As disappointing as the group stage may have been for the United States, all will be forgiven if they can come through and win the tournament. Their path to the Gold Cup title begins on Sunday at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. when they begin knockout stage play against Jamaica in the quarterfinals. With the way that the U.S. is playing though, getting past a surging Reggae Boyz will not be an easy task and is far from a certainty.
While the Americans may have entered the tournament as one of the two favorites, alongside Mexico, they looked nothing like a favorite in losing to Panama and an uninspiring 1-0 win over Guadeloupe. The group stage was ugly at best for the U.S. and now they have no margin for error. It is win or go home and for head coach Bob Bradley, that go home may be permanent. If the US. doesn't make it to the final of the tournament then he may lose his job.
Bradley may not like that idea, but Jamaica has to hate the idea of playing the U.S. in the quarterfinals even more. They were outstanding in the group stage, taking all nine points to win an admittedly weak Group B. The best team that Jamaica has put together since they qualified for the 1998 World Cup has been strong even without Omar Cummings and Ricardo Fuller.
As is always the case with Jamaica, they lean upon their supreme speed and athleticism. What has made this Jamaican team so dangerous though is their discipline. Previous editions of the Reggae Boyz have lacked discipline, shape and any sort of ability to build through the midfield. That's not the case with this Jamaican team. That's not to say they're particular technical or disciplined, but they are miles better than they usually are.
With Jamaica playing as well as they are, the U.S. will be tested. A slow footed centerback pairing of Clarence Goodson and Carlos Bocanegra will have to deal with the speedy Reggae Boyz. Jamaica also plays three at the back with a midfield that is often interchanging. It can be broken down, but only if teams are able to show some tactical acumen and make good runs. Neither is the strongest of areas for the U.S.
Meanwhile, nobody outside of Bradley is quite sure what team the U.S. will put out there. Will Juan Agudelo or Chris Wondolowski pair with Jozy Altidore up top? Might Clint Dempsey be pushed up there with Alejandro Bedoya stepping into the starting lineup? Will the U.S. continue to play two deep midfielders? All are questions heading into the match, but one thing is clear. Bradley has to be confident that the team he starts is the most effective one. He cannot continue to go with what he is comfortable with, see out the first 45 minutes and then make adjustments. Another poor start for the Americans and by the time they make the adjustments to get it together it could be too late.
In short, this is a match that the U.S. can and should win. They are superior to the Reggae Boyz, but they will be tested in areas where they have struggled in the past. They will have to show savvy and confidence up front and at the back. They'll need to be patient and pick apart a Reggae Boyz team that can be drawn out. If the U.S. continue to show impatience and a lack of culture in their play, they very well can go out.
Once the Americans and Jamaicans finish up play, Panama and El Salvador will have a go at it. The Panamanians pulled off the shock of the tournament in defeating the U.S. to win Group C. Luis Tejada and Blas Perez have proved deadly up top and Felipe Baloy is a fantastic defender, but there isn't much else there for Panama. Full credit goes to Julio Valdes, who has been tactically superb to this point and will need to be at the top of his game against on Sunday for Panama to take down El Salvador.
Nobody expected much from El Salvador this tournament, but they've held their own. They were demolished by Mexico, but El Tri demolished everyone in the group. A draw against Costa Rica was a very good result and they very nearly won the match. The question for them in this quarterfinal is whether their back line can handle Tejada and Perez. Their defense has been shaky thus far and there isn't a ton of quality back there so they are undoubtedly susceptible to being exposed by Panama's front two.
What was supposed to be a clear path for the U.S. to the final is no more. Now everyone thinks they can take down the Americans and rightly so. With a loss meaning the end of the line for everyone now every match will be filled with intensity and the quarterfinals, in front of a sold out crowd, will be the start of it.