The Gold Cup final was a disappointment for the United States, even if it was expected. They came out guns blazing with tactics that they had not used before, but in the end, Mexico's quality was just too much to handle. Steve Cherundolo's injury set the team back significantly, Pablo Barerra's goal gave Mexico new life, and in the end, the team with more talent prevailed. Bob Bradley is catching plenty of criticism for the collapse and his team selection, but in this case, he didn't really do anything wrong.
If the United States won the Gold Cup, they would have qualified for the Confederations Cup, which as we saw in 2009 and 2010, provides some valuable experience for the team heading into the World Cup. Most of the USMNT's young players weren't ready for an occasion like a Gold Cup final against a talented Mexico team, and with that in mind, Bradley picked the right squad.
Yes, his decision to bring in Jonathan Bornstein when Cherundolo got hurt was questionable, but what isn't questionable is taking Cherundolo and other veterans in the first place. Him along with Carlos Bocanegra, Clarence Goodson, Jermaine Jones and other veterans gave the United States the best chance to win the Gold Cup. They didn't get the job done because they were overmatched by a superior side, and that isn't the fault of Bob Bradley.
Now, Bradley (or the next manager, if Bradley is fired) has time to groom young defenders ahead of the games that matter. He has a year until World Cup qualifying starts and just under two years until the hexagonal section of qualifying. Between the friendly matches on the calendar and a likely soft qualifying match or four, the United States has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 matches between now and when the big, tough games begin.
That period of time is enough time to groom young players for the Hex, the 2013 Gold Cup, and the 2014 World Cup. In total, between competitive and non-competitive matches, the United States will probably play nearly 30 games before the 2014 World Cup. That's not only enough time for young players that we know about to develop into World Cup quality stars, that's enough time for players we've never heard of to come out of the woodwork and develop into viable options.
The biggest problem that the United States has is in the center of defense, where all of the established options are either on the downside of their careers or perpetually average. Carlos Bocanegra, Jay DeMerit, Oguchi Onyewu and Clarence Goodson all fall into that category. With the current young crop of American central defenders having a good deal of natural talent and almost no big game experience between them, it would be seriously hindering to both the long-term and short-term future of the U.S. men's national team to have more than one of these players in the squad at any given time.
United States fans can engage in endless debates about whether Tim Ream, Ike Opara, Gale Agbossumonde, Omar Gonzalez, or Ethan White is the next great American central defender. What they can all agree on as a group, though, as that at least two of those players (or similarly young players) are going to have to be in every single squad from here on out.
Clarence Goodson was never more than a solid, serviceable player while Oguchi Onyewu may never fully recover from his knee injury. These players are probably two of the best four defenders if the United States needs to win a game tomorrow, but they have no business being in any squad going forward. Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra are still serviceable players who have lots of big game experience, and they can be role models for young players. At least one of them should be in the team as a result of this. But if at least two of the above-listed central defenders or two defenders of a similar age aren't in every last USMNT squad going forward, Bob Bradley or whoever manages the team isn't doing his job.
It would be nice to see the likes of Mikkel Diskerud get more chances in the first team, but it isn't nearly as important for him to become established in the first team as it is for the central defenders. The first choice players in the midfield and attack are good enough to compete with the best in the world and they're young enough that they will be there at their best in 2014. The current players along the back line, for the most part, satisfy neither criteria.
Bradley or whoever manages the United States going forward needs to pick the two or three young central defenders that he believes to be the most likely to be able to play at a high level in the hexagonal and at the 2014 World Cup, and then he has to play them. Frequently. He has to let these players make mistakes and not pull them as a result of those mistakes. The United States will lose some friendlies and they might narrowly defeat some lowly CONCACAF opponents that they are supposed to crush, but they will be a better team as a result.
The new cycle starts today.