Despite its recent dominance over Mexico, the very idea that the USA could beat its southern rival in a competitive match, or any match, without its top players was ludicrous. It may happen this weekend.
With another USA-Mexico showdown pending in the Gold Cup final Sunday at Giants Stadium (TV: Fox Soccer Channel, Univision, live, 3 pm ET), the Americans will send out a roster consisting mostly of current or former MLS members, with those currently employed domestically far outnumbering those working overseas. Only left back Heath Pearce, currently club-less, has never played in MLS.
No doubt defender Clarence Goodson (ex-Dallas) and goalkeeper Troy Perkins (ex-D.C. United) have improved since their moves abroad in the past 18 months, but they haven't been gone that long. In the quarterfinal against Panama, Goodson replaced Kansas City stalwart Jimmy Conrad, who had been paired during the competition with Crew backliner Chad Marshall, as well as former Rev Michael Parkhurst. After six months in Denmark, Parkhurst may be better, but not dramatically so.
The Americans have faced a watered-down Honduras twice in this competition, and won both times by 2-0 scores. Not much of a challenge had been expected anyway from group foes Grenada and Haiti. Yet the Haitians led until the final minute, when Stuart Holden lashed a spectacular strike into the top corner to extract a 2-2 tie.
Had the USA lost to Haiti, it still would have won the group and played Panama in the quarterfinals. Yet somehow it avoided defeat. Pride and fighting spirit can be discounted, but they can't be disregarded, and since earning that tie the Americans have won two elimination matches without conceding a goal despite injuries and a few more revamps of the roster.
Certainly Coach Bob Bradley deserves credit for instilling a resilient attitude into all of his players, yet this is a much different team than the one that blew away Egypt, 3-0, last month to sneak into the Confederations Cup semifinals, and then stunned Spain, 2-0, and led Brazil, 2-0, before losing, 3-2. The attitude is much the same: that unity and determination - when leavened with skill and talent, of course - can overcome obstacles and setbacks, be they collective defeats or individual struggles.
Jay Heaps had to play a decade and more than 300 MLS games to earn his first cap, in which Haiti undressed him a few times in the 2-2 tie. Under some national team coaches it might have been his last. Many U.S. fans felt the same way, and numerous journalists proclaimed his national team career over, but they don't see what Bradley and his staff and Heaps' teammates see: the physical and mental toughness, the pride, the willingness to learn and get better every training session.
Heaps isn't unique in this regard; he's surrounded by athletes just as honored and zealous about playing for their country, and committed to the cause. The setting and opposition don't matter nearly as much as does wearing the shirt and fighting through adversity. You can screw up - occasionally that is - but you can't give up.
Just as impressive as the run of results is that the U.S. is lighting up the scoreboard without Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey and Charlie Davies, dominating foes in midfield without Michael Bradley and Benny Feillhaber, and blanking opponents without Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra and Jonathan Spector. (Some of them are MLS products, too.)
Feilhaber and a few other Euro-based players did appear in the Gold Cup but they've all since reported to their clubs for preseason training. Should the USA beat Mexico in the final, skeptics will point out, rightly, that Mexico is a mess. In his second go-round as head coach, Javier Aguirre is trying to rebuild his team's confidence while un-doing the wrongs wrought by predecessors Hugo Sanchez and Sven-Goran Eriksson.
As individual clubs, MLS teams have yet to match to their counterparts in Mexico when it comes to acquiring talent and succeeding internationally. But as a league, with more teams and fewer roster slots, there's fiercer competition as the season unfolds game-by-game and week-to-week, and harsher demands for players to step up at critical moments and make decisive plays. Those who have done so consistently in MLS have earned a shot at the next level. And no one wants to taint that tradition of beating Mexico.
Holden, Robbie Rogers, Kyle Beckerman, Brian Ching, Logan Pause, Perkins, Marshall, et al, have played well to ride out the rough moments and rise to the occasion. Ten different players have scored their 12 goals. Their greatest test so far awaits them.
As is the case so often with a U.S. team playing within its own borders against Mexico, a sea of green may greet them at the Meadowlands. Not long ago, even the most optimistic U.S. fan could expect nothing less than a slaughter if a mostly MLS team met El Tri. This group, though, can't wait to get out there.