Looking back at the U.S. national team's Gold Cup opener against Panama, the biggest winners from Saturday's 1-1 tie may very well have been those U.S. players who watched the game from the bench.
There certainly weren't many positives to take away from a U.S. performance that saw the midfield outplayed, the defense look shaky and the attack wilt in the Nashville heat. Two days after saying his team didn't play very well, manager Bruce Arena didn't veer away from that initial postgame criticism.
"There's not a whole lot that I would say I was pleased with," Arena told reporters following training on Monday. "I thought our goalkeeping was very good. After that I'm not jumping for joy at the moment, so we've got to get a lot of things right."
To be clear, it wasn't all doom and gloom from Arena. The opportunity for improvement is still out there, but he stressed it's one that must be taken.
"I think we can continue in the tournament and advance out of group play, I think we will get better with every game," he said. "It takes a little bit of time. But there's no excuses for the way we played on Saturday. We have to play better than that."
Thanks to a typically compressed Gold Cup group stage schedule that sees teams play three games in eight days, Arena had always planned on utilizing every last field player on his roster. Precisely which players will get a chance on Wednesday against Martinique is still to be determined.
"I think we're going to see a number of different players," Arena confirmed. "The position will depend on how some of our players recover, whether there's issues with any injuries, our opponent. We also have to plan for Saturday [against Nicaragua]. This week we not only have to plan for two games but we have to win both games as well. It's an important week for us, and rotating players only makes sense."
Saturday's result has added a twist to Wednesday's proceedings. Before the tournament, the U.S. team's presumed reserves had been tasked with eating up group stage minutes to keep the starters fresh. Now they have more of an opportunity to press for more playing time in the knockout rounds. It's expected that Matt Hedges will get back on the field after starting the pre-tournament friendly against Ghana. In addition, Cristian Roldan seems a near lock to spell Kellyn Acosta or Dax McCarty in the center of midfield.
It's possible Matt Miazga and Eric Lichaj might join Hedges in the back. The tournament's July start makes for awkward timing for those U.S. players performing for non-MLS clubs, given that they're trying to regain form after a brief summer break. But with the U.S. team now heading into its third week together, both Miazga and Lichaj have had a bit of time to regain some semblance of sharpness. The same is true for Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola.
The wild card in all of this is New England Revolution forward Juan Agudelo. Agudelo had some bright moments in a substitute's role against Los Canaleros, and he's another player who figures to see extended minutes. The question is where. Will he partner Dom Dwyer up top, or will he drop into midfield? Agudelo has been deployed in a variety of attacking roles over the last year with the Revs, and Wednesday's game is a chance to not only push for more minutes later in the tournament but also to show off his versatility.
First things first, however. The U.S. needs a result, though in a manner different than what that phrase usually indicates. Make no mistake, the Americans are heavy favorites to prevail, with their depth providing a significant advantage over Les Matinino given the packed schedule. But the tie against Panama means that goal differential is likely to determine the group winner. It's the difference between facing the winner of Group A -- likely to be Costa Rica -- in the quarterfinals and facing one of the third-place teams, so the margin of victory on Wednesday matters.
Martinique is coming off a 2-0 win over Nicaragua -- just its third victory ever in the Gold Cup -- which was precisely the result it needed to further its knockout stage ambitions.
"When you have a team that has a win and leads the group, I think they'll come to Wednesday's game with a lot of confidence," Arena said about Martinique. "And perhaps they're saying, 'If we get one point out of this, we're advancing out of [the group stage].' I'm sure they're working collectively to have a strong defensive posture against us."
That will require the U.S. to improve in a variety of areas, namely showing more creativity in attack, controlling the tempo and managing transition situations when the ball turns over. All of this is eminently doable, and while the U.S. won't receive many plaudits for beating a team like Martinique, it will at least allow it to generate some momentum and create the kind of positive vibe that was missing on Saturday.