Ready for some completely overblown hyberbole? OK, here goes:
This team that Jurgen Klinsmann has assembled for the CONCACAF Gold Cup may be my favorite squad in US national team history.
I’m not going to say they’re world-beaters, and I wouldn’t take this group in a World Cup. But top to bottom, players one through 23, this assemblage of talent is so much fun, so varied and so compelling.
Now I know what you’re thinking: “Good work, Freedman – you love a team that’s beaten up a Guatemalan ‘B’ team on summer holiday and the No. 130th-ranked team in the world by a combined 12-1. Way to go out on a limb there, you hack.”
And that’s all true. Especially the hack part.
But I’ve got a few reasons why I’m in love with this Gold Cup squad:
1. It’s a fan boy's dream lineup of attackers and cult heroes. Let’s just start with the obvious: Landon Donovan. The senior team isn’t going anywhere without him next summer in Brazil. We’ve been waiting for the return of the all-time leading scorer in USMNT history, and apparently so has he, with three goals and two assists in his first two games after a seven-month absence.
“When I enjoy it and I’m passionate about it,” he told reporters on Monday in Portland, “then I play my best, which is what’s been happening.”
There’s fan favorite Stuart Holden, playing his most significant role since a knee injury put his career on hold two years ago. And then there’s the list of creative, attacking types whose names US fans have cried out for at one point or another over the past few years that all miraculously seem to be on the same roster: Herculez Gomez, Jose Torres, Joe Corona, Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya and Brek Shea.
Some have been more about the hype than their actual production at this level – you’ll recall the clamor for Torres, for instance, when he made the switch from the Mexican set-up five years ago – but these guys have still shown that they’re capable of reminding fans of those romantic visions they had of the US playing a more proactive, attacking set. (More on this in a minute.)
2. This squad spans three generations of USMNT history and has a little something for everyone. Are you one of those romantics who still waxes poetic about the golden generation of talent from the 1999 U-17 World Cup? Well, four of ’em are here: Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu and Kyle Beckerman, all pieces of the youth revolution that ultimately became the engine that drove the 2002 World Cup team.
Are you an iconoclast who appreciated the unsexy but inarguably effective and pragmatic approach of the Bob Bradley Era? There’s plenty of them, too, and we forget that Bob gave more guys their first caps than any coach in modern USMNT history. Eleven such players are on this team, including Holden, Torres, Clarence Goodson and Sean Johnson.
Even the old guys are diggin’ it.
“For me personally, I haven’t played with a lot of these players,” Onyewu told MLSsoccer.com on Monday, reflecting on his first time back with the team in nearly a year. “As you get older, you start to see new faces and [more] new faces. It’s the natural progression of the sport and of getting older. I’m enjoying this.”
3. Jurgen Klinsmann’s attacking vision is more possible with this group. The US boss begrudgingly put aside his dreamy notions of transforming the American footballing mentality he boasted about when he first came in, realizing that maybe he couldn’t implement a 4-3-3 with this pool without sacrificing results.
But his movement-centric, play-out-of-the-back ethos is back again – the US never played more offensively than they did in their recent three-game sweep of World Cup qualifying wins, and Klinsi can try even more of his vision with this Gold Cup group. The fact that there's only one traditional holding midfielder on the team (Beckerman) tells you all you need to know.
Both the Guatemala and Belize wins were pedal-to-the-metal affairs. Yes, mostly due to the level of the opposition. But the Americans still showed attacking intent, patience in unlocking teams with 10 men behind the ball and had the follow-through and creativity once they did break through.
When I asked Klinsmann in the postgame press conference on Tuesday night if he felt this unit was better-suited to that vision, he gave a stock answer of it being “a constant work” and “continuing to improve.” Then I threw the same question at Holden following his 45-minute shift. And he emphatically agreed with me.
“I think we have a lot of dynamic movement going forward,” he said not long after scoring his first US goal in four years, “and in terms of our runs off the ball, our width and just our ball movement in general, we’re all trying to keep the tempo high. Sometimes it’s hard – at some points tonight, when the opposition drops deep – to keep that tempo high.
“And especially when I came on, I wanted to make sure we kept that going. I think we’re getting there. There’s definitely some encouraging signs going forward.”
It’s going to get a lot harder, of course. After Saturday’s game against Cuba, the Americans get Costa Rica, and then hopefully some smackdowns with other tougher teams like Honduras, Panama and Mexico.
But for now, the fan boy in me is psyched.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.