Prior to the Gold Cup I made the, not exactly bold, prediction that the USA wouldn’t win the comically oversized cup. I would love nothing more than to be eating some spicy crow tacos, but in the end the United States were no match for an excellent Mexico side.
Typically, the Nats made sure to lose in the most soul crushing way possible. That perfect “dos a cero” score-line erased and then trampled by Chicharito, Dos Santos, Guardado and the rest of the bad guys in green (Landon Donovan probably feels a little silly about the chicken celebration right now). Then there was the always pleasant reminder that our nation’s own national team takes a back seat to our Southern neighbors even within our borders.
So overall it was a pretty bad tournament from an American point of view. A scary first round was somewhat forgotten with two decent performances in the knockout stage, before Mexico obliterated any confidence the Americans had built up with a convincing performance.
There were definitely some bright spots for the USA. Freddy Adu’s great performance has garnered the most press, but some other young players offered promise. Alejandro Bedoya strung together a couple of good performances to ensure he’ll continue to be part of the national team picture and Eric Lichaj was solid, even when playing out of position at left back.
Also, the United States started to contemplate life without Landon. Donovan has been the talisman of the US team for almost ten years now. When Landycakes showed up they were doomed, while Mandon could carry an underperforming team to victory on his back. The USA won two games without Donovan as a starter, something they’ll have to get used too. It’s not that Donovan is going anywhere soon, but at 29 his impact and role will only continue to decrease.
Unsurprisingly, the US soccer blogosphere is in an irrational depression/rage spiral with articles ranging from calls for Bradley’s ouster to jingoistic rants about Mexican fans. The latter don’t deserve any attention and while the former may be more legitimate, it simply isn’t going to happen.
Bradley’s choices of guys like Chris Wondolowski, Sacha Kljestian and Robbie Rogers proved to be just as terrible as expected. The trio contributed very little to the Gold Cup effort and his loyalty to Jonathan Bornstein may actually be a mental illness.
At the same time, his call up of Adu turned out much better than expected, and dealing with the controversial absence of your two best field players (Dempsey and Donovan) in the run up to the quarterfinal is not exactly easy.
So while we could debate the Bradley issue, there is literally no chance that US Soccer will sack him. If Bradley was going to be fired it would have been after the World Cup. Coaches, like Presidents, rarely have a smooth second term and sometimes it is easier to go your separate ways, even after a moderately successful performance. At that time, USA fans were intoxicated with Landon’s last minute goal and looking elsewhere would not have been a popular move.
Finding a new coach is a long and daunting process that hurts the progress of the program overall, especially if it is unsuccessful search. The United States can’t afford to go a year looking for a coach only to end up with a bust, which isn’t exactly rare in international soccer. Just look at Mexico in the previous decade to see how a revolving door of coaches can hurt a team’s performance. Bradley will navigate qualifying with ease and so Sunil Gulati and the USSF will stick with their man.
The Gold Cup tournament made it abundantly clear that the United States is in a transition period that could see them struggle for the next few years. It’s easy to understand why US fans are having such a hard time coping with this notion. I, like the majority of the fan base, am fairly new to US Soccer. I started following the team closely around the 1998 world cup, at, quite literally, the bottom. Since then, the United States has been on an almost constant upward trajectory. Even the 2006 world cup seemed like a hiccup rather than a program in decline. Faced with a tough group, players underperformed and mistakes were made. The last Gold Cup final loss to Mexico could be excused due to the use of a B-team. So for many, an extended rough patch seems unthinkable.
However, it’s a problem that is common in World Soccer. England followed up their run to the semifinals in the 1990 world cup with nearly a decade of mediocrity, missing the 1994 World Cup in the process. Mexico was in transition throughout much of the last decade, a footnote that some of us like to conveniently forget when discussing the rise of the US in CONCACAF. Even the infallible Brazil spent much of the 1980’s in an uncharacteristic slump.
Unfortunately, it’s time for the US soccer fan base to realize that sometimes our team just isn’t going to be that good. Constant improvement is impossible in all sports, especially when your talent pool is restrained by nationality.
If it was always easy it wouldn’t be fun to win. If my soccer awakening didn’t coincide with a last place finish in 98, than watching Brian McBride score against Mexico four years later wouldn’t have sent me shouting and flaying spasmodically around my living room at two in the morning. If my only memory of my high school graduation day wasn’t the USA losing to Ghana and bombing out of the first round that morning, than Landon’s goal against Algeria wouldn’t have caused me to cry uncontrollably and hug strange men.
That’s not to say that Bob Bradley and USSF should just sit on their hands and wait for things to turn around. In fact they have to be more proactive than ever in expanding the talent pool. The youth system needs unwavering attention and piles of money to deal with the huge deficiencies on the back line and at forward. Bradley needs to mine out whatever talent is at his disposal in MLS and overseas. We know this crop will get us to the World Cup, but we better find some hidden gems along the way if we want to do anything when we get there. It will take smart decisions and ceaseless effort to carry us through this plateau and continue up the mountain.
I’m not glad that we lost, but I am making sure that I fully experience the drama. I made sure to watch the trophy presentation afterwards, and watch the highlights the next day. I might just be a masochist, (I am a Red Bulls and Cleveland Browns fan) but I want the feeling of misery and anger to resonate. I want to be able to clearly recall the way I felt when Mexico scored their fourth goal Saturday night at Legend’s, surrounded by my friends and covered in beer and man sweat, disgusting defeated loser man sweat. That way when the next group of stars emerge and we finally punk Mexico in Azteca, it will feel that much better.
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