Three thoughts from the United States' nervy 3-2 win over Martinique in Gold Cup Group B:
1. U.S. flounders in narrow win
While Wednesday's victory is enough to send the U.S. to the top of Group B, this was a floundering performance from a side that nearly did the unthinkable and play to a draw after having a two-goal lead in the second half against an inferior opponent.
The best friend that the U.S. could have had on Wednesday was an early goal, but by the 20th minute it was evident that it was going to be another difficult night for the U.S., in front of a large crowd at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
Saturday's 1-1 draw for the U.S. against Panama could be understood based on the recent contests between the two squads, but Wednesday's performance is alarming for several reasons. First, the U.S. was plagued by mistakes on defense, allowing Martinique to come back from a 2-0 second-half deficit to pull level and nearly slip in a third. Second, these was no urgency shown in the first half, essentially 45 minutes wasted.
But for the U.S., there is enough individual quality in Bruce Arena's squad to be able to avoid a disastrous result. Jordan Morris took both his goals quite well, powering strong finishes into the back of the net after Omar Gonzalez's fortuitous opener.
Yet there was plenty of bad decision-making from the U.S. all over the field. Whether it was an ill-advised shot, a heavy touch, a lightly hit ball or a failure to play a simple pass, there were too many lapses and miscues. In attack, these issues were best summed up by a late first-half break when Paul Arriola looked to play wide to Gyasi Zardes, instead of continuing his dribble into the Martinique area. Kevin Parsemaine's shot off the post was a harbinger of the defensive issues to come.
Still, the U.S. has a very good shot to finish atop the group, but a quick glance at its potential quarterfinal opponents -- Canada, for example -- means that improvement against Nicaragua is imperative. After this performance, any thought that Saturday's group stage final in Cleveland is going to be a walk in the park would be mistaken.
2. More U.S. defensive headaches
It was another shaky performance from the U.S. at the back, allowing a pair of Martinique goals that nearly earned the islanders a stunning draw.
Things weren't busy at the back for the first half-hour, but as Martinique grew into the match and became more comfortable, the U.S. looked more unsteady. Parsemain was a thorn in the U.S.'s side and should have scored after a dreadful giveaway from Eric Lichaj in the first half.
FC Dallas center-back Matt Hedges also struggled. He was beaten by Yoann Arquin on a header that forced Brad Guzan into a reaction save and then allowed Steeven Langil to blaze past him in the run-up to the second Martinique goal.
It seems like a broken record at this point after two Gold Cup matches, but it's clear that this U.S. defense is out of sorts. Very clearly, it misses the presence of a veteran such as Geoff Cameron to shepherd the back line.
3. Eight changes do little to convince
Head coach Bruce Arena made a whopping eight changes with goalkeeper Brad Guzan, center-back Gonzalez and midfielder Kellyn Acosta the lone holdovers from Saturday. All in all, this was a fairly inexperienced starting XI, and no player showed that more than Cristian Roldan, who made his debut on Wednesday and started brightly by cutting down passes and taking Martinique attackers off the ball before settling into an average performance.
While Morris did have two of the U.S. goals, he was way too anonymous for nearly a half-hour stretch in the first half. Against an opponent such as Martinique, the U.S. can get away with that, but it simply cannot happen in the knockout stages. Furthermore, Morris' attack partner Juan Agudelo did have some good, creative moments, but there seemed to be a lack of connection between him and the U.S. midfield.
At this point, assuming the U.S. reaches the quarterfinals, Arena will have to think very hard about bringing in his A-team stars, including Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey. If he persists with this group, he might run the risk of a humiliating early exit.