When the U.S. Gold Cup roster was initially released a week ago, one of the first questions that the roster generated was where would the creativity come from?
There were no pure playmakers on the roster, with Arena leaving Darlington Nagbe off the initial roster while letting Christian Pulisic enjoy a full vacation before returning to Borussia Dortmund. Arena also passed on older attacking midfielders such as Sacha Kljestan and Benny Feilhaber in favor of younger and more versatile options.
It didn't take long on Saturday to see that Arena's midfield selections could provide creativity and produce chances for the U.S. attack. The way the midfield quintet passed the ball around in the first half you would have thought they had played together several times before.
The reality was they hadn't even trained together as a group, but that didn't seem to matter in Saturday's 2-1 win against Ghana.
"Footballers got to be footballers. Especially in that attack, you find runners," said Kelyn Rowe, who combined well with his teammates in his national team debut.
"I think the first 10 minutes, we kind of just ran around trying to find what each other were doing, making the right runs," Rowe said. "After that, we started to settle down and started to find tendencies. You see it in the second half especially. I thought we had some good possessions and some good attacks."
Joe Corona looked sharp in a playmaker role, and benefited from the stellar work of Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta deeper in midfield. Their clinical passing led to some of the most impressive passing sequences we have seen from the U.S. in some time.
Does that mean we saw enough to suggest the current group is strong enough to lead the U.S. to a Gold Cup title? Not exactly, but finding success against a talented, if shorthanded, Ghana bodes well for the U.S. heading into a relatively cushy Gold Cup group.
Here are some key takeaways from the U.S. win against Ghana:
ACOSTA KEEPS BOOSTING HIS STOCK
The more we see of Kellyn Acosta with the U.S., the more he looks right at home. That's impressive considering his age and the responsibilities his role entails.
On Saturday, Acosta covered ground, connected passes and partnered well with the other midfielders around him. His free-kick goal was icing on the cake on a day Acosta added more ammunition to the growing sentiment that, despite being just 21, he's ready for a bigger role with the full U.S. team.
“It was definitely tough getting thrown out there with guys you aren’t familiar with, but I thought overall we did a great job," Acosta said. "I think defensively we were very sound. Ghana’s a very athletic team and i thought we were all connected. We're finding each other in spaces and we knew when to cover. I thought the partnership was great. It’s a great start to what’s going to be a great month.
“Definitely room to grow. I think we’re just trying to build chemistry and that happens with games and consistency. As it goes on, the partnership will get stronger. Overall the first game together I thought we did a pretty good job."
Acosta is not a pure defensive midfielder. He's more a box-to-box threat who has shown a penchant for getting into the attack with FC Dallas. He can handle defensive responsibilities, but it is his blooming potential as an offensive threat that has him looking like a natural heir to fill the void led by Jermaine Jones, who is 35 and has been battling injuries for the past year. A strong Gold Cup would make Acosta a leading candidate to start in the September qualifiers.
CORONA IS SKILLED FOR PLAYMAKER ROLE
It might have been easy to forget just what sort of attacking qualities Joe Corona brings to the table after a season that saw him play more of a defensive midfield role for Club Tijuana, but he showed against Ghana that he still has the vision and moves in the attacking third, and those attributes should lead to a big World Cup role.
"Joe Corona I thought was very good," Arena said after Saturday's win. "He got a little bit tired at the end. He had a little bit of time off from Club Tijuana, and he’s just getting back in the swing of things, and I thought he gave us 70 good minutes."
Ghana had trouble coping with the U.S. team's ball movement in the first 30 minutes of the match, and tried cutting off the supply lines from McCarty and Acosta, but that still couldn't stop the U.S. attack from creating chances and putting pressure on the Ghana back four.
"They were pressing a lot on our No. 6 and our No. 8, Kellyn and Dax," Corona said. "That’s when I had the opportunity to move in behind them and look for little spaces. That’s where I was trying to look. Dom was moving off the ball very well, so I was always looking for him."
Corona and Dwyer were clearly members of the mutual admiration society, and if Saturday's win was any indication, they will work together to spearhead the attack at the Gold Cup.
"I'm excited to be with this group of players. It's a lot of talented guys," Dwyer said. "Joe Corona, I think, is a fantastic player and I'm really excited to be around him."
For Corona, the return to the national team fold took a few years, but after re-establishing himself as a regular for Club Tijuana, he figured to make a return to the U.S. team.
"I think my short-term goals have come very fast," Corona said. "Coming back to Tijuana helped me a lot. This past season we had a great run. Just being back with the national team is exciting. I feel a little more mature, and I’m just excited."
After seeing him pull the strings in the attack, U.S. fans are also excited to have Corona back in the national team fold.
MCCARTY MAKES CASE FOR REGULAR MINUTES
Michael Bradley's transition from box-to-box midfielder to defensive midfielder has helped fill a valuable position, especially as Kyle Beckerman went off into the sunset, but with Geoff Cameron being needed in central defense, the number of more defensive-minded central midfield options are limited.
McCarty was outstanding on Saturday, helping give the midfield balance
"I’m probably saying a dumb thing but I thought Dax McCarty played very well for us," Arena said when asked who he thought the best player was on Saturday. "I thought Dax and Kellyn were very good. And then the matchup they had against (Ebenezer Ofori) and (Isaac Sackey) for Ghana, are excellent players so it was a real battle in there, very challenging. I think they held up well."
McCarty formed a very good partnership with Acosta and Corona in the middle of the park, and that central triangle should see more time together at the Gold Cup if Saturday's showing was anything to go by.
"I thought Joe and Kellyn did a great job of staying a little bit higher than me, and trying to create chances and just get the ball moving," McCarty said. "I thought for the most part, for the first time playing together, we had a good understanding and good balance. You always want to have good balance when you play against a talented team like this, and I thought we were pretty good for the most part."
McCarty's explanation for why the midfield played so well on Saturday helped offer a glimpse into why it should help lead the U.S. through a successful group stage.
"I think it’s because all three of us, we love just the ball at our feet. We love playing soccer," McCarty said. "We love playing passes through lines. We’re not players that want the ball up in the air. We don’t want to be players that the ball bypasses the midfield the whole game. We want the ball.
"I think the good thing about all three of us, we’re not scared to get on the ball in tough situations," he added. "Against a team like Ghana, they were pressing us pretty hard. All three of us wanted the ball, we wanted to pass, we wanted to move, we wanted to find gaps and little spaces in between their midfield. I thought we did a pretty good job of that for the most part. Obviously we will watch the game back again and see where we can improve. But for our first game together I thought it was pretty damn good."
ZUSI'S RIGHT-BACK TRANSFORMATION
What a difference a few months and a half-season's worth of matches can make.
Graham Zusi has made the switch from midfielder to right back for both club and country, and the reps he is earning for Sporting KC have clearly helped him sharpen up the defensive side of his game, while also helping him get a better feel for the timing of his runs forward, and sense for when it is the right time to get forward.
"I thought (Zusi) had a real good game," Arena said. "And I remember one play in the first half, where he stood up (Frank Acheampong) whose an outstanding player, very quick, and Graham did a good job."
Arena will want to give Eric Lichaj a closer look as well in the Gold Cup, but with what he has invested in shifting Zusi to right back, expect the World Cup veteran to draw some key assignments in the near future.
HEDGES DOES WELL, BUT IS IT ENOUGH?
The center-back competition figured to be one of the fiercest in the U.S. training camp, and when Arena gave Matt Hedges the start next to Matt Besler against Ghana, it was the FC Dallas defender's chance to try and crack the starting lineup for the Gold Cup.
Hedges did well, but was it enough to start head of Besler and next to Omar Gonzalez? Panama is the opening opponent, and features the toughest forwards in the U.S. group, so look for Arena to give veterans Gonzalez and Besler the nod, but Hedges will almost certainly be given a start or two in the tournament.
"The game for our back line was outstanding," Arena said. "Matt (Hedges) it’s his third cap, he did a terrific job."
Hedges will face some competition from young defender Matt Miazga, who Arena praised after Saturday's match when asked about him (Miazga didn't play against Ghana).
"Matt Miazga has a great future," Arena said. "It’s the first time I’ve worked with him. I saw him some years ago playing with the New York Red Bull. I think he trained pretty well this past week. I’m hopeful of getting him games during the (Gold) Cup but he continues to grow physically.
"He’s got the makeup of a center back, for sure," Arena said. "He’s gotten better in terms of his passing, he’s a pretty good communicator on the field and I think Chelsea’s doing a good job with him, moving him to different clubs to get experience. Hopefully one day his goal is certainly to be playing for the first team at Chelsea.'