U.S. soccer team needs strong performance vs. Canada in Gold Cup


Eric Lichaj, right, of the U.S. national team trys to hold Spain's Fernando Torres off the ball during the second half of Spain’s 4-0 victory in a friendly on Saturday in Foxborough, Mass. The U.S. team plays Canada on Tuesday in it’s Gold Cup opener. (Stephan Savoia/Associated Press)

Despite the crushing outcome Saturday against Spain, the U.S. national soccer team received a partial pass. It was, after all, just a friendly and bore no long-term implications.

The Americans won’t receive any forgiveness if they stumble against Canada on Tuesday night at Ford Field in their CONCACAF Gold Cup opener.

Unlike the 4-0 pasting administered by the World Cup champions in Foxborough, Mass., the ramifications of a loss to — or even a draw with — Canada will not sit well with the U.S. squad or its disgruntled supporters, who took to the online message boards over the weekend to share repulsion about the team’s sour performance.

The Americans will need a forceful response to not only help purge lingering negativity, but launch their Gold Cup campaign in proper fashion.

“That was a game more for the fans,” midfielder-forward Clint Dempsey said of the Spain match. “We play whoever they put in front of us for friendlies, but as far as what matters for us, the main focus this year has been on the Gold Cup.”

The 12-nation tournament is held every two years and crowns the champion of the region encompassing North and Central America and the Caribbean. Aside from regional bragging rights, the winner will claim a berth in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil, an eight-team rehearsal for the World Cup a year later.

The Gold Cup title in 2007 carried an invitation to the ’09 Confederations Cup in South Africa — an experience, the Americans say, that paid immense dividends. They rallied on the final day of group play to advance to the semifinals, then upset Spain before relinquishing a two-goal lead and losing to Brazil, 3-2, in the final in Johannesburg.

“It was a really big help, not only from a confidence standpoint in beating the teams we beat, but also being in South Africa, seeing the way it works, getting used to the climate, the travel,” midfielder-forward Landon Donovan said. “We want to do the same thing for Brazil.”

Despite the lopsided loss Saturday, one that Texas-born Dempsey described as a “kick up the backside and humbled us,” the U.S. squad was in good spirits during Sunday’s workout at the Detroit Lions’ practice facility. The meaningful portion of Monday’s session at Ford Field was closed to reporters, a common procedure on the eve of a tournament match.

Coach Bob Bradley said he isn’t concerned about the impact of the heavy loss on the team’s psyche. “We’ve been through it enough times,” he said, “we’re in good shape.”

Because the Spain game — a huge money-maker for the U.S. Soccer Federation at nearly sold-out Gillette Stadium — fell so close to the Gold Cup launch, Bradley limited the amount of playing time for his regulars and used six substitutes. Rightfully so, the priority was the Canada match.

Donovan is expected to start after missing the Spain game with an illness. Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Jozy Altidore and Clarence Goodson are likely to start after playing one half Saturday. Captain Carlos Bocanegra, who didn’t play in that match, is set to return.

The Americans carry two long streaks into the game: a 23-0-2 record in Gold Cup group play and a 13-game unbeaten streak against Canada (7-0-6) in all competitions since 1985.

However, the Gold Cup meetings have never been easy. The United States needed penalty kicks to advance to the 2002 final, utilized an own goal for a 2-0 victory in the 2005 first round, and benefited from a controversial ruling that annulled an apparent Canadian equalizer late in the ’07 semifinals.

Canada hasn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1986 but won the Gold Cup 11 years ago. Mexico (five) and the United States (four) have won all the others, and are seeking to meet in the final for the third consecutive time. Two years ago, with the Americans fielding a B squad after participating in the Confederations Cup, Mexico rolled to a 5-0 victory at Giants Stadium.

Costa Rica and Honduras, World Cup participants last year, are the other serious contenders.

For the United States, failure to advance to the June 25 final at the Rose Bowl would be a massive disappointment.

“It’s a totally different game, so it’s a totally different mind-set,” Altidore said, contrasting the Canada matches. Against the Canadians, “we have to be a little bit more confident and be the team to force the issue.”

Gold Cup notes: U.S. winger Alejandro Bedoya, who plays for Swedish club Orebro, replaced Benny Feilhaber (ankle injury) on the 23-man roster. . . . D.C. United’s Dejan Jakovic, a starting defender for Canada, will miss four to six weeks with a hamstring injury suffered in a friendly against Ecuador last week.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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