So yes, the USA won its group by the skin of its teeth - thanks to a 3-0 smothering of Nicaragua in Cleveland this evening - but let’s get down to the real question, for our purposes here: Did our newfound but deeply appreciated captain Dax McCarty help himself in his quest to join America’s 23 next year in Russia?
And, well, ehhhhhhhhh, maybe?
To be certain, Dax’s performance - as well as that of the team as a whole - was superior to that of his previous start, in the opening group-stage match against Panama. Playing as the anchor of a mostly attacking midfield, Dax set the tempo of the US press, which was consistently effective in disrupting the unfavored visitors’ attempts to organize an attack. McCarty’s reading of the Nicaraguan’s shape was astute throughout the evening, which allowed the Americans to stay on the front foot for long stretches of the match.
Which is not to say his performance was flawless. At least twice in the first 20 minutes, Dax’s perpetual confidence in possession was exploited by the energetic visitors, resulting in at least one shot on goal - which, admittedly, Bill Hamid handled easilly. But still, this was Nicaragua, a country we colonized so thoroughly that they told soccer to fuck off for years while all their neighbors went bonkers for the game; the curve on which this performance will be graded is deservedly steep.
Whatever. The USA claimed first place in the group late in the game, as Luis Copete’s red-card tackle set up a free kick in the 85th minute and the hosts already leading 2-0. Nominal right back Graham Zusi curled in a well-placed cross to the back post, which Matt Miazga dove to head in for his first international goal and the 3-0 margin the Americans needed to win the group.
Dax could still prove he’s essential when the USA faces (somebody) in the Gold Cup quarterfinals. The question is, with Michael Bradley’s call-up for the knockout rounds all but announced, will he get a chance?
Hot (Time) take
Dax definitely has a role for the USA - as the guy who minds the store when Michael Bradley goes on walkabout. Asking Bradley not to do that is taking away his strength, which is his ability to pop up in various places around the midfield and do something useful.
The question is, can Dax handle the pressure of that deep role at the international level? - and unfortunately, the answer is ‘incomplete.’ Dax generally looked good tonight, but his couple of clunkers in the first half - even though they came in moments when the rest of the team weren’t showing for the ball - has to raise questions about his ability to survive the kind of withering, pressurized examination that most World Cup sides would make a certainty.