CHESTER, Pa. — The U.S. national team typically gathers in a circle around coach Jurgen Klinsmann prior to training. His brief pre-practice talk doesn’t typically end in applause. Yet here were the Americans, the Delaware River to one side, the gritty Philadelphia suburb of Chester on the other, confronting the harsh reality of Saturday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup consolation game with a surprising dose of good cheer.
They are beaten semifinalists, 2-1 losers to a Jamaican team that had defeated the U.S. only once before Wednesday. American dreams of a record-tying sixth Gold Cup title and seamless qualification to the 2017 Confederations Cup had been dashed. This was a tournament Klinsmann and his players expected to win. Instead, they’ll play a reeling Panama for bronze at PPL Park, 14 miles west of the larger NFL stadium that will host Sunday’s final. It’s a medal that U.S. captain Michael Bradley said doesn’t mean much.
“Having said that,” Bradley added, “We have a responsibility to ourselves, to our fans, to step on the field and play well, to compete and to give anybody who walks into that stadium a good show. And we’ll do that.”
To find the silver lining to the bronze medal game: That’s the U.S. mission on Saturday (4 p.m., Fox Sports 2, Univision).
The consolation game is a counterintuitive convention to begin with, and CONCACAF did away with it following the 2003 Gold Cup before resurrecting it this year. Falling 90 minutes short of a final is heartbreaking, and gathering yourself to travel and then play again a few days later isn’t easy. Some teams genuinely value third place. Consider the reaction of the Peruvian men and English women this summer.
Others, especially favorites (and perhaps teams that feel cheated out of their place in the final) probably would be just as happy to head home.
“Obviously, it’s not the game we wanted to be in,” Klinsmann said following Friday’s practice. “They are professionals. They have the responsibility to go out there and give everything they have. And we coaches, we have the responsibility to tell them that, probably a few more times than we usually do it.”
Part of that communication drew the applause before Friday's training session. Klinsmann took a few moments to talk about Houston Dynamo defender DaMarcus Beasley, who unretired from the national team to take part in the Gold Cup knockout rounds only to injure his calf during his first U.S. practice. Klinsmann said the four-time World Cup veteran, who captained the U.S. to the 2013 title, likely will enter at halftime of Saturday’s game.
“My little talk to the team was literally a little talk about DaMarcus. What he gave this team over the last many, many years has been unbelievable,” Klinsmann said. “He’s been an outstanding professional. He’s been always a giver to the national team program from a very early stage … It looks like it comes to an end [Saturday] if he doesn’t reconsider maybe, so we want to make it a special day for Beas and I’m sure the fans will do that as well.”
Beasley, 33, said he’d be at peace if Saturday’s game is his last in a U.S. jersey. But there will be plenty he’ll miss.
“When you get back into the team and you’re around the boys, you’re around just the whole aspect of wearing this crest, it sticks on you. You never want to take it off,” he said. “It’s not about me retiring or me coming back. The U.S. national team is so much more than that, so much bigger than that … To be on the field with my brothers and wearing this crest and representing my country at the highest level of our sport, you can’t get any better than that.”
That crest, rather than the bronze medal, will be what fuels Beasley, Bradley and their "brothers" on Saturday. Nobody wants to lose while wearing it. A second consecutive home defeat to a CONCACAF nation—that’s a nonstarter. And the prospect of wearing it again in the future, while not an issue for Beasley and Bradley, will motivate many. The U.S. has faced bitter disappointment and a healthy does of criticism over the past 48 hours. If a final produces a champion, perhaps a third-place game reveals a bit of character.
“Any time you put on this jersey, no matter what the game is—if it’s a friendly, if you're playing 5-v-5 in practice—you’ve got to put in the effort, most importantly,” defender Brad Evans said. “Any time you put on the badge and you put on the jersey, it’s a game. It’s a real game … and for some of us, at the end of the Gold Cup, is it the last run for some guys? Is it not? That’s the thought process in people’s minds. That’s the reality of it.”
Said Beasley, “It’s a game to be won. We’re professionals. [Thursday] was a time to reflect on the [semifinal] and be disappointed and be frustrated, have all the bad, negative thoughts in your mind. But today’s a new day. Today’s the day we start thinking about Panama and how we want to go about winning the game. That’s what myself, and I can speak for all the players and what I’ve done my whole career—when there’s a game to play, you want to win. That’s our focus now, to end this on a high note.
Klinsmann has coached for bronze before. He managed the German national team to the 2006 World Cup semifinals, where it lost an overtime classic to Italy in Dortmund. Klinsmann made a couple changes to his typical starting 11 for the consolation game but for the most part, played to win. Emerging star Bastian Schweinsteiger scored twice in the second half to pace Die Mannschaft to a 3-1 defeat of Portugal.
“We have that option to rotate again and to give guys a run that were not part of the last game after a bit similar like the group stage—three days after a game, very difficult. So we keep definitely a core and we rotate a couple guys,” Klinsmann said. “We’re making sure this is serious. We want to do well. Are we a bit frustrated after the game against Jamaica? Absolutely we are. But this is part of the game as well ... We want to make sure that we get a win tomorrow and we keep on progressing as a whole group. We want to keep on developing young players, keeping looking into the future. What is two, three years down the road? What does this team look like? And we want to give DaMarcus a fantastic moment tomorrow here in Philadelphia.”
If third place doesn’t interest the U.S., then playing out of respect for the shirt and a legend who's worn it 121 times certainly seems to. In addition, with friendlies against Peru and Brazil in early September and the crucial Confederations Cup playoff against either Mexico or Jamaica a month later, there are impressions still to be made.
Klinsmann certainly will want to avoid the scrutiny that would follow a second straight defeat and will be watching to see who rises to the occasion—even if it’s an anticlimactic one. Saturday is their harsh reality. On Friday, the U.S. was committed to making the best of it.