USMNT: Not a Metaphor, Just a Football Match

Beckerman, Beltran, and Rimando: continuing the campaign for landmark status in Salt Lake City. (image: soccerbyives.com)

Beckerman, Beltran, and Rimando: continuing the campaign for landmark status in Salt Lake City. (image: soccerbyives.com)

The Yanks tossed a 4-1 win over Cuba onto the pile of its recent success. OTF’s Austin Fido is back to consider what it all means for the USMNT’s Gold Cup campaign and beyond…

Against Cuba, because complacency is the enemy of consistency, and because this squad is as much about identifying World Cup depth as winning this tournament, Jürgie started just five of the lineup that kicked off the match with Belize four days earlier.

At the back, only Nick Rimando and Michael Orozco kept their places. Michael Parkhurst was swapped out for Tony Beltran, and the coach turned up the team’s Real Salt Lake quotient to “full Kreis”. Captain Beasley was rested along with Clarence Goodson, Edgar Castillo returned to the left side of defense, and Oguchi Onweyu got the armband. In the midfield, Brek Shea and Stuart Holden made starts that signified important steps forward in their respective returns to the national team player pool. Finally, Herculez Gomez replaced Chris Wondolowski up front.

Gooch and Gomez were due the start, as they only missed out on the Belize game due to turf trepidation. However, this game was probably Klinsi’s only chance to rest most of his presumed starters, and maybe re-calibrate his assumptions prior to the commencement of the more competitive phase of this tournament. Hence a starting lineup more ransacked than rotated.

But flipping the lineup did not flip the script. With the comforting predictability of a mid-week sitcom, USMNT gave us its third consecutive performance of a familiar narrative: a jaunty opening, a moment of adversity, and said adversity overwhelmed by goals — lots and lots of goals.

Roll credits… This has been a 4-1 victory over Los Leones del Caribe, starring Landon Donovan and directed by Jürgen Klinsmann, with goals by Wondo.

In this episode, the jaunty opening came with a slapstick element. Thirty-odd minutes of abundant possession let the Yanks clown their way through an entertaining riff on the over-hit cross, the under-hit pass, and the pratfall in the box.

Brek Shea — long suspected of having a talent for comedy — was the main source of fun in this period. He had one of those days where passing sequences came to him to die. Although Brek made the cross that produced USMNT’s first shot on target, he essentially spent 45 minutes dribbling too close to his markers, hitting the first defender, or thumping the ball at some distant feature of the Salt Lake City skyline. Shea was the unfortunate exemplar of a team that was getting so much of the ball, it was choking on it.

Your worst day in the last two weeks is a 4-1 win. Smile, dammit. (image: mlssoccer.com)

Your worst day in the last two weeks is a 4-1 win. Smile, dammit. (image: mlssoccer.com)

Next came adversity.

Ariel Martinez is quick; quicker than Edgar Castillo. Cuba’s right winger proved this emphatically. First, he beat Castillo in a foot race to reach a long ball played down the wing. Then he beat Castillo again, with a burst of speed on the dribble that took him past the left back and let him get a cross into the six-yard box. That cross was met by José Alfonso Ciprian, who Wondolowski’d his way past Oguchi Onweyu to score his first international goal. It was a good goal, and I am not one of those who seeks to attribute every breach of the defense to a back line error. 

Pretty and pleasing football then persisted for about three minutes, as Cuba turned its 36th minute goal into the start of an unlikely period of pressure on a momentarily bloodied and bowed USMNT. It didn’t last.

When first half stoppage time rolled around the Yanks were back in possession, camped out around the Cubans’ penalty area, and once again confident a goal was coming.

Rimando ponders the awesome majesty of Gooch's stride. (image: mlssoccer.com)

Rimando ponders the awesome majesty of Gooch’s stride. (image: mlssoccer.com)

The goal came from a tippy-tap exchange between Castillo and Donovan that finished with Yenier Marquez’s foot in Castillo’s midriff. Penalty. USMNT goal number 53 for Donovan. 1-1 at halftime.

Klinsi tactfully withdrew Brek Shea at the interval. At 23, there are better days than this ahead of him. Jose Torres came on, and the Yanks were quickly back to their possession-dominating stride. In the 57th minute, Castillo cut the ball back to the top of the box for Stuart Holden, who clumsily nudged it into a Cuban defender. But the rebound rolled gently to Joe Corona, and he one-timed a shot past the ‘keeper from outside the area. At that moment, USMNT supporters across the country simultaneously thought, “That’s what Klinsmann sees in Corona.”

Adversity overcome.

The Cubans weren’t done causing trouble though. Scarcely a minute after conceding, Ciprian got past Gooch once again, but the big man recovered to win the ball with one implausibly giant stride. He took out Ciprian while he was at it, and the referee would have been justified in awarding a penalty. There were reasons not to (Gooch did win the ball and Ciprian didn’t catch the full brunt of Onweyu’s substantial presence until after the ball was won), and those reasons prevailed on the day. No penalty.

It wasn’t until the 66th minute — after Gomez was withdrawn for Wondolowski — that USMNT could be confident of their script. Mix Diskerud replaced Holden at the same time Wondo arrived; the young Scandimerican seems to be a better fit with Kyle Beckerman, if you’re looking for a double pivot sort of midfield. Tony Beltran found Beckerman on one of his forays up field. Beckerman skimmed a cross into the box, which connected with Wondo’s run to the near post for the Yanks’ third.

Castillo spots a move he can use later. (image: ph.sports.yahoo.com)

Castillo spots a move he can use later. (image: ph.sports.yahoo.com)

There was still time for another, as Edgar Castillo was having one his best games in a USMNT shirt. By the end of the match, he could claim a role in three of the four goals his team scored. Castillo found more space for the overlap once Shea was off the field, and produced a series of troubling runs down the left. One of those runs led to Joe Corona’s goal and another brought about Wondo’s second.

In the 85th minute, Castillo found Jose Torres and continued his run into the box, briefly opening a channel for a return pass that would have put him through on goal. Of course, Torres waited too long to take the chance, but any idiot can push the ball into an open space. It takes a special talent to wait for defenders to close off the obvious pass, then lob the back line, and put the ball into the path of the man supposedly isolated.

Castillo then chested Torres’s chip in the general direction of Chris Wondolowski, and that’s all Wondo needs at the moment. Half a chance for him is generally no chance for the ‘keeper.

Another two goals brings Chris Wondolowski’s Gold Cup tally to five in two games. To put that in perspective, there have been 11 Gold Cup tournaments prior to this one. Five goals would have been enough for the golden boot in nine of those competitions. There are still four matches to play for whichever two teams get to Soldier Field.

It takes three "W"s to spell Wondolowski goes to World Cup. (image: deadspin.com)

It takes three W’s to spell “Wondolowski goes to World Cup”. (image: deadspin.com)

Has Wondo’s gluttonous July bought him a ticket to Brazil? Not yet. It may not even be sufficient to get him into the starting line up for the knockout rounds ahead. Six goals in three games gets him the right kind of attention though. Six goals in his past two weeks of USMNT duty is more than Wondo managed in the entire first half of San Jose’s 2013 league campaign.

One might argue that Belize, Cuba, and Guatemala are not as defensively capable as the average MLS team. It’s also possible that Wondo gets better service from an international-class midfield. Both contentions are probably true. But regardless of the caveats, Chris Wondolowski is acing his test. After three games, he is USMNT’s standout player.

And what of Donovan, you ask?

Pace, Landon. Without him, Beckerman, Corona, and Torres would have spent the last three matches lost in exquisitely tedious passing triangles. Thank Donovan for coming in from the wing during the first half against Guatemala to jolt the aforementioned trio out of their training ground routine. 

So Klinsi’s freewheeling bandwagon rattles on to East Hartford next, with its first serious test looming in the form of Costa Rica — at least that was the impression given when the tournament schedule was published. Since the advent of actual soccer in this competition, Los Ticos have been at pains to play down any suggestion of a challenge to USA-Mexico Gold Cup hegemony.

Belize's Trevor Lennen shelters another Tico from the burden of expectation. (image: sports.yahoo.com)

Belize’s Trevor Lennen shelters another Tico from the burden of expectation. (photo: sports.yahoo.com)

Costa Rica made heavy weather of beating Cuba, prevailing 3-0 only after Los Leones del Caribe wilted in the reflected heat of Portland’s plastic grass. Then, Los Ticos shambled to a 1-0 win over Belize courtesy of an own-goal and a last-minute scrambled goalmouth clearance.

Their narrow victory at least made a hero out of Woodrow West, Belize’s reserve ‘keeper, hitherto best known for refusing to be bribed to lose a match he didn’t play. He was rightly praised for reporting the attempt to recruit him to an effort to fix the Jaguars’ game against USMNT. But West now has a more positive Gold Cup souvenir: an impressive double-save that prevented Mauricio Castillo from scoring his first international goal and spared Dalton Eiley the indignity of his second own-goal of the game.

Woodrow West (#1) says no. (image: aldia.cr)

Woodrow West (#1) says no. (photo: aldia.cr)

West may yet garner even happier memories, as losing by just one goal to Costa Rica sends Belize into the last match of Group C play with a very slim shot at progressing to the quarterfinals. If either Cuba or Belize can manage to win their duel in Connecticut by four goals, then they’ll have the necessary tie-breakers to sneak past Martinique as one of the best third-placed teams in the group stages. Or, if neither El Salvador nor Trinidad and Tobago win their final group stage matches, a win of any type would be sufficient. Should the Jaguars or Los Leones move forward, the reward is a July 20th matchup with Panama.

Brazil is this way. (image: aaroads.com)

This way to Brazil. (photo: aaroads.com)

For USMNT and Los Ticos, their Connecticut showdown is merely the latest in their 2013 series. The finale is a September 6th Hexagonal tussle in Costa Rica. Both sides will be re-tooled for World Cup Qualifying by then, but it makes this opponent — both in the group stages and the expected semifinal rematch — perhaps the most important for those members of the USMNT Gold Cup squad who harbor serious ambitions of making the World Cup.

The Gold Cup tourney offers many chances for the men in USMNT’s starless stripes to make their respective cases for a trip to Brazil. However, few will be more pertinent than the opportunity to leave a mark on the team that currently presents the most serious challenge to Die Klinsmannschaft’s domination of the Hex. To get to Rio, the Yanks may first need to find a way through San José, via Rentschler Field.

OTF’s  Austin Fido Twitters sporadically @canetop.

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