[USA CONFIDENTIAL] If current form decides the outcome of the USA-Jamaica quarterfinal Sunday at RFK Stadium (Fox Soccer Channel, 3 pm ET), the Jamaicans will celebrate their first win, ever, against the Americans.
After 17 meetings, of which the USA has won nine and tied eight, the time could be right for Jamaica to finally prevail. In group play, the Jamaicans swept their three games while scoring seven goals and conceding none; after beating Canada, 2-0, the Americans lost to Panama, 2-1, and needed a 1-0 defeat of Guadeloupe to nail down second place. Jamaica plays a fast, physical game imbued with the skill and flair Caribbean players regard as their birthright.
Yet form has a way of dissipating once group play concludes and knockout games commence, and if these Americans still care about representing their country, they’ll show the world on Sunday in what is their de facto national stadium. It’s happened before.
At the 2002 World Cup, the Americans scraped through to the round of 16 thanks to a South Korean defeat of Portugal while Poland was pasting the USA on the final day of group play, but that didn’t help Mexico, which had cruised through its group yet lost to USA, 2-0, in the round of 16.
At the 1982 World Cup, Italy impressed almost nobody as it tied all three group games, but still proved to be unbeatable in the knockout phase. One of the most famous examples occurred in Mexico four years later: A radiant Denmark, the epitome of “Danish Dynamite,” sailed through the first round and looked a serious contender until it crashed into Spain. Ninety minutes and four Emilio Butragueno goals later, stung by a 5-1 humiliation, the Danes were down and out.
Nobody on the U.S. roster seems capable of scoring four goals in the competition, much less in this quarterfinal, though Clint Dempsey has frittered away enough prime chances to hit that mark. And if the real Clint Dempsey shows up at RFK, accompanied by an authentic Landon Donovan and not his bustling-but-seldom-brilliant alter ego of the first three games, it will be the Jamaicans and not the Americans wondering what hit them.
If extreme measures are needed to jar those two out of their lethargy, flying to and from their sisters’ weddings in the past few days should be just the ticket. Both players are not only extremely close to their families – Donovan’s sister is his twin and the Dempseys lost another daughter, Jennifer, to a fatal brain aneurysm when she was 16 – but have also been chafing under an insane pressure to score goals for a team whose forwards have been mired in a funk ever since Charlie Davies’ car accident.
Plus, family weddings are a hell of a lot of fun, which has been in short supply around U.S. camps since the World Cup. Coach Bob Bradley’s predecessor, Bruce Arena, can be as arrogant as Donald Trump lording over a billion-dollar land grab, but Arena’s sharp barbs and incredibly dry wit break up even the tightest training session.
With all due respect to Dane Richards and Demar Phillips, the USA is superior in nearly every category, except that tricky one of current form, which stems from mental acuity as much as technical sharpness. Of that first element, many of the Americans have been woefully short. They are sorely missing the presence of midfielder Stuart Holden and defender Jay DeMerit, who are impervious to distractions such as debate about the coach’s decisions on personnel and tactics. They don’t have to buy in to what the coach is saying, they’re in when they show up for camp.
During the Gold Cup, the Americans’ listless play has raised questions as to whether they no longer are attuned to Bradley, if that critical connection between the head coach and his players has frayed beyond repair. Even in the darkest days of Arena’s reign, when he looked completely fed up with everything including himself, the players – which included Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, Eddie Lewis, Pablo Mastroeni, Eddie Pope and Jimmy Conrad – seldom looked distracted, or wishing they were somewhere else.
Other veterans of the Arena era still on hand are Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo, who have had their good and bad moments in the Gold Cup but always seem to have their heads in the game. As captain, Bocanegra is the coach’s conduit to the players, and Cherundolo is, well, the consummate professional in myriad ways.
Beating Jamaica won’t solve all the problems faced by a national-team trying to keep the messages fresh and his players eager, nor will winning the Gold Cup. As hard as it is for many fans and observers to accept, the next three years is more critical than the next three games (should the Americans advance to the final).
Qualifying play for the 2014 World Cup doesn’t start until next year, which is also an Olympic year, and there’s a very good fleet of younger players -- Juan Agudelo, Jozy Altidore, Tim Chandler, Brek Shea, Teal Bunbury, etc., plus the U-20 team that failed to qualify for the world championships next month -- among those in the available age group.
Regardless of the U.S. finish at this Gold Cup, if there’s a rift between Bradley and his players that cannot be bridged, the time is ripe for change. Among other things, he’s reliving the same nightmare of nepotism regarding his son, Michael, as he did when they were with the MetroStars. Then as now, they are the scapegoats for just about everything that goes wrong.
A year ago, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati could have used the team’s sluggish starts at the World Cup and Bradley’s questionable starting lineup against Ghana as reasons for dismissal. Another opportunity would present itself if the Americans can’t at least reach the Gold Cup final, yet in the bigger picture, even a recapture of the regional crown won’t mask myriad issues that must be addressed.