KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The expression that goalkeeper Tim Howard wore said it all. There's a frustration inside the U.S. national team right now, an awareness among the players and the coaching staff that they need to start playing better if they want to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup championship for the first time since 2007.
Howard couldn't help shaking his head as he met the media following the U.S.' 1-0 win against tiny Guadeloupe at Livestrong Sporting Park on Tuesday, a game that clinched a berth for the U.S. in the quarterfinals but did little to quell the belief that something isn't quite right in this U.S. team right now.
"It was an OK performance: a little bit lifeless, but that's kind of the way it's been so far," Howard said. "But we're glad to get the win and at least move on. Maybe the Panama game [a 2-1 loss] knocked some stuffing out of us. ... We need to pull together, get to D.C. [for Sunday's quarterfinal against Jamaica] and get some training time together."
The U.S. didn't lack for chances Tuesday, scoring the lone goal on Jozy Altidore's ninth-minute long-range blast and creating several other opportunities against a Guadeloupe team that nearly went up 1-0 when Stéphane Zubar hit the crossbar in the fourth minute. But the Americans had a horrific night when it came to converting those chances. Landon Donovan, surprise starter Chris Wondolowski and Clint Dempsey all missed golden opportunities in front of the goal.
"We want to be better," Donovan said. "This is a game we should have won probably 3- or 4-0, but the reality is that we won. That's all that matters at this point."
Dempsey had the most chances, missing on two unmarked headers in the box in the first half, hitting the post on a free kick and failing to knock in one of the most gift-wrapped goals you'll ever see in the 76th minute. A pass from Alejandro Bedoya left Dempsey standing alone on the ball two yards in front of the goal, only to take a second touch before it was finally cleared from behind by defender Julien Ictoi.
In many ways it was the polar opposite of the opportunistic goal that Dempsey scored against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup, in which he surprised Sergio Ramos from behind and stole the ball off his foot before finishing off the game.
"I thought I had time on the ball Bedoya played," Dempsey said. "It was bouncing up a little bit. That's why I decided to take a touch instead of hitting it first-time. Obviously it was the wrong decision. ... I expect more of myself."
If you've been watching this Gold Cup closely, you'll know that the U.S.' quarterfinal opponent, Jamaica, is one of the hottest teams in the tournament, having kept a clean sheet in all three of its games and shown some real danger in its attack. Howard, for his part, thinks playing against a more attack-minded team could be to the Americans' advantage.
"Be careful what you wish for, but I actually think that's the kind of game we need now," he said. "We need a game where the tempo is high and teams aren't sitting in. They're coming out feeling like we're a wounded animal and they're gonna get us, and that's when we catch them."
Right now Jamaica is playing its best soccer since reaching the 1998 World Cup, while the U.S. is struggling. It makes for a more intriguing matchup than anyone might have expected entering this tournament, and yet the challenge may be just what the Americans need to get out of this slump -- and to get their goalkeeper smiling again.