They aren't completely out of the woods in what was quickly devolving into a summer of high discontent. And the United States still has plenty of work ahead before a possible tournament championship showdown against Mexico -- which is pretty much what everyone expected before the Americans began stumbling around in group stage.
But an afternoon of partial vindication has left Bradley and his side a lot closer today than yesterday to summer redemption following a fairly comfortable 2-0 quarterfinal win over Jamaica. Up next for the tournament hosts will be Panama in Houston in the Gold Cup semifinals.
A pretty shaky 68th-minute red card for Jamaican defender Jermaine Taylor abetted Sunday's result; there may have been some contact as U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones tore through the Jamaican defense on a counter attack, but there wasn't much. And there may even have been some question as to whether Taylor was the last man on defense.
Still, the Americans were superior to a poorly organized Jamaican bunch, and the home side can feel good for a strong performance with a top talent missing from the starting lineup. Bradley made the bold call to keep star attacker Landon Donovan on the bench after the U.S. all-time leading scorer missed three days of team activities and arrived at 7 a.m. Sunday following his sister's wedding in California.
It was strategic rather than punitive, of course. And it really was a bold call, one that would have left the U.S. coach under pressure with any other outcome. But some tactical adjustments kept the U.S. mostly in charge inside RFK Stadium against the talented and previously confident Jamaicans. Jones, who is finally looking like the player the U.S. thought it had when he joined the U.S. pool last year, supplied a massive goal just after the break. Clint Dempsey's classy finish helped atone for a night of squandered chances Wednesday and more or less closed the match against the Reggae Boyz, who were down to 10 men by then thanks to Jones.
It all served as a desperately needed, calming balm for a U.S. side that has been anything but tiptop so far in Gold Cup play, and certainly was for the coach. Maybe it wasn't do-or-die for Bradley, but Sunday's match in the nation's capital sure had that ring to it.
Bradley had a good afternoon, personally. Players may win matches, but the U.S. coach put his charges in good spots with a formation change that proved highly effective. For the Americans' most important match since returning from South Africa almost a year ago, Bradley shifted out of his highly favored 4-4-2.
Jamaica clearly struggled to locate the danger men in the Americans' 4-2-3-1. The Reggae Boyz' inability to get a toehold on the game -- aside from Luton Shelton missing a golden opportunity early -- was especially surprising considering Donovan's absence over the first 65 minutes. Alejandro Bedoya, Donovan's replacement, had his best night in a U.S. shirt when his side needed it most.
The choice to start Dempsey -- who also missed the latter part of the week and jetted via private plane into the nation's capital in the wee small hours following his own sister's wedding in Texas -- also proved correct. While fatigue seemed to dampen some American performances, the toll of too many matches, too much heat and too much travel over the last two weeks, Dempsey hopped around causing trouble none the worse.
Bradley's tactical changes seemed to cause some early issues for Jamaican defenders, who needed time to sort out back line responsibilities. That created gaps that the Americans found early, although it took about 30 minutes for Dempsey and Co. to begin making the Jamaicans pay.
By the end of the first half the Americans started identifying the paths toward long and lanky goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts, who kept his team in the match with several strong saves. Dempsey's fierce free kick and Sacha Kljestan's strike from distance, both of which forced Ricketts into quick action, put the Caribbean side under pressure just before halftime. Shortly after but still before the break, Kljestan arranged a header for Bedoya, who missed just wide.
Jones' goal shortly after halftime was the first past Ricketts in the Gold Cup and helped resupply the stores of belief to a U.S. team that has never lost to Jamaica.
Only for about 10 minutes of the second half did the Caribbean side press the home team. Jamaica's ability to rest starters for the group play finale (the spoils of being on top of things in Gold Cup group play) nearly proved critical. Jamaica began finding space against a tiring U.S. bunch after about 70 minutes. But Dempsey's clever finish off substitute striker Juan Agudelo's pass secured passage to Wednesday's semifinal in Houston.
GK Tim Howard, 7 -- His early, massive save prevented yet another U.S. goal conceded in the opening minutes. Later in the half, however, miscommunication with center back Clarence Goodson nearly cost a goal. Howard gobbled up everything else coming his way.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 6 -- It took a while for the U.S. right back, previously the best U.S. man in the Gold Cup, to get comfortable going forward against Jamaica's arrangement of three forwards. Even then, his movement forward was pretty limited, possibly a victim of fatigue. The defending was mostly OK.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- The U.S. captain looked suspect here and there in one-on-one duals. With Cherundolo staying home, with Eric Lichaj gaining confidence on the left and with two defensive screeners, there wasn't too awfully much for Bocanegra to handle back there other than to organize and communicate.
D, Clarence Goodson, 6 -- Better in dealing with big Ryan Johnson than his central partner, and his one-on-one defending was generally better. On the other hand, his work with the ball still needs a bit of polish. He made one critical, lunging tackle on Dane Richards when the result remained in doubt.
D, Eric Lichaj, 7 -- Quite a solid afternoon for the emerging defender, with strong defending, smart positioning and fairly positive work going forward. The makeshift left back is gaining confidence through the tournament, and he's come a long way at the position since a wobbly outing against Spain three weeks ago. He never got rattled by the speedy Richards and even forced a strong save from Jamaican goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts just before the break.
M, Michael Bradley, 5 -- More than anyone in the U.S. shirt, the tax of so many recent matches seemed to leave him zapped. He was slow to step forward along the back line early, which might have led to disaster but for some sloppy Jamaican finishing. A much better relationship with Jones, compared to when they were previously paired as dual holding mids in the 4-2-3-1, helped the United States command midfield. His passing was safe, as he left the adventure to others. Bradley did lose the ball twice in bad spots.
M, Jermaine Jones, 8 -- Easily his best, most influential match in a U.S. shirt as he created the game's two major moments. His deflected strike found its way to goal, supplying much needed confidence and breathing room to a team that needed it. And drawing the ejection, iffy as it was, put the team in great shape to see things through. Jones' petulant 26th-minute yellow card (a little payback following a Jamaican high elbow) subtracted a little bite out from his game, which is all about aggressiveness. Along with Bradley, they used great angles and great timing to prevent Richards from gaining full speed too often.
M, Clint Dempsey, 7 -- This was starting to look like a repeat of Wednesday's snake bit follies -- when he made things happened and found great chances near goal but just couldn't squeeze one through -- until his sigh-of-relief insurance strike. Dempsey began the day as the left-sided attacker in the new formation, but drifted inside so much that he sometimes bumped into centrally stationed Sacha Kljestan.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 6 -- Playing behind a lone U.S. forward, he made a few things happen and did create some opportunities for himself and others, although he might need more in order to grind his way forward in the playing rotation. Kljestan was energetic, and he inherited some of the set-piece duties in Donovan's absence (although his corner kicks were nothing to write home about).
F, Alejandro Bedoya, 7 -- The young attacker, fresh from relative inactivity, was sharp in his biggest role yet in a U.S. shirt, asked to start and to stretch the field on the right in 65 highly active minutes. He added lots of energy and even some improvisation to a U.S. attack that has been pretty listless. Bedoya came close to scoring several times. And even though he doesn't have great size, the young attacker made things happen on headers near goal, which says a lot about his commitment.
F, Jozy Altidore, N/A -- Started as a lone striker but came up lame after a 9th-minute sprint; his hamstring strain forced Bradley to make an early change and will surely be a factor going forward in the tournament.
F, Juan Agudelo , 5 -- The young forward had done little to remember until a sneaky little centering ball found Dempsey to put the game out of reach. Agudelo entered in the 12th minute for the injured Altidore, asked to play up front by himself. He needed about 30 minutes to add some influence and find a chance or two near goal. Agudelo contributed some good defensive chasing before the telling cross.
M, Landon Donovan, 4 -- Not much to say about a big name who just isn't having a great tournament. He came on in the 65th for Bedoya but arguably produced less than the man he replaced.
M, Maurice Edu, 6 -- He very nearly sealed the deal himself with a major blast immediately after his 75th for Jones. Edu might have a big role yet in the Gold Cup; If Jones can't avoid a yellow card Wednesday, Edu will probably get the championship game start should the Americans advance.
Coach Bob Bradley -- The U.S. coach rolled the dice by keeping Landon Donovan on the bench at kickoff -- the first time Donovan has entered a U.S. match from the sidelines since 2007. It was the first of several decisions that went right as some of the mounting pressure has been vented -- for now, at least. The choice to start Alejandro Bedoya and Sacha Kljestan, fresh bodies for a tiring side, made sense. But the bigger impact came from the adjustment into a 4-2-3-1, a bit of a risky gambit considering that his team just hasn't looked fond of that formation in previous attempts.