Let’s put aside all of the negativity surrounding the US national team right now. We’ve read plenty about their slow starts, their impotence in front of goal, their less-than-overpowering results in this Gold Cup so far and, especially, all of the ire surrounding head coach Bob Bradley.
There’s validity in all of the above complaints, and it’s OK to criticize the goings-on surrounding the team. This is what soccer nations do. And if we’re honest, the vitriol emanating from the message boards and the media is extremely tame when compared with the daily crises that erupt in England, Argentina, Germany and other established — yet ridiculously insecure and myopic — footballing nations.
So today, we’re not going there. Say what you want about Bradley and the US performance over the group stage of the Gold Cup. There’s something going on with the program for which Bob deserves a little credit.
When Bradley’s term was renewed last fall, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati explained that the federation wanted continuity heading into the next World Cup cycle. And again, whether you agree with the decision to retain Bob or not, there’s a case to be made that the challenge of reloading for another cycle is far more difficult than building from scratch.
A coach is forced to look at the inevitable mortality of his stalwarts and figure out ways to integrate new blood into the system in a hurry so the program remains competitive.
Gold Cups are a funny enigma on that journey. The ones that matter are the ones that come the year following a World Cup, with that all-important Confederations Cup berth at play. It’s a strange in-between place where veterans from the previous summer return, but new blood has to be infused at a rapid rate — and asked to step up immediately. And that’s no easy ask.
How long does it take to get it right? Certainly not a mere 10 months, which is how long Bradley & Co. have had since the conclusion of the 2010 World Cup. But what Bob has done during that short time frame is remarkable: 18 players have received their first US caps.
They’ve been thrown to the wolves, too. The US may have a 3-4-4 record since last August and have been outscored 13-9, but four of those opponents (Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Spain) were also quarterfinalists at last summer’s World Cup, and the others (Chile, Colombia and Poland, to name a few more) aren’t exactly slouches. Talk about a trial by fire.
Bradley’s tenure has been remarkable for that very reason: More players have been given a chance to prove themselves on big stages than at any other time in US Soccer history. Under Bradley, 60 players have received their first caps — and almost one-third of that number has come since the conclusion of South Africa 2010.
This is all the long explanation of one simple fact: This Gold Cup squad is very much still a work in progress. It isn’t perfect, it probably hasn’t fired on all cylinders yet and yes, it has the tendency to be underwhelming. But this team is still forming in front of our eyes.
“When we came into this Gold Cup, one of the factors when we were putting together a roster was trying to find a blend between guys that we felt needed to be moved into the team and experience,” Bradley said after Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over Guadeloupe in Kansas City. “It is still a work in progress and the transitioning of the team is sometimes one of the most difficult, challenging aspects of coaching players.”
The inexperience on this Gold Cup roster has shown. Much has been made of Tim Ream’s poorly timed tackle against Panama, Juan Agudelo sometimes looking lost and Jermaine Jones showing some worrying lack of discipline, to name a few concerns.
But there have been bright spots as well. Clarence Goodson has shown glimpses of being the lead center back of this cycle, wing man Alejandro Bedoya was a shot in the arm off the bench vs. Guadeloupe, and fullback Eric Lichaj showed good one-on-one defensive skills and an ability to get forward seamlessly.
This is all part of the process. While failing to win the Gold Cup is unacceptable, there’s a longer view simultaneously at play: The squad that will eventually compete in the 2014 World Cup is forming now. These players need to be thrown into the mix against all opponents to learn what it takes to compete at this level and gain the necessary minutes.
“It’s great for them getting that experience,” Clint Dempsey said Tuesday. “There are a lot of [the younger] guys that have a lot of potential. It’s just about them getting games and doing well. It’s going to make this team stronger and we’ll have more depth.”
Yes, it’s frustrating to see the US underperform thus far at this Gold Cup. But there must be room for error, a little patience when things get underwhelming — because things are going to be very different in Brazil in three years.
Steve Cherundolo and captain Carlos Bocanegra will likely be there, but they’ll both be 35; and Oguchi Onyewu is perhaps done as a regular at center back. Meanwhile, the team’s very offensive lifeblood, Dempsey and Landon Donovan, will be 31 and 32, respectively — they’ll still be leaned on, but they will be past the peaks of their physical gifts and will be different types of players.
That’s why guys like Bedoya, Lichaj, Ream and Jones need to get their time now. And you’d better believe Bradley wishes he had Timmy Chandler and Stuart Holden in camp, maybe even with Teal Bunbury, Mix Diskerud, Gale Agbossoumonde and Omar Gonzalez waiting in reserve.
“The more I’ve been with this team, the more I’ve grown in confidence,” Bedoya said Tuesday. “Just learning things from them and gaining more experience.”
That's good news. This is a team that is very much in flux, and Bradley is doing the work that needs to be done to ensure the US don’t miss a beat in the warm-up to the next Big Show. It may not always be pretty, but maybe dominance and perfection are too much of an expectation right now.
This Gold Cup is part of the journey. The finish line is in Brazil.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.