Bluntly put, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann took the right approach to the Gold Cup but got the wrong outcome.
He picked a team to win the competition rather than further develop the players he deems most promising, and the pairing of young centerbacks Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks got the nod for the semifinal, even though more experienced options in Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream, who had started together in a 1-0 victory over Haiti, were available.
This was a difficult decision. Jamaica’s skilled, athletic attackers are always tough to contain, and Klinsmann regarded this as a stiff test his less experienced defenders were able to handle. Brooks took the blame for failing to contain Darren Mattocks as he headed a throw-in past keeper Brad Guzan for the first Jamaica goal, but a strong challenge from Guzan could have snuffed the chance outright. Brooks also flubbed a good chance to score when a corner kick headed back into the goalmouth landed right at his feet.
Much ado has been made of the chances generated by the Americans as they chased a 2-0 deficit and certainly wasted opportunities like the one that substitute Alan Gordon directed right to Jamaican keeper Ryan Thompson were costly. And it’s also true that after sluggish starts in each of its three group games, the USA opened against Jamaica as it had in the 6-0 rout of Cuba: sharply and assertively. Jamaica, though, didn't collapse in the opening minutes as did Cuba and ruthlessly took its first two opportunities.
Did the Americans match Jamaica for intensity, determination and commitment? That’s a tougher question to answer. It’s not a subject that is often broached, but at times the USA plays its Concacaf matches with a subtle tinge of entitlement and simply doesn’t tear into tackles and leap for head balls as do its opponents. Over the long haul, such as the Hexagonal, talent and endurance usually prevail. In a one-off game, anything can happen.
Do the Americans care? Of course. Do they care a lot? Definitely. But do they fight as hard and compete as fiercely as do the Haitians, Jamaicans, Costa Ricans and Mexicans? Not always.
Here’s another question: Did Klinsmann match the preparation and tactics of compatriot Winny Schaefer, who took over Jamaica in 2013 and prior to the Gold Cup mentored his team through three 1-0 losses in the Copa America? Whatever else happened in Chile, Jamaica emerged from that competition infused with belief as well as honed by tough matches against Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina. After opening the Gold Cup by tying Costa Rica, 2-2, the Jamaicans blanked Canada, El Salvador and Haiti, all by 1-0 scores.
Jamaican soccer is renowned for many things, but grinding out one-goal victories in intense environments isn’t one of them. Beating the USA in U.S. soil is a true turnabout for the country: How many times has the world seen an exuberant, athletic squad of Reggae Boyz win the style battle but lose the game? In achievement as well as attitude, Schaefer has lifted Jamaica to a place the island nation has never been. In a different era, he might well have been fired after the Copa America and replaced by a Jamaican.
Since 1990, native sons who have coached Jamaica include Theodore Whitmore and Carl Brown (three stints each!). The foreign contingent is led by Brazilians Rene Simoes and Sebastiao Lazaroni (two stints each), and everybody’s favorite vagabond, Bora Milutinovic. Former England international John Barnes, a Kingston native, held the job for all of six months. Such managerial churn is one reason Jamaica has qualified for the World Cup only once, in 1998, during Simoes first run (1994-2000).
The extent of Schaefer’s influence needs more time to assess, assuming he keeps the job, but won’t truly be known until after he leaves. In his absence, the program might slip back into a whirlpool of missteps and firings. If the Jamaican federation can follow through by committing the necessary resources and employing the right people -- which is a very big if -- Concacaf teams will have one more formidable foe percolating in the Caribbean.
For the Americans, a 2-1 semifinal loss to Jamaica is significant mainly by changing the landscape for the next three months. Rather than having the option of resuming the major spring cleaning -- when Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood, and Juan Agudelo raised their stock -- as he revamps the team, Klinsmann instead must prepare for a showdown match in October by which the winner qualifies for the Confederations Cup in 2017. With Olympic qualifying held at the same time, Klinsmann will be forced to choose where to deploy the likes of Morris, Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, all U-23 players.
The calls for personnel changes will be strident. Reverting to the centerback duo of Gonzalez and Matt Besler, who was excluded by Klinsmann, is sure to be a hot topic. The clamoring for SKC’s Benny Feilhaber won’t diminish, but if Klinsmann hasn’t trusted him up to this point, what would it take for the coach to change his mind? If Julian Green sorts out his club situation and gets minutes, does he make the squad for the decisive match? The team could look a lot different if Danny Williams plays the holding midfield role with Alejandro Bedoya fully fit and Clint Dempsey partnered with a striker in sharp form. And by then Jermaine Jones should be fit and healthy. What's to become of him? Does Geoff Cameron get a phone call he's received only once since the World Cup?
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with using the Peru and Brazil matches as auditions, to try out solutions for the problems exposed at the Gold Cup. Players, more than fans and journalists, fully realize that any team can lose any game in a knockout phase and will be confident of rectifying matters in the playoff. Maybe below the surface they also knew that losing the semifinal, while costing them the title, didn’t eliminate them from the Confederations Cup. Experienced, hardened pros won't lose confidence because of one game.
Every other team entered this Gold Cup knowing its only chance was victory in Philadelphia on Sunday, and played accordingly. Now the USA faces the same scenario in October, and this country has a reputation of coming through when there is no tomorrow.
I hope this loss hurts. I hope this loss stings. I hope getting punched in the mouth and kicked in the shins reminds all of them -- and us -- that the red, white, and blue is not sacrosanct on the soccer field.