The United States men's soccer team captured their record 11th straight match victory, defeating a well-organized Panama side 1-0 in Sunday's final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Jurgen Klinsmann's group dominated the tournament, outscoring opponents by a combined 20-4 over their six matches and displaying the type of possession-based attacking style the coach has long promised. With the U.S. using an almost completely different roster from the first-choice team that won three straight World Cup qualifiers in June, the tournament also served as an extended audition for many players looking to work their way into the squad going to Brazil next summer. However, with nearly all the participating nations sending less than their best, what can the U.S. team really take away from the win?
Landon Donovan should be an automatic selection for Jurgen Klinsmann when World Cup qualifying resumes in September.
Relegated to the U.S. "B-team" after taking a hiatus from international play, Donovan scored 5 goals, added 7 assists, and was named the tournament's MVP while showing that he still brings a level of dynamism and creativity unequaled in the American player pool. Playing as a second striker, Donovan had a field day against the weaker Gold Cup competition and, perhaps more importantly, showed the commitment and leadership Klinsmann was looking for.
It's not an easy decision as to where Donovan slots into the starting group that solidified itself in June, but one option would be the left of midfield, with the added benefit of sliding the impressive Fabian Johnson into his more natural left back position. Another way to accommodate Donovan's inclusion would be shifting to more of a 4-3-3 formation, but either way he's shown that he needs to be in the lineup when qualifying resumes against Costa Rica on September 6.
Players who helped their World Cup candidacy: Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya, Chris Wondolowski, Kyle Beckerman
Six months ago, it was hard to fill in a prospective 23-man World Cup roster without getting to some names that would leave USMNT fans uninspired. Now, following June's qualifying success and July's Gold Cup triumph with almost two completely different teams, the U.S. is looking deeper and more confident than ever.
Chris Wondolowski finally put an end to his international troubles and showed that he can be a difference maker in the box. Mix Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya were excellent, taking full advantage of their opportunities. Diskerud was a strong and consistent presence as a two-way midfielder, and Bedoya repeatedly made something out of nothing with his speed and hustle on the wing. Lastly, Kyle Beckerman had a solid tournament as a defender and pressure valve in midfield. He's been exposed against stiffer competition in the past, but he showed that he's rightfully still in the conversation with Maurice Edu, Diskerud, Stuart Holden and others for the reserve spots in central midfield. Klinsmann's decisions are getting more difficult, but at this point it's a good problem to have.
Brek Shea will continue to get chances to play himself into the World Cup squad.
Many players have come in and out of favor during Klinsmann's reign, but no player's status has been as uncertain as Shea. It's clear the coach sees the gifted winger as a potential instant-offense super sub that could be much-needed in Brazil next summer. A late addition to the Gold Cup roster, Shea nevertheless appeared in all six tournament matches -- five as a substitute -- and delivered with two huge game-winning goals. Shea looked terrible against a weak Cuba team in the one match he started, but his style and physical abilities are a change of pace that could give teams at any level trouble. Klinsmann seems to believe this and it appears the Stoke City player will continue to be given opportunities to make good on his potential.
If Stuart Holden did in fact suffer another serious knee injury, it's a huge loss for the Americans.
In the games prior to his unfortunate early exit in the 19th minute of Sunday's final, it was easy to see that Holden's game has a sophistication beyond that of most other American midfield options. He's confident in possession, able to handle pressure comfortably, and he sees the field beautifully, anticipating runs and playing the types of passes that put defenders on their heels. While the rust on his game meant that these balls were often a tick off the mark and his shooting touch was nowhere to be found, his high ceiling as a player was apparent. A fit Holden is at minimum a solid backup option on the bench, but the prospect of getting the likes of Bradley, Donovan and Holden all in the same lineup had to have had Klinsmann intrigued.
Tragically, Holden appears to be headed for yet another extended rehab stint, awaiting further tests Monday on a right-knee injury Klinsmann said looked "very serious." The U.S. fans, players and coaching staff will be hoping Sunday's injury is merely a speed bump in his recovery.
Klinsmann has the American team working for, not against, each other.
Nothing solves a questionable locker-room like winning, and the U.S. has now been doing nothing but that for two months. The enthusiastic post-game celebrations Sunday show how much Klinsmann has this team buying in, despite the intense individual competition for World Cup roster spots. Trouble is always only a few disappointing results away, but for now, the U.S. program is rolling and looking like it will continue to make noise in the leadup to Brazil 2014.