Op-Ed: Cup Quests: Does The USMNT Have The Potion It Needs?

Clint Dempsey left it all on the field that day at the Confederation Cup against Brazil. It just wasn’t quite enough. US fans identified.

Jay Bell sets the stage for the final two Gold Cup games

…..or is the chalice poisoned?

It’s a sobering look at the US’s performance in cup competitions since the 2007 Gold Cup if you will.

Has there been a more heartbreaking soccer allegiance than that of US Soccer fans to their men’s teams over the past six years? What’s the comp in international soccer? Ghana has had some rough breaks, but good luck getting an American soccer fan to feel bad for the Black Stars at this stage.

Is it bad luck or a statistically insignificant sampling size? Are American teams just that are constantly outplayed or outclassed by opponents just about or slightly above their equal when Mikey pushes the chips in?

Or is there a deeper problem?

I’m sorry I awoke you from your delirious Ron Burgundy unicorn dream sequence slumber, but while the US is feasting on minnows like Baxter does cheese, there are teams out their making news that’s more … that’s more … Anderson Cooper-worthy.

US players and fans have watched time and time again as chances for trophies have slipped away in numerous competitions over the past six years. Even this Gold Cup, despite the barrage of early success has some doubt; though with Mexico’s Brazil trip and Honduras having naryly escaped Costa Rica, the US must be considered the true favorite.

Think about this, the US senior team and youth teams have won just won one tournament since that gorgeous goal six years ago by “BEN-EE FEIL-HABER, YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSS!!!!!!”

Soak that in.

In CONCACAF, where the US is clearly one of just two juggernauts, it has managed to top the rest of the region just once in the last half decade, more so actually.

One-offs have not been kind to the US since 2007 either.

Americans do well in group play at times and have continued to find success in World Cup qualifying, but American dreams are often killed when the teams face do-or-die matches, whether in bracket play or group play. There are major exceptions, but they are outnumbered by the recent disappointments. Again, it may not be fair to consider World Cup advancement, but CONCACAF elimination?

Here is a not so brief recap of the events since that glorious 2007 Gold Cup championship:

2007

FIFA Under-20 World Cup

A stacked US team rolled in the group stage to top Poland and Brazil to win the group. The US won 2-1 to advance past Uruguay, but fell by the same score to Austria in the quarterfinals.

FIFA Under-17 World Cup

The US finished second in the group and beat Belgium in a do-or-die match before falling 2-1 to Germany in the knockout rounds.

2008

Beijing Olympics

The US defeated Japan 1-0 on a goal by Stuart Holden and seemed headed for a 6-point start after goals by Sacha Kljestan and Jozy Altidore gave the team a 2-1 lead late in the second match against the Netherlands. Then Gerald Sibon’s late, low free kick flew under the wall and past Brad Guzan for the Oranje to snatch a 2-2 draw.

The next match then saw the infamous elbow from Michael Orozco-Fiscal and a 2-1 defeat sent the Americans back home. It was, in fact, Honduras that won the CONCACAF qualifying competition despite failing to earn a point in China.

2009

FIFA Confederations Cup

The glaring exception to the US’s recent failures in knockout play is the historically shocking 2-0 upset over Spain in the semifinals in South Africa. The Americans turned that tournament on its head. They looked to be steaming to a first international tournament championship when Charlie Davies sent a perfect ball to Landon Donovan, who then converted the electric fast break opportunity for a 2-0 lead. The Counterattack Heard Round The World.

Donovan goes left foot for the 2-0 score after the Rico-Lando-Charlie sequence...

Donovan goes left foot for the 2-0 score after the Rico-Lando-Charlie sequence…

Arguably the most excruciating 45 minutes ever for US Soccer fans followed as the inevitable took seemingly forever to come to fruition. The Brazilians conquered Bob Bradley’s men 3-2 that night in one of the best matches in Confederations Cup history.

CONCACAF Gold Cup

From Holden’s strike against Panama to two separate “Dos a Cero” victories over Honduras, Bradley rallied his backups to make the final against Mexico. What followed was a dismantling of the US defense–Chad Marshall and Clarence Goodson cringe–and a punishing victory that gave all of the momentum in the rivalry back to El Tri.

U-20 World Cup

The US crashed out of the group stage in 2009 in the final group match to South Korea by a 3-0 scoreline. The team had also fallen in the CONCACAF final.

U-17 World Cup

The US finished second in the group before losing to Italy 2-1 in the knockout rounds. The semifinals of the CONCACAF tournament were not played due to the outbreak of swine flu.

2010

FIFA World Cup

The other best example of Americans being victorious in a do-or-die match was the 1-0 win over Algeria to advance to the Round of 16…..where the team promptly lost to Ghana, again.

2011

Gold Cup

The US came together in a way few thought they would to set up a third straight Gold Cup final match with Mexico. Bradley expertly worked the semifinal match against Panama with Freddy Adu, Donovan and Clint Dempsey combining to seal the victory. The trio were back at work in the final to give the US an early 2-0 lead.

Steve Cherundolo went 17 minutes before an injury decapitated his day and the US team… “and the rest is history.” Mexico, Giovanni Dos Santos in particular, was on another level than the US for the rest of that match. 4-2, El Tri, campeónes, again.

U-20 World Cup

The US wasn’t there. The Americans fell in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF tournament to Guatemala in…Guatemala.

U-17 World Cup

This team gave the US its only championship of the last six years.

The CONCACAF champs finished second in their group at the World Cup before losing to Germany 4-1 in the round of 16.

2012

London Olympics

It was a second straight disappointment for some players in this age group. The US crashed out of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament on a 94′ goal by Jaime Alas of El Salvador. Sean Johnson and others seemed to have moved past it, but it is still one of the stinging disappointments in recent US Soccer history.

2013

U-20 World Cup

Mexico added yet another trophy in the qualifying tournament by topping the US 3-1 in the final. The Americans went on to face a gauntlet in the group stage and had a chance to advance until the final match, where they were thrashed by…Ghana.

U-17 World Cup

Another US youth team will not be competing in an international tournament for the third consecutive year after the U-17’s crashed out of the qualifying tournament. The US’s attempt at qualification ended in a loss to Honduras in Panama.

CONCACAF only began to include bracket play in youth World Cup qualifying in 2009, but even the Olympic qualifying bracket have never been kind to the US. US teams lost in the 2000 final and later failed to reach the 2004 Olympics after falling in the region semifinals.

US fans aren’t and shouldn’t be expecting constant World Cup championships and there is certainly debate, perennially and appropriately, about just how much to value these tournaments. However, if you’re there and in contention, shouldn’t a win be expected? (It sure looks like Klinsmann is aware of this very phenomenon this year, even with the increased table stakes.)

There might also hope for better performances against teams outside of the world’s elite, but itt hasn’t been Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Spain knocking the States out of these tournaments.

It has been Ghana, Austria, Ghana, Nigeria, Ghana, Guatemala, Ghana, South Korea, Ghana, El Salvador, Ghana, Ghana, Ghana…..okay, Ghana hasn’t really defeated the US that many times, but it’s not Germany. Yes it’s Ghana, an incredibly difficult team to breakdown but also a beatable one.

Blame cannot be laid at Bob Bradley’s doorstep alone over the last cycle. The US has lost these matches at all levels. Failures at the youth level have been across four different age groups during that time with several different coaches and frankly four different styles.

Unfortunately for US fans, the heartbreak extends into the club realm for their favorite players. Plenty of US players including Landon Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu, Maurice Edu, Sacha Kljestan found great success in their respective leagues, but domestic cup competitions provided an extra bit of heartbreak for fans and players alike.

Tim Howard guided Everton to the 2009 FA Cup final in England. Howard put on a masterful effort on penalty kicks against Manchester United in the semifinal. The Toffees saw an early goal give them hope in the final, but Chelsea would steal the trophy in a comeback effort.

Carlos Bocanegra gave Rennes a 1-0 lead on a header in the 69′ of the 2009 Coupe de France final. Surely they can win against Guingamp from the second division, right? Two goals in 13 minutes later and another American international was seeing another trophy slip away.

Donovan has been the exception with the LA Galaxy’s raging success, but his penalty kick miss in the 2009 MLS Cup final helped Real Salt Lake earn its first trophy and least offers a single blemish.

The most notable club cup loss for an American player may have been the 2010 UEFA Europa League final. Dempsey entered for Fulham in the 55th minute with the match tied 1-1. It stayed that way until Diego Forlán bucketed a goal in the 116th minute to lift Atlético Madrid to victory.

From Adu and Eddie Johnson with Aris to Herculez Gomez with Santos Laguna to Michael Bradley with Roma as recently as two months ago, Americans so often seem coincidentally or not to lose in the biggest matches, which are usually finals. It gives even more significance to the times when Donovan, Beasley and now Altidore have been able to earn silverware with their clubs.

Is this an indictment at all of American play? The settings and circumstances for all of these matches are all over the place. It is hard to say that these results are indicative of anything, but it seems to call for some attention, not a rug-sweeping.

Credit has to be given to American players and teams for working their way to the finals of the competitions, but it is proving to be a difficult task to find that elusive championship victory.

Dos Bye-Bye....

Dos Bye-Bye….

Meanwhile, Mexico–despite their recent doldrums–is cleaning up in regional AND international championships. The Mexicans haven’t just been “showing well.” They have been winning trophies. And things have changed a lot for El Tri in the last year, but it is still the reigning champion in several regional and international tournaments, including the Gold Cup.

Tim Howard said he felt that Mexico’s counterpunch when trailing 2-0 in the 2011 Gold Cup final staggered the American players.  The Americans had multiple club captains and hundreds of caps on the field that day.  A team that experienced should not be staggered in a regional final by a rival they had beaten numerous times before.

The US’s attacking play against the Netherlands in the Olympics left many feeling that the US deserved the win, but the players made the costly mistakes.  And they have continued to make them.  Those mistakes are not “unlucky’ or “unfair.”  They have been too common.

The US, especially in this Gold Cup, can match Mexico’s talent and tactics, but can they match El Tri’s championship intensity?  The Americans have not been able to match neither Mexico’s determination nor focus since 2007.

But this it appears this US team is set-up to quash this very line of thinking; to instill confidence, remove doubt.

If the US falters in the semifinals or, dreadfully, in the final against Mexico once again, with a team that is so veteran-heavy, then this line of questioning will move to the mainstream.

With the early success of this Gold Cup and past as prologue, there is no other acceptable outcome in this one regardless of competition, any injury or otherwise. It’s what–for me–makes these next two (hopefully) games exceedingly watchable and important more so than any player graduating and trying to run a playoff gauntlet again.

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23 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Freegle on 2013/07/23 at 11:42 AM

    This is an interesting take and I think it highlights two major differences in this current GC squad in comparison to most (if not all) of the past tournament teams…

    1) This team has no “the next big thing.” No Freddy Adu, no Agudelo, no (insert youth player that Americans think is better than he actually is here). I understand that youth tournaments lend themselves to that but this team in particular has been very short on hyperbole. The only big questions/talking points coming in were about players (read: veterans) coming BACK into the fold. It creates a different dynamic because instead of youth that feels it has arrived or is entitled, you have veterans who have tasted success and are hungry to get back.

    2) This squad has been encouraged to impose it’s will more than any team in the past. Too often we would sit on a one goal lead and bunker, trying to fend off wave after wave of attacks while closing out a match, even against weaker competition. This team has been putting its collective boot on the jugular of their opposition. Even in the 1-0 victory vs Costa Rica, I was never uncomfortable sitting in the stands like I’ve been in the past as we held one goal leads. The mantra that “winning is not good enough, we should be dominating CONCACAF opposition” that we have all been hoping for is on display in this tournament.

    Although if we lose to Honduras tomorrow I will lose all of my optimism because I am a USA fan which means I live only in peaks and valleys

    Reply

    • Posted by SamT on 2013/07/23 at 2:07 PM

      “Boot on the jugular” is exactly right. At one point in the El Sal match I questioned whether the continued attempts at goal with a 5-1 scoreline late in the game was necessary or somehow disrepectful of the opponent. (After all, goal differential means nothing after the group stage.) But then I realized JK and the squad had something to prove. And it wasn’t like we were treating El Sal any differently than previous opponents.

      “Boot on the jugular” to close out the tournament will be our goal. Hopefully they execute.

      Reply

    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/07/23 at 4:59 PM

      I agree. There was a guy at the bar who said to me, “it’s only El Salvador”. My reply was that as much as I could understand his sentiment, the fact remains that in prior competitions, the US have not beaten the opposition as comfortably as I think they ought to, given the obvious talent gap. Even with the B team, the US should be blowing these teams away. Glad to see that they finally are.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Chazcar2 on 2013/07/23 at 1:15 PM

    Altidore will lead us to break this cup drought? He scored the winning goal in the Dutch Cup for AZ this year. I see a reversing trend!

    Reply

    • Posted by Jay Bell on 2013/07/23 at 2:41 PM

      I would have added that in, except Bradley and Roma’s loss to Lazio in the Italian final was two weeks after AZ won in the Dutch cup.

      Reply

  3. Posted by CJ on 2013/07/23 at 3:57 PM

    If you’ve ever seen the movie Midnight In Paris, there’s a scene where Owen Wilson’s character is receiving criticism from Gertrude Stein. (Paraphrasing) She offers him the advice that it is not the authors job to squander and folly over fear and the unknown but, to provide a hope or light to the reader. Something to that effect.

    My point is, after spending 5 minutes reading about how bad the US is, all we get for our time and effort of reading toward the solution is this, “But this it appears this US team is set-up to quash this very line of thinking; to instill confidence, remove doubt.”

    I don’t know why that rang out so clear but, I almost felt depressed after reading this article, even knowing the way our team has played is levels above the others in this tournament.

    Thank you for the detailed analysis of our follies in the past several years. It reinforced how much I want us to have something to brag about, even if it is a tournament with lesser opponents.

    Reply

    • Posted by John Mosby on 2013/07/23 at 6:58 PM

      C j, do you really think Argentina or brazil fans hope they can win copa America so they can brag about beating lesser opposition? Do you think they even care if the opposition is lesser? Cj, winners don’t care who is the opposition, they f@&k the prom queen.

      Reply

  4. An interesting read. I’d like to know more about the styles of past coaches from Arena to now or farther back, if you really want to go all out! I think that would be a great read. What type of styles we played then to how we play now under JK. I have my assumptions but I’d love to read more from those who have been watching for 10+ years.

    Its been fun to see certain players playing together that can actually make good passes in tight areas like Torres, Donovan, Diskerud, Corona and even Wondo at times. They make it so much easier for Beasley, Beckerman, and Parkhurst to just play their positions without having to “make” something happen.

    Excited to see the team tomorrow night…not even this article will get me down!

    Reply

    • Posted by Jake on 2013/07/24 at 6:54 AM

      “Its been fun to see certain players playing together that can actually make good passes in tight areas like Torres, Donovan, Diskerud, Corona and even Wondo at times. They make it so much easier for Beasley, Beckerman, and Parkhurst to just play their positions without having to “make” something happen.”

      This has been the best and most exciting part of this tournament for me. JFT, LD, Mixxxxx, and Joe have been great in tight spaces. All have shown the ability to pass out of pressure (and not just backwards) AND escape themselves! When was the last time you felt comfortable that a turnover wasn’t 100% assured when any USA player was in possession and being closed on quickly? Now they can get out of it in real soccer ways!

      Reply

  5. After the elimination by Ghana 2010 World Cup Donovan said, something to the effect that ” we have the talent and ability but we just don’t know how to do the little things that make the difference between winning and losing.”

    In other words “We don’t know how to win” said the man who watched his team lose a 2-0 lead to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final.

    Absent everything else, this is the one thing JK is trying to bring to this team, that fine edge of ruthlessness and clarity of purpose that separates winners from losers. The edge that he and his German teams so clearly demonstrated back when JK was playing. He has been very clear about it from the start and has been implementing his attitude slowly but relentlessly.

    That was what the whole Donovan drama was about “ Get with the program 100% or leave”. That little affair was a great gift to JK. It gave him a wonderfully useful cautionary tale. One can imagine JK and LD planning the whole thing, just like Straus and JK planned the whole Sporting News article, another great boost to the program.

    The USMNT has never been about winning ; it has always been about making a good showing, only losing a friendly 1-0 to a team like Spain for example.

    JK is clearly trying to change that starting with this Gold Cup. The competition is watered down but a Cup is a Cup and winning is a habit, one JK wants these guys to have.

    That ‘s why he keeps attacking even when they are 4 goals up. He wants these guys to be as ruthless, clinical and cold as he was when he was playing.

    Reply

  6. I’ll admit that I’ve kinda been thinking “Well, it’s just a meaningless Gold Cup with a bunch of B teams”. This article, albeit after bucket upon bucket of cold water splashes from past failures, made me see the importance of winning this competition.

    The Nats have pretty much been content to just compete on the international level. Do you remember how bad we wanted to beat Mexico in the past? I’m talking about when they were THE dominant team in the region. The American fighting spirit (and talent) finally knocked them off the hill and for a while there in the new millennium, we were the Kings of CONCACAF. But it didn’t ever really translate in the World Cup because we were just happy not to get too much sand kicked in our faces anymore. When we were up 2-0 at halftime to Brazil in the ’09 Confed Cup final, there seemed to be a “how long can this last” feeling in my head and probably in the heads of our players as well.

    I’m not comparing the US to Spain in terms of talent by any stretch of the imagination, but they had a block, mental or otherwise, that prevented them from going all the way at the highest level for decades. It wasn’t until they won the Euro Cup in 2008 that they broke through that wall.

    Yeah, I get it now. Win this puny little tournament after all. I don’t care if she’s not the hottest prom queen, she’s still the prom queen.

    Reply

  7. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2013/07/24 at 5:53 AM

    Just like to add that under Bradley, the US seemed to scrape by.
    2009 – while you did beat Spain fair and square, you were extremely fortunate to even progress after losing the first two games, and Italy’s improbable heavy loss in the 3rd game.
    2010 – again, you won the group, but were seconds from being eliminated altogether.

    If you continue progressing, getting out of the group stage ( in a straight forward manner) will not be celebrated, it will be a minimum expectation. Then, hopefully, the QF will be the expectation… not relying on other results etc.

    Reply

  8. […] At The Shin Guardian, Jay Bell reviews the results of the USMNT since the 2007 Gold Cup, the last time the US men won a tournament. “Credit has to be given to American players and teams for working their way to the finals of the competitions, but it is proving to be a difficult task to find that elusive championship victory…The US, especially in this Gold Cup, can match Mexico’s talent and tactics, but can they match El Tri’s championship intensity? The Americans have not been able to match neither Mexico’s determination nor focus since 2007.” […]

    Reply

  9. Posted by KickinNames.... on 2013/07/24 at 10:07 AM

    There is definitely a different swagger to the squad in the last 8 matches including the Gold Cup. I don’t think that Landon’s influence on the rest of the B squaders can be overstated here. He has been a focused and fired up force for them and am looking forward to him bringing that and more in qualifying and beyond. He drives us all nuts but when he is focused, he has proven to be a top shelf international player. Here’s hoping that Klinsi’s Teutonic mind meld continues to motivate Landon and the rest of the A squad follows suit.

    Reply

    • Posted by Crow on 2013/07/24 at 10:10 AM

      I agree- when Landon has that fire/swagger (2009 confed cup, 2010 world cup especially, even the Scotland friendly) the US seems to follow his lead.

      I just couldn’t believe how many people even on these forums that I really respect were down on JK so quick without giving him a chance (last year, early this year).

      Reply

      • Posted by KickinNames.... on 2013/07/24 at 12:38 PM

        Crow-
        There were some legitimate questions being asked by many folks (including me) who were concerned at the lack of results and tactical dissonance that were evident in the program. I supported the hire of Klinsmann but it doesn’t mean you cant question his moves and selections.
        Still issues at right and left back and the CB situation is still shaky and overall defensive play needs to be secured before this is an international tournament ready squad IMO.
        Some good mojo and a world class A team player in Donovan have made a big difference in this tournament but still miles to go before we consider the MNT a contender for late round WQ play.

        Reply

      • Posted by schmutzdeck on 2013/07/24 at 2:01 PM

        Crow,

        You should not be so surprised.

        JK’s biggest mistake was seeming to say that the US was now going to play differently, that they would now play attacking, high pressure soccer.

        If you read the actual comments he did qualify them by saying it would take a while and that results in qualifying were vital but, predictably no one cared to notice.

        What most people said was “ he promised us Barca and instead we’re getting Hull City”. It is always bad to overpromise and under deliver.

        However, absent the usual hysteria, what JK has done especially in such a short time frame is remarkable. He seems to be getting close to changing the culture of a player pool that is still essentially Bob Bradley’s. Matt Besler is about the only player who has no particular tie with BB, as far as I know.

        Many have nitpicked formations or personnel decisions about center halves or wingers or whatever here and there but that’s mostly irrelevant.

        JK probably already has a pretty clear idea for the 30-40 players who will make up that final selection pool and I doubt there will be a lot of surprises. And most of them will be interchangeable; I used to think the holy trinity, Donovan, Bradley and Dempsey were irreplaceable but I was wrong.

        JK seems to have this team to where if they have a “weak spot” in the lineup it’s not really an issue. If you keep attacking an opponent, if you make them worry about you, then they won’t have the time to be attacking your supposed weak spot.

        After all this is a manager who started Kyle Beckerman in his management debut game for the US. And the last time I saw Captain Crofton play, for a guy with no skill and no speed, he looked pretty good.

        If JK’s program can have a guy like Kyle play like that then JK is doing more right than wrong. He may not be able to coach Germans like Philip Lahm but he isn’t doing too bad with Americans.

        Reply

  10. i remember the last gold cup and how much that sucked, but the El Salvador tie to get knicked from the olympics was 4 times worse heartbreak wise

    Reply

  11. Lets not get too carried away of giving Donovan accolades for 8 games won when he’s only played in 4 of them. I’m sure he, Beasley (the captain), Beckerman, and others are also leading a younger group but consider this… only Ashe (went back to team), McInerny (back to team) had not played for JK so even though some are young… they know what to expect and what is demanded. I’d rather give JK the credit and then all the veteran players rather than say Donovan is why its all working. He definitely still matters…no doubt but so does Beckerman, Beasley, and Rimando.

    Reply

    • Adrian,

      I’d rather credit the whole squad. When you watch teams like 2010 France,earlier editions of the Netherlands or any of a number of other international squads you learn to appreciate the USMNT. Obviously we’re all outsiders but as best as I can tell, these guys seem like they have a great locker room, both on and off the field, and seem like a great bunch of guys. More to the point they seem to have taken JK’s lesson to heart

      I think they will surprise a lot of people, especially Americans, in Brazil assuming they get there.

      US fan culture seems centered on individuals on a game by game ( or even half by half) basis so Landon’s deification or re- deification is SOP.

      He’ll go through a bad patch sooner or later and then he’ll instantly be back in purgatory for a while.

      Look at Stu. He did well initially, and immediately displaced Jones or even Bradley on many fan’s depth charts. Then he does nothing of note the last two games and suddenly the “saviour of the US midfield “talk starts to die down.

      Yet, assuming he hasn’t picked up some serious injury we haven’t been told about, I would say this Cup has been a success for him even if he doesn’t play another minute because he showed he was on his way back.

      You have to consider where he came from. Whether Stu makes the World Cup team will depend a great deal on how he responds to Bolton’s upcoming season.

      Reply

  12. […] entertaining us. The Gold Cup form of the Americans has been ascendant, for sure, but have they found the right formula? Perhaps. Perhaps not. One thing is certain, we’re growing to like Kyle Beckerman, […]

    Reply

  13. I agree with most of what you posted. US fans do get too caught up in the “last game” and those darn grades that every journalist posts, which have no true measure from one journalist to another.

    Reply

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