Gold Cup overlay - Matt Hedges
USA Today Sports

Matt Hedges aiming to prove himself with US national team in Gold Cup

ARLINGTON, Tex. -- Expectations were high for Matt Hedges entering the 2017 Gold Cup.

This was the opportunity for the reigning MLS Defender of the Year to stake his claim and put himself in contention for a possible spot on next summer’s World Cup roster, assuming the US national team qualify for Russia.

But things have not gone to plan. In two starts, the 3-2 group stage win over Martinique and Wednesday’s 2-0 quarterfinal victory over El Salvador, the FC Dallas center back has looked unsure and committed errors rarely seen from him in MLS play.

This isn’t news to Hedges; he knows his performances need to be better and would like nothing more than to get another crack when the US face Costa Rica in Saturday night’s semifinal at AT&T Stadium (10 pm ET | FS1, Univision).

“On a defensive unit it takes time to gel with the guys around you, so I think that’s been a tough part,” said Hedges to MLSsoccer.com after Friday’s training session. “Also the speed of play is different. That’s not an excuse. I haven’t been great over the last couple of games, but hopefully if I get another chance I’ll do better.”

While his lapses in defense have led to many questioning whether he should see the field on Saturday, Hedges still has the backing of head coach Bruce Arena, who has seen plenty of players struggle in their adjustment to international play.

“I don’t think he’s struggling, he probably has a total of [five] caps for the US. He’s just learning about international football. It takes a little bit of time. I think he’s had good moments throughout the tournament. Like any player he’s made a few mistakes, but I think overall he’s done fine,” said Arena in his pre-match press conference.

Regardless of who forms the center back pairing against the Ticos, the message emitting from the US is that the play of the defense must be improved if they are to have a chance to play for a sixth Gold Cup title.

And as if they did not need any more reminding, last fall’s 4-0 defeat in World Cup qualifying in Costa Rica is evidence that their upcoming opponent is much more capable of punishing defensive errors than the Nicaraguas and El Salvadors of the world.

“It’s an important game. Last time against Costa Rica was not a great result. Obviously it’s a semifinal so you want to win and move on. We have to be cleaner and sharper. In the last couple games of the tournament we haven’t been that, but if we can keep our focus and be clean, we can get a good result,” said Hedges.