Let’s start out with a delightfully nerdy concept from a Twitter pal, who compared this 2017 edition of the CONCACAF Gold Cup to Ring of Honor in the pro wrestling circuit – a place with few obvious standout stars, but fertile ground to look for emerging talent.
You get the sentiment. And it’s true, Saturday’s matchup between the United States and Panama, both countries’ opening effort in this year’s tournament, didn’t often put the “beautiful” in “the beautiful game.”
The match saw a US squad hit the field just when they were starting to jell as a unit, and put them through brutal heat and humidity, and the usual CONCACAF hijinks of a physical game combining with a few head-scratching moments.
All in all, that it ended in a 1-1 draw comes as little surprise; after all, that’s been the scoreline between the two countries for the past four matches running. And, of course, most of the national team’s usual superstars aren’t currently figuring in the squad, what with many of them putting in club duty recently and soon again in World Cup Qualifying. But that proved one of the upsides in a match that proved scrappy and ugly for long stretches – diamonds in the rough, and a few names whose stock is set to go up.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan (ATL) doesn’t really fall into this category – he’s one of the few bona fide stars in the current squad, what with his skill in holding Mexico to a draw recently at the Azteca. Over the last two weeks of training in Nashville, both Bill Hamid (D.C.) and Sean Johnson (NYC) have proved ready for action, for the former, and certainly promising in the near future, for the latter.
But given Guzan’s performance both in Mexico and tonight, his stock has definitely gone up. This is the team's starting goalkeeper, unless for whatever reason he leaves the tournament early to join Atlanta United. Bruce Arena, in fact, indicated as much post-match: “I think Brad Guzan does a very good job as a leader of the team.”
Others have said tonight that Kelyn Rowe’s net effect on the match might have been neutral, but I still think the New England midfielder remains one to watch as the tournament continues. Arena clearly thinks highly of him, naming him to the starting XI for the last two US matches. And consider this come-up – not only did he never get a senior team call-up under former coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but at the beginning of this MLS season, some thought he might not always be in the starting picture for his club.
Tonight, he served up the assist to the US’ only goal, by Dom Dwyer. And Rowe is pretty self-aware about where he needs to try to improve, ASAP. “I thought that I lost some balls that I shouldn’t have, and I was a little slow,” he acknowledged, after the match. “But I think in the attack I found some good chances. I had two or three chances on goal that I put on frame, but I think I could put them in a little better.”
And whose hype train might deservedly be speeding out of the station? Sporting Kansas City man Dwyer’s, of course. If anyone’s making a case for a slot in World Cup Qualifying – and maybe beyond – it’s the recently minted US citizen who’s now scored twice in two caps.
But no one would accuse him of feeling headstrong about any of this, either. Throughout the past two weeks in Nashville, he’s mostly avoided media, staying laser-focused on training with his earbuds and music hyping him up until the last possible minute.
After the match, too, Dwyer also owned the difficulties on the night. “I was struggling to try and find the ball for certain times of the game, just trying to find little pockets and keep moving,” he said. “We’ll take one [point] and move on.” The humility will serve him well as the team advances.
A last word for some of the subs, as Bruce Arena reserved praise for Juan Agudelo (NE), Gyasi Zardes (LA), and Jordan Morris (SEA). Of those three, Morris is the youngest, and still remains the biggest potential surprise after recently shifting in and out of focus while the national team picture lines up. He’s certainly working to improve specific points of his game, he told me yesterday. He only got a few minutes to try to demonstrate that on Saturday, but deserves a longer outing to show and prove.
In the end, Saturday yielded a draw, not a loss, and one that – given recent history with Panama – comes almost expected. There's maturity in Rowe’s measured post-match optimism going forward:
“I thought we did some good things. We found the ball wide … We got some good runners in the box, and you know, we held them to a zero for a good amount of time,” he said, before praising Guzan again. ”We have to look back at the film and see what was good and what was bad and fix some things, but we have to keep our heads up.”