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World Cup 'audition' pressure affecting youngsters on U.S. Gold Cup squad

World Cup 'audition' pressure affecting youngsters on U.S. Gold Cup squad
From ESPN - July 14, 2017

CLEVELAND -- For the U.S. men's national team, the final group-stage game of the Gold Cup is usually a time for fine-tuning: Perhaps a few players need a rest, or it's time to refine some tactical concepts.

Yet as the group stage concludes for the U.S. on Saturday against Nicaragua, the Americans find themselves in a very different place. Rather than tinkering, what manager Bruce Arena really needs from his side is for it to raise its game considerably and deliver a complete performance.

Those types of displays have been nonexistent for the U.S. at this Gold Cup. The 1-1 draw against Panama was mildly disconcerting, but in many ways understandable. Los Canaleros have made a habit of playing the U.S. tough, regardless of who was on the field.

But the 3-2 victory over Martinique was downright embarrassing, as the U.S. squandered a two-goal lead against a team of semi-pros, only for Jordan Morris to come to the rescue with his second goal of the night. Over the two games, only the corps of forwards and perhaps defender Eric Lichaj have helped themselves.

At his pre-match news conference, Arena insisted that while he wanted to see "a better collective effort," he was pleased with the performance against Martinique, adding, "I think we have made progress and we are heading in the right direction."

That sounds every bit like a coach covering for his team and trying to instill confidence. Midfielder Dax McCarty indicated that within the U.S. camp, the players are well aware of the team's lackluster performances.

"The first two games, we know that we have not played well," McCarty told ESPN FC. "We know that against Martinique we were not sharp in the attacking third. We know we should have scored more goals. And against Panama in general, we just had a lot of guys that did not have good days. I do not think many guys can look in the mirror and say, 'I had a really good game.'"

McCarty included himself in that category, which he counted as a big disappointment given the season he's had for the Chicago Fire.

"It's funny, I have been having one of the best years of my career in terms of consistency, in terms of being really good for Chicago, playing at a high level," the 30-year-old said. "I probably had my worst game of the entire year -- with the national team or with Chicago -- against Panama. That was frustrating."

For McCarty and his U.S. teammates, the stumble comes at a bad time in terms of their national-team prospects. It's no secret this U.S. roster is comprised largely players on the fringes of the national team, so this tournament was looked at as an opportunity to put pressure on the players above them. Instead, the opposite has happened. Faced with the reality that this was one of the last chances for a player to force his way onto a hypothetical World Cup roster, that pressure has weighed heavy.

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