Tuesday, July 30, 2013


USA's Gold Cup win

USA's Gold Cup win: five things we learned.

USA celebrate winning the 2013 Concacaf Gold Cup at Soldier Field, Chicago. 

USA extend winning streak to 11 games to beat Panama and win 2013 Gold Cup, with Landon Donovan and Jurgen Klinsmann among USMNT's biggest winners

USA showed subtler qualities in the final

The final was always likely to be a tighter game than anything the US had faced to this point — and so it proved. Until the game kicked off the US had had shots on target roughly once every nine minutes during their Gold Cup campaign — a total that might have been higher had Costa Rica not taken bunkering to a new level with their 5-4-1 in the final group game. But in the first half of the Gold Cup final in Chicago, the US could not work a shot on target, with Donovan, the competition talisman struggling for space and width and thwarted in his attempts to link with Eddie Johnson. And the few balls from out wide that came in to the box were snuffed out effectively by a well drilled Panama back four, compared to the havoc they'd caused in previous rounds.

Cue a half time readjustment that saw Donovan drift wide right more and Diskerud, on for the unfortunate Holden, not just pushing up in support but playing the ball wider quicker. Suddenly the Panamanians were being pulled off balance and stretched. Parkhurst, relatively speaking the more conservative of the two full backs, began choosing his runs forward as well, and ultimately provided the ball into the box that sprang the defense for the decisive goal, with Donovan's dart to the near post fooling the Panama defense.

It wasn't the swashbuckling style that the US had used to get to the final, but perhaps it was precisely the sort of competitive game this team needed to validate their procession to the title. And six wins, and outscoring the opposition 20-4, is a procession.

By the end, the challenge of solving Panama's defense had been achieved, and other than a little pressure right at the end of the game, when Panama threw men forward, the threats of Torres and Perez at the other end were also nullified. A frustrated Torres was subbed out, while Perez was left on the field to demonstrate his frustration in fouls and complaints to the referee as his day drifted away from him. The US didn't steamroller the opposition, but navigated safely and smartly round them, and that's another step forward for the support corps of players working under Klinsmann.

Klinsmann's subs blended perfectly

There have been moments in Klinsmann's reign when substitutions have looked a little like throwing darts blindfolded — in fairness, less a product of bad decision-making on the part of the coach, than the inevitable teething problems of making claims about improving the national team's depth and then actually trying to do it by seeing who and what works.

But whether it was the much-maligned Brek Shea forcing home the goal that kept the winning streak going against Costa Rica, or the spectacular introductions of Eddie Johnson and Shea, again, in the knockout rounds, the substitutions in the Gold Cup were of a different order. Naturally the Johnson and Shea goals within seconds of arriving on the field were the ones that caught the eye and headlines, but watching the final, the sense of a coaching team reaping the benefits of all the empirical research of substitutions and squad rotations past, seemed palpable.

When Stuart Holden went down early on, the understandable sense of dismay about the possibility of serious injury to a man who looked to have rubber stamped his comeback in this tournament, was offset by the introduction of Diskerud — who'd been rotated through the midfield throughout the tournament and could be introduced not as a stopgap but as a player bringing his own proactive qualities to the team. When Panama belatedly started throwing men forward, Omar Gonzalez was able to step in alongside the man who is increasingly looking like his first choice partner for the World Cup squad, Matt Besler. As hopeful balls were punted into the box, Gonzalez was there to head clear. We'll remember the substitutions just prior to the goals, but the ones where a player is introduced seamlessly into a team and where all concerned know what that offers, is just as impressive.

This was Landon Donovan's tournament

For all Klinsmann's words about selection not being guaranteed for anyone and consideration for the World Cup qualifying squad being day to day, one player went way above and beyond the minimum requirement that demonstrate that he wasn't playing on the fumes of a historical reputation.

As we've discussed throughout the Gold Cup, this was Donovan's tournament. Since his reintroduction into the squad, the LA Galaxy player has treated what could have been humbling with humility, and in doing so inspired the men around him. The qualities of the player who now stands on his own in national team records for goals and assists should be self-evident.

Two telling images from the aftermath of the final: one was the sight of the beaten Panama players seated in a circle on the turf of Soldier Field, with Donovan in the center of them, shaking hands and offering a word of condolence to his opponents; the second was the US team celebrating in the locker room, poised precariously for a team photo. Donovan's at the back, barely visible, knowing he was front and center when it counted.

The goalscoring pool has expanded

Looking not just at this tournament, but the winning streak it forms a part of, the US suddenly has a slew of international players with belief in front of goal. From Jozy Altidore, whose drought-relieving tally against Germany in the US Soccer centennial game got the run started, to Chris Wondolowski's breakout in the early stages of the Gold Cup, and even Eddie Johnson keeping his own goal tally going — this run has represented a burst of confidence for the US players in front of goal.

Looking beyond the players spearheading the front line, there is even more encouraging news. Bedoya, Corona, and Shea all got their first goals in this run — these things matter. Shea in particular could have left this tournament being remembered for an awful half against Cuba, instead of as the scorer of the winning goal in the final. Even the challenging comments of "Now do it for Stoke" were of a different tenor than "He's never going to do it".

Wondolowski of course, famously changed the narrative about his own international potential early in the tournament, but despite leading the goalscoring charts will still look back on the Gold Cup as one where he asserted his claim as a credible rather than inevitable selection for one of the attacking depth spots in future "A" team squads. When the US moved on to what were nominally more challenging opposition as the tournament went on, we were back to talking about his impressive and selfless movement, rather than his goals, and he was eased out of the team by the introduction of Johnson.

As Klinsmann keeps re-emphasizing, "What have you done for me lately?" He'll be quietly delighted at how many players demonstrated that they'd done plenty.

The coach's stock is as high as it's ever been

The Gold Cup represents a double-edged sword for USA and Mexico coaches. Reaching the final and probably winning is considered the bare minimum of success. Last time out, Bob Bradley's side took a 2-0 lead in the final. It was the last lead Bob Bradley had as a US coach. He lost the game 4-2 and swiftly lost his job. Ask the average Mexican fan this morning if they're seeing signs of steady growth in their side's 2013 semi-final run?

But Klinsmann won the trophy and demonstrated the mutual trust that exists between his players and him as they worked their way through each challenge. We've mentioned the substitutions, but the tactical adjustments and the players response to them were spot on too. The balancing of the trio of Beckerman, Diskerud and Holden was fine-tuned as the tournament went on and Klinsmann adjusted to both what they brought and the counter-balancing requirements of his full backs and the attacking midfielders ahead of them all. This from a coach who'd endured a lot of suggestions that he was disinterested in tactics.

It's a far cry from the week before the Costa Rica qualifier in Denver - where the Klinsmann project looked destined to be lost in translation. Since then Klinsmann has taken his side to a Gold Cup, the brink of World Cup qualifying and a team record 11-game winning streak. He has bought himself a lot of goodwill and time to shape his approach for seeing out the campaign, rather than the once likely scenario of lurching from referendum to referendum as qualification tightened. He's as well placed as he could possibly be right now.
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