The USMNT hasn’t had a great tournament performance-wise, but so far Bruce Arena has gotten everything he wanted. With a 3-0 thrashing of Nicaragua, the Yanks have not only topped the group and avoided playing one of the tournament favorites, Costa Rica, in the next round, but also everyone has been able to get a significant amount of playing time to impress Arena. The exception was goalkeeper Sean Johnson who got no minutes, and will likely be heading home now, but it’s hard to have sympathy for a guy who was picked over Joe Bendik.
After Panama’s 3-0 win over Martinique earlier today, the Yanks knew they needed to win by at least three goals to top the group — by the goals scored tiebreaker. They made it 2-0 early in the second half, but it was all nerves from there until a late Matt Miazga header sealed the deal.
Arena said he was happy with the performance against Martinique, so I guess it’s just a coincidence that he switched out every single player from that match. This time around he played Dom Dwyer alone up top with (L-R) Kelyn Rowe, Joe Corona, Alejandro Bedoya, and Chris Pontius in the midfield. Dax McCarty sat deep in front of Jose Villafaña, Matt Besler, Matt Miazga, and Graham Zusi, with Bill Hamid in goal.
Early on, it was clear that Arena had instructed the team to press and be aggressive. Much of the USMNT’s attack was centered around either sending the ball out wide for a cross or trying to play Dwyer in on goal. It was really good to see the team keep possession and not let Nicaragua get into the game too much, which has been a problem in the past.
The 15th minute saw a three-minute period begin where the U.S. got a slew of good chances — none of which tested Justo Lorente. Then on a quick transition, Panama’s talisman Juan Barrera was able to fire a long volley shot, but it was just a bit wide. Barrera was thought to be the biggest threat for Nicaragua, as it was his hat trick against Haiti which sent his team through to the Gold Cup, yet there was no real threat from Los Pinoleros all night.
A couple minutes later, Zusi ran from about the halfway line through the whole Panamian team into the box, but he could only register a weak left-footed shot straight at Lorente. Then a few minutes after that, Pontius tried an audacious bicycle kick which ended up wide and also was called for a high boot.
Then came a quiet period in the game which was ended by the USA’s first goal on the night. Bedoya made a great run up the right flank and then cut it back across the box to Corona. Corona then took a couple touches in and then a fired shot which deflected straight into the bottom left of the goal.
Four minutes into the second half, the U.S. was handed a penalty after Dwyer was taken down in the box. Dwyer took the ensuing penalty but it was a good height for the keeper and was easily saved. Luckily the team kept plugging away and was able to get its second goal moments later when Bedoya sent a great ball in the box across to the left post for Kelyn Rowe. Rowe then used the outside of his foot to send a cheeky shot past Lorente.
In the 62nd minute, another penalty was given after Bedoya’s cross was blocked by a sliding player’s hand. The penalty was taken by Corona and saved again by Lorente after he guessed right and dived to his right once again. The miss was a big letdown and after that it was desperate attacking for the USA to get that third goal. Arena even made two attacking changes, bringing in Jordan Morris and Juan Agudelo for Corona and Dwyer.
Nicaragua did gave the U.S. a few scares, forcing multiple saves out of Hamid. The biggest fright actually wasn’t a save but a cross by Luis Copete which flashed across the goal only for two attackers to run into each other. Both were in a great position to ruin the American party.
The pressure kept coming and finally Nicaragua cracked in the 88th minute when Copete body checked Agudelo and received his second yellow. After the sending off, on the ensuing free kick, Zusi sent in a beautiful cross which was headed in at the back post by Miazga. The goal felt like it was coming but Lorente kept Nicaragua from embarrassment the whole game.
With that, the U.S. finished off a weaker opponent and won convincingly, something the team needs to do more. The most important thing though is that the USMNT is through to the quarterfinals. Their opponent is yet to be announced but it definitely won’t be Costa Rica or Mexico.