Losses to Mexico in both 2009 and 2011 left El Tri as the clear top dog in CONCACAF. But 2013 has a different feeling than those two tournaments did, largely because of the depth U.S. boss Jurgen Klinsmann has developed in what is largely considered his second-choice team.
In the semifinals against Honduras on Wednesday night - a 3-1 victory - the deep roster came through once again, with Klinsmann opting to give Eddie Johnson a start up front and going with Alejandro Bedoya on right wing. Those two moves bolstered the team's speed and gave it a different look from the side that faced El Salvador in the quarterfinals last weekend.
"We talked about [how] they were going to press high at the start, and we had Eddie out there and he was able to stretch them a little bit and Alejandro got in behind them a few times so that was a good outlet for us to have, especially in the first half," midfielder Stuart Holden said after the match. "It stretched the game a little bit and allowed us to play still and connect some passes in the middle."
Johnson scored the USA's opener, and good work from Bedoya led to both of Landon Donovan's goals, making Klinsmann's decision to include the two from the outset seem brilliant.
In truth, it was.
Honduras' high back line opened up space for Johnson to peal off of the central defenders and run in behind, which he did to great effect throughout the first half, winning more than a few foot races with Honduran defender Osman Chavez and turning the ball back to his onrushing teammates.
Johnson came into the team for the knockout rounds, with Klinsmann using a new rule for the 2013 tournament that allowed him to bring in four new players after the group stage. The move has paid off in a big way, with Johnson scoring twice in two games and putting a strong 90-minute showing against Honduras.
For Johnson, it's the continuation of his rebirth with the national team, but he knows that each time he's with the team he has to show his value.
"This roster is deep," he said. "This team has a great pool of guys.
"For me it’s important to come into these camps and do well. I’m not a young player anymore. I’m a veteran player, and the older you get, the more camps you come in and if you don’t produce, they start to overlook you."
Johnson could get overlooked on Sunday when Klinsmann makes out his lineup for the final, and the German manager would have a solid argument for doing so even with his goals in the last two games. After all, Wondolowski has five goals in the competition and probably feels as though he should be given the chance to start in the final.
But that's the point here. Depth and competition for places are a good thing, and Klinsmann has done a masterful job throughout the tournament of creating chances for players to state their cases for starting spots.
As Jose Torres said after the match: "We’ve been doing good, the forwards that have been starting for us, they’ve been on point, their mind was on goal. Today, changing the lineup a little bit, Eddie is a strong player, he holds the ball up very well like Wondo, so I think every player that goes in does a great job."
Torres has a point.
The battle for a starting spot in the midfield between Holden, Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud is far from settled, and Klinsmann will have a choice to make on the right wing once again - with both Bedoya and Joe Corona having played well enough to deserve consideration - but it's the type of problem that any manager likes to have.
The semifinal against Honduras was another sign that times may be changing, and that Klinsmann's vision for a deep and diverse team may very well be seen sooner rather than later.
The final looms as the last step for this group.
No matter how it plays out, there will be plenty of positives for the USA to take away from this Gold Cup - and there is every reason to believe that many of these players are fighting for a possible spot on the plane to Brazil next summer and have stated their cases rather well - but the reality is that Sunday's match is a chance for the USA to put in a claim as the deepest, and arguably the best, team in CONCACAF.
"I was a part of the team in 2009 and we got all the way to the final and lost and it was a terrible feeling," Holden said. "I want to make sure that I do anything in my power, and all the guys want to win, and we’ll be going into that game with level heads and really making sure that we get the job done from the first minute."