[CLEVELAND, OH] – They say you always remember your first and for two USMNT players, Saturday’s Group B finale at FirstEnergy Stadium on the shores of Lake Erie will have added significance in that respect.
Kelyn Rowe and Matt Miazga both netted second half goals while Joe Corona added another in the first 45 as the Stars and Stripes upended Nicaragua 3-0. Needing a win of at least three goals to emerge as group winners, the US got exactly that en route to victory.
Kelyn Rowe, Matt Miazga Net First Ever USMNT Goals in Group B Clinching Win
Manager Bruce Arena trotted out a completely new look starting XI compared to the one which took the field on Wednesday in a 3-2 win over Martinique. Bill Hamid earned his first cap since 2014 and became the 11th US goalkeeper to appear in the Gold Cup. Center back Matt Miazga and winger Chris Pontius made their first ever start at a major tournament for the senior team.
Not surprisingly, the US put Nicaragua on the back foot early and often. They had over 58 percent of the ball over the course of the first 35 minutes of action. In that time, they managed six shots including four that tested goalkeeper Justo Lorente.
The breakthrough finally came in the 36th minute. Alejandro Bedoya slotted in a well-placed cutback pass across the field which found Joe Corona. The 27-year-old number ten then dribbled past multiple Nicaragua defenders before beating Lorente to his right for the opening goal.
Early on in the second half, the Stars and Stripes had an opportunity to double their lead via penalty kick. After Dom Dwyer was taken down in the box, referee Melvin Matamoros pointed at the spot. But the Sporting KC striker found himself unable to convert the penalty in the 51st minute as Lorente dove to his right and saved it.
Five minutes later, it was Rowe’s turn to get onto the scoresheet. Making his second start of the tournament, the New England Revolution winger made a run down the left. He then came onto some more quality distribution from Bedoya and slotted it past Lorente near post. His shot appeared to take a deflection off defender Cyril Errington before finding the net.
For Rowe, the opening goal of his international career is an indelibly special moment.
“It’s huge,” Rowe said post-game. “I think it’s just another weight off of everyone’s chest. It’s one of those important things (in my career) to get that first goal out of the way.”
In the 63rd minute, the US found themselves with another chance to score via penalty. This time, Joe Corona stepped up to the spot in the hopes of getting the ball past Lorente. If he did so, it meant that his team would have that all-important third goal so necessary to clinch the group.
Instead, Lorente stoned him much like he did Dwyer 12 minutes earlier.
If the result stood as is, a much more challenging test awaited the US in the quarterfinals. Because as group runners-up, they would have to face Costa Rica. The Ticos took Group A by virtue of a 3-0 win over French Guiana and a scoreless tie between Canada and Honduras. Someone needed to step up in order to secure a third straight first place in the group stage of the Gold Cup for the US.
It came from the most unlikely of sources in Miazga. The former New York Red Bulls, who played last year on loan from Chelsea at Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch Eredivisie, took advantage of Nicaragua having Luis Copete sent off in the 85th minute. Three minutes later, he made a well-timed far post run to connect with a set piece cross from Graham Zusi. His header beat Lorente for what inevitably became the group-winning tally.
The 21-year-old’s heroics certainly made up for the two misses from the penalty spot earlier. But the fact the US needed it speaks to a Nicaragua side that gave it their all.
“Obviously, we missed two P.Ks so that was a bit disappointing because we were kind of controlling the game,” Miazga noted. “But we gotta give credit to Nicaragua. They gave us some trouble. The field was a little bit sticky so we couldn’t play our fluid football.”
“But it is what it is. We had to manage it and we’re happy with the third goal and finishing atop the group because that was one of our goals coming into the Gold Cup.”
With their respective performances Saturday, both Rowe and Miazga certainly impressed their manager. But Arena is quick to emphasize they still have a long way to go in terms of becoming a regular starter for the US, particularly in World Cup qualifying.
“(Rowe) is still a young player and this is a whole new experience for him,” Arena told SBISoccer.com. “I think he’s done fine over the three weeks. He certainly needs more experience at both the club level and the international level but he is showing well for himself.”
The US now travels to Philadelphia where they will play the third placed team from either Group A or C this coming Wednesday. The likely opponent is either Honduras, who already finished third in Group A, or El Salvador who currently occupy that position in Group C. The match kicks off at 9 PM ET with FS1 (English) and Unimas (Spanish) providing television coverage.