That was the last of the U.S.’s warmups. With the exception of the last group game against Costa Rica, a match with the convenient safety net of having already qualified for the quarterfinals, the Gold Cup’s been a walk. The U.S. is 4-0-0 and has a +14 goal difference, the kind of dominance that had us drooling over the Mexico’s team during the last tournament (El Tri was also +14 after four matches). If this wasn’t a weaker, in-World Cup Qualifying Gold Cup, U.S. fans would be doing back flips over the team’s performance.
But it is a down Gold Cup, meaning there’s only so much we can take beyond the confines of this six-match gauntlet. Within those confines, however, we can ask how ready this U.S. team is for the big step up that’s about to happen.
Come the semifinals, there are not more El Salvadors, and the days of Belize and Cuba are long gone. Panama and Mexico occupy one side of the bracket, while the U.S. face either an always difficult Honduras or a Costa Rican team unlikely to rest Álvaro Saborío and Michael Barrantes on the bench again. All have World Cup-caliber talent. All have a chance to win this tournament.
If today was any indication, however, the U.S. appears to be in good shape. They look as good as anybody other team in the tournament, and if it wasn’t for a couple of uncertain moments from a relatively untested defense, there would be few worries going into the final matches. With Omar Gonzalez set to join the team in Texas, however, there’s reason to think the defending can improve (even if Gonzalez has had his own problems with lapses during qualifiers).
The attack, however, is where fans can find be encouraged. Sixteen goals in four games provides superficial proof, but if anybody needs more proof of the team’s capabilities, consider the first 30 minutes on Sunday. The team looked assured, confident, enacted a plan that leaned heavily on building down the right, and most importantly (given what we’ve seen from Klinsmann’s teams since his arrival) executed. They actually translated control into goals.
Landon Donovan deserves much of that credit on Sunday, but there were other positives, mostly from players who had been questioned by fans in the lead-up to the match. Jose Torres may not have been the most influential of players, but he was solid, and his ability to come in and contribute centrally while ostensibly being a left midfielder is particularly valuable if the team continues leaning right. Kyle Beckerman’s not going to win over Stuart Holden’s ardent supporters, but his distribution at the base of midfield proved the right choice today. And while Joe Corona’s production has been questioned, his has quietly put together a solid tournament, one that included a goal on Sunday.
Chris Wondolowski’s lack of influence was mildly concerning considering a history of waning influence against tougher And if the U.S. really remains so right-leading, you wonder if Edgar Castillo might be a better choice at left back. (Cue the obligatory backlash every time Castillo’s mentioned.) Still, with Castillo in reserve and Eddie Johnson in the team, Klinsmann has options, should he need to tweak as the stakes are raised.
Regardless, the U.S. is in remarkably good shape headed into the semifinals. While you could still see a Honduras or Costa Rica pull off an upset in Texas, the basics seem to be in place. If the U.S. can execute over the next 180 minutes as well as they did in Baltimore, they should reclaim the Gold Cup.