Questions loom as USA enter Gold Cup quarterfinals
Harsh truths emerged as the United States national team concluded its Gold Cup group stage work on Monday. The results reflected the application and the mentality required to march through this tournament, but the overall performances fell short of the expected standard.
U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan captured the sentiment within the ranks and echoed several of his teammates as he reflected upon the first-place finish in Group A and the work ahead to retain the Gold Cup.
"We know it wasn't good enough," Guzan said after the 1-1 draw with Panama on Monday. "We know that we need to put together a 90-minute performance. We know now -- going forward -- that it's about results, it's about finding a way to win, grinding out games, pretty or not. It's about making sure at the end of the game that we're on the winning side."
As U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann noted after the draw against Panama, the tournament starts now. Klinsmann made three changes to his roster on Tuesday to strengthen his options heading into the knockout round. Those alterations -- plus the couple of days' rest afforded by concluding the initial obligations ahead of the other two groups -- offer a chance to freshen things up before the journey starts in earnest.
The extra time also allowed Klinsmann and his staff to contemplate some perplexing quandaries and sift through some of the lingering issues ahead of the quarterfinal against Cuba on Saturday (live, 4:30 p.m., FOX, FOX Sports Go).
Can this team dictate the proceedings for extended periods?
U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya noted the need for his side to impose more of its style on the opposition during the knockout round. It is a well-taken point given the Americans' struggles during the exacting slog through Group A. There were times in those matches where the U.S. controlled things, but they were too infrequent to exert any substantial dominion over the course of the game.
The quarterfinal against Cuba -- a surprising addition to the last eight after a shocking victory over Guatemala on Wednesday -- provides a chance for the U.S. to make immediate strides in this department. Cuba is likely to sit back, soak up pressure and then wait for the right times to push forward.
In order to combat those issues, the U.S. must open the match briskly (a trouble spot in group play) and set a high tempo in possession. The dearth of precision in possession -- particularly playing between and through lines -- and the lack of cadence contributed to the concerns during group play. The onus is on the Americans to improve against Cuba in order to establish the foundation for a semifinal against Haiti or Jamaica.
How do the new arrivals fit into the plans?
In his first run through the Gold Cup two years ago, Klinsmann opted to make four changes at the start of the knockout round. Matt Besler started all three matches in the heart of defense. Eddie Johnson featured in all three games (including starts in the semifinal and the final) and scored two goals. Omar Gonzalez made one late substitute appearance in the final, while Alan Gordon watched the entire knockout stage unfold from the bench.
One thing is certain now: The same back four won't start against Cuba with Brooks ruled out through suspension. Brooks' absence could lead to more widespread changes with selection questions in play across the defense.
Beasley's arrival creates more flexibility at fullback. If Kllinsmann wants to strengthen his defensive shape with Brooks sidelined, then Johnson can flip to the right to allow Beasley to play on the left. There is also a case to keep the fullback department the same (Chandler and Johnson are the best attacking options) or push Johnson even further up the field.
Tim Ream is the logical choice to replace Brooks in the middle because Klinsmann prefers to play a left-footed player in that spot and usually separates his depth chart accordingly. Ream's introduction might prompt a more thorough inspection of Omar Gonzalez's claims to replace Alvarado on the right side of that duo. Gonzalez's physical presence provides a nice complement to Ream, though the duo took some time to find its footing against Haiti in the second group match.
Perhaps the most confounding issue is how to reassemble the back four if Cuba is dispatched as expected. Chemistry is a vital component of any defense, but the Americans have chopped and changed at will. The return of Brooks -- and he is quite likely to come straight back into the side -- forces yet another change and prompts yet another point where Klinsmann can weigh his options. The key here is to make sure all of the changes do not lead to instability within the ranks.
Is narrow or wide the way to go on the flanks?
Most of the tactical underpinnings during the group stage centered on playing narrowly and quickly through Michael Bradley to Altidore and Clint Dempsey. Those fundamental principles were inevitably altered as opposing teams entrenched inside their own halves and limited the opportunities to combine adequately. Klinsmann responded more often than not by injecting width into the team -- the decision to replace Altidore with Gyasi Zardes in the 1-0 victory over Haiti serves as the best example -- and watching his side benefit in the process.
Expect similar dexterity here given the available personnel and the situation at hand. The work in possession should improve with Bedoya moving toward full fitness, Corona presenting another alternative and Mix Diskerud and Graham Zusi still available. The introduction of more precision might make a diamond midfield more successful with linchpins Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley more than capable of helping things along. If there is a need for more width, then Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin can always stretch the field correspondingly. It is, as always, a case-by-case issue depending on the exact demands of the game.
Who will partner Clint Dempsey?
Altidore's departure scuppers the anticipated plans up front. If the Americans stick with a forward pairing, then Dempsey needs a new partner. There are three evident options available: Zardes, Aron Jóhannsson and Chris Wondolowski.
Jóhannsson is perhaps the most logical choice because he combines deft combination work with a willingness to dart behind the line or hold up the play when required. His intermittent effectiveness at this level raises questions, though. Wondolowski complements Dempsey well enough with his relentless work rate, but he is more likely to feature off the bench when the Americans search for a goal. Zardes usually features in midfield for Klinsmann, but he stretches the field vertically with his pace when he operates up front.
At this point, Klinsmann faces a rather difficult quandary in that spot. Jóhannsson or Zardes is most likely to get the call. The final choice might rest on the overall team shape (is an extra body in midfield required?) and the selections in midfield (if the Americans need width on the left, then Zardes is likely to play there instead).