"Teams do not go physically flat, they go mentally stale."
That quote from Vince Lombardi — he of the “other” football — tells the story of the US national team at the current juncture.
Few would argue that this isn’t the most talented group of soccer players ever to wear the red, white and blue. Maybe the pieces don’t fit quite as well as the 2002 group, and there’s significantly less esprit de corps than the 1990 and ‘94 groups showed.
But in terms of pure talent, this 2011 squad is tops.
In terms of pure results, however, this group has been miserable.
The US are 5-6-7 in all competitions since the beginning of 2010, with a minus-seven goal differential. They’ve scored multiple goals just six times in that span and, even more damning, won just two of those (2-1 wins over El Salvador in February of 2010 and Turkey in May of that year).
They’ve posted two shutouts. Every time they’ve taken a first-half lead in that span — which is just thrice — they’ve coughed it up before the halftime whistle blew.
Mentally, the US just aren’t all there, and haven’t been since the 2009 Confederations Cup. Maybe it has to do with the Charlie Davies accident, or Oguchi Onyewu’s injury that’s still hampering his form. Maybe it’s complacency with the run to the Confed finals from that great Summer of Soccer, or relief at winning the group in dramatic fashion at last summer’s World Cup.
Physically, they are elite. Mentally, they are stale.
Whatever the reason, the fact is, the way the US have played means this Gold Cup is more important than ever. Here are three reasons why:
1) If you aspire to be a top-10 team in the world, you have to prove it to your neighbors both first and often
It’s no secret that Mexican players, coaches, fans and media as a whole still have on average, zero respect for US soccer. Claudio Suárez, “El Emperador” who played with Chivas USA and had 178 caps with El Tri, recently said that US soccer is “about 100 years behind Mexican soccer.”
While US fans would point to the 2-0 win in the 2002 World Cup as evidence that Suárez is off his rocker, Mexican fans prefer the recent memory of the last Gold Cup final, a 5-0 thrashing at Giants Stadium two years ago. The mitigating circumstances from that day — and there are plenty — don’t make the tiniest bit of difference in the end to the fans in green jerseys.
What matters is that score line and the confidence it gave to the Yanks’ biggest rivals. Should the US meet Mexico in this year’s tournament, the El Tri players won’t be thinking of Eddie Lewis crosses or Josh Wolff flicks. They’ll be remembering the way Gio dos Santos torched the US back line two summers ago.
That’s a mental advantage Bob Bradley’s men have to snuff out, or at least equal with some feisty early play of their own.
2) Mexico are getting used to winning
The US would do well to bear that in mind.
The scary thing about that 5-0 score line from two summers back — and yes, we all know it was against a US "B" team — is that it happened before Javier Hernández even existed as far as international soccer is concerned. The Little Pea scored four goals in 22 games for Chivas (the Guadalajara branch) in 2008-09 and wasn’t even a blip on the national team radar.
Since then, he’s scored 41 times in 73 games at the club level and 17 times in 24 games for Mexico.
And Chicarito isn’t the only one who’s in the ascendant. Dos Santos was, at that time, more likely to be carried out of a London night club than to set foot on the field in a league game.
Things have changed. The 22-year-old secured a loan to Racing Santander this January and ended up pulling the Montañeses solidly into La Liga’s mid-table with five goals and two assists in 16 games.
Add in the rejuvenation of Andrés Guardado, who’s regaining his form after a series of injuries sapped him of his speed and quickness, and El Tri have a trio of under-25 attackers who have no real memory of the US teams that dominated Mexico for a decade, and no particular fear of this group of Yanks.
As El Tri legend Hugo Sánchez said while broadcasting from what appeared to be a basement in Cancún, this is a group of Mexican players who believe they are the best the region has to offer.
3) It’s not just Mexico the US have to worry about
On paper, the Canadians are a real threat to US supremacy in the region. Simeon Jackson was the hottest striker in England at any level over the course of April and May. We all know what Dwayne De Rosario can do. The central midfield pairing of Julian de Guzman and Atiba Hutchinson is a match for the US athletically and skill-wise. Josh Simpson adds speed and scoring ability from the left flank.
If the Canucks could just once get a break on national allegiance (Jonathan de Guzman and David Hoilett, come on down!), their top-15 would be a match for any team in CONCACAF.
Even without those two, they’re not far off. And they have the added incentive of a disputed offside call from the 2007 Gold Cup adding fuel to the fire. The Canadians both remember and loathe that moment.
Mentally, the US will have to be up for the fight on Tuesday and beyond. Whether the inspiration comes from veterans like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, or new faces like Chris Wondolowski and Tim Ream, the fact is that inspiration has to be found.
Because winning isn’t the only thing that’s a habit.
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.