U.S. domination entertaining but not without caveats

Posted by Jeff Carlisle



The U.S. men's national team is on a roll like never before. The Americans are in the midst of a team-record nine-game winning streak, and when it comes to the Gold Cup, the U.S. isn't just beating teams, it's delivering beatdowns.

-- Klinsmann, players elated with progress
-- Donovan shines again in Gold Cup

Through the 5-1 quarterfinal victory Sunday over El Salvador, the U.S. has prevailed in its Gold Cup matches by a combined score of 16-3. Only the 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in the group-stage finale has been competitive.

So since the U.S. is dispatching foes with the same efficiency as Russell Crowe in "Gladiator," the question "Are you not entertained?" is a no-brainer. As for the follow-up query, "Are you not impressed?" the answer is less clear-cut.

Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsThe U.S. has dismantled Gold Cup opponents by a combined score of 16-3, but the tournament is littered with "B" teams.

Without question, there are convincing reasons to be captivated by the attacking prowess the U.S. side has shown so far in this Gold Cup. For most of the minutes in this tournament, the U.S. has run up against classic bunker defenses intent on constricting the available space so that each attack eventually runs into a wall of defenders. It's an approach the U.S. has struggled against in the past. Four years ago, in the 2009 Gold Cup, the only blowout win was a tournament-opening 4-0 win over Grenada. Otherwise, the U.S. was forced to work for its results, including a 2-1 overtime victory over Panama in the quarterfinals. This time around, the U.S. has found ways around, over and through such tactics.

The presence of creative players like Joe Corona, Jose Torres, Mix Diskerud and Landon Donovan has certainly helped in this regard. But the level of success the U.S. has enjoyed can be directly tied to the team's speed of play. In the opening minutes of Sunday's quarterfinal, several U.S. players were caught dawdling on the ball. Once the number of touches went down, the frequency of the passes went up, and the chances soon followed.

"A lot of times, especially in the earlier stages, you can get caught up in the fact that you have more time on the ball, so you take more time, and it just slows the game down, the rhythm goes," said former U.S. international Brian McBride, who is now a television analyst for Fox Soccer Channel. "You can see that the U.S. has kept that high intensity throughout.

"You have to take your chances when you get them, but what they're doing by moving the ball quicker is they're able to find gaps more. The passing has been more intricate, more detailed, whether it's a little pitch over the top or just making the right decision at the right time. It just seems to all be flowing."

But plenty of caveats can be attached to the U.S. performances, as well. The Gold Cup that takes place in the year before a World Cup is usually littered with B-teams, and that is precisely the case here. Those countries still involved in World Cup qualifying use this tournament as a means of testing out fringe players, while first-teamers get some well-earned rest. Meanwhile, those countries that have already been eliminated from World Cup qualifying are in the process of rebuilding their squads with an eye toward the next cycle.

The current U.S. roster also has a few more A-team players than it did four years ago. Donovan in particular has shown that he is more than capable of dominating CONCACAF opposition.

All of which serves as a reminder that success against CONCACAF opponents doesn't automatically translate to success against opponents outside the region.

"I think there is a risk in thinking that now, all of a sudden, the U.S. is a team that can go and play against the best teams in the world and start knocking the ball around comfortably, creating chance after chance," former Venezuela international and current ESPN television analyst Alejandro Moreno said. "That happens in the Gold Cup because a lot of the teams are not nearly as good as they should be. It's something where you need to have some perspective on the results you're getting."

Of course, Mexico would love to have such problems. El Tri has struggled mightily in this Gold Cup, including a tournament-opening loss to Panama, so the U.S. deserves credit for taking care of business with a minimum of fuss.

"For Mexico, there's been an absence of ideas in the final third, a lack of creativity in attack," Moreno said. "Essentially, they were able to get past a Trinidad & Tobago team that was very average. You contrast that to the U.S. -- yeah, they had to play Belize, yeah, they had to play El Salvador, but whatever the case may be, they're putting away the teams they need to put away and they're doing it in a convincing fashion."

It's unlikely that this level of domination will continue in the semifinal Wednesday against Honduras. Los Catrachos have played conservatively throughout the tournament, preferring to rely on their defense to get them through matches.

"Honduras only committed four people forward in any game, and they didn't allow a lot of gaps in transition," McBride said. "And they've pressed pretty well in the middle of the field, disrupting a lot of teams."

Such an approach makes this game the toughest test yet for the Americans and points to the kind of cagey match the U.S. experienced against Costa Rica. It's also a contest in which coach Jurgen Klinsmann figures to learn the most about the players on the current roster as they stake their claim for a spot on the A-team when World Cup qualifying resumes in September.

To that end, the concepts that have gotten the U.S. this far -- quick movements off the ball, sharp passing and exploiting the flanks -- will need to be at their peak in order for the Americans to prevail Wednesday.

If that's the case, those in attendance will be impressed as well as entertained.

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