After seeing Panama defeat Martinique 3-0, the United States knew they needed to at least match that result to finish on top of their group. And it was evident from the opening kickoff on Saturday night that they were looking to score early and often against Nicaragua.
Chance after chance went begging throughout the first half hour for the stars and stripes. But with only minutes before the break, the U.S. jumped on the board and took a 1-0 lead.
In the 38th minute, the U.S. quickly transitioned in to attack and struck first. Dax McCarty played it forward to Dom Dwyer who guided the ball along to Alejandro Bedoya in a wide position. Bedoya charged down the sideline before playing a cross low and back towards the top of the box. Joe Corona picked it up on the back side and cut back a few times to break free of the Nicaragua defenders. He created enough space to get a shot off that was deflected and snuck inside the near bar.
More great link up play from the U.S. led to a penalty attempt. The U.S. transitioned from the back and the ball eventually made its way to Chris Pontius on the right flank. He quickly played a ball in the middle of the penalty area to Dwyer who was then taking down. In the 51st minute, Dwyer struck the penalty with some pace, but he didn’t place it far enough to the corner and left it at an ideal height for Justo Lorente to make a save and that is what he did.
The U.S. kept plugging for that second goal and it came thanks to the high pressure they were applying. Bedoya intercepted a pass from Bryan Garcia and played it towards Dwyer. The ball was tackled away from Dwyer, but fell back into the feet of Bedoya. He then smartly saw Kelyn Rowe making a run into the box and played a ball for him to gather in stride. Rowe took a touch and then struck the ball with the outside of his foot to beat Lorente near post for his first international goal.
Bedoya’s energy was high all game and in the 62nd minute he earned the U.S. another penalty. He again made a great run from the midfield and into the box where he cut the ball back on a sliding Juan Barrera. That cut back resulted in Barrera hitting the ball with his hand and the referee immediately blew his whistle and pointed to the spot. Corona took it this time, but didn’t strike the ball with much pace. Lorente guessed the right way again and made the stop.
Just as time was winding down the U.S. got the crucial third goal they were looking for. It was the 88th minute when Matt Miazga got on the end of a Graham Zusi free kick and headed home his first international goal.
Pontius got his first start of this Gold Cup after coming off the bench vs Martinique. It was obvious Bruce Arena had a strategy to use him as a long ball outlet in an attacking sense, and Pontius did well to win a lot of balls in the air to then try to set up a teammate in a dangerous area. He stretched the width of the Nicaragua defense, but wasn’t able to get many balls in the box to trouble them.
Bedoya was the man of the match for the U.S. Seemingly every time the team was transitioning through the midfield and creating chances, Bedoya was involved as a crucial piece to those attacks. He was driving forward and going at defenders, switching the field of play, and slipping quick pass to set up teammates. Also, his pressure on the ball led to many of Nicaragua’s turnovers. His work rate and vision were tremendous throughout the game and that correlated to the stat sheet with the two assists that he collected. He showed that he can effectively be a box-to-box central midfielder for the national team.
Arena now has utilized his opportunity to make six roster changes by bringing in veteran presence as well as goal scoring ability. The changes included bringing in USMNT regulars like Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore. Bedoya is one of the players being released and heading back home so he can be there for the birth of his daughter.
Finishing on top of their group allowed the U.S. to avoid playing Costa Rica in the quarterfinals. Their opponent on Wednesday night will be El Salvador instead. The team will be coming to Philadelphia and play in the the second match, set to kickoff at 9:00PM EST, of a doubleheader at Lincoln Financial Field.
(photos: US Soccer)