At one point during the second half of the United States’ complete and utter 5-1 throttling of El Salvador in the Gold Cup quarterfinals at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, a variant of this question started being tossed around on Twitter: Is this the best the U.S. team has ever played? It’s hard to add qualifiers to that statement with only 140 characters, but the win over El Salvador was the ninth in-a-row for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team — a record in the U.S. Soccer Federation’s 100 years of existence. Asking the question isn’t completely outlandish.
Before digging deeper it needs to be said the last five games in the winning streak have come against, how shall we put this nicely, weak opposition. Guatemala (93 FIFA Ranking, 89 ELO Ranking), Belize (130, 167), Cuba (82, 102), Costa Rica (39, 28) and El Salvador (94, 79) aren’t exactly the measuring sticks for what the U.S. ultimately wants to accomplish. Only Costa Rica is active in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, but like anything else you can only play the teams in front of you.
Also bear in mind, eight of the nine games in the winning streak have come on American soil. Even the win over Germany at RFK which got the streak started on June 2 comes with a qualifier attached since a host of first-choice German internationals were absent in the wake of the Bayern/Dortmund Champions League final the previous weekend. That said, aside from customizing a tournament on “FIFA 13,” you’re never going to see a run in international soccer against Top 20 ranked teams after one another aside from the knockout rounds of the World Cup, if even then.
Other than the 1-0 win over Costa Rica on a 100-degree night in Hartford, the U.S. looked great offensively sweeping aside the other four teams in the Gold Cup portion of the winning streak by an aggregate 21-3 scoreline. Against teams like this the U.S. tends to dominate possession. In the past, often, the U.S. would struggle for long stretches trying to find a way to break down the opposition, yet this month even with a mostly second-choice lineup, the U.S. has turned possession into chances and chances into goals.
One factor impossible to discount during the Gold Cup is Landon Donovan’s contribution. Had he not taken his self-imposed break from soccer earlier this year, he probably wouldn’t have been included in the Gold Cup roster. The Gold Cup was a lifeline for Donovan to get back into Klinsmann’s good graces and he hasn’t disappointed, scoring three times to up his all-time U.S. record total to 54. More than that, having a veteran presence in the lineup — one who is still the best American 1-on-1 in the open field — makes life easier for Joe Corona, Mix Diskerud, Jose Torres, Stuart Holden etc. All those players are the pass-first players who can interchange around the field that Klinsmann has been preaching about since taking over the job in 2011.
Anyways, let’s get back to that question about this being the best the U.S. has played, shall we?
Two events tend to draw the focus for “best” results by the National Team: the 2002 World Cup and 2009 Confederations Cup. International soccer, by its nature, makes comparisons difficult. Is blowing the doors off second and third-tier CONCACAF foes realistically even in the same sentence as a 2-0 win over then defending European champion Spain in the Confederations Cup? One game was about scoring quick on the counter and then holding on for dear life, the others were romps vs. overmatched opponents.
As for the 2002 World Cup, it always conjures warm-and-fuzzy memories for U.S. soccer fans — maybe since the games were played at 2:30 a.m. When Bruce Arena’s team came out and blitzed a supposedly great Portugal team to build a 3-0 lead in the opener for both teams, you could argue those were the best 40-odd minutes ever played by U.S. soccer in a game that counted. To this day it’s hard to know if John O’Brien actually existed or was a figment of sleep-deprived imagination.
Of course, the U.S. held on to win that game 3-2 and would have been eliminated from the tournament if not for Ji-Sung Park’s late goal for South Korea in the final group stage game vs. Portugal, as the U.S. lost to Poland 3-1 to finish 1-1-1 in the Group. The U.S. did thoroughly defeat Mexico 2-0 in the famous dos a cero Round of 16 match and got hosed against Germany in the quarterfinals on a non-call on Torsten Frings’ handball on the goal line that stopped a goal and wasn’t called a penalty. It’s still the National Team’s best showing at a World Cup, even if it only consisted of two wins out of five matches.
Perhaps the best comparison from this century to what the U.S. is currently doing came in 2005, when it went nine games unbeaten — winning eight out of nine with one draw — during the build up to the 2006 World Cup. The streak began with a 2-1 loss to England in a high-profile friendly at Soldier Field — comparable to the loss to Belgium this May. (The loss to England featured a brace from Kieran Richardson, yes that actually happened.) From the loss to England the U.S. won a pair of qualifiers and followed that with a win in the Gold Cup, defeating Panama in penalties at Giants Stadium in the final. Two more wins followed in qualifiers vs. Trinidad and Tobago and then another 2-0 victory over Mexico, this one in Columbus, Ohio, which booked a place in the World Cup. (This time frame also saw the emergence of Eddie Johnson 1.0, pre-Simon Phoenix haircut.)
That run in 2005 might serve as a reminder about the unpredictability of international soccer. The U.S. was riding as high as ever, buoyed by the run to the quarterfinals in 2002. There were magazine covers, talk about “breakthroughs” and loads of pre-Cup hype … only for the U.S. to land in Germany and lay an egg with a 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic in the opener which they couldn’t dig out from under.
Still, this current Gold Cup has shown the U.S. owns a lot more quality depth than perhaps expected. In 2007 then-coach Bob Bradley juggled the Gold Cup and the Copa America, which the U.S. was invited as a guest to participate in. The U.S. beat Mexico in the final to win the Gold Cup, but a B/C team sent to Venezuela lost three games and went home. Two years later in 2009, the U.S. sent its top players to the Confederations Cup, where it ended up losing to Brazil in the final and sent a second-choice squad to the Gold Cup, which got embarrassed 5-0 by a full-strength Mexico.
Considering the way Klinsmann has the U.S. playing along with Mexico’s continual struggles — its second choice lineup barely got by Trinidad & Tobago 1-0 on Saturday — maybe we’re setting up for some reverse symmetry of the 2009 result should the border rivals face off in the final Sunday in Chicago.
Is this month the best the U.S. has ever played? Probably not, but it at least needs to be in the discussion. Hail Klinsmann. Who would’ve thought?