The Gold Cup: What Went RightPosted: July 29, 2013
Every two years, the regional confederation of soccer associations that make up the Caribbean, Central and North America areas has a tournament to decide the champion of the region. The official name for the organization running soccer things in our region is the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football or CONCACAF. The tournament is called the Gold Cup. The Gold Cup is held the year after and the year before the World Cup. Not all nations comprising CONCACAF can enter the tournament, only 12 teams get that honor. North America gets 3 invites and since North America consists of only 3 teams (Mexico is North American in soccer geography) all 3 are automatic invitees. This is great for the USA and wise for CONCACAF. The tournament has been hosted by the US the last 8 times it has been played and has generated increasing attendance numbers over the years as interest in the sport grows in our country. This year the crowds actually were slightly less than in 2011, a drop has been attributed to the increasing use of MLS stadiums. While producing great views for attendees and the excitement of filled stadiums for everybody concerned, these venues also limit attendance somewhat since they are generally smaller than the large stadiums that were used in prior years. Central America gets 5 invitees out of its 7 teams and the Caribbean gets 4 participants out of 31 possible teams. Those two areas have their own tournaments to decide which national teams represent those regions in the Gold Cup. One would think that the Gold Cup would be used to decide which nations from CONCACAF can enter the World Cup, but FIFA, in its marketing wisdom, has a separate tournament specifically to decide World Cup participants. So, what does the Gold Cup mean, other than naming CONCACAF champion? In past decades it didn’t mean anything, however now there is an additional benefit for the winner. It turns out that FIFA has begun a tournament that is held in the host country of the World Cup exactly one year prior to the cup. This provides the host country an opportunity to run a smaller tournament than the actual World Cup in order to get a dry run of its systems and organization before the big event actually takes place. This “practice ” event is called the Confederations Cup and consists of the host country, the prior World Cup champion and representatives of the 6 soccer confederations around the world. CONCACAF decides its representative to the Confederations Cup by having a playoff of the last two Gold Cup champions. So, as this years winner, the USA gets to play in a game against the 2015 Gold Cup winner for a place in the 2017 Confederations Cup to be held in Russia. If we win the Gold Cup in 2015, we get an automatic bid to that tournament.
This is a lot of soccer isn’t it? It is so much soccer in fact, that the teams playing in all these various qualifying and regional tournaments run the risk of tiring and injuring their players. So sometimes some of the countries use B teams (or at least some B players) in the Gold Cup to allow for some rest for their top players. This also allows for those coaches who choose to do so, to “try out” their lesser players to see if they can earn their way into their countries top team. Of course, not all coaches choose to do this all the time and as a result some lopsided results can occur. Probably the most notable of these was the 2009 final when Mexico played their best team and USA coach Bob Bradley played a B and C team. The result was a 5-0 pounding by the Mexicans that Mexican fans still talk about although the result meant little as a test of the two countries national teams.
This year both the USA and Mexico chose to play reserve players due to the high number of games they had played during the spring and early summer. This cost the Mexicans heavily as they played a disappointing caliber of soccer and were defeated by Panama twice. This result might have cost Mexican coach Jose del la Torre his job as the Mexicans haven’t exactly lit up their World Cup qualifying schedule either. But for the USA, winning the championship with a team consisting primarily of World Cup wannabe players and winning by outscoring the opposition 20-4 and winning by thoroughly dominating almost every game……there may be a gap opening between the Yanks and most of the rest of the region. Many fans would argue that there SHOULD be a gap, after all we are the UNITED STATES of AMERICA and Belize is……..well, Belize. But, lets face it, as a soccer “undeveloped nation” until the last 10-20 years or so, the USA hasn’t been much better or actually better at all than many of the small nations that comprise CONCACAF. But things have become very different in the region lately and this tournament showcased that fact for three main reasons:
1) Overall USA depth- as said above, the USA used, for the most part, players who are not A team national players. There was no Clint Dempsey or Michael Bradley. But the group who did play displayed a level of technical skill and understanding of team strategy that many would have thought to be beyond a bunch of lower caliber Americans. There are several reasons for this. Of course, on the youth level we are producing thousands of decently skilled players who filter up to the top levels in ever increasing numbers and playing ability. The MLS is getting stronger and as our “national” league, it is giving our players a chance to refine their skills and gain experience at a level that was not possible even just 5 years ago. Rimando, Beckerman, Johnson, Besler….all play in the MLS and all had strong tournaments. In addition, many more Americans are playing in strong leagues in other countries. The Mexican league is providing a place for Beasley, Corona, and Torres among others; Europe also has teams using Americans. Once a rarity, now Yanks are placed in many European teams and yet that fact alone does not qualify those players for national team duty of any level much less the top tier. We can put a team on the field that can trounce Belize or El Salvador or Cuba and yet not be good enough to beat a team of different Americans. If the USA is to be a large national power in the soccer world, that is as it should be, but it is a very recent development.
2) Landon Donovan- lets say that LeBron James says he is tired after the NBA season and doesn’t want to play with the national basketball team for a while ( something he is actually saying- from some reports). Can you imagine that if he were to decide after his “rest” to go back to playing USA basketball, that he would be told,” now you have prove yourself and play with a lower level team to show us you are ready for top caliber national basketball”? Can you imagine what he would say if that WERE the message to him? It could be argued that Landon Donovan is the LeBron James of USA soccer and he did exactly that. And he was given that exact response when he indicated that he was ready to rejoin the national soccer program. So, what did he do? He played in the Gold Cup tournament and lit it up. He scored goals, he assisted goals ,he provided leadership. He provided a classic light moment when he put on sunglasses thrown at him by idiot, classless El Salvador fans in Baltimore (more about THAT in a future post). He showed that he can provide our World Cup team with another top level player and make the USA that much better. He was THE class player of the tournament in more than one way. And, in the final, when he seemed to disappear for long stretches of the game, he seemingly came out of the ground to provide the touch that resulted in the winning goal. That’s what great players do and he raised his reputation as a great player in this tournament.
3) Jurgen Klinsmann – last March there were many doubters about Klinsmann and his coaching of the USA national team. Not any more. Of course, we could talk for long stretches about his 4-2-3-1 formation, about the use of that system by both the World Cup team and the Gold Cup team, about his choice of players to run the formation. Suffice it to say that the USA has become a possession-minded team, keeping the ball for long stretches (69% of the game yesterday) ,probing for openings, attacking quickly when those openings occur or when they are produced by the passing and movement of the team. In other words, Klinsmann has the USA playing like a quality, modern soccer team. But there is more to it than that. He has an amazing knack for making changes to his team, both before and during games, that pay off well. Just recently, against El Salvador, Eddie Johnson scores 14 seconds after entering the game and yesterday Breck Shea scores one minute after coming on the field ( what took him so long?) Previous USA coaches Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena were well known for their emotionless appearance during games, especially Bradley. And their “I’ll just sit here and watch the proceedings” demeanor was getting copied by far too many American coaches. Klinsmann always has and continues to be actively involved in the game action. As an American coach on the World stage, he NEEDS to be that involved. I remember back in 1979 in Australia during the U-20 World Cup, then USA coach Walt Chyzowych was tossed from a match for vigorously complaining about the lack of fairness by the referee. Later he was told that” Americans don’t know how to foul, how to be fouled and what and when to complain”. That lack of respect remains today in the eyes of many observers. In Jurgen Klinsmann we have a coach who has played and coached at the highest levels. He knows how the game is supposed to be called by world-class referees and he obviously isn’t afraid to let that be known. We should expect a different level of respect by world referees now that they know he isn’t going to sit by and watch Americans get bad calls just because it is thought that we don’t have the experience to know what is going on on the soccer field.
The Gold Cup was a step forward for USA soccer, not just because we won the tournament, after all we have done that before this. It was who won it, how they won it and the attention it garnered from the American sporting public. Things are getting to be lots of fun for American national soccer and the future only looks even brighter!