Two players struggling to find their form in 2017 came through in a big way, stepping up to help Bruce Arena's side claim a 3-2 victory
When Bruce Arena named his roster for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, neither Gyasi Zardes nor Jordan Morris had been playing all that well in MLS. Arena took a chance though, believing they could provide the qualities that helped earn them regular roles under Jurgen Klinsmann before injury sidelined Zardes and a sophomore slump slowed down Morris.
On Wednesday, both players stepped up to repay Arena's faith, playing key roles in helping the U.S. fend off a feisty Martinique in a 3-2 win.
Morris turned things up in the second half, consistently testing Martinique's defense with his speed and showing off some improved passing.
His finishing was particularly impressive. First he finished off an Eric Lichaj pass with his notoriously-weaker left foot. Then, with the U.S. on the ropes after a two-goal Martinique rally, Morris found Zardes with a smart pass to the left wing, then sprinted toward goal before finishing off the return pass from Zardes for the winning goal.
Morris appeared to be cheated out of an opportunity for a hat-trick after incorrectly being ruled offside on a well-timed run, but he didn't need that goal to come away as the U.S. team's most impressive performer.
It was a performance that had to be a relief for Morris, whose second season as a pro hasn't gone nearly as well as his Rookie of the Year and MLS Cup-winning campaign in 2016. He has managed just two goals and no assists for the Sounders this season, looking a step slow at times and failing to finish chances as well as he did a year ago.
Not only did Morris look back to his best on Wednesday, he came through in a match where far too many others failed to do the same, on a night when Arena was looking to see who who would step up when things got tough.
You can count Zardes among the ones who stepped up when the U.S. needed a boost as well. The LA Galaxy winger/forward had one of his trademark hot-and-cold performances, filled with both positives and negatives.
Zardes is the kind of player who makes mind-numbingly bad plays while also working hard enough to generate good plays as well. It is the reason why sometimes he generates such a wide range of responses to his play.
On Wednesday, Zardes was active in the first half, able to find the ball far more than his teammates, but his touch and decisions let him down far too often. He never stopped hustling though, and plays started to break his way in the second half, with his assist on Morris' winner the most obvious contribution.
Even after the U.S. took the lead, Zardes kept on hustling and competing, helping run down the clock by holding up the ball and frustrating Martinique's defenders.
The Zardes we saw on Wednesday hasn't really been seen since he broke his foot last fall, an injury he only recently returned from. He might frustrate fans with his bad touches, shots and passes, but he impresses coaches and teammates who love his athleticism, relentlessness and ability to make things happen. Ultimately, it's better to have a player who is involved and who gives you consistent effort and tenacity over players who may not make as many bad plays, but who also don't make the kind of game-changing positive plays that Zardes can provide.
Those are the very qualities Arena was hoping Morris and Zardes would bring to this Gold Cup squad and their performances on Wednesday should send a clear message.
They may have been surprise inclusions on the U.S. Gold Cup squad to some, but they are ready to reward Arena's faith and step up if others don't.