One game away from a chance to win its third straight Gold Cup, the U.S. national team plays Honduras for the third time in the past seven weeks on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel, TeleFutura) with a different team than it used the last two times.
Such is the nature of a very crowded June and July. If the U.S. reaches Sunday's final, it will have played 13 games in three different competitions on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Most people would call it crazy; head coach Bob Bradley, a master of understatement, merely refers to it as "a challenge."
Bradley used most of his "A" team players in a 2-1 Hexagonal victory over Honduras last month at Soldier Field -- the site of Thursday night's encounter -- and named a very different team in a 2-0 win in the Gold Cup's group phase earlier this month in Washington, D.C. Since that match, five players have left the team for their European clubs and only two replacements have been summoned.
"Throughout this tournament, we've been able to pick a good starting XI but also have guys come off the bench at the right moment," says Bradley. "The other day, Kenny Cooper came on, was taken down and ended up scoring the penalty, so the reserves are very important. I think that this group understands you win games in a variety of ways; your starters set the tone but you need to bring on guys at the right moment."
Cooper's penalty kick in the final minute of the first overtime Saturday enabled the Americans to beat Panama 2-1 in their quarterfinal match. Honduras got past Canada 1-0 also with the aid of a penalty, this one resulting from a very dubious foul called against defender Paul Stalteri. Walter Martínez put away the PK and Honduras survived a few onslaughts, one of which produced a shot off the goalpost, to reach the semis and a rematch with the U.S.
A few of the weapons Bradley called upon in the group phase aren't available. Midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who replaced midfielder Logan Pause in the 64th minute of the group match against Honduras, has reported to his European club for preseason training, as have Charlie Davies, Freddy Adu, Steve Cherundolo and goalkeeper Luis Robles. All of the departees but Robles played in that game, which the U.S. won 2-0, with goals by Santino Quaranta and Brian Ching.
Pause is one of several national-team debutantes to play impressively at the Gold Cup. "Logan's been a real solid player for the Fire, someone who does a strong job in the center of the field every game and I think he's been able to help our national team with the same kind of effort," says Bradley.
He's been paired with Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman as a midfield tandem for several games and they're also rooming together. Of the two, Beckerman is the more prone to go forward, but their primary tasks are to hold firm in the middle and use the ball smartly when possession is won. At the Gold Cup, the U.S. has created plentiful chances with incisive, intelligent play from its flank players -- including the outside backs -- and forwards.
"I've known Kyle for years since we've played for the U-23s in 2003 and 2004," says Pause, drafted by Chicago out of North Carolina in the third round of the '03 SuperDraft. "We're good buddies and we get along well. All that helps when you get on the field."
Pause and Beckerman manned the middle -- with Stuart Holden and RobbieRogers on the flanks -- for the quarterfinal against Panama, in which Beckerman scored a spectacular equalizer as the U.S. rallied to win in extra time. Of the midfielders, only Rogers failed to finish the match, and he came off only for the last 10 minutes, so the possibility of another 120-minute marathon could prompt a change or two.
Colin Clark, Sam Cronin and Quaranta all sat out the Panama game, so Bradley has several rested midfielders at his disposal in case he needs a change in the starting midfield lineup or early substitutions in case of fatigue or cramp. However, he feels the five-day turnaround has given the players enough time to recover. "I think we'll have had enough days at that point to be ready to go," he says.
Fatigue will be problematic Sunday, with only two rest days as well as a trip to New Jersey separating the semis from the final.
Holden, who scored goals against Grenada and Haiti in his first two U.S. appearances, is the lone U.S. player to score more than once at the Gold Cup. As the goals have been spread around, so has the playing time; of the 19 players listed on the semifinal roster, only goalie Jon Busch - who took Robles' spot just a few days ago -- has yet to see action in the competition.
Defender Michael Parkhurst, who has also returned to the team, played the group game against Honduras paired in the middle with Chad Marshall. JimmyConrad is recovering from a concussion he suffered against Panama; the man who replaced him, Clarence Goodson, also has played well.
"It's definitely going to be a different game then the last one," says Pause. "We're in the semifinal of the Gold Cup and we know they're going to put a lot into it. They'll be hungry, but we feel with our group the important thing is concentrating on what we do. In a short period of time, the U.S. has beat Honduras twice now, but we're looking at this game just by itself, as a semifinal."