CLEVELAND — The task was a difficult one, even against an opponent largely considered overmatched.
The U.S. national team needed a three-goal win over Nicaragua to secure first place in Gold Cup Group B, thus avoiding a quarterfinal showdown with Costa Rica. Bruce Arena let his team know the score needed and sent an inexperienced squad into a match with the kind of pressure that could help mold some of them, and expose some as well.
For 87 minutes, it looked like this U.S. team would fall short, and pay the price for a lackluster showing in its first two group stage matches, but the Americans shook off a pair of penalty kick misses to deliver the 3-0 score line needed, with Matt Miazga's 88th-minute header sealing a three-goal victory that wound up being much tougher to secure than expected.
What seemed like a gamble by Bruce Arena, to trot out a team filled with national team novices, suddenly paid off, with the win setting up the U.S. with an easier road through the knockout rounds.
No, beating Nicaragua didn't absolve this U.S. Gold Cup squad of the struggles earlier in the group stage, but the way some of the players stepped up with the pressure on was impressive, even if it came against a weakened, and shorthanded opponent.
Nicaragua was down to nine men due to a red card and an injury after having already used all three of its subs, so when Miazga prepared for Graham Zusi's late free kick, there was nobody around to mark the tallest player and biggest set-piece threat on the field. As easy as the task may have sounded to pull off, Miazga had to know what was at stake as he went up for Zusi's perfectly-placed free kick. He headed home his first U.S. national team goal, in what was just his second national team appearance.
The goal grabbed the headlines, but Miazga's overall performance was outstanding, as he showed the maturity and improvement that came with steady playing time for Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem.
Bill Hamid was also making his first U.S. national team start in an official competition, and the D.C. United goalkeeper handled his job like a seasoned veteran. He made the plays he needed to make, giving his defense a confident outlet and commanding his penalty area well to earn his second national team shutout.
Kelyn Rowe continued to build on his impressive integration into the national team, scoring his first U.S. goal with a confident touch and finish off a feed from Alejandro Bedoya. Few players boosted their stock more for the U.S. in the group stage than Rowe, who made the most of every opportunity he has had this month.
Dom Dwyer didn't find the net, and he missed a penalty kick, but the Sporting Kansas City striker still showed the work rate, tenacity and ability to unsettle defenses that should earn him future looks from Arena.
Then you have Bedoya, who silenced his growing legion of critics with his best national team performance in some time. He assisted on two goals and drew a penalty kick that should have yielded another. He made incisive passes and covered a ton of ground, showing off all the intangibles that keep him earning call-ups even when he goes through stretches where he struggles to make an impact.
On Saturday, Arena watched his team play its most impressive match of the group stage. Sure, it came against a weak opponent, but it also came in a match where his players knew that a bad game might mean waiting a long time for another national team call, and just might set up the U.S. for an early Gold Cup exit.
Instead, Arena watched several national team novices step up, and grow up, to help solidify their places on his depth chart, while also setting things up well for the U.S. team as a crop of experienced reinforcements prepare to join the fray in the knockout rounds.
The group stage was far from pretty at times for the U.S., and not every player made the most of their opportunities, but Arena can head to the quarterfinals feeling good about how his team responded, and how some inexperienced players stepped up when called upon,