GOLD CUP CONUNDRUM
After taking every possible point, racking up a huge goal differential and pretty much crushing every piece of opposition faced this Gold Cup, we must ask ourselves- what does it all mean?
It's hard to say at this point; there's not a cut and dry answer on what the meaning of the 2013 Gold Cup is, especially with the final yet to be played, but we can look at the five games leading up to it, six if we count the friendly with the Guatemala just prior to the opening match with Belize, and see what questions have been raised, and attempt to answer those. Maybe during the course of answering those questions, a greater meaning will reveal itself.
When Landon Donovan came back from hiatus in the spring, many people expected him to jump right back into Jurgen Klinsmann's plans for the National Team. It wasn't so, the issue has been beat into the ground so we won't analyze it again, but eventually, everyone knew the call would come. The question surrounding Donovan was how he would perform when called back in. Frankly, it was a silly questions from the get-go, it wasn't like he was returning from a potentially career-ending injury, or that he decided to go play baseball for a while.
Donovan was always going to be effective upon his return, but did we have any idea how effective? Donovan's surge in ability over the past month has been glorious to watch, hailing back several years. Donovan has scored seven goals in the past month, which brings him to two goals away from tying his record for goals scored for the National Team in a calendar year, set in 2007. His seven assists in the past month are three away from his career best of 10 set in 2009. In no single year, until this one, has Donovan recorded at least six goals and six assists with the National Team. He had five and 10 in 2009, nine and four in 2007, five and six in 2004. Those are the closest he's come, and he's blowing those figures away in 2013.
Statistically speaking, Donovan is having the best year of his career with the National Team, nearly equaling his point total from 2009 in seven fewer months than the February-October schedule of that year. You can point at opponents like Belize, Guatemala, and Cuba that he has racked up points against, but you can do the same in every other statistically significant year of his career. It's a pitfall of being in CONCACAF, and there's no way around it, and nothing that makes it unique; even some prominent goal scorers for CONMEBOL and UEFA powers have been known to tally a goal or three against weaker opposition.
What this means for Donovan is that while he does look a little bit slower in a dead sprint than he used to, and his shot does not appear to be quite as lethal as it used to, he is playing better as a whole, influencing the game in the more complete way that a veteran leader is supposed to. It means his time off appeared to invigorate him, reignite his passion, and you can watch his reactions to every goal and every assist to see that fire burning in him. That can mean only good things for the next year to come.
With the question of Donovan answered, there's the question of Stuart Holden. Unlike Donovan's hiatus for mental clarity, Holden did have what was looking like a potentially career-threatening injury, but the Bolton man has bounced back and performed well despite looking like a pity pick to some people earlier in the summer. Holden's game is not entirely there yet, but what can you expect after being off the field for so long? He has shown the ability to penetrate the offensive third with pinpoint, crafty passes that have been breeding scoring opportunities for all of July. Defensively speaking, he has done very well at creating a blockade with his midfield partners, allowing very few counter attacks on the ground to proceed past half field.
Holden still needs some work to get back on track, but he has nine months of day in, day out competition with Bolton to scrape the remaining rust off. If the past month holds any water at all, he's well on his way to making the roster for Brazil, providing a combination of offense and defense in the midfield that few other players can. The answer to the question of Holden is that his injury woes have not made him obsolete, out of shape, and unable to perform. They were a setback, but only a temporary one, confirming everyone's best possible hopes when he started showing signs of getting game ready earlier in the year.
With the two most high profile players on the roster analyzed and the questions around them answered, to at least some degree, the next question of team performance comes up. Has Klinsmann finally steered the ship in the direction he wants to go? With a 10 game winning streak going on, 34 goals scored by 14 different players while only allowing in eight, multiple goals from several key players who need to be hot, a widespread attack utilizing the flanks, quick passing combinations in the offensive third, penetrating passes and set piece goals scored via ways both orthodox and unorthodox, is Klinsmann's strategy finally paying off, proving his worth?
Short answer: Maybe. Slightly longer answer: Maaaaaaaaaaybe.
There's no doubt that the July, 2013 version of the National Team has been one of the most entertaining U.S. teams to watch, perhaps ever. There's consistent creativity on display, there seems to be fun in their steps, and a passion for the game that sometimes seems lacking. Klinsmann has been trying to change the philosophy of the team from a tactical, counter attacking team to a fluid entity that drives and dictates the game. They have done that through the month of July, but looking backwards a little bit to the most recent slate of World Cup Qualifiers reveals that they were doing it then, too, in a limited fashion. Klinsmann has seemed to recognize his limitation and, like he has done a few times in the past as well, adjusted his game plan to fit the opponent, rather than trying to force the opponent to fit the United States. This was done in Mexico to great effect in March, and somewhat in Jamaica as well.
The other wins against Honduras and Panama were efficient, but with so much on the line, Klinsmann was not too experimental. His most recent outing against Honduras, in this past semifinal of the Gold Cup, it was a different story, with the team breaking out of its tactical shell and doing what they had been doing all month. It was a tremendous success, and it will be interesting to see if Klinsmann does it again against Panama.
While there is a potential Confederations Cup berth on the line for the winner, it is not a crucial World Cup Qualifier where a conservative approach is typically best received. What it is, is a great opportunity to test out the attacking philosophy in a meaningful game, against a competitive team that can legitimately beat the United States, just as they beat Mexico in Dallas. The even more interesting part of the question focuses around personnel, and whether or not Klinsmann can get the same productivity out of the rest of his first choice players in the near future.
It's great that the Gold Cup roster, full of World Cup hopefuls with some first choices sprinkled throughout, are playing incredibly well, but can the best roster on paper that Klinsmann puts together do the same thing? There have been glimpses of it, with Graham Zusi, Fabian Johnson, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey combining well. Put Donovan and Holden in that mix, and there's six players who can do something in the offensive half that hasn't been consistently done in quite a while: Score. Unfortunately, that's six of the 10 field players, and Michael Bradley and four defenders need to be there as well, while also talking about Jermaine Jones.
So perhaps the longest answer to the question about Klinsmann's philosophy becoming the team's philosophy is that it has become July's team's philosophy, but is yet to be decided it is 2014's team's philosophy as well. The championship game against Panama will see how much the U.S. can stretch, and then very soon, September rolls around and we'll see if the ideas translate over to the games that matter most. Maybe the easiest answer to everything is that the best U.S. roster is not actually the best U.S. roster on paper. Time will tell, but we'll remember back to this month of July as a benchmark of sorts, when the full team comes back together.
This brings us back to the grand question of what it all means. What do the performances of individuals and the team mean during this Gold Cup? A lot and a little. Landon Donovan has cemented himself once again as the heart and soul of the National Team, Stuart Holden is legitimately back on the radar, and Jurgen Klinsmann could be turning the team around the corner. The German's goal was always a long term one, and long term goals rarely yield short term results, but as we approach the home stretch, now is when they are supposed to kick in, and we're seeing pretty big signs that something may be happening.