Three thoughts from the U.S. national team's hard-fought 1-0 win over Panama in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup final. Brek Shea scored the only goal as the U.S. claimed its fifth continental title on Sunday in Chicago.
Dream Day for DaMarcus and Donovan: They came up together as teenagers at U.S. Soccer's residential academy in Florida and starred for the team that finished fourth at the 1999 Under-17 World Cup. Landon Donovan was named tournament MVP, DaMarcus Beasley was runner-up and three years later they were key contributors during the senior national team's run to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup.
On Sunday, each won their fourth Gold Cup title. Beasley, 31, raised the trophy as U.S. captain and Donovan, also 31, was the easy choice as MVP with five goals and eight assists over the course of the tournament.
The fourth title -- a CONCACAF record -- is an obvious sign of their longevity but also (and perhaps more impressively) a testament to their resilience. Beasley played only 91 minutes for the U.S. in 2011 and just 45 in 2012. He appeared to be on his way out. But a March 2013 recall and a pair of outstanding, workmanlike performances in two critical World Cup qualifiers impressed coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and the spry defender became a regular starter. He then was named captain for the Gold Cup.
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Donovan, of course, took a much-discussed sabbatical in the spring, citing mental, emotional and physical fatigue. He was left off the U.S. roster after returning to action and challenged to earn his way back on. Given a chance to demonstrate his commitment and value at the Gold Cup, Donovan erased any doubt that he remains the most creative and versatile attacking player the U.S. has produced.
Athletes often say that nothing compares to that first championship. But both Donovan and Beasley would be excused for putting the fourth right up there.
Tactical Test: With Klinsmann serving his suspension up in a box at Soldier Field, the U.S. faced a stiff challenge from an organized, hard-working Panamanian team that was happy to put eight players behind the ball and defend.
Donovan had tons of trouble finding the ball in the first half -- no U.S. starter had fewer touches -- and the Americans looked slow and static against the well-drilled opposition.
Slowly but surely, however, the U.S. adapted. Donovan varied his runs and helped create second-half scoring chances both by retreating into midfield and showing up along the right sideline. U.S. players created more free kick opportunities by dribbling at Panamanian defenders and the outside backs, Beasley and Michael Parkhurst, made smarter and more timely runs down the flanks.
The tweaks finally paid off in the 68th minute, when Parkhurst created a bit of time and space for right midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who curled a beautiful pass toward the left post. A wide-open Donovan whiffed (even his misses turned out well at this tournament) but Shea was alert and there to ensure the ball crossed the line.
The goal was a testament to this U.S. team's ability to maintain its composure while adjusting to its opponent and solving problems. It was not something that was evident earlier in Klinsmann's tenure but it's been a hallmark of the current 11-game win streak.
Gold Cup Boosts and Busts: Klinsmann surely wanted to win the tournament, but he also wanted to create a platform for players on the verge of breaking into his first-choice team. Several did just that, with Donovan atop the list.
Bedoya and fellow midfielder Joe Corona showed flashes of quality on the wings and central midfielder Kyle Beckerman, maligned by many, was excellent. Some will still argue that he doesn't play fast enough at the highest level, but Beckerman did everything one could ask of a holding midfielder at this Gold Cup while competing alongside untested teammates like Stuart Holden and Mix Diskerud.
Matt Besler and Clarence Goodson were very good in central defense, a spot that remains in flux as the U.S. heads down the qualifying home stretch. And Shea -- a young player in desperate need of some increased confidence -- got it by netting winners against Costa Rica and Panama.
The Gold Cup was hard on a few others. Chris Wondolowski scored five goals in the first two matches but then trailed off. He didn't start in the semifinal and didn't play at all on Sunday.
Hard-luck Holden -- back with the U.S. for the first time since 2010 -- was hurt in the first half in Chicago (right knee) and will likely see his return to regular action with Bolton Wanderers delayed. Klinsmann said following the match that Holden's injury looked "very serious".
Defender Omar Gonzalez was called in for the knockout stage but couldn't displace either Besler or Goodson. His incumbency now may be in question. Jose Torres and Michael Orozco, favored early in Klinsmann's tenure, likely didn't do enough to reclaim their positions.
All in all, however, the U.S. national team's stock is rising. It has never been more impressive in a single tournament, finishing 6-0-0, scoring 20 goals and yielding just four. Sunday's triumph was well deserved.