As a reward for winning the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the biennial regional championship, the U.S. national soccer team raised a 20-pound, gold-plated trophy at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Sunday. Parting gifts included bragging rights over bitter rival Mexico and an inside track on a berth in an international competition four summers from now in Russia.
They are nice prizes, deserved and embraced, but ancillary to the intangible assets that Coach Juergen Klinsmann collected over four weeks, four time zones and six fruitful matches.
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.)
No one had more fun than Donovan, the U.S. career scoring leader who made an exultant return after a year’s absence from the national team. Following a soul-searching sabbatical early this year, Donovan was not included in the World Cup qualifiers and had to re-demonstrate his dedication and international skill set.
He was magnificent as both scorer and provider in Gold Cup play, recording five goals and seven assists. He was focused on the task and unforgiving on defenders. Any doubts about his inclusion in the next set of World Cup qualifiers — Sept. 6 at Costa Rica and Sept. 10 against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio — were set to rest.
“I’ve enjoyed it tremendously,” Donovan, 31, said after a 1-0 victory over Panama in the final. “As I get older, the things that matter to me are winning, and when you look around and see kids holding the trophy and experiencing something for the first time, it makes me really happy.”
Donovan is not the only Gold Cup player to make a strong case for inclusion on future World Cup qualifying rosters. Forward Eddie Johnson was summoned for the knockout stage and continued his resurgence. Striker Chris Wondolowski (five goals early in the tournament) proved he could score outside MLS. Midfielders Joe Corona, Alejandro Bedoya and Mikkel Diskerud bolstered their chances.
Back in the fold for the first time in 21 / 2 years, veteran midfielder Stuart Holden was enjoying a fine tournament until a knee injury early in the final threatened to derail his career for the fourth time since 2010.
Additional help may be on the way. John Anthony Brooks, a German-American defender with Hertha Berlin, and Aron Johannsson, an Icelandic-American striker with Dutch club AZ Alkmaar, said they want to play for the U.S. squad. Both might receive invitations to an Aug. 14 friendly against Bosnia in Sarajevo.
With the A team and B team in good form, and new options in the mix, Klinsmann has an enviable problem: difficult roster decisions. It’s not just about Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore anymore.
“This Gold Cup showed us that we have a lot of players being ready for the next level,” he said. “We have developed over the last two months a bigger pool of players that understand what international football is about, and they’re ready and are all hungry for the next opportunity.”