Before this month’s Gold Cup began we outlined how, more than anything else, it was a chance for fringe U.S. internationals to make their best case for inclusion in the so-called “A-Team” lineup.
The U.S. wrapped up group play 3-0-0 with wins over CONCACAF minnows Belize and Cuba, along with a forgettable 1-0 win over Costa Rica Tuesday night. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team enters the knockout rounds riding an eight-game winning streak, which is the best in U.S. Soccer’s history. How much of a judgement can be drawn from these three matches, along with Sunday’s quarterfinal with El Salvador is open for debate. There’s something to be said, but probably not a lot.
Still, after 270 minutes of Gold Cup soccer, here are some quick observations on the roster:
* Landon Donovan: That touch to set up Brek Shea needs to be dipped in amber and saved for future generations. Donovan, after his self-imposed soccer hiatus, has clearly displayed he still has something to offer Klinsmann as we zero in on Brazil next June. If that’s a place in the starting XI when the full team plays qualifiers in September is questionable. Who does he displace? Graham Zusi, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore or Fabian Johnson? Johnson did injury his knee during preseason training with his club team in Germany, which does open a clear path for Donovan in Klinsmann’s now-preferred 4-2-3-1 system on the left.
* Stuart Holden: The Scottish-born midfielder made it all the way back, scoring vs. Belize after nearly three lost seasons due to injuries. Overall Holden hasn’t been out-and-out great and looked a little sluggish vs. Costa Rica (in 90-degree heat, mind), yet he went the full 90 minutes and will push for a place in the lineup Sept. 6 at Costa Rica. He’ll only get better with regular club time in England his season at Bolton.
* Joe Corona: Although he doesn’t exactly have a spot in the A-Team lineup, mark it down, Corona will be the breakout American player going into the 2014 World Cup. Call it a hunch.
* Sean Johnson: A clean-sheet vs. a second-tier Costa Rica team isn’t world-changing, but Johnson got a chance following his gaffe that kept the U.S. out of the 2012 London Olympics. His acrobatic save triggered the sequence for the game’s only goal, too.
* Chris Wondolowski: This has nothing to do with his jersey being misspelled with an extra ‘W’ in the first half against Belize. Wondolowski scored a hat trick vs. Belize and another two vs. Cuba. Problem is, he feels like that “Four A” baseball player — too good for the minors but not good enough for the majors. Still, if he keeps scoring in the Gold Cup he’ll likely be included in the 23-man lineups for the upcoming qualifiers. The U.S. striker pool is shallow after Altidore, so poo-pooing goals from an American striker — regardless of the opposition — might not be the wisest move.
* Brek Shea: The Texan was garnering Johnathan Bornstein-level heat from U.S. fans on Twitter following his woeful display in the first half vs. Cuba. Lo and behold, he goes and scores the winner vs. Costa Rica, granted it was more the product of Donovan’s pass but he still finished the chance. Shea could still play his way out of contention, but that goal buys him some time (and goodwill).
* Oguchi Onyewu: It’s a tad unfair to label the veteran defender a “loser,” but he was injured and unable to play vs. Costa Rica. Klinsmann seemed much more comfortable with Clarence Goodson and Michael Orozco Fisal in central defense, regardless. Onyewu was also one of the players dropped for the knockout rounds, which doesn’t bode well for his future with the National Team. It’s nice Klinsmann gave Onyewu a shot, but international soccer has no room for sentimentality.
* FOX: As outlined here, there’s a different feel to an event when it’s not broadcast on ESPN. It didn’t look like FOX had announcers JP Dellacamera or Cobi Jones on-site calling the U.S. games in Portland or Hartford. Most people other than media nerds aren’t going to notice this, but cost-cutting moves like this are not a good look for FOX, which holds rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup. Sunday’s game is on main network FOX, one would assume Gus Johnson and Eric Wynalda will call it (4 p.m.).
CONCACAF rules allowed Klinsmann to add up to four players to the roster. The preferred first-choice central defensive pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler were called in. Eddie Johnson replaced Herculez Gomez. Alan Gordon got called in, too, but he shouldn’t be a factor. Don’t be surprised if Klinsmann juggles the lineup and uses the new players for the later stages, likely against Honduras and Mexico in the final when the pressure ratchets up.
Some pressure might be in play Sunday in Baltimore, as there’s growing scuttlebutt M&T Bank Stadium will be packed with Salvadoran fans who live in the greater Washington, D.C., metro area. It adds a wrinkle to the otherwise rote tournament to this stage.
Previously: Brek Shea’s Goal Lifts U.S. Over Costa Rica, Marvel at the One-Touch Pass From Landon Donovan That Set It Up [Video]
Previously: Joe Corona and Chris Wondolowski Score Delightful Second-Half Goals for USMNT [Video]
Previously: Could Clint Dempsey be the Next American Soccer Star on the Move this Summer?