This week we pause from our regular MLS coverage to get up to speed on the Gold Cup. Not only is this the most important international soccer tournament in North America, but with 32 MLS players participating, it says a lot about how important the league has become to player development. Expect it’s importance to increase as the league grows and teams increasingly use the academy system to identify and hone talent.
Each region of FIFA has a tournament every several years to determine regional champions, and the Gold Cup is the North American (CONCACAF) championship. The competition is held every other year, before and after the World Cup. Most importantly, winning the cup following a World Cup year earns the winner a spot in the FIFA Confederations tournament. This event takes place in the next World Cup host nation as a warm-up prior to the World Cup the following year. Team USA’s runner-up performance in the 2009 Confederations Cup is one of the high water marks of American soccer. Because so much is riding on it, every team in CONCACAF has sent their best, making this the toughest tournament for the US Men’s National Team until either the World Cup or the next Confederations Cup.
The Gold Cup tournament is already considered to be somewhat of a disappointment for Team USA. For the first time, the American’s failed to win their group stage because they suffered their first ever group stage loss to Panama. However, for fans of the American team there have been some positives. The defense has long been a source of problems, but in four games only one goal has been allowed in the run of play (a second was scored on a foolish penalty, both against Panama). While Guadaloupe and Jamaica each had a good chance early on, the American defense was much tighter overall and less vulnerable to speed and defense-splitting through balls. Jamaica in particular brought this game to the Yanks, but they were ready for it and recorded a clean sheet against a good side.
Another significant improvement has been the play of the midfield. Unlike during the World Cup, coach Bob Bradley has sent out a consistent midfield in each game with each position having clearly defined roles. Jermaine Jones has emerged as the defensive midfielder we have long been lacking, while Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan continue in their roles as attacking wingers. However, they have been doing a much better job of moving the ball to the central midfielders and outside fullbacks instead of relying on long-balls over the top. Most impressive, though, has been the continued improvement of young midfielder Michael Bradley. He has dropped back from the attack somewhat to emerge as the player who possesses and distributes the ball. It’s refreshing to see American soccer players move the ball forward with intent, and yes, even pass the ball backwards if that is the best option. Bradley will even track back to the defense to pick up the ball and start the attack. (The US tried this during the World Cup with Jose Torres, but abandoned it after one half. I guess when it’s the coaches’ kid running the show, there’s more patience.)
Perhaps the best change that’s manifested itself during the Gold Cup is that Team USA finally has sense of itself. The game plan is clear and doesn’t change as substitutions are made. This allows the players to anticipate where their teammates will be and how they’ll move; something absolutely critical in soccer as there’s no time to call plays. During the World Cup, every game had a different game plan and different personnel, resulting in no coherent soccer and almost always an early substitution to try to right the ship. In this tournament, there’s only been one substitution before half-time, and it was as a result of injury to forward Jozy Altidore. Which brings me to the main deficiency of the current US squad….
While the midfield and defense have played well (aside from one half against Panama when they looked tired), the finishing ability of the squad has been lacking. In four games, they have only had two real quality strikes: Clint Dempsey against Canada and Jozy Altidore against Guadaloupe. Landon Donovan has been more involved in ball movement than striking, and the other attacking players have misplaced shot after shot. Against Guadaloupe, we could have scored more than 5 goals, and even after a miserable half against Panama, we missed two easy scoring chances that would have won the game. This has to be the biggest area of concern for American soccer with a rematch against Panama in the Gold Cup semis on Wednesday, hopefully followed by a final against a Mexican side that has no trouble finding the back of the net. So until next time: USA! USA! USA!