By Andrew Villegas
Americans playing in Europe have never had more luck, chances or playing time in Europe, perhaps, than they’ve had this past year. And they look it.
They’re tired and USMNT supporters hold their breath that every run by Clint Dempsey and every clearance by Steve Cherundulo will finally fully empty the tank and leave them on the floor dead asleep as (COUGH) Panama or Jamaica passes them by. Look in Dempsey’s eyes during their final group stage game with Guadeloupe if you can stomach the replay: He knows his body is tired and that he can only do so much with his sheer, but considerable, will.
Or as my wife (who also has decided that Clint needs a sandwich) puts it, “They all have bags under their eyes.”
And consider this, a (universally recognized “JV”) Gold Cup team just two years ago that had 14 MLS players on it – players that were in the middle of their season and in form – now has just six MLS players. The rest played (or in Michael Bradley’s case, mostly trained) hard overseas for a whole season in an attempt to impress. Now the USMNT is paying for it.
But a 2009 USMNT Gold Cup squad that many considered inferior to this year’s iteration did make it through its group stage with relative ease, through extra time in the quarters by beating Panama (a side that tied Mexico in the group stage that year), past a tough Honduran side in the semi to the final, though it was destroyed 5-0 by Mexico, which brought a much better team to avenge its 2007 showing. But that’s more than we can say at this moment for this year’s Yanks, who haven’t assured us of anything so far except that they’ll keep it interesting.
Still, just three MLS players are getting regular playing time at this Gold Cup (Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo and Landon Donovan) while seven MLS players started the 2009 Gold Cup final against Mexico. That year, Bob Bradley decided to rest his European players after an admittedly storybook showing at the Confederations Cup.
Now, the longer this thing drags out the better, obviously. But the longer it drags out, the more likely USMNT fans will see games like the game we watched Tuesday against Guadeloupe — the U.S. just scraping by, missing chances they would otherwise put away because their legs (and in Dempsey’s case, his head) just aren’t there. Balls flutter under or over boots. Headers go wide.
Against competition like Guadeloupe this isn’t so much a problem. For long stretches of the night, the Guadeloupe players stood around watching, allowing the U.S. midfield to rest on possession, but the same won’t be true for the Jamaica quarterfinal. Maybe it’s just the way things have turned out, or maybe there is something to the fact that one of the US’s most rested European players, Jozy Altidore, is having a good tournament.
Still the group stage is a grueling task, three games in a week is a lot for anyone to remain fresh in, and Bob Bradley would do well to let his players spend the majority of the next four days off resting their surely aching bones.
So, just for giggles, what if Bradley had decided to only bring MLS-based players to the Gold Cup? I realize he’d never handicap himself in such a way, but here’s what a starting lineup might look like:
Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: Heath Pearce (Chivas USA), Tim Ream (NYRB), Jay DeMerit (Vancouver Whitecaps), Zach Loyd (FC Dallas)
Midfield: Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders) Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew)
Forwards: Juan Agudelo (NYRB), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
If Bradley could revise this list, however, I suspect he’d give a closer look to DC United’s Charlie Davies, FC Dallas’ Brek Shea and the Rapids’ (Big Red) Jeff Larentowicz among others.
That’s not to say that this team would fare any better against its CONCACAF foes than their European counterparts have, but they would probably be less tired and hungrier to show something against the likes of Panama and Guadeloupe, something that the current USMNT Gold Cuppers seem too exhausted to actually show. To me, the above group would likely do nearly as well as the real Gold Cup team has so far. They’d likely have lost a game, won one and drew one. And where would we be? In the same predicament, playing against a quarterfinal opponent that is tougher than a quarterfinal opponent should be for the highest ranked CONCACAF national team in FIFA.
But the difference is that the all-MLS team would be achieving what everyone expected them to be achieving while the real Gold Cup USMNT is dangerously under-achieving.
And they’re underachieving in a way that must keep many USMNT fans awake at night, which is ironic considering that if their own play doesn’t soon scare themselves out of their stupor, the USMNT players themselves may soon be the ones getting all the sleep they want.
Andrew Villegas is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew.