When it comes to advancing out of the first round, into elimination play, the CONCACAF Gold Cup format is almost comically forgiving. Teams play three first round matches, an exercise that serves to eliminate only 4 of 12 nations before quarterfinal play.
So, truly, the U.S. would need to be historically inept Tuesday inside brand new, high-tech Livestrong Sporting Park to somehow not find its way into Gold Cup quarterfinals.
They'll probably get a win or, at very least, a tie against Guadeloupe, the tiny French department that plays in CONCACAF events but isn't even an official FIFA tournament participant (9 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer and TeleFutura). Full of French professionals, Guadeloupe isn't terrible and might even pose a marginal level of threat -- but no one will confuse these guys for Spain. Bob Bradley's team should have ample horse power to get the job done -- never mind that
The real problem now facing the United States is that the bigger Gold Cup picture just got significantly more complicated. That 2-1 shocker, Saturday's loss to Panama, dramatically altered the plan. What could have been a relative respite in the American Midwest, a chance to rest the starters for tougher matches ahead while checking out the nation's newest soccer stadium, is now a real troublemaker, one with little margin for error.
Right back Steve Cherundolo, one of the few Americans on top of things Saturday, said his team needed to spend as little time as possible analyzing the terrible night in Tampa, the program's first loss in 27 Gold Cup group play contests. What else must they do?
"Go out and play the soccer that we want to play, that we can play, and obviously to win," Cherundolo said. "Nothing less than a win works for us, so we have to win the last game and go from there. It's going to be the hard route to the final now but we're ready for it, and we have to get this loss behind us and focus on the next game."
In terms of mentality, confidence, maintaining fan sanity and Bradley's solid job status, that's probably true. But technically speaking a draw would do, although it wouldn't give the Americans any chance to finish atop the group. Since a tie will be sufficient to wiggle out of the first round, their chances of first-round elimination, a.k.a. total calamity, remain small.
Guadeloupe has already lost to Panama (3-2) and to Canada (1-0). Then again, who knows what the Gwada Boys can do if they manage to keep everyone on the field; lacking tactical and individual discipline, they went down to 10 men in both losses so far.
So call them problems, challenges, inconveniences or whatever, but here are some of the issues Bradley and his men now face:
They can still win the group with victory Tuesday, but there will be scoreboard watching involved. They can finish no better than second if Panama defeats Canada inside the same stadium Tuesday.
But a U.S. win paired with a Canadian win creates a three-way jumble atop Group C. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head competition among the three teams involved; that would remain deadlocked in this scenario. The United States would be well-positioned on the next tiebreaker, goal difference in matches among the three teams. Canada, to finish first, would need to beat Panama by three goals while scoring four or more, which seems unlikely. Otherwise, the United States would win the group.
Bradley's team seems to have a better chance of finishing second rather than first. That means a likely quarterfinal against Jamaica, a good team coming off two impressive shutouts, 4-0 over Grenada and 2-0 over Guatemala. The Jamaicans close out first round play Monday against Honduras.
Back to the myriad complications the Americans just created for themselves:
Bradley suggested after Saturday's match that lineup changes must be closely examined, mostly due to the tight Gold Cup scheduling (but also because of that dreary and disheveled performance in Tampa). Several important players would be lining up for the fourth time in 11 days if Bradley turns to them again, which is asking a lot. So, the coach must weigh what those important players have remaining in the tank against the alternative, turning to the backups.
The yellow card situation will be an equal concern in the starting selections. Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Carlos Bocanegra and Jozy Altidore are among six Americans who will miss the quarterfinal if they are booked on Tuesday. Nobody who has watched how this team operates wants to see it face Jamaica without Bradley or Bocanegra.
And where to play Bocanegra? Tim Ream and Clarence Goodson weren't quite as effective Saturday as they were against Canada as a central pairing in defense. If Bocanegra moves into the middle to provide a little more tactical guidance, the hole at left back is once again exposed. Eric Lichaj played there against Spain but didn't look particularly comfortable. Jonathan Bornstein would be the other alternative.
Other sore spots to consider going into Tuesday important match:
The ongoing lack of U.S. goals must be addressed. The Americans have scored just eight in 10 matches since returning from South Africa last year. The dearth of dangerous strikers was never more pronounced than Saturday when the game analysis could, to a large extent, be reduced to this: Panama's pair of front runners was simply better than the U.S. pair.
Finally, the other American bugaboo that needs addressing yet again: The United States just can't get going quickly enough in matches. They fell behind once again Saturday in Tampa. The response was typically strong, and there's always something to say for that. But haven't we seen this movie before, and isn't it getting pretty tiresome?
Don't forget, this is a team that allowed the first goal in 6 of 10 final round qualifiers for World Cup 2010. Then last summer in South Africa, Bradley's team fell behind against England, Slovenia (by two) and Ghana.
Again, the response is usually good, as it was against England and Slovenia last year. Still, it's a problem that just won't go away.
"We just came out slow, without enough energy from the get go and it kind of put us on our heels," Ream said Saturday night of the loss to Panama. "That's what happens: if you come out slow, you are going to get punished for it."
Punishment could be especially severe if it happens again Tuesday -- as in severe to a point this current U.S. group has never seen.