HOUSTON – Following the U.S. soccer team over the last couple of weeks has been like watching an extended NBA or NHL playoff series.
The temperature rises and falls like day turning to night in the desert.
There are wild swings of perception. The home team wins and everything is lollipops and Slurpees. The players are feted through proper media channels, the coach is celebrated as a genius who made all the right choices and the skies are not cloudy all day. Let’s all head out for Tex-Mex and celebratory margaritas!
But then a team loses. Moods sour. Grumbling ensues. The players didn’t try hard enough and the coach is a bum who is needs to label his shoes “L” and “R” just to get that much right in life. Grrrrr!
(By the way, it’s this kind of extended period of emotion, this prolonged range of focus that makes me advocate more home-and-away series in the MLS playoff structure. But let’s stay on point here.)
So, I’ve gotten some of that same feeling while monitoring the United States’ up-and-down progress through the Gold Cup.
This is a great spot to drag out one of my favorite life axioms: “One” might be written off as an accident, but “two” is definitely starting to look like a trend.
Wednesday inside Reliant Stadium (where the roof will be closed, I’m assured, never mind that it was open for yesterday’s U.S. practice – so the weapons-grade humidity in Houston won’t be an issue) we find out if the recent upswing in fortunes for Bob Bradley’s team is a trend or not. Read on for more …
I wrote, just like pretty much everyone else, that Bradley made all the right tactical and personnel moves in Sunday’s 2-0 win over Jamaica. And a few players rose at just the right moment, like Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Eric Lichaj.
But here’s a point that maybe I downplayed, one that maybe greater role in the bigger equation: Jamaica wasn’t very good. The Reggae Boyz just didn’t put the United States under any real pressure. They sat back rather passively rather than go at the Americans aggressively, the way Panama did back on June 10 in Tampa. And we all saw how that move ended, right?
By the way, what would Sunday’s game have looked like if the early U.S. instability in the back had led to a Jamaican goal?
More details about tonight’s game are here, in my match preview at SI.com.
I don’t have a good read on how Bradley might approach this one. I suspect they’ll stick with the 4-2-3-1 we saw Sunday at RFK, possibly with Alejandro Bedoya keeping his place in the lineup along the outside. Clint Dempsey would slide inside, playing beneath Juan Agudelo, with Landon Donovan across from Bedoya.
If the United States wins, the summer will have more or less been rescued. Making the final was always, in my mind, the minimum U.S. requirement. Beating Mexico there (assuming El Tri does its part on the “back nine” of tonight’s doubleheader) will be a whole different jar of salsa. But a United States appearance in the final means that things are more or less OK. The team and the program might not have improved since last summer, but we can probably conclude that the team isn’t in decline.
But if the United States loses tonight…
Then we can conclude that Sunday was more “accident” than “trend.” Then the real questions start.