[USA CONFIDENTIAL] The U.S. team arrived in Kansas City for its match Tuesday against Guadaloupe that will close out play in Group C. Regardless of their chances of advancement, the players and Coach Bob Bradley are the targets of stinging criticism for their showing Saturday in a 2-1 loss to Panama.
The players excluded by Bradley from his Gold Cup squad are just one bull’s-eye that critics are firing at, and to that list should also be added those he couldn’t select.
This by no means excuses the performance – not the result, but the display over 90 minutes – in a 2-1 loss to Panama, the first Gold Cup defeat ever suffered by the U.S. in group play. Against a fast, confident, aggressive opponent, the Americans defended clumsily and sloppily, turned the ball over in bad spots, and at times looked completely off their game.
Obvious if unstated is that the absences of Charlie Davies and Jay DeMerit – both trying to regain fitness after injury layoffs – and hobbled midfielders Stuart Holden and Benny Feilhaber, as well as young prospect Tim Chandler, have significantly weakened the squad. Their talent and skills are sorely missed, but so are the fire and enthusiasm and zeal of Holden and DeMerit, who embody the unquenchable spirit this team showed at the Confederations Cup and the World Cup.
If what Landon Donovan said about the players being complacent is true, Coach Bradley isn’t the only one whose job should be on the line. Bradley may indeed get the boot, but I very much doubt his pre-match team talk consisted of stuff like, ‘OK, we got this one, no problem.” A malaise of slow starts in important games continues to crop up, and one plausible reason is that staleness and stagnation have set in, as was feared when the federation re-hired Bradley last fall after four years in charge.
Only Carlos Bocanegra and Jozy Altidore, for example, can know what happened on the first Panamanian goal, when Altidore pushed up in a futile attempt to trap Eduardo Dasent offside as Bocanegra, a few yards inside him, frantically waved an arm. The unmarked Dasent headed Gabriel Gomez’s laser-guided cross at goal and when Tim Howard could only parry it, a Keystone Kops scramble ensued that propelled the ball over the goal line.
Howard didn’t dive for the initial shot, and couldn’t smother the ball as Clarence Goodson tried to clear and Panamanian forward Luis Tejada got a touch on it as well. Both Howard and Goodson lay on their stomachs, humiliated, as Panama celebrated. The goal, one of the uglier conceded by the U.S. in recent memory, could have been prevented by just one American making a play, but nobody did.
A wild kick by Tim Ream gave away the penalty kick by which Panama scored its second goal, but a giveaway by Clint Dempsey provided the possession with which Panama drove the ball into the U.S. penalty area.
Ream suffered through a few other embarrassing moments, one of which saw him unbalanced twice as Panama played a combination right up the middle. Dempsey had many good chances, and hit a few decent shots, yet on a ball floated near the edge of the six-yard box by Donovan with the score, 1-0, Dempsey headed feebly at the keeper. A better effort in the final minutes yielded a desperation tip-over by keeper Jaime Penedo; on the ensuing corner, Altidore’s header hit Dempsey and bounced to Donovan, who smashed a shot well wide.
When they weren’t bad, some of the Americans were pretty good, but just not sharp enough or hungry enough or tough enough to get the job done. While many players are coming off a long European season, and are probably physically and mentally fatigued, that can’t explain why they weren’t ready to match Panama’s effort and intensity from the opening kickoff. Regardless of formation or personnel, they weren’t ready to play well.
Despite those enforced player absences, the coach has the personnel to beat Guadeloupe Tuesday and reach the knockout rounds. Missing those four or five players will be felt later in the tournament, and this scenario places an ever greater emphasis on preparation, which to most fans primarily means team selection and tactics. That is only part of it.
The Americans can’t afford another loss in the mental game. Responsibility starts at the top with the coach; then it trickles down through the entire roster. No matter what happens with Bradley or the players once this competition is over, all that matters is Tuesday and the next game, and if necessary, a game or two after that.
As the late Herb Brooks said to the U.S. hockey team he coached to the gold medal at the 1980 Olympic Games, “This team isn’t talented enough to win on talent alone.” That victory was an example of great playing as well as great coaching.