NASHVILLE — The CONCACAF Gold Cup presents a balancing act for Bruce Arena, the U.S. men’s national soccer team coach. He wants to win the trophy, one that has eluded the Americans in three of the previous four regional tournaments.
But in a year marked prominently by the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying, he also wants to test secondary players.
A 1-1 draw with Panama in Saturday’s opener left him largely disappointed but hopeful of better results as the three-week competition unfolds.
He witnessed another goal by newcomer Dom Dwyer, good attacking work by prospect Kelyn Rowe and terrific saves by veteran Brad Guzan. But he also saw his team struggle to establish a rhythm, fall under heavy pressure and relinquish the lead shortly after seizing it early in the second half.
The result dampened the enthusiasm created by a festive audience of 47,622 — the largest soccer crowd in Tennessee history — on a searing afternoon at Nissan Stadium.
“We didn’t play well on the day,” said Arena, whose record in his second tour with the program is 4-0-5. “We played okay. Nothing great. It’s a good experience for a number of our players.”
The Americans, co-favorites with reigning champion Mexico, will complete Group B against Martinique (1-0-0) on Wednesday in Tampa and Nicaragua (0-1-0) next Saturday in Cleveland.
The summer is bookended by World Cup qualifiers. And his European-based regulars were in need of rest before reporting to their clubs for preseason. So Arena skipped over many usual suspects for the biennial competition involving 12 teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean. (He will probably call in seasoned reinforcements from MLS after the group stage.)
With Panama posing the greatest threat in group play, he stuck with nine starters from the 2-1 tuneup victory over Ghana last weekend. Still, it was a less experienced group, and not everyone met the challenge. The midfield labored to keep the ball and the back line cracked at times.
“Being inexperienced is an excuse, but not a good excuse,” Arena said. “We expect our players to step up and deal with these conditions of the game and the tactics by opponents. At times, we didn’t do well.”
Over the group stage, Arena plans to play most, if not all, of his 23 players. Saturday offered opportunity for Dwyer, Rowe, Dax McCarty and Joe Corona.
Dwyer is the most intriguing candidate in camp. Born in England and naturalized this spring, the Sporting Kansas City scorer has a real chance to join Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris in the front line corps for the remaining qualifiers and perhaps the World Cup.
Dwyer scored in his international debut against Ghana and returned to the lineup Saturday.
Like the United States, Panama is in the thick of the race for a World Cup berth. With a more experienced lineup, the visitors were more comfortable and effective going forward.
After an immaterial 45 minutes, the match crackled to life with a flurry of opportunities by both sides.
The Americans shattered the deadlock in the 50th minute. Rowe collected a throw-in and protected the ball from two foes with clever footwork before crossing to Dwyer for a clinical, one-touch effort from eight yards that beat Jose Calderon to the far corner.
“It’s fantastic,” Dwyer said of his fast impact. “I’m going to try keep putting the ball in the net and maybe throw a couple more in.”
Panama answered in resounding fashion.
In the 55th minute, Guzan made a spectacular reflex save on Gabriel Torres’s six-yard downward header, flashing his left glove. Defender Omar Gonzalez then disrupted Ismael Diaz’s rebound bid inside the six-yard box.
In frustration, Torres threw himself onto the grass, punched the ground and grabbed his head.
The vexation lasted just five minutes. Guzan blocked Torres’s blast from nine yards, but Miguel Camargo, a 23-year-old midfielder for MLS’s New York City FC, stung the rebound through traffic and past Guzan.
“It’s frustrating because we lacked the mental part, to get the ball out of the box,” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “That lapse of concentration — whether the heat affected the mentality, or whatever it was — it can’t happen. Once Brad makes two great saves, we weren’t able to help him.”
Panama foiled late U.S. pressure and happily left with one point.
The Americans weren’t as pleased.
“I’d like to believe as we continue to move on in group play,” Arena said, “we will play better.”