While Bob Bradley led nine U.S. national soccer team players through a 90-minute workout at RFK Stadium’s training grounds Thursday, 11 others were back at their Arlington hotel utilizing the gym, working on conditioning and resting — a common routine after three tournament games and several travel days.
But because of an unusual arrangement involving the squad’s most influential players, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, the Americans’ operation in Washington is anything but common.
Both were granted permission to attend sibling weddings Saturday, meaning they’ll miss three days of workouts and meetings ahead of Sunday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal against Jamaica. The U.S. Soccer Federation has arranged transportation on private jets to ensure they arrive without delay or complication.
Bradley said he wasn’t familiar with their travel schedules, although both seem likely to land Saturday night.
Bradley played down the impact on match preparations, saying: “We’re not concerned. When you are into a tournament like this, the days after a hard game are also regeneration days. Much of our preparation work has been done.”
Donovan flew to California for his twin sister’s wedding, while Dempsey was off to Texas for his sister’s nuptials. According to a USSF spokesman, both requested the time off well before the start of the 12-nation tournament, which is played every two years and serves as the championship for national teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean.
“As a coach, you sometimes have to make difficult decisions,” Bradley said. “Certainly we’ve also respected what family means to players. In these cases, after speaking to the two players, these are important days for them and their families. So you weigh that versus the team, you balance it out and make decisions.”
With the winner receiving a berth in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil, a major tuneup for the World Cup a year later, the Americans made the Gold Cup the focal point of this year’s campaign.
Had they performed well in the first round, the absence of Donovan and Dempsey in the days leading to the knockout stage might not have caused much of a stir. But after a flawed victory over Canada, a first-ever loss to Panama and a 1-0 win over tiny Guadeloupe, the U.S. team failed to finish atop its group for the first time since the tournament was founded in 1991.
It hardly seems the time to allow two vital players to take time off, but Bradley kept his promise and Donovan and Dempsey stuck to their plans.
“Chemistry is important, it’s still here. I know there isn’t any dissention in the group,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “Life’s funny, man. There are all types of things that make the world go round: Your family is important obviously, this team is a family, so we’re all here for one another. They’ll be here and I’m certain they’ll be ready. If they’re not, Coach will make the decision.”
Like the team as a whole, Donovan and Dempsey have not met expectations in this tournament. Donovan has faded in and out of games, and Dempsey, who scored against Canada, missed several high-quality chances against Guadeloupe on Tuesday, including a tap-in from three yards.
“The first round is always just about coming through it,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “You don’t get style points for winning three games 5-0.”
Perhaps. But the U.S. team’s arch nemesis, Mexico, had no such trouble in group play, winning three matches by a combined 14-1 to secure first place in Group A and a quarterfinal meeting with Guatemala on Saturday night at New Meadowlands Stadium. The United States scored just four goals.
CONCACAF, the governing body for soccer in this region, had the United States and Mexico in mind when it awarded the championship game to the 92,000-seat Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The nations have combined to win all but one Gold Cup title, and a championship showdown would be a box-office smash for tournament organizers.
While Mexico is on course to reach the final, the United States has failed to exhibit the chemistry and character that provided high drama last year at the World Cup in South Africa.
“With this particular group, we’ve always been resilient, we’ve always battled, in the best of times and when times haven’t been tremendous,” Howard said.
“One of the things we’ve talked about, and I really enjoy, is that there’s a lot more pressure and a finality to it. In the group stages, you are weighing who else won. [Now] after those 90 minutes or extra time, that’s it: You’re either going home or you’re going to Houston.”