacking third.

[ VIDEOS: Pulisic makes it 1-0 after 8′Pulisic to Altidore for no. 2 ]

FW — Bobby Wood: 7 — Wood’s partnership with Altidore has required some kinks be worked out over the course of the last year, but Friday’s game showed what so many thought possible for the duo: Altidore drops into midfield to 1) pulling center backs out of shape; 2) be the playmaker that he is, and Wood capitalizes on that space by running the channels until his lungs explode. Every goal that Wood scores is oh so deserved.

FW — Jozy Altidore: 9 — Also, no 10/10 when one of the three is a penalty. So sorry, Sir Josmer. I’m not really sure what more needs to be said. When healthy, and in the form of his life as he is right now, Altidore is an impossible nightmare.

SUB — Dax McCarty: 6.5 — Arena brought him on just before the hour mark to 1) save Pulisic’s life; 2) plant someone alongside Bradley at the base of midfield. McCarty accomplished a ton in his 33 minutes on the field, winning the ball back eight times, connecting just about every one of his passes, and threading an inch-perfect through ball to Arriola late in the game.

SUB — Clint Dempsey: 5.5 — The thought of Dempsey as a late-game super-sub next summer should provide all USMNT fans with a wealth of hope and excitement. Provided he remains accepting of the role, he will change one or two games in unbelievably meaningful ways.

SUB — Alejandro Bedoya: 5.5 — Only got 10 minutes, but continues to make his case as a lock-down central midfielder who offers more than most think when he surges forward.

Three things from the USMNT’s blowout of Panama

AP Photo/John Raoux
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The United States men’s national team now stands a result away from Russia, as Bruce Arena’s men responded with an emphatic beatdown of Panama in Orlando.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

Jozy Altidore scored twice, Christian Pulisic had a goal and an assist, and Bobby Wood also scored in the win.

Here are three matters of import from Friday’s blowout, with a trip to Trinidad and Tobago on the docket for a Tuesday match.


Pulisic

We don’t need more than one word, but will provide several more on the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund man.

Christian Pulisic has been a regular in our “3 Things” posts following Hex matches, but there’s little debating the topic now: He’s the best player on the USMNT, and not far from being the best player in CONCACAF.

The teenager has revolutionized this team and almost single-handedly saved its World Cup hopes, by extension salvaging the eight-cycle progress of the USMNT. (Of course this assumes the Yanks get the appropriate result in T&T).

The 8th minute finish was all you need to see from Pulisic, who had the calm to carry around Jaime Penedo and then slot home from a difficult and acute angle.

He’s here. And he’ll have to fall off precipitously to not become the best player in American history (Sorry, Clint).

[ WATCH: Pulisic scores | Feeds Jozy for 2-0 ]

By the way, he’s not hurt, as he told Julie Stewart-Binks on television after the match:

“I just got kicked in the calf there at the end, but I’ll be alright.”


CONCACAF killers get rest

The beauty of the Yanks’ waxing Panama is that both Pulisic and Jozy Altidore were able to leave the matches without putting in a full 90 (or even 65).

Altidore is a handful for any team in this confederation to deal with, and we’ve covered Pulisic in depth above.

The possibility of starting a similar lineup on Tuesday, with perhaps Clint Dempsey in for Bobby Wood, should go a long way toward assuring a fresh and ready road win and qualification for Russia.

Again, that’s assuming no significant let down in mentality, no “job’s done” from the gents. Right now, in the afterglow of Friday’s light show, that seems downright impossible.


It’s not over (and it wasn’t perfect)

The score line masked a fairly sloppy defensive first half. The pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler was a choice for familiarity over prowess, with Arena not starting ready and willing Geoff Cameron.

The bad news? A better finishing team punishes at least two of the errors from Gonzalez and Besler in the first half of what could’ve been 4-2 at the break.

[ MORE: U-17 World Cup Day 1 roundup ]

Besler was a warrior, and be better if paired with Geoff Cameron on Tuesday (AP Photo/John Raoux).

Gonzalez was megged by 900-year-old Blas Perez, and Besler’s twin mistakes weren’t as glaring but weren’t welcome. Granted an elbow made sure both his eyes were bandaged, but this side needs to schedule November friendlies against decent attacks to see if Matt Miazga and some of its other center back options are legit for the roster in Russia.

The chances were wide open in the first half, and it’ll be harder if those chances are handed to Kevin Molino and Joevin Jones.

The good news is that Cameron and Tim Ream are both available for Tuesday in Trinidad and Tobago, should that be Arena’s plan (he’s liked his rotation).

The better news is the desperation and energy on display from not just Pulisic and Altidore, but Paul Arriola and DeAndre Yedlin. If Michael Bradley is the cylinder in the engine of the U.S. midfield and Pulisic is the motor, then Arriola was a firing piston.

Even experienced old hats like Tim Howard were fired up for this one, and will be sure to have the men ready on Tuesday.

Arena should give Ream a look in Brooks’ absence

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With John Brooks out three months thanks to a horribly timed thigh injury, the United States yet again has to scramble to fill a void at the back. It’s not the first time an injury to Brooks has left the USMNT scrambling for cover at a thin position.

In the successful Gold Cup this past summer, with a largely domestic squad in place, Omar Gonzalez saw the bulk of the time at central defender, with Matt Besler his partner through the final two matches. However, with European-based players now in contention for spots with the early September international break, those two are unlikely to continue, at least not together.

[ MORE: Liverpool holds all the cards in Coutinho transfer ]

The most obvious choice to start September 1st against Costa Rica and likely shoo-in should he remain healthy for the next two weeks is Geoff Cameron. The 32-year-old has been back and forth between defense and midfield with club and country, and although he has publicly acknowledged his preference for a spot higher up the pitch, he was used in a back-three in Stoke City’s Premier League opener last weekend and is steadiest at the back.

But with a spot next to Cameron up for grabs in Brooks’ absence, a player who should get serious consideration is United States fill-in extraordinaire Tim Ream.

Ream has had to work hard to earn his place with the U.S., and while he’s seen time of late, he’s not been a first-choice pick. The 29-year-old has four caps so far in 2017, with two of those starts, including one in the impressive 1-1 draw against Mexico at the Azteca with the US still clawing its way back up the Hex standings. Even then, Ream would likely not have earned that spot had Arena not chosen to rotate nearly the entire squad between the pair of qualifiers in that window. His other start this year, the 1-1 draw at Panama, only came after Cameron pulled out of the squad the day of the game with a late injury. The last time Ream started back-to-back matches for the U.S. came back in 2015 when he was somewhat of a regular through the second half of the calendar year.

[ MORE: LA Galaxy send Van Damme back to Belgium ]

But now, with Brooks out, Ream looks like the perfect man to fill in again. The 29-year-old defender finished last season in top form as Fulham narrowly missed out on promotion, earning the official website’s Man of the Match award in a May 2nd draw with Brentford, and won it again in the club’s final match of the season.

Without missing a beat, Ream has picked up where he left off last campaign in the first few matches this month. Last weekend against Reading at the Madjeski Stadium, Ream’s center-back partner Tomas Kalas was sent off 36 seconds into the match, forcing Fulham to play a man down for 89 minutes. Ream and company solidified the back, conceding just once in the 61st minute en route to a 1-1 draw.

The club still likely requires reinforcements at the CB position – Ream was forced to partner with right-back Denis Odoi against Reading with Kalas suspended and Michael Madl injured – meaning Ream could see an influx of competition in the coming weeks. However, as it stands, the American is far and away the best (and most improved) central defender on a club favored for promotion.

Gonzalez performed well in the Gold Cup, and Matt Besler was serviceable, but with few other options in the heart of defense to take Brooks’ place, Bruce Arena could yet again look to Ream for an in-form replacement.

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

AP Photo/LM Otero
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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