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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.