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Building on the Gold Cup victory
by Ridge Mahoney, June 26th, 2007 7AM

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TAGS:  gold cup, men's national team

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Capturing the Gold Cup may not mean much beyond the far-flung boundaries of CONCACAF. Of the regional titles first comes the European Championship, then the Copa America, with the Gold Cup, Asian Cup and African Cup of Nations trailing in their wake. But for a team and program in transition, and a head coach unbeaten yet still unproven in the minds of many, parading a golden garden planter around Soldier Field to a largely Mexican audience will more than suffice. More than three weeks of training and competitive play, of sharing rooms and meals and bus trips, lays a foundation for the future.

"We're growing as a team," says defender Carlos Bocanegra, who has played on the 2002 and 2007 regional champions as well as the 2003 team that lost to Brazil in the semifinals. "We're still pretty young and it's still a transition. We're finding ways to win and I think that's good."

During the Gold Cup the U.S. eked out a tight (1-0) win over Guatemala, won big (4-0) over El Salvador, sweated out 2-1 wins over Panama and Canada after ringing up 2-0 leads, then rallied to beat its fiercest rival in another 2-1 thriller. Periods of dominance, if rarely brilliance, were sometimes followed by alarming spells of confusion.

It's a measure of high expectations in this competition that questions and doubts swirled about the team as it won six straight games. A few of those issues remain.

"We're expected to win this tournament, now," said keeper Kasey Keller after only a dubious offside call robbed Canada of a last-minute equalizer in the semifinal. "Teams respect us, yes, but they also know by knocking us off they've accomplished something.

"Two times in this tournament [Guatemala and Canada] we've had to finish with a man down, two or three times in this tournament we've had two-nil leads and we've let teams back in the game when we had chances to bury them.

"That's frustrating but in the end we won them and that's what's important. We know we have to improve on those things."

The central pairing of Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu needs to be sharper and tougher or changes will be mandatory. There are myriad midfield combinations to be further tested and refined. Where Landon Donovan is best suited to play, whether Clint Dempsey can excel as a second forward, and how quickly Justin Mapp and Michael Bradley and Jonathan Bornstein and several others can develop are yet to be answered.

To every spectacular goal the Americans scored in this tournament can be attached a grotesque miss.

Benny Feilhaber's incredible strike against Mexico, meet DaMarcus Beasley's sitter off the crossbar a few minutes later.

Frankie Hejduk's 30-yard blast into the Canadian net, you must know Landon Donovan's comical whiff.

The Beasley right-footer to trigger the rout of El Salvador is the very antithesis of Dempsey's diabolical dawdle against Panama, don't you agree?

"We took our foot off the gas and we need to suffocate teams," said Bocanegra. "Once we get up two-nothing, not to give them any glimmer of hope. We definitely need to work on that."

That work and much more commences with a changed cast on Thursday in the Copa America with a mostly MLS roster that includes several players yet to don the U.S. jersey in a full international. Less than 24 hours after parading and dancing with the Gold Cup, as a shirtless Frankie Hejduk decked out in wrap-around shades mugged for the photographers, the Copa squad left for Venezuela. The message? Back to work, like most of the world, on Monday.

"Every big game is a test," said Bradley, who faces at least three of them in the Copa. "Throughout each game we talk about what it takes to become a really good team, how to become stronger, how to learn to trust each other. We're very excited about the fact that we could continue to get stronger as a group and win this. It means a great deal to all of us."

 



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