By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 14, 2017) US Soccer Players - Bruce Arena and the United States Men’s National Team wanted two things from the 2017 Gold Cup. An opportunity to evaluate a group of players not already established in the program who might be able to help the team with depth in Russia next year. It was also supposed to be the return of the program to its proper place among the regional elite through the prism of the month-long tournament.
With the Gold Cup that always means an appearance in the final, likely against Mexico. After the debacle of the 2015 Gold Cup where the Americans not only failed to reach the championship match but lost to Panama in a desultory third-place game, the USMNT needed to reclaim lost pride. Do we really need to go through the distressing firsts that happened in the last Gold Cup?
The evaluation goal is a subjective one, perhaps as important to Arena but far less obvious in evidence. Arena’s quest to improve the depth of his team is necessarily causing inconsistency in the Gold Cup side. Rotating the team as drastically as he did between the group stage opener against Panama and Wednesday night’s match against Martinique doesn’t make for a well-oiled machine. Even a team full of experience internationals might have a problem handling that much change.
This is why the parsing of Wednesday’s squeaky 3-2 win over tiny Martinique is so intriguing. The simple response to the manner in which the Americans won is anger. There’s just no way that a country of 300,000 with a team full of semi-pros, should push the United States to the brink like they did. A strongly held belief that the USMNT should be far enough along to handle any minnow at a canter, no matter the makeup of the American team, permeates the fan base and colors the reaction.
Clearly the USMNT program isn't far enough along that any 23 players it calls up can dominate a country like Martinique. At least, not when there is an process in place meant to evaluate individual players at the same time.
The obvious cross-purposes inherent in trying to be as good as possible as a team AND evaluating players are part of the problem. No individual player was working against the collective whole, but it's tough to argue for the team objective. Trying to make yourself stand out for a coach who will be picking a World Cup team in something like ten months probably means making different choices than you normally might. It wouldn't necessarily be a conscious thing, but who could blame a player for taking an extra dribble or shooting prematurely? Doing so might lead to the moment that makes their case for the plane to Russia just a little bit stronger.
No coach wants to lose, and no coach can stomach simple mistakes. Arena fits that mold, but his reaction to the win says a lot about his current priorities. Rather than rip his players or steam about several obvious errors that kept Martinique in the game, Arena simply expressed his belief that the Americans had made the game more difficult than it needed to be.
Throwing out a new group of players against Martinique made plenty of his players uncomfortable, serving his purposes for player evaluation. Without a test, there’s almost nothing to judge the players against. Like his predecessor before him, Arena understands the value of putting players in tough spots and watching to see how they respond.
The edge that Arena rides between evaluation and winning will again inform his decisions for the lineup against Nicaragua on Saturday. The danger of missing out on the knockout rounds is almost nil. That means he could again choose to roll out an experimental team and use the performances, especially the individual, towards roster selection in September and beyond. It’s only once those knockout round games kick in that he’ll switch the priority from evaluation to winning and put out the strongest, most tactically appropriate team available.
For a lot of fans, it shouldn't have to be a choice between the competent team and the experimental team, especially against the likes of Martinique. For Arena, though, the end result is still somewhat secondary and the fact that so many of his charges struggled in Tampa means he has extra data on which to draw. Responding to the threat of losing, regardless of the opposition, is not something he can control for through this process.
The Gold Cup is still two things for the USMNT, both evaluation exercise and a chance to lift a trophy. It's the balance between them that won't always be so clear.
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