The United States started off the Gold Cup with a 2-1 win over Honduras – both a positive result and a terrible showing. To call it soccer would be an insult to the 12-year-olds who play the sport, not that the showing is any real problem for the Americans. In terms of this summer’s CONCACAF championship, the lackluster performance not just OK but should have been expected.
The Americans’ run-up to the Gold Cup went as well as could be expected. Better even, with wins over the Netherlands and Germany in Europe followed by a drubbing of Guatemala at home. The team wasn’t just winning but playing the proactive, attractive, attacking soccer that Jurgen Klinsmann promised four years ago. And yet the Americans probably won’t look anything like at any point the Gold Cup’s group stage.
Play in Group A has started ugly, and it will likely stay that way. That’s how group stages of this tournament go. Teams like the U.S. don’t need to be at their best. They’re more talented than their opponents, and they’re going to make it to the knockout stages regardless. They can experiment throughout those first three matches and look to peak in their final three.
Klinsmann knows as much and treated the 2013 Gold Cup group stage as testing ground. Eddie Johnson and Omar Gonzalez weren’t part of the U.S. team during the group stage two years ago, but were called up for the quarterfinals and played vital roles the rest of the way. Matt Besler, normally a starter in central defense for the U.S., wasn’t called in to Klinsmann’s initial 23-man team but is expected to be added for the knockout rounds. Such are the games you can play in the initial round of a Gold Cup.
The U.S. manager did it again against Honduras. If this match mattered, there’s no chance that Alejandro Bedoya would have sat on the bench while Gyasi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin played on the wings. And Ventura Alvarado and Gonzalez are both going to get looks before Klinsmann decides who he wants to start in the knockout stages. At this point, growth and evaluation trump looking good.
So the U.S. is in a “tough” group with Panama and Honduras. The Americans may finish second as a result, which does very little to make their path to the tournament title any tougher. Second place would probably play Costa Rica, Honduras and then Mexico, as opposed to a first place road of Jamaica, Costa Rica and then Mexico. It really doesn’t matter, so Klinsmann can and will experiment throughout the group stage.
Four years ago, the U.S. went down to Panama in the group stage, and four years before that, it looked mediocre at best in a sloppy 1-0 win over Guatemala. In 2005, it was a scoreless draw against Costa Rica. In all three tournaments, the U.S. made the final, winning two times. No matter how good the U.S. is, the group stage is always riddled with ugly matches like tonight’s against Honduras. The next two might not be any better.
Part of that is a lack of urgency early in the tournament, but part is a group stage marred by teams that play compact and physical, not to mention refs that let them get away with it. The U.S. won’t be facing Netherlands and Germany teams that try to pass the ball around. Honduras, Panama and Haiti are fighting for their lives. Unlike the U.S., they’re not all but guaranteed spots in the knockout stages. They’ll have to battle for every point. Those teams will drop nine and 10 men behind the ball, go in hard on every tackle and do everything they can to make the game ugly. They can’t pass the ball around the U.S.
Honduras hammered the U.S., and it committed itself to putting men behind the ball and even when it got more aggressive, they did it with generally aimless running. It tried to hit the U.S. on the counter and attacked the question marks like Alvarado and Yedlin, or turn the match into a wild and discombobulated sprint with frequent contact. The referee never stopped them, letting them turn the match into a brawl, and the Americans showed the holes that Klinsmann knew were in this team before they took the field. It all went exactly to the typical, Gold Cup group stage script.
This group stage is going to be choppy, physical and intense. And that’s OK. The U.S. doesn’t need to be pretty, and that shouldn’t be the goal, either. Klinsmann’s job isn’t to put on a show against Honduras. It’s about winning the Gold Cup ,and that means making sure the team is clicking for the quarterfinals. That’s when it needs to kick it into gear.
So yes, you were probably feeling great about the U.S. going into the day, and you had good reason to after the showings the team has put on of late, but you didn’t see that same squad against Honduras. Now you may think the U.S. isn’t as phenomenal as you hoped. But nothing changed between last month’s friendlies and Tuesday’s Gold Cup opener except for the competition, and that made all the difference.
You saw ugly, and you should prepare for more of it, albeit with moments of brilliance. Be OK with it. That’s how this works.