Neil W. Blackmon
The pitch was hideous, sanded over slabs of sod laid on concrete. The fans- there were 80,000 of them- were largely decked out in green, red and white. Despite the field, the venue, monstrous high-definition scoreboard gleaming and field-level luxury boxes brimming, was befitting of the moment: a semifinal with a date at venerable Soldier Field and a final waiting on Sunday. The opponent seemed the perfect foil- the only team from the region to get the better of the Americans this calendar year, ripe with extra attackers added for the knockout rounds. If the United States’ federation record nine game winning streak was to end, it would have made sense for it to end here.
Fortunately for the Americans, Landon Donovan is no stranger to just this sort of grand occasion. Once again, the man who at the dawn of this year was out of the game altogether, searching for meaning and respite in Cambodia, of all places, stole the show. We wrote just prior to the beginning of the Gold Cup that despite various subplots and stories, this was Landon Donovan’s Gold Cup, for better or worse. Yet in our wildest dreams we could not have expected this. Donovan scored two more goals, ran roughshod through the Honduran central defense, defended with aplomb, and very much continued to leave his star-sized footprint on this edition of the continental championship. When he was taken off to a rousing ovation by Jurgen Klinsmann some twenty minutes before the final whistle, there were actually conversations about the substitution being out-of-character, a rare “Klinsmann the merciful” turn from a manager who, by his own admission, is demanding “the best Landon Donovan ever.” It was Klinsmann as boxing trainer and Honduras as Sonny Liston, with Jurgen embracing Donovan and saying something to him along the lines of “They’ve had enough.”
The result itself was never in doubt, even when Nery Medina scored on a poorly-marked set piece late in the first half to put Los Catrachos back within a goal. Landon Donovan made sure of that seventy seconds later, scoring his second goal on a run straight out of US-Algeria, tapping in from four yards after a brilliant run and pass from Alejandro Bedoya. The second half, a flurry of American counters and trench warfare, was an afterthought, and for the bold, a chance to check weekend flight prices to Chicago.
Jurgen Klinsmann, who rested presumable Gold Cup starters Jose Torres and Kyle Beckerman, along with Donovan, in the second half, provided the most drama himself when he was sent off the pitch by Costa Rican referee Walter Quesada. Klinsmann was defending his players from a rash of late, chippy challenges by the Hondurans in the second half that the manager felt weren’t being punished or monitored closely enough by Quesada. After one late challenge on DaMarcus Beasley, Klinsmann, in his own words, “let it boil over.” He went one not so polite word too far and was asked to leave, leaving his status for the Gold Cup final in doubt. A decision about whether he, or Martin Vazquez, will manage that game from the sideline will be made by the CONCACAF disciplinary committee in the next 24 hours or so. Vazquez is no Jogi Low, Klinsmann’s lieutenant with the Germans and as much a motivator as a tactician. Vazquez is quiet, reserved, gives short interview answers– a classic film rat and x’s and o’s guy. How he’ll lead the team at Soldier Field is a lingering question. But Wednesday night was a time to put that concern aside.
Like the rest of the Gold Cup, the stories surrounding Landon Donovan are also compelling. Eddie Johnson continues his remarkable turnaround from the US (and club, for that matter) doldrums with sparkling play that increasingly demonstrates his flexibility in the US attack. His opening goal, off a (who else?) Donovan helper was a ten-fifteen second instructional video about his personal development as a player. As the Americans entered the final third, Jorge Claros clamped down on Donovan. Johnson, always a cerebral player, looked up and diagnosed, then ceased his movements for about 1-2 seconds, waiting for Alexander Lopez to help on Donovan. As soon as Lopez bit, Johnson took off, received from Donovan, put a shake-and-bake on his defender and calmly slotted past Donis Escobar to put the Americans in front. It was the type of play fine attackers make, creating additional space with their own careful movements. Johnson dazzled throughout, to be frank, putting immense pressure on the novice (at this level) CB pairing of Osman Chavez and Brayan Beckeles, and holding up the ball well for late-running, incutting wingers Jose Torres and Alejandro Bedoya. His flick to Bedoya generated the second American goal. Given it was his first run-out as the tip of the spear, it was a massive performance that showed Klinsmann versatility, and if he continues this run of form in Seattle, Johnson will be hard to keep off the top 23 list as the Americans get closer to Brazil.
Speaking of Alejandro Bedoya, he was the subject of a lengthy Twitter debate regarding his effectiveness, one that is in all fairness attributable to his play in this tournament, which until last night had been mediocre at best. This was not the case last evening. After a quiet twenty minutes to start the game where Bedoya too often cut-in centrally and struggled with the ball at his feet, the Twente target got back to the plan, staying wide and allowing the surrounding midfielders (usually Jose Torres, as a hub) to pinch and feed him the ball as he makes constant, harassing runs down the channel. Bedoya’s meters covered (over 10,000) demonstrated his work rate had improved drastically over the Cuba match– but it was the efficiency of his runs and his willingness to help cover for auxiliary valve Michael Parkhurst, who stayed deep behind him most the match, that give that statistic teeth. Bedoya’s two assists were perfectly-weighted balls to Donovan, and two others found Donovan and Johnson on central runs where both missed the net. That would have been four assists, impressive on any night, and fabulous given the degree of difficulty on at least two of the passes, where Bedoya had defenders draped on his left shoulder. Bedoya did have at least two sloppy giveaways while on the ball, and at times he plays the ambitious ball when the safe and tidy distribution will do, but the reality is that’s a trait we praise Mix Diskerud for and an understanding it took Stu Holden a long time to develop. At 26, Bedoya is just a few months younger than Graham Zusi, but like the Sporting Kansas City man, he offers width and well-placed distribution. The key for Bedoya will be doing that consistently. If he can show Klinsmann that in the next few months, he’ll give the manager something to think about when he makes his final team for Brazil. And even if he does not make that team, the more prescient point is this: When has the US had an option like Alejandro Bedoya that the depth chart said you could leave at home? The answer is simple: they have not, and that’s a remarkable sign of this team’s collective progress.
The good feelings aren’t limited to Americans utilized in attack. In February, Jurgen Klinsmann brought Sporting Kansas City CB Matt Besler to Honduras for the World Cup qualifier, which the Americans lost. Besler didn’t play in that match, but he told The Yanks Are Coming in March that the experience was invaluable, and that he’d do everything he could to ensure when he did play, he’d be ready and he would impress. Several months later, he has made good on that promise, becoming option # 1 on the US CB depth chart and relishing every moment, just as he did on the bench in Honduras this winter. Tasked yesterday with shielding the center from constant Los Catrachos flurries down the American left flank, Besler did something that great center halves (in any league, at any level) do– he helped other players through his own flawless positioning. Cheating slightly left, but never getting too wide, he was able to check incutters trying to turn Beasley repeatedly, which in turn allowed Beasley to take a few chances with tackles, and in turn allowed Kyle Beckerman to cheat less and remain actively involved in distributions moving forward. Besler told us in March that positioning yourself in a way that helps others is something he picked up at Notre Dame, and it was a reason Peter Vermes took such a strong liking to him out of the gate. It’s safe to say Jurgen Klinsmann sees the same thing Vermes does. Besler just signed an extension in Kansas City, and based on his play internationally thus far, he’s perfectly fine playing in MLS- but you have to think if he continues at this pace he’ll get a look overseas, and it might be one he’ll have to think long and hard about as he continues his own personal trek to get better every match.
Behind Besler last night was Nick Rimando, a 5’10 mountain of a man it is impossible not to love. Tim Howard is Tim Howard and Brad Guzan is a deputy most international sides would start, but it is hard to not love the clear cut US # 3. Early in the second half, Rimando reminded everyone why, showing decisiveness (not recklessness) in breaking up a rare penetration of the US center that occurred when Clarence Goodson mistimed a Honduran pass and was caught out. Rimando calmly handled the ball in the box and then dribbled out of danger outside of it, parrying away what was one of the more significant moments of danger Los Catrachos mustered in half two. Rimando’s play the last two matches has been a sharp answer to criticism and questions about the usually safe area of US goalkeeper depth, and Sean Johnson’s group-winning save against Costa Rica in the match Rimando sat out was more evidence that in the net, as ever, the US are in capable hands.
Finally, Stu Holden played 90 minutes on that field, in that heat, through an avalanche of chippy and hard-nosed Honduran tackles. Many, including your author, wrote off the possibility that Klinsmann would risk Holden on a terrible field. There was nothing inherently wrong with thinking that, either- sitting him was, and still is, the safe play. But the reality is that Holden will play on a field worse than this when he returns to England in a week, whether it be against Blackpool or in an FA Cup match against Roger Bennett’s Sunday pub side or whatever they call the Carling Cup these days. And if there is one thing you can’t have when you come back from a knee injury, it is fear. Fear that a field will stop your comeback. Fear that a cut will reinjure the knee. You can’t play at that high a level with any fear and the guess here (and it is just that) is that Holden told Klinsmann he was fine and Klinsmann wanted to believe it. Klinsmann wanted to believe it because tactically, he knew playing Mix Diskerud and asking him to cover on a night where Kyle Beckerman would spend a lot of time helping on the DMB side would be a big ask. It would be a big ask and it was an ask he thought Holden was more prepared for, plain and simple. Holden delivered, playing responsible defense all evening and looking sharp in his distributions. Can H0lden play better? Absolutely. He knows it, telling Grant Wahl, among others, after the match that his goal is to play better than he’s ever played before. Ninety minutes on that field in that heat against that opponent goes a long way in building the confidence necessary to achieve that goal.
And maybe, just maybe, that’s the brilliance behind Jurgen Klinsmann. The ability to convince everyone in the depth pool that they are capable of more as a player, that even during a ten-game winning streak, there is more work to be done. Your best until your best is better. Sunday, at Soldier Field, these men will play a final. They’ll play it against a clever, well-coached, hungry Panama team that would love to derail all the momentum the US have built in the last few months. And they may play them without their manager on the sideline.
And that, of course, is where this tournament comes full circle, back to Landon Donovan. Donovan has played in a bunch of finals. But this one seems special. He told Grant Wahl and FOX Soccer that he’s having “as much fun as he’s ever had” playing soccer right now. And yeah, only Landon Donovan can sound somewhat miserable talking about how much fun he’s having. But the thinking here is that the fun continues at Soldier Field. Surrounded by a helpful cast, Landon’s willpower will make it so.