The United States completed the Gold Cup group stage undefeated on Monday night against Panama, but left plenty of room for improvement in hopes of defending the Concacaf crown and earning an automatic berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Wins against Honduras and Haiti guaranteed the U.S. a top spot in Group A entering the match with Panama, but the 1-1 result had little consequence for the Americans, it was yet another underwhelming performance.

In all three matches the U.S. has started slowly. Against Honduras, it also needed to survive late pressure after being pulled back to 2-1 in the second half, while Haiti could easily have been in front before halftime. Panama did make the U.S. pay, going ahead thanks to Blas Pérez’s goal, before Jürgen Klinsmann’s side again improved in the second half to get an equalizer through captain Michael Bradley. The team, though, was under no illusions afterward that more would be required in the knockout stages.

“Obviously, a positive is the fact that we fought back from 1-0 down to get something from the game,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said afterward, reports “But in saying that, we're not going to kid ourselves. We need to try and put together a complete 90-minute performance.”

The U.S. may continue to get away with not being at a high level in the quarterfinals. Having topped its group, on Saturday the Yanks will take on the team that finishes third in either Group B or Group C, which will be decided over the next two evenings. That could mean a meeting with Guatemala or El Salvador in which the U.S. will be heavily favored. But time is certainly running out for the team to hit its stride. Klinsmann made eight changes to his lineup for the second game and nine for the match with Panama, and the rhythm remains lacking.

Nowhere is that more true than in defense. What clearly appears to be Klinsmann’s first-choice backline was fielded against both Honduras and Panama, but had its struggles on both occasions. At right-back Timmy Chandler has again been error-prone, continuing to provoke mystery as to why so much effort was put into getting the German-born player to commit to the squad. Perhaps a bigger worry, though, has been the shaky new-look center-back partnership between John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado. Against Panama, both were exposed by the experienced forward partnership of Pérez and Luis Tejada, not least for the former’s goal. Yet Klinsmann remains steadfastly behind the pair.

“The only way for younger players to mature, get better and get stronger is to grow into these games and have these experiences,” he said. “Both Ventura and also John, they grew with every minute,” 

There will have to be a change for their quarterfinal, however, with Brooks picking up his second yellow card of the competition against Panama. Tim Ream could be the man to come in, although reinforcements may also arrive. Each team that makes the knockout stage is able to make up to six changes to their roster, and Klinsmann has hinted he will utilize that provision.

“I have some ideas about roster changes, but I have 24 hours,” he said. “We'll sit down and discuss and make our decision.”

The group stage has not been without its positives for the tournament holders, however. The big story before the Gold Cup began had been the changing of the captaincy after Clint Dempsey’s domestic suspension. But while Bradley has been a natural in the new role, Dempsey has done anything but sulk, scoring three goals and playing a key role in setting up Bradley’s against Panama. While potential upcoming contests against Mexico and Costa Rica should pose sterner problems than anything the U.S. has encountered so far, Klinsmann insists the team is ready for the challenge.

“Now it’s really getting to the serious stuff, knockout stage, this is what a tournament is all about,” he explained.

“You want to go from one to the next to the next. It’s a process we’re in. We can still improve a lot, absolutely. And that’s what we’re working on.”