Luis Bueno
Friday July 17th, 2009

Although the U.S. went through the CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage relatively unscathed, the team might not be adequately prepared to face the knockout stages.

Players are dropping off the national team's roster faster than David Beckham loses credibility among MLS supporters. Against Panama in Saturday's quarterfinals (8 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel, TeleFutura), then perhaps Canada or Honduras in the semis, the Americans will face teams that have an axe to grind against them.

But if the U.S. fails to reach a Gold Cup final for the first time since 2003, don't expect the national team to lose any of the respect it has taken years to build. In a year that has been unlike any other in recent memory for the U.S., the Gold Cup was, at best, priority No. 4 on the team's list. First and foremost, '09 is about qualifying for the World Cup. Second was the FIFA Confederations Cup. Third is to beat Mexico in the Estadio Azteca. Fourth was the Gold Cup.

Unfortunately, to have the region's upper crust place such little importance on the confederation championship speaks poorly of the tournament itself. If the Gold Cup were held every four years instead of two, perhaps the urge to win it would be greater and nations like the U.S. and Mexico would field top teams every edition.

While the top priority on the above list may have seemed like a given the moment the U.S. reached the Hexagonal round, qualifying hasn't gone as planned across the board. Mexico has struggled terribly and dropped more games in its first four Hexagonal games than it did in its previous 16 Hex matches. El Salvador has life, albeit a seemingly dim one, but more life than '06 World Cup participant Trinidad and Tobago.

The U.S. has 10 points through five games of qualifying but could feel the pressure rising should Mexico beat the Americans in Mexico City on Aug. 12. Mexico would slice its deficit to the U.S. to one point and, with each side playing two games at home and away, the race down the stretch could get far more interesting than it already is.

But U.S. coach Bob Bradley is doing what he can to keep his game plan hidden from El Tricolor. Even if the U.S. hadn't participated in the Confederations Cup, it's debatable whether Bradley would have chosen a different roster for the Gold Cup than the one he did. Bradley and the U.S. don't want to tip their hand to Mexico right before El Tri's eyes.

When last it played against Mexico, the U.S. was quite a different team. DaMarcus Beasley was still an important player. So, too, were Sacha Kljestan and Heath Pearce. Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore hadn't quite broken through, and expectations only really existed for the latter. Steve Cherundolo was hurt and unavailable, and Benny Feilhaber was in a state of limbo, trying to sort out his club career and overcome yet another injury.

In a span of five months, things have changed somewhat for the U.S. Davies has become one of the Americans' most important players while Altidore has also enjoyed his own rise to prominence. Both were part of the Gold Cup roster in the group stage, as were a healthy Cherundolo and Freddy Adu, who has a chance of making the roster for the Mexico match. Feilhaber did his part, too.

All are gone, though, as the players are off to their respective clubs' preseasons. Bradley likely saw what he needed to see from these players in order to determine their status for the Mexico match and sent them on their way.

Left behind to try to guide the U.S. to Gold Cup glory for the third consecutive tournament is a team of young and untested players. Pearce and Brian Ching are the only two players who seemingly have a good chance of making the team for Mexico. Players like Stuart Holden and Santino Quaranta, who have done well, are helping their chances for inclusion to the squad, but shouldn't be considered for Mexico duty.

Perhaps if the U.S. reaches the final or wins the whole thing, a reward would be a trip to Mexico for some of the team's key players. But the team that had Brazil on the ropes in South Africa should be the one that steps onto Azteca's pristine surface.

Even with this current roster, the U.S. has done well. No goals through the first 225 minutes and first place in the group is quite an accomplishment for a team that is young, inexperienced and had virtually no time to prepare for the tournament. After the U.S. lost the Confederations Cup final to Brazil, the team got back to the States, swapped out all but four players and had only a few training sessions in advance of the Gold Cup opener, a 4-0 victory against Grenada.

Should this collection of players successfully defend the Gold Cup title, it, too, would send a message to Mexico ahead of their Aug. 12 date. Even down to their uncapped players, the U.S. is ready.

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