Since their arrival in Washington on Wednesday, the Americans have spoken coolly and confidently about recovering from a turbulent first round. Friday’s training session ended with debate about how many electoral votes are allocated to the District of Columbia — not exactly the dispiriting mood one might expect from a sputtering team.
“We came through group play feeling good that we were tested and certain things came to light,” Coach Bob Bradley said. “Now as a group we are excited and ready to go.”
The reassuring vibe, however, belies the broad implications of defeat.
It would not only eliminate the Americans at the earliest stage of the regional championship since 2000, when a guest team (Colombia) knocked them out on penalty kicks, but also jeopardize Bradley’s employment less than a year into his second term.
It would extinguish hopes of qualifying for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, an important tuneup for the World Cup a year later in Brazil, and spoil CONCACAF’s dream matchup: United States vs. Mexico in next Saturday’s final at the 92,000-seat Rose Bowl.
It would undoubtedly prompt serious introspection, just a year after the Americans finished ahead of England in World Cup group play and two years after upsetting Spain en route to the Confederations Cup final.
“In the last four-year cycle, we raised the level of the national team, we raised the expectations of people in this country, we raised our own expectations,” captain Carlos Bocanegra said. In the Gold Cup, “it didn’t go exactly as how we wanted [in the group stage], we lost to Panama and everybody was disappointed, but we gave ourselves a great opportunity” to continue pursuing a championship.
A loss would raise questions about the U.S. Soccer Federation’s pre-tournament management — it scheduled a lucrative but inconsequential friendly against world champion Spain just three days before the Gold Cup opener— and Bradley’s decision to allow his two most influential players, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, to miss three days of practice and meetings leading to the Jamaica match so they could attend sibling weddings in California and Texas, respectively.
The USSF declined to answer questions about the pair’s time of arrival, but while Dempsey was expected to rejoin the delegation late Saturday, Donovan was on a later schedule because of the distance. Donovan stayed in shape by practicing Friday with his MLS club, the Los Angeles Galaxy. The USSF is paying for private planes to transport them to Washington.
Asked if he were concerned about Donovan’s travel fatigue, Bradley used broad terms about choosing the potential lineup. “We size up all the factors: how many minutes they’ve played, physically how they did through all of this,” he said. “We have a few more things to factor in this time.”
While Mexico obliterated its first-round competition to ascend into the favorite’s role, the United States failed to manufacture a satisfying performance. In the opener against Canada, a strong start offset a rickety second half. In the next match, defensive shortcomings resulted in a first-ever loss to Panama. And in the finale against winless Guadeloupe, the Americans settled for a 1-0 victory after missing a wealth of opportunities.
“We know we haven’t played our best soccer yet,” defender Steve Cherundolo said, “and we are hungry and motivated to do that.”
On paper, almost everything works in the U.S. team’s favor Sunday: a 9-0-8 all-time record against Jamaica; undefeated in Gold Cup history against CONCACAF teams, aside from Mexico; a 12-3-4 record in Washington since 1991, including a current six-game unbeaten streak.
“History is made to be broken and rewrote,” Jamaica assistant coach Warren Barrett said.
The Reggae Boyz, seeking their first semifinal berth since 1998, finished ahead of favored Honduras, as well as Guatemala and Grenada, in Group B. They played with typical speed and style but also exhibited better organization and defensive fortitude in helping Donovan Ricketts, Donovan’s Galaxy teammate, register three shutouts.
“When you are playing well, that tends to exude a lot of confidence,” Barrett said. “You can smell it in the air around the team camp — a lot of positiveness.”
Despite lackluster results, the Americans believe they’re still on course to reach the final.
“This is a tournament, and you’re supposed to be building as the tournament goes on,” U.S. defender Clarence Goodson said. “What’s most important is doing well toward the end and obviously playing your best match in the knockout rounds.”