CHICAGO – For 90 minutes on Sunday at Soldier Field, a camera focused on the action high above the field where nary a ball was kicked.
At times, Jurgen Klinsmann gesticulated wildly. He lived and died with every bounce of the ball, every fleeting half chance. He even dropped out of sight when Eddie Johnson’s sitter went into orbit with the game still in the balance and just minutes remaining.
Finally, the final whistle blown on the Americans' 1-0 victory and fifth Gold Cup title in the bag, Klinsmann rode the elevator down to celebrate with his team, pumping his fists and passing out hugs like a man who’d spent the last hour-and-a-half barely able to survive the drama unfolding in front of him.
“From the box, watching it was horrible,” Klinsmann, who was suspended for the match after being dismissed late in the semifinal win against Honduras, said in the postgame press conference. “I think I hit a TV at one point or something like that. I tried to keep myself together.”
His team, on the other hand, remained remarkably composed as the game progressed without a goal or any real opportunities to speak of, content to patiently move the bunkered Panamanians around the field with sustained possession until a chink in the armor appeared.
It finally exposed itself in the 69th minute, when substitute Brek Shea cleaned up a deflected cross at the back post for the easiest of winners, giving the US the only goal they’d need to prompt a victory lap and locker-room celebrations so raucous that they could be heard from down the hall and through a steel door.
“They gave me a nice champagne shower. I had to change real quick,” Klinsmann explained when he arrived for his postgame presser in fresh duds. “We’ll enjoy this moment, but these are there to celebrate.”
Of course, chugging champagne out of a massive gold trophy is even sweeter when you feel you deserve every last drop.
And although Klinsmann dodged questions about the significance of winning his first international trophy as a coach, he made no bones about declaring his team the top team in the tournament, an opinion he’d formed before the final was even played.
“It’s always nice winning a trophy. You just want to win it in a way that you also have the feeling that you deserve it,” Klinsmann said. “And this group really deserves this trophy. There is absolutely no doubt that this was the best team of the Gold Cup. That’s what we already said this morning when we had our team talk.”
“With how the team played in this tournament, they wanted to send out a signal that they’re No. 1 in CONCACAF at the moment,” he added. “They reached it – as of today. Tomorrow, we’ll see.”
And come summer 2014, we’ll really see how this USMNT, now tied for CONCACAF's longest-ever winning streak with 11 straight victories, stacks up against the world’s best.
First, however, they must qualify, a task close to completion but still fraught with tricky trips to Costa Rica and Panama and difficult home matches against Mexico and Jamaica.
Then – if all goes according to plan – comes the World Cup draw in December, a process that hasn’t always been kind to the Americans. But challenging is what Klinsmann wants. He wants to raise the bar. He wants to push his players to their limit, and this Gold Cup triumph was just another stop in the quest to bring out the very best in everyone involved.
“We all know that there are different benchmarks out there,” he said. “The global game is played in South America and it’s played in Europe and there are a lot of other benchmarks waiting for us. But I think it’s important that over time you see progress from the players, from the group itself that they all understand that it takes a lot more to become really good.”