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Three things: USMNT beats Nicaragua 3-0, wins Group B

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The following lessons were bestowed upon us during the U.S. national team’s 3-0 victory over Nicaragua on Saturday…

[ MORE: USMNT miss two PKs, still finish top of Group B ]

The left back search continues

This was Jorge Villafaña’s chance; it was to be his Gold Cup; it was supposed to be his coming-out party; it was his audition for next summer’s World Cup — the one where he needed to step up and say, “I am the left back,” thus solving the USMNT’s biggest, longest-running problem. After starting the first and the third games of the group, we’re no closer to having found a full-time starter. It would have been nice, but at this point, we all knew better.

Villafaña’s weaknesses are, simply put, 1) he’s wasteful and unimaginative when overlapping on the attacking, and 2) he’s a second- (or third-) best in every two-man foot race. In the modern game, especially with two eyes focused on the World Cup 11 months from now, those are fatal flaws in considering the world-class talent he’d be up against in Russia.

At this point, either Greg Garza fills the superhero cape Villafaña so admirably tried, but failed, to fill, or DaMarcus Beasley is heading to his fifth World Cup.

[ MORE: Bradley, Altidore to be added to USMNT’s roster for KO rounds ]

Joe Corona… not a no. 10

Here’s what I wrote about Corona in my player ratings: “Scored a goal, missed a penalty, killed the majority of attacking movements during which he touched the ball. Business as usual.” Those are very bad qualities for a player deployed, on multiple occasions, as a no. 10. Do you know who’s proven quite effective in that de facto role, and is on this same roster?

Best-case scenario: Kelyn Rowe is a no. 10. Worst-case scenario: he’s a better no. 10 than Corona, even if still slightly miscast. He’s not a brilliant chance creator, like a traditional no. 10, but he’s an effective circulator of the ball, something he does with good tempo and security. Unfortunately, he’ll either be released from camp this week, or find himself buried on the depth chart once the first-teamers make their way aboard for the knockout rounds.

[ MORE: Panama win helps USMNT, Mexico into quarterfinals ]

The wings are, uh, also a problem

This isn’t a lesson from Saturday, per se — more so of the last few months — but other than left back, the player pool is most shallow on the wings.

If Christian Pulisic’s ultimate home is as a no. 10 for the USMNT (many, including myself, think it is), we’re picking two from the following group of non-winger wingers: Fabian Johnson (true position unknown), Darlington Nagbe (central midfielder), Bobby Wood (center forward) and Jordan Morris (center forward).

Watching Chris Pontius on Saturday, following wide shifts from Paul Arriola and Gyasi Zardes over the last two weeks, I suddenly feel very unwell when faced with the prospects of attempting to score goals next summer.

Player ratings from USMNT’s 3-0 win over Nicaragua

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The U.S. national team is through to the quarterfinals of the 2017 Gold Cup as Group B winners following Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Nicaragua.

Who stood out for all the right — and wrong — reasons, as Bruce Arena prepares to make as many as six changes to the USMNT roster before the knockout rounds begin on Wednesday?

[ MORE: Bradley, Altidore to be added to USMNT’s roster for KO rounds ]

GK — Bill Hamid: 6 — Challenged just twice all night, Hamid made both saves asked of him, though he did spill a long-range effort late in the second half which nearly turned into a disastrous moment.

LB — Jorge Villafaña: 5 — Villafaña struggles with two facets of playing left back at the international level: 1) he’s not a great pretty poor attacker when he gets forward, and 2) he’s left for dead against pacy wingers. Neither of those bode well 11 months before the start of the World Cup.

CB — Matt Besler: 6 — It’s not often that a center back is completely uninvolved in everything that happens in the game, but that was the case for Besler in this one. It’s impossible to “hurt” your stock in such an event, but there’s no helping either.

CB — Matt Miazga: 7 — Again, the center backs were largely untested over the 90 minutes, but Miazga did score the late winner, albeit while completely unmarked, on a set piece.

RB — Graham Zusi: 5.5 — He’s not an international right back. What I mean by that is: he’s great at the position for Sporting Kansas City, because the entirety of the attacking and defensive systems are tailored to his strengths, and away from his weaknesses. That’s impossible to replicate during an international camp, and it’s actively hurting the USMNT.

[ MORE: USMNT miss two PKs, still finish top of Group B ]

CM — Dax McCarty: 6 — The majority of the game was played in the final third for the USMNT, and out on the wings for Nicaragua — both of which are to say, McCarty, like the center backs directly behind him, saw very little action.

CM — Alejandro Bedoya: 8 — Man of the Match, probably. Furthermore, I’ll own this: I was wrong. I thought Bedoya should be deployed as a winger and/or wide midfielder, but he’s so clearly a two-way central midfielder, and with a responsible, dominant partner like McCarty, a really good one.

CM — Joe Corona: 6 — Scored a goal, missed a penalty, killed the majority of attacking movements during which he touched the ball. Business as usual.

[ MORE: Panama win helps USMNT, Mexico into quarterfinals ]

LW — Kelyn Rowe: 8 — Best attacker during the group stage, hands down. Another strong showing, while played out of position, and a goal to show for his efforts.

CF — Dom Dwyer: 5 — Like Corona, Dwyer missed a penalty and served as the end of the road for a number of promising attacking sequences. His hold-up play isn’t strong enough to play as a target; his movement isn’t tricky, nor his finishing clinical, enough to be a poacher. It’s tough to see where/how he fits in going forward.

RW — Chris Pontius: 5 — Wings are the most wide open positions in the player pool, so it’s worth it to give anyone and everyone a look, especially during the group stage, but Pontius is neither explosive now a visionary. One or the other, please.

[ MORE: Costa Rica, Canada book quarterfinal places ]

Sub — Paul Arriola: 5 — Unable to find time on the ball, or space, to create. He’s a worker, to be certain, but offers very little in terms of chance creation. As established above, a common theme.

Sub — Jordan Morris: 5 — Let’s pick a position for Morris, and let him live there. Is he a forward? Is he an cutting-in winger? He took a knock on the hip not long after coming on, and look hindered the rest of the way. There’s a time and a place for a player with his speed, but a game where you’ve already got a 2-0 lead might not be it.

Sub — Juan Agudelo: 6 — The smallest sample size — just 16 minutes — but every time he hits the field, Agudelo gets on the ball and his first instinct is to run at defenders. It was his dribble through midfield which won the free kick that resulted in Miazga’s winner. Things happen when Agudelo is on the field. He should have started the first and the third games, with Dwyer taking the middle of the three.

Pair of penalty misses nearly costs USMNT top spot in group

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The U.S. national team knocked off Nicaragua in the two sides’ 2017 Gold Cup Group B finale on Saturday, and has advanced to the quarterfinal round, where they’ll take on a third-place finisher from either Group A or Group C on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Panama win helps USMNT, Mexico into quarterfinals ]

The result didn’t come without adversity, of the self-inflicted variety. Most notably, a pair of penalty misses looked destined to deny Bruce Arena’s side the three-goal victory they needed to leapfrog Panama and finish top of the group. Fortunately, an unlikely hero’s first USMNT would span the gap, but only just.

The breakthrough came after 37 minutes, as the Yanks capitalized on one of few counter-attacking opportunities in the opening 45 minutes. Alejandro Bedoya crossed the ball from the right wing, but it ultimately fell to Joe Corona 20 yards from goal. The Club Tijuana man moved past a pair of defenders, cut inside and fired a bouncing ball past Lorente, inches inside his right-hand post.

[ MORE: Bradley, Altidore to be added to USMNT’s roster for KO rounds ]

Dwyer did everything — from winning the penalty kick, to taking the attempt himself — but score from the spot in the 50th minute. Dwyer went down under slight contact from Marlon Lopez, and claimed the spot kick as his own. He went left, and Lorente was all over it, making the save in comfortable fashion.

Only six minutes would pass before the Yanks’ next golden opportunity, and Rowe wouldn’t waste this one. It was Bedoya, again, who notched the assist with a visionary through ball. Rowe arrived in full stride, corralled it with a delicate first touch and applied the narrow-angled finish for 2-0, and his first international goal.

[ MORE: Costa Rica, Canada book quarterfinal places ]

The penalty woes would continue five minutes later, when Corona would see his own effort from the spot saved by Lorente, in far easier fashion that Dwyer’s attempt which preceded his own.

Nicaragua’s Luis Copete was shown a second yellow card in the 85th minute, when he bowled over Juan Agudelo in the open field, and the USMNT made the most of the man advantage. Graham Zusi lofted the ensuing free kick to the top of the six-yard box, where Matt Miazga awaited, completely unmarked, for a simple downward header, and more importantly, the 3-0 victory.

Who is Kenny Saief, and other USMNT Gold Cup personnel questions

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Kenny Saief is an 23-year-old American left-sided player with UEFA Champions League experience.

So why do we know so little about the Miami-born man?

The answer is pretty straight-forward: Saief’s entire career has been under-the-radar. After coming up through a series of Israeli teams, he moved to KAA Gent in Belgium. None of those matches, even adding in his representing the full Israel national team twice, got a ton of play on American soil.

[ MORE: Saul scores stunner for Spain U-21s ]

So when Saief filed his one-time switch to represent the United States, paving the way for a USMNT call-up for this summer’s Gold Cup, even those of us who’d followed his career from afar had put a limited amount of actual observation on match footage.

So here’s the long-and-short:

  • Saief turns 24 in December.
  • He moved to Gent from Israeli second tier side Ramat haSharon in 2014.
  • Played a total of 35 minutes in friendlies versus Serbia and Croatia.
  • Saief has 20 total appearances between the Europa and Champions Leagues.
  • Posted a UCL assist versus Wolfsburg in the 2015-16 Round of 16.
  • Had goal, 2 assists in UEL this season, played 180 mins vs. Spurs.
  • Has 15 goals, 9 assists in 107 apps for Gent.

Saief should get an opportunity to make an impact for Bruce Arena’s USMNT, perhaps as soon as Saturday’s friendly against Ghana in East Hartford.

Who else stands a chance to gain the most from this tournament?

Joe Corona — The 26-year-old made his thirst-inducing name in American soccer circles by scoring a pair of goals in the 2013 Gold Cup, but has just 17 caps to his name. His call-up over veterans like Benny Feilhaber and Sacha Kljestan either shows how high he’s risen or how far those veterans have fallen.

Cristian Roldan — Seattle’s hard-nosed midfielder was playing college ball at Washington just three years ago, and it’s not crazy to think strong performances could boost him onto the radar of bigger clubs abroad (let alone make him a mainstay along Kellyn Acosta with the USMNT).

Dom Dwyer — If Roldan’s rise is surprising, Dwyer’s really is astounding. It’s easy to forget that the Sporting KC star forward was playing junior college soccer in 2010 before spending one season of Division I soccer with South Florida. Now he has 57 MLS goals and a look at becoming the clinical finisher the American side has wanted for some time.

Justin Morrow and Eric Lichaj — The 29- and 28-year-old fullbacks would love to prove their mettle is as good if not better than Jorge Villafana, the current front-runner to start at left back should the Yanks complete their revitalized run to the World Cup. Lichaj, a Nottingham Forest veteran, is also adept at right back.

This isn’t to say that Juan Agudelo and Kelyn Rowe won’t benefit from strong tournaments, but the names above have either been rescued from soccer’s scrap heap or at least Jurgen Klinsmann’s prison.

Beasley’s out of retirement as Klinsmann makes trio of moves for Gold Cup’s knockout rounds

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DaMarcus Beasley, Joe Corona and Alan Gordon are now member of this summer’s USMNT Gold Cup squad, as head coach Jurgen Klinsmann looks to tidy up his squad a messy but successful group stage.

Gone are Jozy Altidore, Greg Garza and Alfredo Morales. Altidore “just wasn’t there yet”, according to Klinsmann.

Klinsmann is probably looking to push Fabian Johnson forward with the addition of Beasley, Houston’s dynamic left back who also can play as a winger. Beasley had been retired from international play for less than a year, and will look to build on his 121 caps and 17 goals.

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

Morales has struggled mightily for the USMNT on several occasions, and Monday’s tie with Panama might’ve been his toughest outing yet. In adding Corona, Klinsmann snares a Gold Cup winner who’s scored twice in the tournament.

Garza leaves after being a last-minute replacement for Brad Davis. Gordon gives Klinsmann cover at forward, and the big 33-year-old striker has only one cap for the U.S. (in 2012 against Antigua & Barbuda, where he picked up an assist).

The Gordon move will confuse some, but the big add is Beasley. His experience and leadership is invaluable, and he can be a marked upgrade in certain situations.