U.S. Men's National Team
Central Midfield Trio Brings Cohesion and Smarts to U.S.
July 02, 2017
EAST HARTFORD, Conn.—Early returns can sometimes be misleading, but the U.S. national team is certainly hoping that is not the case with regards to its central midfielders.
Readying for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the U.S. used a new trio in the middle of the field in a 2-1 friendly win over Ghana at Pratt & Whitney Stadium on Saturday. Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta were deployed behind playmaker Joe Corona in a 4-2-3-1 setup, and the three of them formed a cohesive unit that proved hard to play against.
It did not take very long for McCarty, Acosta, and Corona to make an impression either. They started the game doing a solid job of connecting with one another, and only got better as the match against the Ghanaians wore on. They also helped the U.S. finish with substantially more possession, more shots, and more shots on target.
Not too shabby for a group of players that had never played together before.
“It was a real battle in there, very challenging, so I think they held up well,” said U.S. head coach Bruce Arena. “Kellyn is on maybe his third game for us, a young player that showed a lot of composure. Dax is a very experienced guy, and I think he did a great job of giving us a balance in the midfield.
“Joe Corona I thought was very good. Got a little bit tired at the end (because he) had a little bit of time off from Club Tijuana, and he just came back into the swing of things. I thought he gave us 70 good minutes.”
The partnership of McCarty and Acosta was particularly interesting, especially for fans and observers who have been craving to see fresh faces in the No. 8 and No. 6 roles. McCarty and Acosta both did a good job of moving the ball quickly—Acosta hit several good forward passes into space and also scored the winner on a second-half free kick—and they also clamped down the middle of the field to mostly force Ghana to attack from wide positions.
Deployed as the defensive midfielder, McCarty sat back more than Acosta but still moved into more advanced positions at times while the youngster stayed behind to cover for him. The duo demonstrated a very good understanding in the middle of the park that helped dictate the tempo of the game—somewhat surprising given that McCarty and Acosta had never played together before.
McCarty chalked up their success to them both being cerebral players—athletes who think and feel the game more so than anything else.
“I think both of us understand how the spacing needs to be,” said McCarty. “I think for 80 percent of the game he’s going to be the one getting forward more often than not, but he’s smart enough to know when I do leave my position, when I go forward, he’s going to cover me.
“You need that balance in your central midfield. If you don’t have that, your team is going to be all over the place. I thought the balance was good tonight. It’s going to continue to get better.”
U.S. fans and Arena certainly will not mind that. The Gold Cup is likely to see the Americans go up against teams that are reluctant to throw numbers forward, so being able to combine passes while also maintaining a good defensive posture to avoid dangerous counterattacks will be important.
Of course, creating chances is the name of the game and that is where Corona will have to deliver in order for the U.S. to really function well. He did so on Saturday, performing far better than he did in his most recent international matches from a couple of years ago when he was deployed on the flank.
Corona played a part in Dom Dwyer’s opener in the 19th minute, sprayed a nice through ball to the striker shortly after that nearly led to another quality chance, hit teammates with a range of passes, and overall looked like a more mature player.
“With my club, I’ve been playing in the middle for the past two years and I think I’m very comfortable in that position,” said Corona. “Bruce, he has me playing more as a (No.) 10, more in front of the midfielders, and I just have that liberty to move around and try to find the ball as much as I can.”
It might still be early, but the foundation for the central midfield that will likely play at the Gold Cup has been laid. It looks pretty promising, too.
“It’s a great start to what’s going to be a great month,” said Acosta. “Hopefully we can continue building our partnership in the midfield and get the results that we want.”
Franco Panizo is a bilingual New York-based reporter who has covered the U.S. men's national team, MLS, and all levels of American soccer for nearly a decade. Follow him on Twitter.