KANSAS CITY, Kan. – The group stage is wrapped up, the loss column filled with a zero, the knockout-round berth secured.
This is when the CONCACAF Gold Cup really starts for the United States – on Saturday, in Baltimore, in a quarterfinal match against an opponent still to be determined.
“Now it’s really getting to the serious stuff – the knockout stage,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in his postmatch news conference after Monday's 1-1 comeback draw against Panama. “This is what a tournament is all about.”
And while the US went unbeaten through Group A, winning their first two matches before Monday's draw, the fact that they had to overcome their own first-half mistakes to secure that final point showed that there's still room for improvement between now and the weekend.
“Obviously, a positive is the fact that we fought back from 1-0 down to get something from the game,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan told reporters afterward. “But in saying that, we're not going to kid ourselves. We need to try and put together a complete 90-minute performance.”
The Americans didn't do that on Monday, getting put back on their heels early and trailing 1-0 at the break after FC Dallas forward Blas Perez scored in the 34th minute. They regrouped in the second half, though, equalizing through captain Michael Bradley in the 55th to deny Panama three points that would have secured second place and an automatic spot in the quarters.
“I thought the first half we were, in basic ways, not sharp,” Bradley told reporters. “We didn't find a way to lift the speed and the tempo of the game in any way, so we kind of just allowed them to dictate everything. And obviously, in a do-or-die game for them, they physically put a lot into it.
“And look, it's always tricky when you have one team that's guaranteed to finish first and guaranteed to go through and guaranteed to be playing in the quarterfinal on Saturday, and the other team is still playing for everything. That's normal.”
And for the US to emerge unbeaten from a group that included 2013 Gold Cup finalist Panama, a resurgent Haiti side and a Honduras squad that had made the last three Gold Cup semis, Bradley said, was no small accomplishment.
“With all due respect, these games have never been easy,” he said. “There's no expectation on our end that now you come into this tournament and you're just winning every game 5-0 and waltzing into the final. It's just not reality. Look, in a difficult group, we took seven points. We finished first, and we find ourselves in the quarterfinal now. And at the end of the day, to win this tournament, to be the team that's lifting the trophy, you have to be able to win on all types of days. You have to be able to battle the elements, deal with all the crap that gets thrown at you. That certainly has always been a quality of this team.”
Part of what gets thrown at the Nats, Bradley said, is the expectation that they'll contend for the Gold Cup title every time out. But that's also what the defending champions, who can lock up a 2017 Confederations Cup spot if they repeat this year, expect of themselves.
“We're not naive. We understand that there will be the need to raise our game as the tournament goes on and the games become more important,” Bradley said. “But we welcome that challenge. And if in the big moments, we're able to do that, then we'll have a very good chance of lifting that trophy.”
Panama coach Hernan Gomez, for one, thinks the Americans have that chance.
“When we talk about the USA, we’re really talking about the team that’s the main candidate to win the title,” Gomez said in his postmatch news conference. “It’s my personal opinion, but it’s a team that groups together well, plays together well as a team, passes the ball well and combines well going forward. It’s my opinion that this is the team to beat.”
Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.