The U.S. national team sleepwalked through much of Saturday's Gold Cup third-place match, leaving Jurgen Klinsmann grasping at straws.
CHESTER, PA -- The U.S. national team had a chance to go out of the 2015 Gold Cup on a positive note and try to ease the pain of last Wednesday's stunning semifinal loss to Jamaica, but it became clear very early on that the Americans had not recovered from that defeat, as evidenced by the team sleepwalking through the first two-thirds of Saturday's Gold Cup third-place match.
Panama thoroughly outplayed the Americans for much of the match, with Brad Guzan and his defense forced into save after save, and only a second-half surge sparked by the introduction of Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin salvaged something from the day. It wasn't all that much though, as the teams wound up in a penalty kick shootout that Panama won in fitting fashion.
Afterwards, Klinsmann spoke in misdirecting tones, essentially impliying that the distractions created by the Gold Cup's officiating controversies created an atmosphere that made it tough for his players to concentrate.
"There was just a lot of stuff going on outside the field," Klinsmann said. "There was always a sense of kind of being uncertain of what happens next. When I talked to the players this morning, I said, ‘Listen guys, we don’t know what will happen,' because every time you go on the field you don’t know what happens with the refs in terms of, either way they go, you feel really sorry for them because if they make a mistake whatever side goes at them.
"This kind of feeling was there from the beginning in this tournament," he added. "You always wonder what will happen. That kind of overshadowed everything that went on. Probably until tomorrow in the final game."
Klinsmann wasn't far off in suggesting that the terrible officiating decisions that have helped give Mexico a magic carpet ride to the final have been an ugly stain on this Gold Cup, but that stuff can hardly be used to explain away what wound up being a thoroughly underwhelming Gold Cup for a U.S. team that managed just three wins in six matches, only one of which was convincing (a 6-0 rout of an overmatched Cuba).
It's never easy getting a tournament favorite to climb off the mat and put up an effort in a third-place match, even less so against an opponent with a chip on its shoulder and no pressure on its back. Panama, missing many of its top stars (such as Jaime Penedo, Luis Tejada, Blas Perez and Gabriel Gomez), thoroughly outplayed a listless U.S. that looked thoroughly uninterested in being on the field. Apparently Klinsmann's team didn't get the message, the one delivered by Klinsmann himself a day earlier, that ending on a strong note mattered.
In the end, the result doesn't matter, but seeing a U.S. team lay an egg for a second straight match suddenly has the success that preceded it feeling like a distant memory. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was quick to point out afterwards that national teams have their ups and downs, and as true as that statement is, the U.S. team's failure at the 2015 Gold Cup wasn't just another bump in the road. It was a painfully inadequate performance by a team that looked very little like CONCACAF's best team, and nothing like the team that beat the Netherlands and Germany in friendlies just a month ago.
As much as Klinsmann may have floated theories about CONCACAF officiating fiascoes distracting his players, one thing he didn't do was try and lean on the fact he was missing some players, such as Jozy Altidore and, later in the tournament, DaMarcus Beasley.
"The goal was to win this Gold Cup with the best team available, and that’s what we had," Klinsmann said. "We had (our) best team in the tournament."
One thing we were reminded of very clearly on Saturday is that Klinsmann isn't going anywhere. Calls for his head will fall on deaf ears as he has U.S. Soccer's full backing through to the 2018 World Cup. That is unless the team failed to qualify (something that feels far less likely after the cushy World Cup qualifying draw the Americans received on Saturday).
So perhaps we should forgive Klinsmann for seeming way too calm in the wake of a Gold Cup disaster. For Klinsmann, the 2018 World Cup is all that matters, and the value of preparing for it by playing in the Confederations Cup is why October's playoff against the Mexico/Jamaica Gold Cup final winner has even more value than any Gold Cup match of the past month.
No matter who the Americans facing in October, they will need to play significantly better than they did to close out the Gold Cup, which was just plain ugly.
Here are five takeaways from the U.S. team's third-place match loss to Panama:
When the Gold Cup began, it was seen as a chance for John Brooks and Timmy Chandler to assert themselves as lock starters going forward in the next World Cup qualifying cycle. After a series of disjointed performances, it's tough to say either is ready to really be counted on in big matches. Brooks and Chandler were awful against Panama on Saturday, capping terrible tournaments for both.
Perhaps the most mind-boggling thing about how both Bundesliga defenders struggled is the fact that both players were coming off good seasons in Germany. They both play at a level that would lead you to believe they should be able to step into the U.S. starting lineup and show themselves to be unquestioned starters. Neither made anything close to that case.
So what now for Brooks and Chandler? There is a good chance we will still see them both in October, though Brooks seems a better bet to still be a starter when the Confederations Cup playoff match than Chandler. Brooks has loads of potential, but the Panama match provided a reminder of just how bad he can still be.
Was that enough to lead Klinsmann to give Matt Besler a call for the September friendlies? It should, but then again, Klinsmann seems extremely committed to his young defenders, to a fault.
Jozy Altidore's early exit from the Gold Cup should have meant a golden opportunity for Aron Johannsson to show Klinsmann why he's ready to be the new starting striker alongside Clint Dempsey, but for the second straight match Johannsson failed to find the net and assert his rise up the pecking order.
Though he was more active in the semifinal against Jamaica, he simply couldn't get going in Saturday's match, and never really threatened. At times you can see that he can move well, but he also shows a lack of a second gear, or the nose for goal that Dempsey boasts. With more than a month between now and the September qualifiers, Altidore should be able to regain his fitness enough to return to the national team fold, and if he does, Johannsson may find himself waiting a long time for another chance like the one he just squandered.
On a day when most of the good U.S. highlights consisted of Guzan and American defenders clearing Panamanian shots off the line, the lone real bright spot was Clint Dempsey's goal, which was started by a beautiful long pass from Michael Bradley to DeAndre Yedlin, which Yedlin then fed to Dempsey.
That Bradley and Dempsey are the two best American players is no secret. Everyone knows it, including every coach in the region (including Cuba's coach, who simply uttered 'Bradley' and 'Dempsey' when asked which Americans players impress him). As great as it is for the U.S. to have them both, the team continues to be overly reliant on them to lead the way. They combined for eight of the team's 11 goals in the tournament, a staggering percentage, and one that came about because of Altidore's inability to get fit, Alejandro Bedoya's slow return to fitness and the inability of any other attacking player to really take charge of the tournament.
Gyasi Zardes and Johannsson had their moments, and Bedoya came on strong in the knockout rounds, but as we head towards the fall, the U.S. is still very much a team that lives or dies by how well Bradley and Dempsey play. If Klinsmann doesn't have some other attackers step up and become more consistent contributors, the U.S. may never be able to avoid disappointments like this past Gold Cup.
If there was a player who needed a strong showing on Saturday, it was Guzan, who had his worst match of the tournament in the loss to Jamaica. Guzan made save after impressive save to keep the U.S. in a match it seemed destined to lose, then he stopped a penalty kick in the shootout to give his team some hope.
With Tim Howard ready to make his national team return, Guzan showed Klinsmann that he can still be counted on, and if he is, in fact, Aston Villa's starting goalkeeper to start the upcoming English Premier League season, we shouldn't be surprised to see Klinsmann stick with Guzan rather than hand back the No. 1 jersey to Howard. That said, with a crucial Confederations Cup playoff looming, Klinsmann might start thinking about Howard's World Cup heroics and bring him in to give the locker room a boost.
An injury ruined Klinsmann's plans to have Beasley play a prominent role in the Gold Cup knockout rounds, and things turned downright awkward on Saturday, when Beasley looked like he might not even enter a match Klinsmann had essentially assured would be his national team swan song. Beasley came on in extra time, showed some glimpses of his quality, but then had his storybook farewell ruined when he stepped up to take the final U.S. penalty kick and had it saved, giving Panama the victory.
Both Klinsmann and Beasley left the door open to a national team return, though trying to fit one in any time soon might not be easy. Beasley deserves a better sendoff, and the friendly against Peru on Sept. 4 could be the right opportunity for that. If there's any player who deserves a do-over in his last national team match, it's Beasley.