Yesterday, the U.S. Men's National Team beat Panama, 1-0, to clinch their fifth Gold Cup. It was a strange match because it was a tough match. Panama never looked a threat, but they packed everyone behind the ball and were able to keep the Americans from scoring for almost 70 minutes until substitute Brek Shea tapped in the game's only goal. Only Costa Rica, in the final match of the group stage, were able to hold U.S. Soccer to a single goal. But they won that, too, as well as four other matches in the Gold Cup, and five more before leading up to the tournament, and are now riding an 11-match winning streak. And that is strange.
The United States is dominant right now, and is for the moment clearly the best team in CONCACAF. And that's great and all, but before we start booking tickets for the World Cup final, let's talk about what this victory means. On the surface, it means very little. CONCACAF is a federation full of lots of hardy, baddish teams, and even though the United States advanced through the tournament with our B-team, the only teams that should've offered trouble—namely Mexico and Costa Rica—also kept most of their best players at home. It would've meant more if the Americans didn't win.
But how they blew through the tournament, easily, sexily, is worth talking about. Because after watching the national team play six times in 19 days, patterns start to emerge and narratives start to form. And though the results are early, this does not look like your father's USMNT.
Jürgen Klinsmann came in promising something different from the team we've seen for decades, and we finally saw it—for the first time in what feels like forever, the Americans were an attacking team. In every single match, the United States dominated possession, playing forward-moving, free-flowing soccer against lesser opponents. They pinned other teams back into their own half, and either scored at will, or wore teams down until the breakthrough finally came. It was beautiful and weird to watch.
The United States has long been a scrappy, counterattacking team that advanced in international tournaments solely through hard work and well-timed breaks. There was always frustration that Americans couldn't play the beautiful game beautifully, but you need two things to play attractive, attacking soccer: a willing coach and capable players.
For a while, we didn't have the players. Our squad didn't have the creativity or the talent to do possess, to break down defenses. It wasn't their fault, per se, but it sucked to watch, and only added to our American Soccer Inferiority Complex (ASIC). But then one day, we did. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are the engines in the midfield, though both, and Bradley especially, have the ability and desire to get forward and score goals. Dempsey keeps evolving, rivaling Donovan for "best American player of all time" honors. Jozy Altidore decided sometime last year to score goals all the time.
And for the first time ever, U.S. Soccer also has a manager in Klinsmann who's pushing a translatable German style of play, defending through possession, attacking with flair, and pushing for more goals once the team's gotten the first. He said from the start this is what he was going to do, but just months ago, it felt like his reign would end in disaster.
The Sporting News published a report earlier this year alleging that Klinsmann had lost the locker room. German-born players were apparently beefing with Americans ones, and players spoke off the record about Klinsmann's failings. And then they started winning. They beat Germany (the B-team, to be sure) in a friendly, all but qualified for the World Cup, and were already on a five-game winning streak going into this tournament. The Gold Cup roster was obviously completely different, but the players kept passing, and attacking, and scoring, and winning. It looked (kind of) like the same team.
This means the entire pool—not just the starting 11, or just the Gold Cup squad, but all of the players—bought into Klinsmann's style, and that style's working. The Americans look dangerous now in a way they never have before. They always have been able to counter, and that's not going to change anytime soon, but now they look like they can bully lesser opponents off the pitch, and maybe look better sides in the eye.
The Gold Cup also helped clarify the futures of three major questions marks on the roster, none bigger than Landon Donovan.
This winter, Donovan took a break from soccer for the first time in 15 years to relax and visit Cambodia as the United States played vital World Cup qualifying matches. And though he owes his country and his national team and his national team's fans nothing, and certainly no more than he's already given, the Gold Cup was a tournament of redemption for the ex-captain. He's statistically the best American to ever play the game, but he still had a lot to prove, a fact made obvious when USMNT manager Jürgen Klinsmann selected him for the Gold Cup team. Donovan's a legend, and he had to spend the tournament playing with the usual team's bench, the guys on the periphery trying to make the final squad. And he responded the way you want to see a star respond in that situation: like he didn't belong there.
Has he ever played so well? Of the 20 goals the Americans scored, he scored five himself and assisted on seven more. He split the Golden Boot, which awards the tournament's highest goalscorer, with teammate Chris Wondolowski and Panamanian Gabriel Torres, but ran away with the Golden Ball, or the MVP award. He was an A-player among B-teams, and the question now will be where to play him with Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi, Fabian Johnson and the rest of the U.S.'s first XI. But he'll be out there.
All the players, Donovan included, were playing to impress Klinsmann, so it was fascinating to watch stocks rise and fall throughout the tournament. Wondolowski, for example, started the tournament with a hat trick against Belize and a brace against Cuba in 6-1 and 4-1 romps, and many thought he had punched ticket to this fall's qualifiers and even the World Cup. But as the tournament advanced, he became less and less effective and saw less and less playing time in favor of the bigger, stronger, and faster Eddie Johnson. Johnson came on for Wondolowski in the 60th minute of the quarterfinal against El Salvador and scored with his first touch. Against Honduras in the semifinal, he started and scored in the 11th minute. Wondolowski, who entered the tournament a starter, didn't play a second during the final.
There's also the question of what to do with mercurial left winger Brek Shea. Brek Shea was tipped as a prodigy a few years ago, and even though Klinsmann loves him, he hasn't really panned out as a dangerous winger deserving of 90 minutes. Klinsmann started him in the 4-1 victory over Cuba, but Shea was pulled off at the half. The next game against Costa Rica, Klinsmann inexplicably subbed him on in the 77th minute with the score tied, and five minutes later, Shea finished a brilliant team goal to redeem himself somewhat. In the final, he came on in the 68th minute and scored the winning goal less than a minute later. The guy's kind of an enigma, because unless he improves a lot over the next season with Stoke in the Premier League, he probably shouldn't be trusted to play a full 90. But he's humongous and fast and athletic and can put in a good cross from the left. He can wreak havoc against tired defenders if brought on late. He won't crack the starting lineup, especially with the resurrection of Donovan, but he might've cemented his place as an impact substitute. And based on how he performed when brought on, that's not a bad thing.
The only negative from the tournament was a devastating injury to Stuart Holden, who tore his ACL in the final after battling back from a knee injury that kept him off the national team for over two years. He, like Donovan, was a former first-team regular trying to earn a place on the World Cup squad.
U.S. Soccer's final four qualifying matches start in September, which is when we'll be able to see the country's stars combine with the best of this Gold Cup squad. One win should get them through to the World Cup, and they may not even need that much. And for the first time, there's hope even among the most pragmatic (pessimistic?) of the USMNT's fans that next summer at the World Cup, we could hurt some feelings.