The roster pool reached new depths. Landon Donovan resurfaced. A new group embraced Klinsmann’s progressive ways. Goals flowed. A program grew.
Winning the Gold Cup has no bearing on the U.S. squad’s chase for a 2014 World Cup berth, as the two are separate pursuits using different personnel. But by capturing the former — and doing it with style and personality — the latter’s already bright outlook grew luminous.
“We all know there are different benchmarks out there,” Klinsmann said. “There are a lot of other benchmarks waiting for us, but it’s time that you see progress from this group of players.”
The Gold Cup capped a triumphant two months for Klinsmann, the former German striker and coach whose ideas had been slow to take hold since his appointment two years ago, yielding sluggish results. And if the Americans show well at the World Cup next summer in Brazil, regardless of how deep they advance, fans and players will surely point back to this pivotal period.
Since a 4-2 loss to Belgium on May 29 in Cleveland, a friendly not nearly as close as the score suggested, the Americans have won 11 consecutive matches to obliterate the previous program record (seven in 2007). A veteran gang bolstered the World Cup campaign by winning three qualifiers in early June, and a secondary squad sailed through the Gold Cup unblemished to win the tournament for the fifth time in 12 tries since 1991.
Mexico, sputtering in the World Cup race, was nowhere to be found, fortunate to reach the semifinals before bowing out against Panama — its worst Gold Cup performance since 2005.
The U.S. winning streak requires context: Ten of the 11 games were played on home soil. Aside from a friendly against a watered-down German side at RFK Stadium, every opponent was from CONCACAF, the middling jurisdiction blanketing North and Central America and the Caribbean. Not exactly Spain and Brazil.
Wipeouts against Guatemala, Belize, Cuba and El Salvador — ranked between No. 82 and No. 130 in the world — were compulsory exercises and contributed to a 35-8 goal difference during the 11-game run. The Americans’ manner of success, however, was the greatest takeaway. Only a few games required unsightly, grinding efforts.
The Americans became fun — not a word usually associated with U.S. men’s soccer. They played with uninhibited joy, a tone set by the expressive, upbeat Klinsmann. (His emotions cost him in the semifinal, resulting in a late ejection and suspension for the title match against Panama.)