STANFORD, Calif. – Here's something that will shock you: Belize, Cuba and Costa Rica are not as good as Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
And hosting one regional stalwart and two regional minnows in seven days is probably not as challenging as taking on three global powerhouses at a World Cup held in Brazil.
But in all seriousness, the US national team can apply some of the lessons learned and experiences gleaned from last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup triumph as they prepare for next month’s trip to South America. In fact, say the dozen holdovers from that team who are in this current camp, that romp to a fifth regional title has helped steel this group.
“The more types of round-robin tournaments you can play, the better,” Landon Donovan told reporters at USMNT training on Monday. “… Here, every play matters. And every goal matters. Sometimes you can advance on goal differential. Everything that happens in these games is magnified.
“So having played in other tournaments like this, whether it’s a World Cup, Confederations Cup, Gold Cup, is very, very valuable. Fortunately, we have a lot of guys here who’ve had that experience.”
Experience is the right buzzword. Besides Donovan’s Golden Ball-winning run with that squad – his celebrated return to the national team after nine months away – that tournament helped integrate some of the greener faces in the USMNT set-up into more prominent roles moving forward.
Eleven members of that US “1A" team had 10 or fewer senior team caps at the time. Out of that group, five are here in camp, fighting for one of the 23 final plane tickets to Brazil. That includes midfielder Mix Diskerud, who had just three scattered caps to his name before the Gold Cup, but appeared in all six games in the tournament. He then parlayed that run to appearances in each of the US’ remaining World Cup qualifiers.
“First and foremost, in that tournament, I had so much fun,” Diskerud told reporters last week. “The Gold Cup helped me get into the mix. We showed we were the best team in CONCACAF at the moment. That helps a lot because we got a lot of confidence coming out of that.”
Then take the case of Chris Wondolowski. Despite his torrid form and record-setting scoring run in MLS, the San Jose Earthquakes star just couldn’t break through at the international level, with zero goals through eight camps. He broke his duck in a Gold Cup warm-up friendly against Guatemala, then scored five goals in the US’ first two tournament games.
Granted, Belize and Cuba aren’t exactly defensive powerhouses, but the switch clearly flipped – Wondo scored twice in January’s friendly vs. South Korea and potted a beautiful finish off a Michael Bradley cross against Mexico in Phoenix last month.
Now he’s in the middle of one of the most intriguing position battles for a World Cup spot, up against Terrence Boyd and perhaps Aron Johannsson for the last forward spot on Jurgen Klinsmann’s roster.
“Any time in tournament play, you learn a lot,” he told reporters on Sunday. “It’s a grind. Obviously nowhere near on the scale of a World Cup. But you have games every few days and you have to be ready and know how to prepare yourself and have a bit of a camp there as well. So I think that we learned how to compete with each other and what it takes to play day in and day out.”
They also learned the most important thing: How to win. The USMNT’s six-game winning streak at the Gold Cup was memorable not just for being part of a record-setting 12-game unbeaten streak through all competitions, but it also featured some of the best attacking soccer of the cycle. Again, the competition wasn’t at the world-class level, despite some knockout-stage battles against Panama and Honduras – to say nothing of the disappointment of Mexico’s premature flameout.
But if you don’t think those players fed off the buzz of scoring 26 goals in less than a month, that they didn’t get absolutely addicted to that winning feeling, well, you’re missing the point.
“Every time we played the game,” explained Diskerud, “we were kind of certain – not cocky – but we knew we were going to win because we had great players. And that was a great mentality – an American mentality, I would say.
“You feel like you can beat any team, whether it’s Germany or Panama or whatever. You think about yourself and your team and do what you can to make sure you win.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.