FOXBOROUGH, Mass.—In October 2013, the U.S. national team played a World Cup qualifier in Panama City that had no bearing on its own fate. The Americans already had booked passage to Brazil and clinched first place in the Hexagonal. But the match meant everything to Panama, and as it entered stoppage time, the hosts were in great shape. They were up a goal and on their way to a playoff that offered the winner a World Cup berth. Had the U.S. left the Estadio Rommel Fernández 2–1 losers, Panama would have moved on at the expense of Mexico, the Americans’ arch rival. No other U.S. defeat could ever feel so satisfying.
Then Graham Zusi—now San Zusi in Mexico—tied it in the 92nd minute, and Aron Jóhannsson secured all three points in the 93rd. Panama was eliminated and the Americans had sent a message.
“This group is going to fight to the end no matter what the circumstances," Brad Davis said that night. "Our job is to go out and take care of business until the whistle blows."
Said Kyle Beckerman: “A couple of their guys were asking us to take it easy on them, but it's about competition ... The USA is guaranteed to be in the World Cup. But who's in that team, nobody knows. So we had to try and turn the result around so it looked good on us.”
Fast forward 21 months, and the U.S. finds itself in a relatively similar situation as the CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage concludes Monday in Kansas City. The scale is far different, but the broad circumstances are the same. The Americans (2–0–0) will face Panama (0–0–2) having clinched everything there is to clinch: first in the group and a quarterfinal berth. Meanwhile, Los Canaleros will be playing for their Gold Cup lives. A loss likely will send the 2013 runner-up home.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has referenced, if not lamented, both the compressed timing of the group stage (there’s a game every three days) and the inevitable lack of cohesion within a squad that’s been together only two weeks. The roster comprises players coming from U.S., Mexican and European leagues operating under conflicting schedules. Klinsmann also is presiding over a group that’s playing far from its best soccer. The Americans’ one-goal victories over Honduras and Haiti were gritty, close and hard won. Scoring chances were at a premium and there was plenty of threat coming the other way. Only three outfield players—Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, who's scored all three of the U.S.'s goals at the Gold Cup—started both games.
Now Klinsmann faces a fork in the Gold Cup road. The quarterfinal isn’t until July 18. Should he prioritize rest or rhythm in Kansas City?
We know how the players will respond. As Davis and Beckerman said in 2013, the U.S.'s will to win is strong regardless of the circumstances, and minutes aren’t guaranteed in the matches that really matter. Considering the performance in the first two Gold Cup games, there are a bunch of starting spots still up for grabs. In addition, Klinsmann is permitted to make six roster substitutions following the group stage. Alternates like Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley, Joe Corona, Lee Nguyen and Juan Agudelo are available if the manager opts to make a change. The U.S. won’t have anything tangible at stake at Sporting Park, but individual players certainly will.
Shortly after defeating Haiti, Klinsmann offered a big-picture analysis that wasn’t surprising.
“The approach is picking up more rhythm, going for another three points [and] finishing off the group with three wins," he said. "So we take that very seriously. We also know we have an influence on who’s going through, so we are not kind of taking the foot off the pedal there. So we will give it a very, very good game and keep on building, basically, confidence. We’re building more fine-tuning elements, and we want to improve our game. As you saw, there was still stuff that was not so good. So we keep working on that. It’s just a nice feeling knowing you’re already first but it doesn’t mean we’re slowing down now. It should be actually the opposite. We’ve got to keep kind of raising the bar a little bit.”
It gets a little more complicated when addressing a couple key players, however. Bradley, Dempsey and goalkeeper Brad Guzan are the only three U.S. men with 180 minutes on their Gold Cup box score. For the first two, another lengthy outing against Panama will make for a demanding seven days. Injury always is a possibility. Conversely, any adjustments Klinsmann feels the need to make won’t mean much without Bradley and Dempsey on the field. They’ll certainly start in the knockout rounds, so there’s little point in testing new formations or combinations without them on the field against Panama.
“I’ll sit down with them and we’ll see where they are [Saturday] and how fast they regenerate now after this game [against Haiti] and probably the day before the game [against Panama] or even maybe in the morning before the game we can decide how we want to approach that,” Klinsmann said. “There’s no reason to burn them in that game. On the other hand, it’s nice to keep them in a rhythm—especially Clint, with scoring goals. So I’ll check with them how they look like [Saturday] and also in two days.”
Bradley and Dempsey expressed a personal preference for rhythm over rest. But both recognized the bigger picture.
“I always want to play," Bradley said. "Obviously, I’m not the one choosing the team. But certainly if I get asked then as long as I feel good, which typically I will, then I’ll want to play."
Added Dempsey: “It’s a tough one. You don’t want to take your foot off the gas and then you get knocked out in the quarterfinals thinking that you [already] kind of got the job done. I think you’ve got to stay hungry and you’ve got to stay looking to build on performances ... Obviously, I’m a competitor. I always want to go. But at the same time, you’ve got to be smart how you manage things.”
With five days between the Panama game and the quarterfinal in Baltimore, where the U.S. will face the third-place team from one of the other two groups, there will be rest available for those who need it. There also will be an opportunity to take a look back at the three group games and then figure out which system and setup is best suited for the knockout rounds.
Klinsmann will have to decide whether to give one of the two lineups he’s used more time together or start from scratch with a third. He’s started eight different defenders in the two Gold Cup games. He’ll have to figure out where Altidore is in his return from an injured hamstring, whether Alejandro Bedoya (knee) is ready to play and if it’s worth giving backup goalkeeper Nick Rimando a start. Fast, forward-looking outside backs like Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler might give opponents a second thought before committing resources to the attack. But the likes of Brad Evans and Greg Garza probably offer better positioning once they do. DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes bring width, speed and the ability to beat defenders one-on-one. But Mix Diskerud, Graham Zusi or Alfredo Morales might be better in possession. Bradley and Dempsey have had different responsibilities during the first two games and the midfield has featured a slightly different alignment.
There’s little intrigue in Monday’s result, but there will be plenty as Klinsmann meets with his staff in Kansas City. The team will say that three points is the goal, but equally vital is that the U.S. heads to Baltimore healthy and with a better idea of what a Gold Cup-winning squad should look like.
“We’ve got to keep getting better,” Dempsey said. “There are still some things we need to work on. But at the same time, I thought there were some good things [so far]. We’re dealing with different formations as well and trying to figure out what’s working best for us. You want to grow as the tournament goes on. You want to be playing your best games when you get to the knockout round.”