Photo by Bill Barrett/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
As far as the Gold Cup goes, the U.S. men's national team is where it should be. But the road to get to this point of the tournament has been far from perfect.
The United States enters its quarterfinals tilt against Jamaica on Sunday (3 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel) at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., having instilled little confidence amongst supporters that it can win the Gold Cup over co-favorite Mexico.
Poor finishing, shoddy defending and mental breakdowns are all partially responsible for that. The Americans know, however, that a win against an undefeated Jamaica team (3-0-0) can help their self belief while also getting them one step closer toward achieving their goal of lifting the Gold Cup trophy.
"We need to be a little sharper and maybe a little more concentrated in the final third," U.S. midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. "We're creating chances, which is good, but we need to come out with a lot higher energy and intensity next game."
The Reggae Boyz have not played the United States since a 1-1 draw in April, 2006. For Jamaica, that result is as good as it has gotten, as the United States has never lost in the all-time series, winning nine games and tying eight.
But with Dane Richards and Luton Shelton leading its attack, this speedy Jamaican team stands as good a chance as any to knock off the Americans, who have admittedly not been playing up to their potential.
"We've got to move the ball, defend well, not spread ourselves out. The same that we've been saying all tournament," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "We've just got to do a better job at it."
Don't expect the Jamaicans to sit back and allow the U.S. team time and space. They'll likely push the game from the opening whistle, challenging the likes of Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones.
How the Americans' defense copes with Jamaica's speed and technical ablity will help determine how successful they are. If the U.S. team can contain their opponents and not concede easy opportunities, then the game might open up to its advantage.
The United States hasn't really had too much of a chance during the Gold Cup to hit back on the counter, a strength of Bob Bradley's team. Jamaica's approach to Sunday's game should provide the Americans that opportunity, and that's something they aren't against.
"A lot of times when we have to possess the ball and we've got to make the game, we don't always do so well," Bocanegra said. "That's something we work on when teams sit back and we've got to break them down; it's difficult sometimes."
Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey will surely be the focal point of the United States' attack, but with the duo missing training this weekend to attend family weddings, it is unknown how much of the load will need to be carried by someone else.
Jozy Altidore seems like a good candidate to step up and help the veteran Americans. The 21-year-old forward has two goals in the tournament, including the beauty of a blast he hit versus Guadeloupe for the game-winner, and he has been a handful for defenders.
Who pairs with him against Donovan Ricketts and Jamaica's defense is anyone's guess. Juan Agudelo has had his chances, and so has Chris Wondolowski, but neither has made the most of them. There's also the thought that Dempsey could be pushed up top next to Altidore, but Bradley has been reluctant to do so, preferring to start Dempsey in the midfield before moving him to forward in the second half.
No matter whom Bradley opts to pair with Altidore, the United States knows it cannot start out the match slowly. That's been something that has plagued this American team in recent years and something that could ultimately cost it its dream of winning the Gold Cup.
"We have to have the right mentality, because if we come out and play slow and play lazy again we're going to be on vacation, and we're not going to be happy," U.S. midfielder Sacha Kljestan said.
The Americans may be aware that they're not be playing at their best, but they still have the confidence and belief that they will improve on their group stage performances, starting with Jamaica.
"We still think we're the strongest team in CONCACAF so we still have to go out there and play hard," Kljestan said. "We need to play harder and better than we have in the first three games. That's for sure."