By Clemente Lisi – PASADENA, CA (Jun 26, 2011) US Soccer Players -- History has an awful way of repeating itself. With the USA up 2-0 in the Gold Cup final Saturday afternoon against Mexico at the Rose Bowl, it looked as if the Americans were on their way to the title.
It was not meant to be. Like the 2009 Confederations Cup final against Brazil, the USA squandered a 2-0 lead. Before a crowd of 93,420 baking under an early-summer California sun, Mexico put on a dazzling display, tying the match before halftime and getting the better of Tim Howard and the US defense by netting two unanswered goals in the second half.
Indeed, it was the Mexicans, before a largely partisan crowd, who came up roses in Pasadena. A year and two days after Landon Donovan scored the winning goal against Algeria at the World Cup, the National Team was not able to replicate that success and emotion.
The US loss notwithstanding, the Gold Cup, and the past three weeks, taught us a few things.
The 2014 Cycle
The Gold Cup was the true start of the 2014 World Cup cycle. The insertion of players like Alejandro Bedoya, Jermaine Jones, Juan Agudelo, Eric Lichaj and Tim Ream is the start for bringing a group of new players into the fold. Regardless of the final outcome, it was important for US coach Bob Bradley to identify new talent ahead of World Cup Qualifying.
The rediscovery of Freddy Adu, who did not make last year’s World Cup roster, is a pleasant surprise and adds depth to the player pool. His long-ball pass that ultimately resulted in Clint Dempsey’s goal against Panama in the semis will be remembered as one of the prettiest plays at this tournament.
“I think the team’s getting a little bit better,” said former National Team striker Eric Wynalda, who now works as a Fox Soccer analyst. I think that's because certain players have defined their roles within the team. We are establishing a much better continuity and idea of who the core group is.”
The Mexicans are the ones headed to Brazil in 2013 for the Confederations Cup. As CONCACAF representatives, everyone across the region wishes them well. At this Gold Cup, Mexico was the superior team. When they weren’t beating opponents handily, they worked hard to rally when falling behind. They were the comeback kings in the quarterfinals against Guatemala (down 1-0) and in the championship game to the USA (down 2-0).
Despite being dogged by a doping scandal, Mexico defended the Gold Cup they won in 2009 and enters the 2014 cycle with a solid group of players ready to take the country to new heights. This current Mexico team could arguably be the strongest fielded since 1986, when on home soil they reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup under the leadership of Hugo Sanchez.
Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who is one of the greatest strikers in the world, leads the Mexican squad. Like Sanchez who played at Real Madrid at the time, Chicharito is a star at Manchester United. Once again, it is no secret that having your star player in the lineup of one of Europe’s top clubs every week translates into success not only for club, but country as well.
The Talent Gap
The gap between CONCACAF's heavyweights and the mid-tier and smaller nations in the region is widening. That's the only way to explain why the first round was loaded with blowouts. This does not bode well for the region as a whole come World Cup Qualifying next year.
If this Gold Cup is to be any barometer, expect the USA, Mexico and Honduras to steamroll their way to the 2014 World Cup finals in Brazil. Competition within the region is what will make the USA (and others) better and future Gold Cup more enjoyable to watch. That the final would be contested between the USA and Mexico was not really a surprise to anyone.
That said, there were some good performances by Jamaica (quarterfinals), Guatemala (quarterfinals) and Panama (semifinals), but on the whole it's not an optimistic outlook. While teams like Cuba and Grenada solidified their roles as minnows, Canada was a major disappointment after they were unable to get out of group play. If the Canadians want to qualify for Brazil ‘14, they will need to up their game big time over the next year.
TV ratings were never so good. A year after the World Cup, it seems that Americans do have an appetite for the game. For instance, last Wednesday’s Mexico-Honduras semifinal was the top primetime sports telecast ever on Spanish-language network Univision, which aired every match of the tournament. The broadcast averaged 7.1 million viewers. That’s not counting the final, which will without a doubt beat out that number once the Nielsen ratings are released this week.
“We were better than Telenovelas," joked CONCACAF General Secretary Chuck Blazer before the final, referring to TV ratings for soap operas popular across Central America.
Over on Fox Soccer, Gold Cup viewership jumped 82% compared to the 2009 edition. The USA-Panama semifinal drew 381,000 viewers, a larger audience than the 369,000 that watched the 2009 final between the United States and Mexico.
The MLS Factor
Major League Soccer may have been the poorer for missing so much talent over the past three weeks, but the League did contribute immensely to the quality of teams at this Gold Cup. Ten of the 12 countries that participated in the Gold Cup featured at least one MLS player (Cuba and Panama were the only exceptions). Jamaica had the most MLS players on its roster with eight, followed by the USA with seven.
Indeed, a record 32 League players were named to Gold Cup teams, which represented the highest number in the tournament's history. The previous record-high of 29 players had been set at the 2009 Gold Cup. That number will only increase over the next decade as more players from Central America and the Caribbean flock to our shores for a chance to play in MLS, which has shown to be one of the best leagues in CONCACAF.
It would not be a surprise if more players join MLS after spending the past month on US soil, training and playing in world-class venues. The region is loaded with gifted players that would add pizzazz to MLS clubs, not to mention appeal to American fans of their National Teams.