CLEVELAND, Ohio -- The U.S. men's national team defeated Nicaragua 3-0 on Saturday to end the Gold Cup group stage on a positive note and claim first place in Group B. Joe Corona opened the scoring in the 36th minute while Kelyn Rowe added another in the 56th minute. With the U.S. needing a goal to leapfrog Panama in Group B, it was left to Matt Miazga to get the vital tally in the 88th minute.
Here are three thoughts on the match.
1. U.S gets the job done
Following Panama's 3-0 win over Martinique earlier in the day, the U.S. knew what it needed to do to claim top spot in group. It needed to beat Nicaragua by three goals in order to finish first on the goals-scored tiebreaker. It got the job done, just barely.
In some respects, the U.S. put in its most complete performance of the group stage, but that has to be put in context. It came against a Nicaragua side that was already on its way out of the tournament, and by the end of the match, it was left playing with nine men thanks to Luis Copete's second yellow card in the 86th minute and an injury to Luis Galeano when Nicaragua was out of subs.
But credit the U.S. for persevering and doing what it needed to do. While the U.S. had a few shaky clearances, overall the defense looked more cohesive, with goalkeeper Bill Hamid forced into just one save that could be classified as difficult. Offensively, the high press created its share of possession for the hosts in the attacking half, including a steal and run by Graham Zusi that saw him nearly open the scoring in the 20th minute, though his shot was hit right at goalkeeper Justo Lorente.
The U.S. was having difficulty creating clear chances, however, with the final ball oftentimes lacking. But the home side broke on top thanks to a transition opportunity on the 36th minute. Dax McCarty's ball out of midfield was touched wide by Dom Dwyer to Alejandro Bedoya. After shaking off a challenge, Bedoya's cutback pass found Corona in the clear. Initially it looked like Corona took too long to get his shot off, but he eventually got his attempt off, and thanks to a fortuitous deflection off defender Bismarck Veliz, it sneaked inside the post.
Rowe extended the lead with a goal in the 56th minute off another Bedoya assist, but sandwiched around this goal was a pair of saved penalties by Lorente, the first from Dwyer and then Corona. The misses looked like they might prove costly, but with a quarterfinal matchup against Costa Rica looming, Miazga got on the end of Zusi's free kick and headed home past Lorente.
Now a much easier quarterfinal matchup in Philadelphia on Wednesday awaits against either Honduras, El Salvador or Jamaica.
2. Bedoya, Rowe, Miazga help their respective causes
Bedoya's role in the national team sparks considerable debate, to say the least. His work rate on the defensive side of the ball isn't disputed; in fact, that has arguably been what has kept him in the lineup over the years. His attacking contributions have been more hit and miss, and oftentimes a lack of end product has made it difficult to justify his continued inclusion in favor of players like Darlington Nagbe and Fabian Johnson.
But on this day, there could be no complaints about the offensive contribution from the Philadelphia Union midfielder, who delivered a man of the match performance. Bedoya had no problems getting into the final third, and for the first two U.S. goals, he showed composure and vision. He even won a penalty only for Corona to have his effort saved.
Rowe has had his ups and downs in the tournament. The downs have mostly come on the defensive end, but there can been little complaint about his offensive contribution. His clever touches and ability to pick out teammates have been evident, and his goal was just reward for the effort put in.
As for Miazga, there were moments defensively when he appeared to show a bit of rust. It was his first competitive match in a few months, after all, but he came up big when it mattered, and his goal will give the U.S. confidence moving forward.
3. Here comes the cavalry?
This Gold Cup has been billed as a big opportunity for some of the U.S. team's fringe elements. In addition to Miazga and Rowe -- not including Bedoya here because of his veteran status -- McCarty enjoyed a bounce-back performance in the center of midfield. Dwyer found himself involved in both goals as well, though he'll rue his penalty miss. For many of the rest, though, it will go down as an opportunity missed. It wasn't so much a case of poor play. Even Corona, who bagged a goal and worked relentlessly on the defensive side of the ball, didn't appear to do enough to really force his way further up Arena's depth chart.
Granted, there are still games to be played, but the opportunity for minutes has dwindled. Tournament rules allow up to six roster changes, and it appears that Arena will use every last one of them. Cameras spotted the likes of Michael Bradley and Tim Howard in the stands while Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Nagbe and Jesse Gonzalez are expected to join up as well.
It seems highly unlikely that those players will be brought in to sit on the bench even as a quarterfinal match against one of the third-place teams beckons. There's no doubt that Arena gathered some valuable insights as to who can help him in terms of the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, but all told, there looks to be little movement in the U.S. pecking order so far.