World Cup 'audition' pressure affecting youngsters on U.S. Gold Cup squad

CLEVELAND -- For the U.S. men's national team, the final group-stage game of the Gold Cup is usually a time for fine-tuning: Perhaps a few players need a rest, or it's time to refine some tactical concepts.

Yet as the group stage concludes for the U.S. on Saturday against Nicaragua, the Americans find themselves in a very different place. Rather than tinkering, what manager Bruce Arena really needs from his side is for it to raise its game considerably and deliver a complete performance.

Those types of displays have been nonexistent for the U.S. at this Gold Cup. The 1-1 draw against Panama was mildly disconcerting, but in many ways understandable. Los Canaleros have made a habit of playing the U.S. tough, regardless of who was on the field.

But the 3-2 victory over Martinique was downright embarrassing, as the U.S. squandered a two-goal lead against a team of semi-pros, only for Jordan Morris to come to the rescue with his second goal of the night. Over the two games, only the corps of forwards and perhaps defender Eric Lichaj have helped themselves.

At his pre-match news conference, Arena insisted that while he wanted to see "a better collective effort," he was pleased with the performance against Martinique, adding, "I think we've made progress and we're heading in the right direction."

That sounds every bit like a coach covering for his team and trying to instill confidence. Midfielder Dax McCarty indicated that within the U.S. camp, the players are well aware of the team's lackluster performances.

"The first two games, we know that we haven't played well," McCarty told ESPN FC. "We know that against Martinique we weren't sharp in the attacking third. We know we should have scored more goals. And against Panama in general, we just had a lot of guys that didn't have good days. I don't think many guys can look in the mirror and say, 'I had a really good game.'"

McCarty included himself in that category, which he counted as a big disappointment given the season he's had for the Chicago Fire.

"It's funny, I've been having one of the best years of my career in terms of consistency, in terms of being really good for Chicago, playing at a high level," the 30-year-old said. "I probably had my worst game of the entire year -- with the national team or with Chicago -- against Panama. That was frustrating."

For McCarty and his U.S. teammates, the stumble comes at a bad time in terms of their national-team prospects. It's no secret this U.S. roster is comprised largely players on the fringes of the national team, so this tournament was looked at as an opportunity to put pressure on the players above them. Instead, the opposite has happened. Faced with the reality that this was one of the last chances for a player to force his way onto a hypothetical World Cup roster, that pressure has weighed heavy.

"Throughout this tournament, we've looked a little bit anxious, and we've looked a little bit nervous at times," McCarty said via telephone. "We have a lot of new guys that are playing in their first official competition with the national team. I think guys, especially in this camp, with this roster, they know that the pressure is on to try to make a good impression. Maybe that's getting the best of us a little bit. Guys, I think we're trying to force things a little too much. We're playing a bit tense."

It's a virus that, once it takes hold, can spread rapidly to other parts of a player's game. Runs stop being made. Passes can become predictable and safe. Passivity creeps into a team's defending. It's an assessment McCarty didn't dispute.

"It does feel like because maybe in the back of your head you're afraid to make a mistake, guys are playing safe and guys are playing to not make mistakes," he said. "I think when you as a player, play not to make a mistake, it actually compounds things and makes it worse."

Manufacturing confidence under such conditions can be difficult, but the U.S. will need to find a way against a Nicaragua side that after dropping its first two games of the tournament has nothing to lose. For McCarty, there is a lengthy list of areas in which the U.S. needs to improve.

"I think in possession especially, things are little bit labored. We need to move the ball faster, we need to play quicker, we need to play one- and two-touch," he said. "We need to make sure that when we get the ball higher up in dangerous spots, that we're creating chances and that we're being dangerous.

"And then on the flip side, defensively I think you've seen that we've been a little bit loose in the midfield and in the back. I think especially against Panama -- and this was something that really bothered me -- we were just way too deep. Myself and Kellyn Acosta, for whatever reason, we were just on top of our center backs. We were letting their central midfield dictate the entire game. We could never step out and get closer to them. In general, the pressure when we're defending needs to be a lot better."

Of course, this Gold Cup isn't over yet. A good performance Saturday can do plenty to wash away the bad taste from the first two games.

McCarty added, "If we're sharp, and we move the ball fast, and if we're a little bit better with our passing through the midfield and making sure that we're crisp -- getting the ball to the next guy, getting the ball off your foot quick -- we're going to be too much for them to handle, and that has got to be a focus for us."

If the U.S. is successful on that count, it can head into the knockout rounds with a semblance of momentum and confidence.