LOS ANGELES — Just win, baby.
We’ve got crotchety old Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis to thank for that cliché. But a stone’s throw from where the Raiders once played during their 12 years in Los Angeles, the US national team can do something on Saturday that will shut up all the Bob Bradley haters — at least for a little while.
Win. That’s all it takes. Never mind the slow starts, the all-too-frequent uninspiring play from the US and the skin-of-their-teeth results that have come to define the Bradley Era. In one game, anything can happen. And a victory is all the US need against Mexico to win back their CONCACAF crown.
Being a US fan has been so tough during this tournament. Even when your team puts together a comprehensive performance like it did in its opener against Canada, you’re outshined by the fact that archrivals Mexico are putting a 5-0 hurt on El Salvador in their own opener.
When the US are outdone by a game opponent, as they were by Panama in their second game, the sky starts falling again. Bradley’s lineup choices were dissected to death, as was his in-game management. How could the Americans lose to Panama? (A lot of teams lost to Panama, but that’s another discussion.)
Meanwhile, Mexico are off happily destroying another opponent — this time Cuba by another 5-0 fiesta. To make matters worse, Jamaica kicked off their tournament by throttling two straight opponents, too, while Honduras put on the rout of the Gold Cup: a 7-1 thump-fest over helpless Grenada.
While it took a Jozy Altidore golazo to ensure the US escaped Guadeloupe to advance out of the group stage, Mexico, Jamaica and Honduras were strolling through the park to reach the knockout round.
That may have been the worst thing to happen to the US. While teams that are supposedly inferior are gleefully beating up their opponents, the Americans are doing what they’ve always done: figuring out how to win by any means necessary. Yet here they stand in the final, while all but one other team have gone home.
Nothing comes easy for the USMNT. That is fact. The impatient nature of fandom in this country makes us all set our dogs on anyone in power any time our team is not performing to level we believe it’s supposed to. And according to all of us so-called experts, the US should be destroying everyone in their path, playing beautiful football along the way and transforming the country into a fútbol-mad republic overnight.
That’s hogwash. And it’s unfair. If you’re not willing to be patient with the process, maybe you need to reassess yourself as a fan. US supporters are in no position to expect perfection. What we can expect is results. And fact is fact: The USMNT has advanced to the Gold Cup final, as expected. How it got there is irrelevant. Bradley did what he was supposed to do, and made some decent tactical decisions along the way, believe it or not. (Freddy Adu? Really? Really!)
Now on to Saturday. US vs. Mexico is the final everyone wanted to see. Outside of the World Cup, this is the top of the mountain for American (and Mexican) fans. (I’ll happily debate any misguided Mexico fan who claims the Copa América is more important.) This is the rivalry that has defined the US national team, for better or worse, over the past 20 years.
The challenge for Bradley now is to put all the eggs into this basket. Go for it. Hold nothing back. Make some surprising tactical choices. Throw in some eyebrow-raising subs (Robbie Rogers, I’m looking at you). All of the criticism levied at our coach — and he is certainly not perfect — can be justified, win or lose this game, but Bradley can’t and won’t be faulted for trying everything and anything.
But that’s all it takes. Figure out a way to slow down Mexico, who will undoubtedly be favored in what amounts to a virtual home game for El Tri. Lest we forget, the US were getting outplayed by their archnemesis the last time they met in this tournament as fully loaded squads, a mere half-hour from surrendering the regional crown four summers ago.
Then Brian Ching earned a penalty, which Landon Donovan converted to even things up, and Benny Feilhaber’s stunning volley 17 minutes from time completed a momentum-shifting, dramatic rally. US 2, Mexico 1.
Maybe that’s where the Bradley precedent began. His US squads don’t do it pretty, and they make you sweat in ways that even make Bruce Arena squirm. But they get the job done. Somehow, some way.
On Saturday, that’s what it will take against the mighty Tri. Honduras proved they’re vulnerable. The US have no room for error and will be absolutely punished by Chicharito, Andrés Guardado, Giovani dos Santos and a loaded Mexican squad if they do make any miscues at all. And the sea of green in the Rose Bowl will make life extremely rough.
It doesn’t matter. Play ugly, make mistakes, benefit from some luck and make the fans perspire like nobody’s business. All it takes is a victory.
Just win, baby.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.