DETROIT — Friendlies are one thing. You can take it easy, concentrate on a few things, beg out of a potentially gruesome-looking 50-50 ball. As a coach, you can “experiment,” as many people have described the US loss to Spain last Saturday, shifting lineups, trying new players, blooding greenhorns like Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo and Alejandro Bedoya.
But a tournament, one that matters like the CONCACF Gold Cup, is a very different thing. There can be no experimenting. No blooding. Every play has consequences, every result ramifications. Not that an inexperienced player can’t shine, but in a tournament, it’s the veteran core that needs to step up.
“Guys like Tim or Juan or Alejandro haven’t been to a tournament, where it’s a Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday [schedule],” longtime starter Carlos Bocanegra told MLSsoccer.com on Monday after the US team’s final training before facing Canada on Tuesday night (8 pm ET, Fox Soccer, Live Chat). “It’s a quick turnaround. You have to get prepared, physically and mentally, being able to leave the last game behind you and focus on the next one.”
From the beginning of his appointment as head coach of the US national team, Bob Bradley has made efforts to incorporate new players. He has handed debuts to more players than any other US coach before him, testing up-and-coming talent from MLS and observing unknown commodities from Europe (see: Eugene Starikov).
Still, when crunch time comes, he has often relied on his trusted veterans, sprinkling in just a few newbies here and there.
“It’s always the job of the coach to find the right mix between old, young and middle,” right back Steve Cherundolo, 32, told MLSsoccer.com. “Bob has done a good job with that this time around. Now it’s up to us to perform on the field.”
At this point in their careers, Bocanegra and Cherundolo, who have 87 and 66 caps, respectively, have played in multiple tournaments. Bocanegra still remembers his first Gold Cup in 2002, when the US beat Costa Rica in the final in his hometown, Los Angeles. And he was the team captain when the US won the trophy again in 2007 in Chicago. It is those experiences — and what they mean — that he tries to impart to what he calls “the rookies.”
“We were looking at the team picture the other day,” he said. “I was holding the Gold Cup after we won. Confetti was going everywhere. You don’t get a chance to do that too much. This is a really good chance to be the top team in the region, have a little bit of bragging rights, and get a championship under our belts.”