Sure, it was a game that didn’t really matter, but it was also a game that nobody really wanted to see, either. Despite the appearance of the U.S. men’s national team in the Gold Cup third-place game against Panama on Saturday, Fox Sports decided to keep the match on its also-ran station, FS2, opting to show Nascar on FS1, instead. Meanwhile, the stadium, the Philadelphia Union’s 18,500-capacity PPL Park, was only about two-thirds full.
But then again, what did you expect? This is America, after all. We’re not into third-place games.
Nevertheless, it was another worrying performance from Jurgen Klinsmann’s men. In fact, it was rather like re-watching the USA’s World Cup round of 16 defeat to Belgium last summer, the night where Tim Howard, with a World Cup record 13 saves, single-handedly kept his team in a game where his outfielders had unilaterally failed to assert themselves. Indeed, once again, a goalkeeper was by far the USA’s best player on the night, as Brad Guzan made 10 saves, some of them mightily impressive, too.
Of course, this was Panama, ranked No. 62 in the world by FIFA. Belgium is currently third.
Worse, Panama was without usual starting forwards Luis Tejada and Blas Perez, yet it still managed to outshoot the USA 25-5. But then again—and here’s the really worrying thing about this tournament—so did just about everyone else.
As MLSSoccer.com’s Armchair Analyst points out, if you take out the 6-0 drubbing of Cuba in the quarterfinal as a kind of outlier, the U.S. was outshot in the rest of its Gold Cup games by a margin of 85-47. Now, 20 of those shots came against Jamaica in the semifinal, leaving just 27 to spread across four games, including two 1-1 draws against Panama, the 2-1 opener against Honduras and the second game, 1-0 against Haiti.
When you look at the USA’s tournament from that standpoint, its kind of a miracle that Klinsmann’s men got as far as they did, really, because unless your team defends extremely well—and we know the USA does not—, you generally lose in soccer when your opponents create so many more chances than you do.
So how did we get here?
We’ve already touched somewhat on the question of personnel. To be sure, Klinsmann made some poor choices in picking his squad, especially in defense, but Off The Post believes that the bigger problem was the lack of tactical continuity, because when so many players perform this badly, it’s because either they’re not accustomed to whom they’re playing with, or they don’t understand what they’re supposed to be doing.
As the Armchair Analyst noted, this USA hadn’t fielded the same starting eleven in consecutive games since 2014. And often, the system would change, too. It started at the beginning of the year. Instead of using the USA’s formidable run of friendly opponents to prepare for the Gold Cup, Klinsmann tried using everyone under the sun.
This lack of continuity in the build-up to, and then later, during, a big tournament, can be very jarring for players -- especially young players -- and it has proved to be for the USA in this Gold Cup. Perhaps feeling backed against the wall by the poor performances of certain individuals, Klinsmann tinkered throughout the Gold Cup, too, giving opportunities to everyone in the squad, but this seems to have backfired on him.
Endless tinkering can have the adverse effect of showing players that no one—with the exception of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Guzan -- ever really had the coach’s confidence. Players notice that. It also precludes the uncertain ones from finding the rhythm (read: the confidence) that is so important to find in a big tournament. Sometimes it takes a few games (see: USA Women, Lloyd, Carli) At this Gold Cup, only Dempsey and Guzan really achieved that.
Ironically, the only area where Klinsmann mostly persisted with the same players was the back four. But this also backfired on him. Here, he truly had a personnel problem. But then again, in picking his squad, the German went with promise instead of experience in an area of the field where most coaches feel that it’s always safest to, well, play it safe.With all of that in mind, this USA team looked unprepared, mentally at sea and thus, lacking an identity. In order to beat Mexico in the Confederations Cup playoff on Oct 9, Klinsmann needs to use the next few friendlies as serious preparation, and he needs to be decisive. He should start by bringing back some leadership and experience in the defense, and then in midfield and up top he needs to bet on his horses and persist with the same squad and the same system, only making minor tweaks where necessary. This team needs to finds itself, and quickly, or it’s not going to the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017.