Get­ting a sec­ondary opinion

In Gold Cup opener, Arena tests U.S. depth

The Washington Post Sunday - - WASHINGTONPOST.COM/SPORTS - BY STEVEN GOFF steven.goff@wash­post.com

nashville — The CONCACAF Gold Cup presents a bal­anc­ing act for Bruce Arena, the U.S. men’s na­tional soccer team coach. He wants to win the tro­phy, one that has eluded the Amer­i­cans in three of the pre­vi­ous four re­gional tour­na­ments.

But in a year marked promi­nently by the fi­nal round of 2018 World Cup qual­i­fy­ing, he also wants to test sec­ondary play­ers.

A 1-1 draw with Panama in Satur­day’s opener left him largely dis­ap­pointed but hope­ful of bet­ter re­sults as the three-week com­pe­ti­tion un­folds.

He wit­nessed an­other goal by new­comer Dom Dwyer, good at­tack­ing work by prospect Ke­lyn Rowe and ter­rific saves by vet­eran Brad Guzan. But he also saw his team strug­gle to es­tab­lish a rhythm, fall un­der heavy pres­sure and re­lin­quish the lead shortly af­ter seiz­ing it early in the second half.

The re­sult damp­ened the en­thu­si­asm cre­ated by a fes­tive au­di­ence of 47,622 — the largest soccer crowd in Ten­nessee his­tory — on a sear­ing af­ter­noon at Nis­san Sta­dium.

“We didn’t play well on the day,” said Arena, whose record in his second tour with the pro­gram is 4-0-5. “We played okay. Noth­ing great. It’s a good ex­pe­ri­ence for a num­ber of our play­ers.”

The Amer­i­cans, co-fa­vorites with reign­ing cham­pion Mex­ico, will com­plete Group B against Mar­tinique (1-0-0) on Wed­nes­day in Tampa and Nicaragua (0-1-0) on Satur­day in Cleve­land.

The sum­mer is book­ended by World Cup qual­i­fiers. And Arena’s Euro­pean-based reg­u­lars were in need of rest be­fore re­port­ing to their clubs for pre­sea­son. So he skipped over many usual sus­pects for the bi­en­nial com­pe­ti­tion in­volv­ing 12 teams from North and Cen­tral Amer­ica and the Caribbean. (He prob­a­bly will call in sea­soned re­in­force­ments from MLS af­ter the group stage.)

With Panama pos­ing the great­est threat in group play, he stuck with nine starters from the 2-1 tuneup vic­tory over Ghana last week­end. Still, it was a less ex­pe­ri­enced group, and not ev­ery­one met the chal­lenge. The mid­field la­bored to keep the ball, and the back line cracked at times.

“Be­ing in­ex­pe­ri­enced is an ex­cuse but not a good ex­cuse,” Arena said. “We ex­pect our play­ers to step up and deal with th­ese con­di­tions of the game and the tac­tics by op­po­nents. At times, we didn’t do well.”

Over the group stage, Arena plans to play most, if not all, of his 23 play­ers. Satur­day of­fered op­por­tu­ni­ties for Dwyer, Rowe, Dax McCarty and Joe Corona.

Dwyer is the most in­trigu­ing can­di­date in camp. Born in Eng­land and nat­u­ral­ized this spring, the Sport­ing Kansas City scorer has a real chance to join Jozy Alti­dore, Clint Dempsey and Jor­dan Mor­ris in the front-line corps for the re­main­ing qual­i­fiers and per­haps the World Cup.

Dwyer scored in his in­ter­na­tional de­but against Ghana and re­turned to the lineup Satur­day.

Like the United States, Panama is in the thick of the race for World Cup berths. With a more ex­pe­ri­enced lineup, the vis­i­tors were more com­fort­able and ef­fec­tive go­ing for­ward.

Af­ter an im­ma­te­rial 45 min­utes, the match crack­led to life with a flurry of op­por­tu­ni­ties by both sides.

The Amer­i­cans shat­tered the dead­lock in the 50th minute. Rowe col­lected a throw-in and pro­tected the ball from two foes with clever foot­work be­fore cross­ing to Dwyer for a clin­i­cal, one-touch ef­fort from eight yards that beat Jose Calderon to the far cor­ner.

“It’s fan­tas­tic,” Dwyer said of his fast im­pact. “I’m go­ing to try to keep putting the ball in the net and maybe throw a cou­ple more in.”

Panama an­swered in re­sound­ing fash­ion.

In the 55th minute, Guzan made a spec­tac­u­lar re­flex save on Gabriel Tor­res’s six-yard down­ward header, flash­ing his left glove. De­fender Omar Gon­za­lez then dis­rupted Is­mael Diaz’s re­bound bid in­side the six-yard box.

In frus­tra­tion, Tor­res threw him­self onto the grass, punched the ground and grabbed his head.

The vex­a­tion lasted just five min­utes. Guzan blocked Tor­res’s blast from nine yards, but Miguel Ca­margo, a 23-year-old mid­fielder for MLS’s New York City FC, stung the re­bound through traf­fic and past Guzan.

“It’s frus­trat­ing be­cause we lacked the men­tal part, to get the ball out of the box,” mid­fielder Ale­jan­dro Be­doya said. “That lapse of con­cen­tra­tion — whether the heat af­fected the men­tal­ity or what­ever it was — it can’t hap­pen. Once Brad makes two great saves, we weren’t able to help him.”

Panama foiled late U.S. pres­sure and hap­pily left with one point.

The Amer­i­cans weren’t as pleased.

“I’d like to be­lieve as we con­tinue to move on in group play,” Arena said, “we will play bet­ter.”

MARK HUMPHREY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dom Dwyer, mid­dle, scored against Panama. The U.S. next plays Mar­tinique on Wed­nes­day in Tampa.

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