Off The Post can count on one hand the number of times he’s watched an entire game while already knowing the final score. Most soccer people refuse to do this, and for good reason: the passion that you feel for the game is completely drained, and every touch, tackle and hopeful forward run has this weird air of futility about it. It’s a little bit like reading yesterday’s news after you’ve already seen the headlines.
So, why bother, you ask?
Like the many American or American-based Chelsea fans that packed into to Red Bull Park to see the Blues’ defensive shambles against the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday night, OTP absolutely could not believe his eyes when, after feverishly refreshing his ESPN GameTracker for several minutes, the final score of the Gold Cup semifinal read: USA 1, Jamaica 2.
So sure was your columnist that the USA men would get the better of the Reggae Boyz that he decided to sacrifice watching the (admittedly, much more important) semifinal clash in order to mount the long (in rush hour, anyway) trek to Harrison, New Jersey, instead. Obviously, this proved to be a naïve decision.
By the way, as an aside, the Blues also lost on Wednesday, and deservedly so, to a team of mostly second-string Red Bulls players. So all in all, Wednesday was a great day for David vs. Goliath (with apologies to Panama).
In any event, as strange as it was watching the USA’s shock loss second-hand or whatever you want to call it, it was also kind of interesting, because when you force yourself to watch a game knowing the score, you almost know what to look for. Indeed, OTP found himself focusing on the Reggae Boyz’ performances a lot more than he probably would have had he watched the game live.
First reaction: Jamaica deserved it. Has anyone said that yet?
While much of the American media reaction centered on how this loss reflects on the state of U.S. Soccer or the U.S. men’s program under Jurgen Klinsmann, OTP has seen very little written about the fact that Jamaica thoroughly deserved the win and its first trip to a Gold Cup final.
Winfried Schaefer’s men are a true team in the sense that there is no superstar. They work hard for one another, they are physical, and they are generally tough to breakdown. But the Reggae Boyz struggle to score goals, relying instead on the defensive lapses of its opponents, particularly from set-pieces, in order to nick a goal. They did that twice on Wednesday.
Contrast this to Klinsmann’s USA, which relied too heavily on Clint Dempsey’s goal-scoring, Brad Guzan’s heroics in goal, and the occasional captain’s performance from Michael Bradley to get to the semifinals of this tournament. When one or more of these players doesn’t perform well -- and against Jamaica, Dempsey was never in the game, Bradley had a poor first half and Guzan’s mistake led to the second goal -- the house of cards comes tumbling down. Make no mistake about it: under Klinsmann, if you don’t attack well and finish your chances, you’re not going to win.
And yet, one of the biggest ironies about Wednesday’s loss is that, at times, it was the USA’s best performance of the Gold Cup with good possession, fewer mistakes at the back and in midfield and some decent chances created. The first half was actually going pretty well until static defending from a throw-in allowed Darren Mattocks to hit a looping header over Guzan that bounced off both posts and in. Giles Barnes’ free kick after that was unstoppable, though Guzan’s offense for handling outside-the-area was. In the second half, the U.S. scored quickly and continued to pile on the pressure in search of a second but the Reggae Boyz defended splendidly -- which, unfortunately, is something we can’t say about Klinsmann’s team at all during this Gold Cup.
Therein lies the difference between the two German coaches: Schaefer’s team is much more comfortable defensively and without the ball generally than Klinsmann’s. And it’s not just about personnel, it’s also about formation, and positional and tactical awareness. You don’t always have to try and be on the front foot to win soccer games, as the Reggae Boyz proved Wednesday night. And though you could argue that the U.S. had plenty of chances to score -- and it certainly did -- but if you look back to the very best chances, almost all of these were the direct result of poor goalkeeping from Ryan Thompson, rather than shaky outfield defending.
So, credit to Winfried Schaefer and his brave Jamaica. They have earned their trip to the Gold Cup final and cut down one of the pre-tournament favorites en route.
As for where this loss leaves U.S. Soccer: well, more or less back to the drawing board, really. Although, thankfully for Klinsmann, losing a Gold Cup semifinal to Jamaica is bad, but it’s not unacceptable. He will certainly keep his job, but he has to learn when and where to embrace a more cautious approach to team defending, or the U.S. will continue to churn out a volatile set of results, instead of the consistency that he and everyone else watching the U.S. men crave.