USMNT avoids tough Gold Cup quarterfinal thanks to late third goal against Nicaragua

Graham Zusi (19) and the United States had an up-and-down week but ultimately won Group B. (Getty)

In order to win its most winnable group at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the United States men’s national team needed a 3-0 victory over winless Nicaragua on Saturday, after Panama had beaten Martinique 3-0 earlier in the day.

That was important, because it would mean the difference between facing a third-place team in the quarterfinals or Costa Rica. The Ticos are at least the third-best team in this tournament. Or maybe the second, if you consider them stronger than this United States B-team — which you well might, even though a half dozen American ringers could be brought in before the knockout rounds.

So, naturally, the U.S. went up 2-0 but missed two penalty kicks.

But Matt Miazga brought relief in the 88th minute when he made it 3-0 with a diving header that ensured that the Americans retained the simplest possible path to a would-be final against the tournament favorites Mexico.

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Goals by Joe Corona and Kelyn Rowe seemed insufficient to make up the number of goals scored, the second tie-breaker after both the U.S. and Panama finished with two wins and a tie. Dom Dwyer and Corona both failed from the spot, smashing hard penalties that had insufficient placement.

But Miazga was the hero with his first international goal in just his third appearance for the USA.

U.S. head coach Bruce Arena made 11 changes to his lineup relative to the humiliatingly narrow 3-2 win over Martinique on Wednesday. He deployed a largely inexperienced side with just 201 caps on the field at kickoff, and 154 of those belonged to Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and captain Alejandro Bedoya.

As often in this tournament, it took the Americans some time to click into gear. Truthfully, Arena’s team has not covered itself in glory during the group stage, even graded on the curve of a B-team that is largely unaccustomed to playing together. The Martinique win was preceded by a fairly fetid 1-1 tie with Panama in the opener.

But the USA has done just enough to scrape through in first place, meaning it has done no significant harm to its prospects of dethroning Mexico as the regional champions. And before the quarterfinals, the likes of goalkeeper Tim Howard and midfielder and captain Michael Bradley will be added to the fold. That will shore things up, but it probably can’t paper over how shoddy it’s all looked thus far.

The U.S. didn’t forge much danger other than a Rowe shot into the side netting until the 37th minute, when Corona scored. On a lovely counter-attack, a rare U.S. highlight, he steered his pass from the strong Bedoya back into traffic, weaved through the box and seemed to have spent far too long dribbling. But Corona finally found some daylight and rolled his shot into the corner of the goal — via a hand from a stranded defender.

Early in the second half, a gilded opportunity to double the score arose. Dwyer was lightly grazed by Marlon Lopez’s arm in the box, fell and got the call. Dwyer took the penalty himself but goalkeeper Justo Lorente got himself behind it to deny the English-born striker a third goal in three caps.

Rowe would get the second goal five minutes later. Bedoya won the ball high on the field, got it back and fed Rowe, who flicked it past Lorente at his near post with the help of a little deflection.

After the hour, Bedoya made a run in the box. Daniel Cadena slid the ball away but it dinked off his hand for another penalty kick. Corona put it right through the middle and Lorente saved a second time.

Finally called upon, U.S. goalkeeper Bill Hamid came up with two good saves on a long shot and its rebound in the 74th minute, keeping the Americans on track for the group lead. He did well to stay alert after having almost nothing to do against a team that parked the bus and, indeed, had only just scored its first-ever goal in the Gold Cup in its last game.

At length came release from the building angst. In the 86th minute, Luis Copete was sent off with a second yellow for a hard foul on American substitute Juan Agudelo outside the box. From the free kick, Zusi delicately chipped the ball to the back post, where Miazga scored with a diving header.

Somehow, the Americans have three times avoided a debacle in this tournament and emerged from the group stage unscathed. Reinforcements aren’t coming a moment too soon, because this team did not have the look of a collective capable of keeping Mexico from a fourth Gold Cup title in five editions.

Now, tougher tests await in the knockout rounds. Although, thanks to that blessed third goal, they aren’t quite as tough as they might have been just yet.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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