By Paul Gardner
A 2-1 loss to Panama is hardly the end of the world, not even the soccer world. It does not mean the USA’s elimination from the Gold Cup, a tournament it is thought capable of winning.
Panama, let it be said straight away, is a good team, with some excellent players. The same can be said of the USA. But, of course, what makes this defeat appear so unthinkable is that Panama is a comparatively poor country with only 3.4 million inhabitants. The USA is a rich country with 311.5 million.
Mathematically and financially speaking, the USA should have a lot more good players than Panama. But, of course, you don’t need a lot to make up a national team squad. Around 30 will do it nicely.
So we’ve just seen, yet again, that being big and rich and -- to use the coaching expression, “well-organized” -- are not enough. In fact, in this game, the USA was not particularly well-organized. It is, in fact, going through a shaky period. Even overlooking the 4-0 drubbing from Spain, the USA had not looked anything special in beating a feeble Canadian team 2-0, largely thanks to a massive error by the Canadian goalkeeper Lars Hirschfeld.
Next up comes Guadeloupe -- not to be belittled, it’s coming off a 1-0 loss to Canada in which, playing virtually the whole game with 10 men, it looked a better team than Canada.
But one expects the USA to win this one and to pass on to the knockout stage. Losing a game or two here and there is to be expected, even if a loss to Panama is not quite what ought to be happening.
What ought to be happening right now, is that we should be expecting to see the USA pull itself together and return to winning ways with a sparkling performance. At which point, I confess to grave doubts.
I’m not criticizing Bob Bradley for losing a game, or because his team is in a slump. But what is not at all acceptable is the way his team plays -- both before and during the loss to Panama.
When Bradley was re-appointed by Sunil Gulati after the 2010 World Cup, the question of a possible “staleness” was debated -- and both Gulati and Bradley said it was something they were aware of, and that they could deal with it.
I went along with that thinking. I did believe that there would be a different approach from Bradley, a greater willingness to look at more creative players, an urge to play a more attractive style of soccer.
Well, I was wrong. The “staleness” issue has not been dealt with. There has been nothing new from Bradley. Either he cannot change his thinking, or he doesn’t want to -- it makes no difference, we’ve now had a year in which to see if a “new” Bradley would emerge to give us something different, and he has totally failed to come through.
We’re still seeing a team that does not excite and that plays well only when its back is against the wall -- in other words, in games where the players have to take over, and carefully worked-out game plans have to be abandoned. I doubt it’s a bad as Jozy Altidore painted it after the Spain game -- “I mean, you go into every game with a tactical plan and as soon as the game starts, it tends to get thrown out the window ...” but the impression is unmistakable that these guys play better when they can escape the dead hand of Bradley’s tactics.
A dull team, then. But something much worse was added to the team’s profile right at the end of the game against Panama. It came from the captain, Carlos Bocanegra.
With only seconds remaining, Bocanegra had joined in the USA’s all-out attack as it desperately sought the tying goal. But Panama won the ball; Alberto Quintero played it neatly past Bocanegra and started to race after it.
Bocanegra was having none of that, and resorted -- as, no doubt, many another player would have done -- to a tactical foul by obstructing Quintero. If that were all, I suppose one would merely nod in mute acceptance of one of the unpleasant realities of the modern game.
But that was not all. Because Bocanegra did not simply stand in Quintero’s way -- he moved aggressively toward Quintero and then threw a crunching body block, shoulder first, into him.
Having brutally flattened Quintero (at 5-foot-5-1/2 one of the smaller Panamanian players), the 6-foot Bocanegra trotted unconcernedly away, grinning smugly at a job well done. Of course, he got a yellow card, he was no doubt expecting that -- “one for the team” as the saying goes.
Except that it wasn’t. At the very moment when the USA was running out of time, when it needed, more than anything, to gain possession of the ball, Bocanegra found it useful to present Panama with a free kick with a display of pseudo-machismo.
He was not the only one showing off his testosterone credentials. TV commentator Kyle Martino found the whole incident hilarious, chuckled a delighted “Oh boy!” as Quintero was smashed to the ground, and let us know “I’ve taken some of those hits from Bocanegra -- he’s a strong dude!”
That, I guess, is what passes for “expert analysis” over at Fox. Heaven forbid that Martino might have pondered whether what Bocanegra did came under the heading of “using excessive force” (when a player “far exceeds the necessary use of force and is in danger of injuring his opponent”) -- in which case he should have been red-carded, strong dude or not.
No, the USA loss, the first ever in the group stage of a Gold Cup, is not the end of the world. But the grim nature of the USA’s soccer, as unenjoyable to watch as it evidently is to play, is a catastrophe. To see it capped by an tawdry example of gratuitous foul play so cynically performed by its captain, strongly suggests that the national team is suffering from a malaise rather deeper than a fleeting slump, or mere staleness. It needs a new approach. It needs a new spirit. It needs new players. It needs a new coach.