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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.

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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

FOLLOW LIVE: USMNT vs. Costa Rica — Gold Cup semifinals

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The last time the U.S. national team faced Costa Rica, the final score was 4-0 in favor of the home side, in San Jose (not the one in California). Six days later, Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena.

On Saturday, it’ll be Arena’s USMNT which takes on Los Ticos with a place in the 2017 Gold Cup final on the line. One of Mexico and Jamaica, who’ll face off in the second semifinal on Sunday, comes next.

When: 10 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

[ LIVE: Gold Cup scoreboard ]

Arena has made five changes to the team that beat El Salvador 2-0 in Wednesday’s quarterfinal. Incoming are Graham Zusi (for Eric Lichaj), Matt Besler (Matt Hedges), Jorge Villafaña (Justin Morrow), Kellyn Acosta (Gyasi Zardes) and Jordan Morris (Clint Dempsey).

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

Texas-born Dempsey at home 1 goal from record, 1 win from Final

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ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) Clint Dempsey is back in his home state of Texas, one goal away from a national scoring record for the United States team that is one win from playing in another CONCACAF Gold Cup final.

The Americans play a semifinal game Saturday night against Costa Rica in a stadium synonymous with American football – the home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, the Cotton Bowl and where the first College Football Playoff championship game was played three seasons ago.

That is only about 180 miles from Dempsey’s hometown of Nacogdoches.

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“It’s always great to be home and play in front of family and friends, especially for a big game,” Dempsey said Friday. “I have a lot of great memories of playing in Dallas as a kid, and I’m proud to represent Nacogdoches. Being from there made me who I am today.”

Dempsey, one goal from matching Landon Donovan’s American record of 57 national team goals, wasn’t part of soccer’s only Gold Cup games at the $1.2 billion AT&T Stadium.

In a 2013 semifinal game there when the Americans were on the way to their fifth Gold Cup championship, they beat Honduras 3-1. Donovan scored twice in that game – his 55th and 56th goals for the national team – and assisted on the other goal. About two months later, Donovan scored his final goal in a World Cup qualifier win over Mexico.

Within a week after Costa Rica beat the U.S. team 4-0 in World Cup qualifying last November, Jurgen Klinsmann was out as the U.S. coach and Bruce Arena was rehired to the position he had been fired from a decade earlier.

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Costa Rica coach Oscar Ramirez said Friday that Arena has seemingly had a positive impact on the U.S. team.

“They look more relaxed in terms of what they’re doing on the field,” Ramirez said through an interpreter.

This U.S. roster for the Gold Cup knockout rounds also is much different than the one that played in Costa Rica eight months ago – not just the change at coach. Only five players from that game that are set for this semifinal game – Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi.

“That’s in the past,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think about that game. … This is just another game. It’s another opportunity for us to see what we’re made out of.”

Altidore, Dempsey, Bradley, Darlington Nagbe, and goalkeeper Tim Howard were all added to the lineup before a 2-0 win over El Salvador in the quarterfinal on Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

Dempsey set up Eric Lichaj‘s goal in extra time before halftime to make it 2-0 against El Salvador. Dempsey also fed Gyasi Zardes for a breakaway, though that apparent goal didn’t count after he was ruled offside.

That game was Dempsey’s 135th appearance for the national team, trailing only Cobi Jones (164) and Landon Donovan (157) on the U.S. list.

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Dempsey isn’t the only player with Texas ties with the U.S. team. Three players from FC Dallas, the MLS team that plays its home games about 40 miles away from the big stadium in Frisco, are on the roster: Kellyn Acosta, Matt Hedges and Jesse Gonzalez.

Acosta, the homegrown midfielder who turns 22 next week, was recently named to the MLS All-Star team. He was born in nearby Plano, Texas, and signed by FC Dallas five years ago.

“It’s definitely a proud moment, to get to represent my community, play before my friends and family,” Acosta said. “To be back in my hometown, I’m definitely excited about it.”

Notes: Costa Rica is trying to get to its first Gold Cup final since 2002, when it lost 2-0 to the Americans. “Obviously, we want to look for that reward, that happiness, and go after that,” Ramirez said. “We have a difficult team in front of us.” … The United States’ nine goals are the most in this Gold Cup, while Costa Rica has allowed only one in its four games.

Three things from the USMNT’s 2-0 win over El Salvador

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The United States of America is not winning the Gold Cup.

At least that’s not how things look despite Bruce Arena’s much-needed call-ups of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, Darlington Nagbe, and Clint Dempsey.

[ MORE: Match recap | Altidore bit | Player ratings ]

Don’t let the clean sheet fool you: The defense was a mess again, the finishing was off, and any other remaining team in the tournament would’ve dismissed the U.S. at the quarterfinals given the same chances.

Agree or disagree, read on…

Back line blues

Tim Howard bailed out Eric Lichaj for a miserable early giveaway, but the play was far from an aberration for the Yanks’ defense.

Lichaj, solid in his first match of the tournament, struggled with giveaways in this one. Center backs Omar Gonzalez and Matt Hedges were caught out of position and sometimes out of the camera, with the former’s missed clearance of a cross nearly allowing El Salvador back into the game in the 63rd minute.

With this roster and Costa Rica on the other side Saturday, Hedges probably needs to slide back onto the bench and Gonzalez needs to be paired with his World Cup mate Matt Besler. We’d still like to see more from Matt Miazga, but unsure a semifinal against the team that got your last coach fired is the spot for a relative rookie.

Now what does Arena do with the fullbacks? Neither Lichaj nor Morrow shone in defense, but Graham Zusi has been very poor and Jorge Villafana is yet to put forth a complete performance in this tournament. Looking back to the Martinique charade, defense is slated to send the Yanks away from the Gold Cup without a title and probably without a Final. Find a fix, Bruce.

The roster changes were needed

While it wasn’t Clint Dempsey’s best night, he provided a key assist and made sure that each of the five roster changes — third string goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez is six — showed why Arena made the changes after the group stage (though who he sent home, *cough* Kelyn Rowe *cough*, remains up for debate).

Michael Bradley is simply the best option in the center of the park right now, and showed that the captain is still the man even if Dax McCarty is a fine backup. Darlington Nagbe was clean on the ball as usual, Tim Howard made an early calming stop of a horrible Lichaj giveaway, and Jozy Altidore showed that he remains the player to game plan for if you’re a CONCACAF team. While only Howard and Bradley will really love their games, all five will be necessary to a Gold Cup Final run.

Adjustments haven’t been great

Maybe Arena doesn’t have the options he needs to show “master tactician” status, and his work is far from the biggest team problem, but the second half was a problem.

(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

One substitution in particular was questionable: Arena took off Paul Arriola and replaced him with forward Jordan Morris. Now perhaps this was somehow due to Arriola’s sneaky groin kick earlier in the match, and that’s about the only way I can handle the sub (Full disclosure: I’ve enjoyed watching Arriola, so if you think he’s been poor then call this post “Two things” and move on).

The move disrupted Nagbe’s great night and the Yanks never really rebounded to threaten a third goal. In fact, they probably should’ve seen their lead knocked down to one at least once. The Kellyn Acosta for Gyasi Zardes sub was welcome, for sure, so it’s not like Arena was a disaster. And the side hasn’t looked aimless as it did under Jurgen Klinsmann, so this isn’t a witch hunt. But the Americans need better.

USMNT Player Ratings from a disjointed 2-0 win over El Salvador

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The United States men’s national team is onto the Gold Cup semifinals again, but defensively put in a performance that would’ve gotten them eliminated against pretty much any other team remaining in the tournament.

[ MORE: USMNT 2-0 El Salvador | Altidore bit ]

Did anyone shine? Yeah, the “new” boys were good. But confidence isn’t high heading into Texas for a semifinal date with Costa Rica on Saturday.

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 7 — Didn’t have to do much, but made a key save early to help avoid a disastrous start.

Justin Morrow — 6 — Good going forward and with the ball, but lost his marks a few times. Still, one of two defenders who won’t totally hate their defending.

Omar Gonzalez — 5 — Scored again, which is really good. Also drifted out of position on several occasions, struggled with his marks, and butchered a headed clearance that should’ve seen El Salvador pull within one.

Matt Hedges — 5 — Not a starring role, but improved from a poor performance in his last outing. Relative to his defensive peers, he was fine.

Eric Lichaj — 5 — Like Gonzalez, he scored. And this one was a very nice goal, but the Nottingham Forest star committed a horrible giveaway early and made a big mistake in the second half as well. Poor.

Michael Bradley — 8 — Much maligned in U.S. circles, had a standout night in the middle of the park that showed why he’s ahead of decent Dax McCarty in the pecking order. Good service on all but one set piece, and an assist to boot.

Darlington Nagbe (Off 87′) — 6 — More than decent work, and trademark clever footwork. Didn’t have that one singular moment of danger to earn a higher mark. Shouldn’t have been taken off unless Bruce Arena plans to use him heavily again on Saturday.

Paul Arriola (Off 66′) — 6 — Industrious evening getting himself into position to make key passes, but accuracy was missing. Also kicked an El Salvadoran player between the legs, which is not good.

Gyasi Zardes (Off 71′) — 6 — If you wanted to give him high marks for some electrifying moves you’d be justified, but still something missing from his final passing.

Clint Dempsey — 7 — Far from perfect, and didn’t match Landon Donovan on the all-time goals mark, but his moment of brilliance to set up Lichaj’s goal was vintage ‘Deuce’.

Jozy Altidore — 6 — A physical menace who deserves credit for not reacting violently to being bitten, he still didn’t create that moment

[ MORE: Three things from the 2-0 win ]

Substitutes

Jordan Morris (On 66′) — 5 — Made a good run upon subbing into the game, then drifted away.

Kellyn Acosta (On 71′) — 6 — Active, now let’s see him with Bradley?

Chris Pontius (On 87′) — N/A