Should Bradley and Dempsey play in Panama match? Five questions for U.S.
By winning their opening two games of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the United States national team has already advanced to the knockout stage of the regional championship. But while last week's victories against Honduras and Haiti ensured that Jurgen Klinsmann's team would top Group A, Monday's first-round finale in Kansas City against Panama is far from meaningless for an American team that is still trying to find its best form -- not to mention its best lineup.
Here are five things to watch for ahead of the match:
Will Bradley and Dempsey play?
Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, the latter's three goals have him tied with Mexico's Oribe Peralta atop the tournament's scoring chart, are the lone American field players to have played every minute so far. But with second-round qualification already secured, will Klinsmann rest his two most senior players against the Canaleros so they're fresh for Saturday's win-or-go-home quarterfinal in Baltimore?
After Friday's 1-0 win versus Haiti, Klinsmann said it could be a game day decision.
"I'll sit down with them," the coach said. "Even the morning before the game we can decide how we want to approach that."
There are two schools of thought here, both of them valid.
One, "there's no reason to burn them in that game," Klinsmann said. "On the other hand, it's nice to keep them in rhythm, especially with Clint with scoring goals, and so I'll check with them, see how they look."
The conditions could be a consideration: Temperatures in KC are expected to top 100 degrees Fahrenheit on Monday. If it's left up to the players, bank on them being on the field -- at least at the beginning.
"I'm a competitor. I always want to go," Dempsey said. "At the same time, you have to be smart how you manage things."
The pressure is off vs. Panama ...
The Americans' first two tests were tight, one-goal affairs, and the pressure on the Yanks to win them was palpable. But if tension was a factor in the uninspiring if successful displays against Honduras and Haiti, will the U.S. be able to relax a little on Monday?
"In a way," said striker Aron Johannsson, who will be looking to keep his place in the lineup. "But there's big competition in the team, so the starting 11 players have to play good to prove a point to the coach to play in the quarterfinals."
With the outcome secondary, Klinsmann will have added flexibility with his personnel. "We have the privilege now to handle the third match the way we want to form the coaches' perspective," Klinsmann said.
Whatever lineup takes the field, it will do so in front of one the most passionate home crowds in American soccer. The U.S. is a perfect 3-0-0 at Sporting Park since the facility opened four years ago.
"It'll be a great atmosphere there -- we know that," Bradley said. "It's a great stadium, the field will typically be in great shape. So whoever plays will want to be sharp, compete and give everything they have so we can come away with another win."
The U.S. still must improve
Asked how he would grade his team's performance over the first two games, Bradley quipped that he "would grade it with six points."
Still, there clearly is plenty of room for growth for the Yanks, who struggled to create chances and avoid defensive lapses for large stretches of the first two matches. The hosts can't afford a letdown.
"We're not taking the foot of the pedal," said Klinsmann, who noted the lack of effective wide play against the Haitians until youngster Gyasi Zardes came on at the half.
"We're not slowing down now. It should be actually the opposite -- we've got to keep raising the bar," he said. Dempsey summed up the approach more succinctly.
"We're happy to get out of the group," the veteran said. "But we know we've got to keep playing better if we're going to win this thing."
Which forward will step up?
So far, Dempsey has every American goal. But Johannsson would have had one if not for an incorrect offside call, and took some confidence from his finish against Haiti nonetheless. Meantime, Zardes is coming off his most complete international performance yet.
"All those friendlies I got, it really helped a ton -- I feel like I'm growing as a player," said the 23-year-old, who made his debut in January and is just one of three U.S. players to appear in all nine games this year (Bradley and DeAndre Yedlin are the others).
Then there's Jozy Altidore, whom Klinsmann still has faith in despite a hamstring injury that significantly compromised his fitness ahead of the competition.
"I'm not worried about it. He will get stronger and stronger with every day in training and every minute on the field," Klinsmann said of Altidore. "We know he's going to come sooner or later in this tournament and will score some goals."
Spots still at stake
After Klinsmann switched out seven starters from the first game, including his entire back four, it will be interesting to see who he goes with against Panama. Expect some mixing and matching. Given the issues out wide, the German could move Fabian Johnson up to the wing by keeping Greg Garza, who started the play that led to Dempsey's winner against Haiti, at left back.
Mix Diskerud could get another chance if Klinsmann opts to save Bradley or 32-year-old Kyle Beckerman for the knockout round. Altidore could be used as a sub. And midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Alfredo Morales, the only two field players not to have seen any time yet, both figure to be involved in some capacity against Panama, either as starters or off the bench.
"We have a very strong squad," Klinsmann said, noting that some of his reserves, Bedoya, Omar Gonzalez, Graham Zusi, were starters at the World Cup a year ago. "We'll take advantage of it."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.