BRENT LATHAM - Monday, July 27, 2009
It was ugly. It was sad. It was downright disgusting.
So, unfortunately, a summary of lessons for the Americans from what might have been an otherwise relatively positive Gold Cup has to begin with the most forgettable moment of the tournament, the humiliating drubbing at the hands of Mexico in the final.
For three mid-summer weeks, it seemed like Coach Bradley might really have something brewing with his group of upstart MLSers. Unfortunately, in about thirty minutes on Sunday afternoon, with a five goal barrage that ended with the American team completely giving up, Mexico proved it all to be an illusion.
To be fair, this group of Americans did well to make it as far as the final. But the manner in which the team collapsed against its fiercest rival would not have been dignified for Grenada or Guadeloupe, much less the giants of the region.
If the first goal by way of the penalty spot was a backbreaker, the four that followed were farcical, even for a Sunday afternoon recreational league. The Mexicans waltzed in unimpeded and took aim at Troy Perkins' goal time and time again, as the American defense meandered about nonchalantly thirty yards up the field.
So sickening a spectacle it was for American fans that it will be hard to accept the nonchalance of some of the American contingent after the game. Acceptance of defeat might have been understandable had the Americans fallen with dignity, but this group did no such thing, to the point that it can be questioned if any of the principal culprits – including the entire back line - should ever wear the US crest again.
But it's easy to blame the players. The bottom line is that this team was a disaster waiting to happen. The breakdown of what led to this sorry day began not at halftime on Sunday, but last month, with the roster selection process.
While Bob Bradley began the tournament with a handful of decent players, and what looked like a relatively solid team, he ended the Gold Cup with a makeshift squad that could be considered a fourth or even fifth string team. The team fielded against Mexico was devoid of any creative offensive threat in the middle, and missing even the semblance of a decent player in a few spots on the field - right back and holding midfield to name the two most glaring deficiencies.
That it turned out this way can be chalked up to two things: fear of club teams in both Europe and MLS, and downright poor planning.
We already know a host of players weren't available after the Confederations Cup because of preseason European commitments, and that is fair enough. But others who could have helped were ignored in favor of players who could be described as mediocre at best, but nevertheless ended up being called upon to play significant roles in crucial stages of the tournament.
To aggravate the questionable selection errors, the US failed to take advantage of an expanded and overly generous thirty man roster, which CONCACAF permitted it after the trip to the Confederations Cup. Bradley responded by adding seven players from that Confederations Cup roster, but then used only one of them – Benny Feilhaber for about thirty minutes in the second game - even as the roster shrank to the bare minimum in the final round of the tournament.
Defenders of the USSF will now argue that the point of the Gold Cup was to take a look at some young players, but that doesn't explain how sending Jay Heaps and Logan Pause out to get torched against many of Mexico's regulars helps anything in the long run.
If the Americans were going to experiment with unproven players, why not make them young, new elements that may have a shot at helping one day? Calling in Sam Cronin, for example, made sense for that reason. But why waste extra roster spots on over the hill veterans, or worse, players based in Europe that can't even make it to the US for the tournament?
If the departure of the core of the team came as a surprise the situation might be forgivable, but Coach Bradley says he knew he would lose many of his European contingent mid-tournament. If that was indeed the case, how to explain the lack of a replacement creative midfielder or withdrawn forward when Freddy Adu left the team? And how is it possible that once Steve Cherundolo packed his bags, Heaps was the best remaining option at right back?
Seriously, it may be nice to see Heaps get a cap, but how will that benefit the US in the long run? Is this guy really in the mix for a roster spot going forward? It would have made much more sense to put someone like Marvell Wynne on the roster, and call him in for the last round. Wynne could have used the international experience of playing Mexico in a final.
The same goes for Sasha Klejstan, who would have benefited from the confidence built by playing against this level of competition. Diddo for Ricardo Clark in the place of Pause.
Clark and Klejstan were both on that expanded roster, but never called in. Which brings us back to our earlier point. There are explanations for all of this, just not good ones. Clark and Wynne were left out to avoid depleting their MLS teams, after having them in South Africa for a long time, and with Brian Ching and Stuart Holden from Houston, and Sam Cronin from Toronto already on the US roster.
But a national humiliation that won't soon be forgotten is far too high a price to pay for pleasing a couple of MLS teams.
A 5-0 loss is a disgrace at any level, with any team. All games that the national team plays, on any level, without exception, need to be taken seriously.
When club and country conflict, that should really just be too bad for the club team, especially if that team plays in MLS, which refuses to adjust its schedule to the realities of international soccer.
Still, with a deep and intriguing pool full of players that really need a test at this level, and huge roster, there was plenty of wiggle room to get this right and still come out with a competitive team, at least for the final. This is the second time the US has been in this sort predicament under Bradley, the 2007 Copa America being the first.
Hopefully the lesson will have been clearer this time, to the tune of 5-0.