Photo by Bill Barrett/ISIphotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
WASHINGTON – Emerging from a tumultuous group stage bruised and beaten but in the Gold Cup quarterfinals all the same, the U.S. national team has made one thing clear: The knockout stage is a fresh start.
After just nine players participated in a light training session Thursday, the U.S. held its first full practice in the nation's capital Friday ahead of Sunday's critical clash with Jamaica at RFK Stadium.
Despite dropping a 2-1 contest to Panama and only defeating Guadeloupe by a 1-0 margin while facing elimination, the U.S. players and coaches are convinced those less-than-stellar group stage results are behind them.
"The first round is always about just coming through," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "You don't get style points for winning three games 5-0. It's all about just taking it one at a time and after three games, putting yourself in a position to be in a quarterfinal. We've done that. We've learned from some things along the way, and we feel like we're stronger."
Here are some more notes from U.S. training:
A popular topic for discussion Thursday and Friday was the two key attacking midfielders who were not in attendance: Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. With each player attending his sister's wedding Saturday, the duo will likely not arrive in Washington until later that night. U.S. Soccer has arranged for private flights to Washington to take Donovan from California and Dempsey from Texas.
As the U.S. continued preparations to play its fifth game in 16 days, the absence of Donovan and Dempsey was universally downplayed.
"We're not concerned," coach Bob Bradley said. "When you are into a tournament like this, the days after hard games are also regeneration days. I think much of our preparation work has been done."
Added right back Steve Cherundolo: "We are people who get around frequently and we fly back and forth from Europe all the time, so they'll be ready for the game."
THE NEED FOR SPEED
Sunday's match against an in-form Jamaica side that went 3-0 in the group stage presents unique challenges to the U.S. squad. Numerous American players mentioned the speed, physicality and athleticism prevalent throughout the Reggae Boyz roster as a main focal point.
"They're going to be full of confidence, and we have to come out and have the same confidence," captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "They're going to have some pace, so we're going to have to deal with that. Hopefully we can spread them out, keep the ball, finish our chances, put the game away and move on to the next round."
When asked if speedy left back Eric Lichaj, who made his first competitive appearance for the Yanks on Tuesday against Guadeloupe, would be a logical option to help negate Jamaica players such as dynamic winger Dane Richards, Bob Bradley said, "That's a strong possibility."
"Eric has shown that he can play left and right back with good energy in terms of getting himself forward," Bradley said. "We certainly knew there was going to be pace on that side of the field against Guadeloupe, and I think Eric matched their pace and dealt with those situations really well."
WHO'S UP TOP?
While most of the U.S. lineup seems set, one position that could still be up for grabs is the striker slot alongside Jozy Altidore.
Juan Agudelo started the first two matches while Chris Wondolowski stepped in for the win over Guadeloupe, but neither player has shown notable chemistry with Altidore as of yet.
"It's difficult when you have such little time to get to know players," Altidore said. "But at the same time, whoever is playing up front doesn't really matter at this point. We all know what we need to do."
Time and time again throughout Bradley's tenure, the United States has displayed some of its best soccer with its back against the wall. Widely showered with criticism for their lackluster group stage, the Americans know they can't dwell on those outings and are confident in their ability to step up when it matters most.
"Well, we're here, and I think that's important," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "I think with this team, this particular group, we've always been resilient, we've always battled — in the best of times, and when times haven't been tremendous."
Noted defender Clarence Goodson: "You're supposed to be building as a tournament goes on. What's most important is doing well toward the end and playing your best matches in the knockout rounds."
Although Bocanegra acknowledged being aware of the various negative opinions about the team circulating in the media, he said such outside distractions pale in comparison to what the team simply expects of itself.
"We hold ourselves to a higher standard now, and we know we didn't perform," Bocanegra said. "We were a little disappointed with how we played and how we didn't finish games off, and we ended up having a loss as well. That kind of pissed us off a little bit internally. So the outside stuff I don't think is going to be a big factor — we need to prove it to ourselves."