I think it’s a fair read on the situation to call the Gold Cup something of a ocean floor trawler of a tournament. There is value in it, whatever Average American Soccer Fan X would tell you, but the value is often mixed in with layers of silt and obscuring phytoplankton and performances that would otherwise only serve to confuse the hell out of you.
Perhaps the deepest trawl, and the one that muddied the USMNT waters the most completely, was whatever spirit possessed and animated Freddy Adu’s legs in 2011. Adu, you’ll recall, had already lustily fallen off the pace in 2011, and he quickly found himself on those seemingly self-populating Players Who Need To Prove Themselves listicles.
Adu had himself an enormous tournament, or at least by his own wonky standards, and this field-opening pass to Landon Donovan (I saw it live, and it was, at the time, arresting) to crack open a game against Panama in the semis the U.S. eventually won was… well it was pretty damn incredible to see after everything.
Adu’s 2011 Gold Cup was a lark. We know this now. His pathway into the first team was no clearer a month after the tournament than it was a month before it as his performances plummeted back from the troposphere, but at the time you couldn’t see past that pass, man. It was something else. And it was, for all its splendor, so much silt floating up from the bottom of the ocean and making the USMNT roster that much harder to glimpse through the shimmering fog. Do we… do we need to start talking about Adu again?
This is the ultimate trouble with the Gold Cup. It does this to us, forces us to make entire meals of table scraps. How do you ultimately handicap the performances, both from the field and from the sideline? And what do they matter, in the end, when the XIs on the field are so far set apart from the preferred first team XIs most any given coach with Gold Cup title aspirations would utilize in an ideal world? How many 2011 Adus will this particular tournament trawl up?
And this crack in the foundation is where the seepage of bias worms its way into the discussion.
The only real way to win the Gold Cup, at least from an American coaching perspective in non-Confederations Cup qualification years, is to drop unsubtle hints to your fan base about your system. You may not have your first choice side, but you certainly have the tactical framework in which they’ll play. This was why Bob Bradley’s 2011 Gold Cup was so disastrous and why Jurgen Klinsmann’s 2013 Gold Cup was arguably his greatest triumph. The 2013 team played some legitimately swashbuckling soccer, and Klinsmann managed to tease surprisingly robust performances out of fringe guys like Brek Shea, Clarence Goodson and Chris Wondolowski. Even Mix Diskerud had a relatively successful tournament. The U.S. ultimately won its six games by a staggering plus-16 goal margin and, of course, ultimately won the entire thing.
It was not so much the trophy itself that hung so lightly around Klinsmann’s neck, but the performances that led them there. These tournaments are only valuable insofar as they tell you something broader about the team playing them, like a plot point hidden under the fourth layer in a Dostoyevsky novel that suddenly makes you realize your shortcomings as a spouse (or, you know, something). You know most of these players aren’t playing in a World Cup. But the system in which they operate? That’s immutable. Or else it should be.
This is the hinge point where we start talking about bias in how you see meaning in Gold Cups. And the Gold Cup, with all its strange moveable expectations that vary so wildly from person to person, it immediately becomes easy to see how coaches can either become hung by the Gold Cup (as Bradley was in 2011), vindicated by it (as Klinsmann was in 2013) and then have it act as a sort of blood-red blinking engine light for systemic problems almost entirely unrelated to the Gold Cup at all (this would be Klinsmann in 2015).
The Gold Cup is enough of an oddity and an outlier in what people expect from the USMNT in that all these things are possible. If you hate Incumbent Media, whatever that means for you, then anything other than withering criticism of Bruce Arena in the absence of soaring soccer in this tournament will be soft placation. If you are one of Arena’s Rough Riders, then there are practically no worthy criticisms aside from the meager individual jabs at players seemingly performing under their potential. And if you are somewhere in the middle, then you can simply shrug and wait until World Cup qualifiers begin again. And all of these viewpoints are ultimately incomplete.
This is all made that much harder to discern by the murk driving up from the bottom created by poor performances from supposed World Cup hopefuls (Kellyn Acosta, for instance, had an objectively poor game in the opener against Panama) and quality performances from players who emerged from nowhere (Dom Dwyer, for instance). The Gold Cup is important because it allows these World Cup stories to rise, but they are so often obscured by the tournament itself. Wondolowski’s 2013 Gold Cup more or less led to his inclusion in the 2014 World Cup, the only player to really use that venue as a true launchpad to Brazil, and… we know that story.
If there’s a way to watch this tournament – or if there’s a way I watch this tournament – it’s to expect far more out of the team ethic than anything individual. Look at the system and the fruit it produces, much like you would a projection-based U17 or U20 World Cup. This tournament can be an important vehicle to the World Cup, albeit for a select few, but it’s more important as a signal flare to the fans about the sort of soccer the particular coach at the time plans on playing. Around the Gold Cup, the U.S. was on a tear in 2013 after a 4-2 loss to the Netherlands that revealed some genuinely pleasing attacking play and of course the 4-3 win over Germany. In 2015, the wheels were rusting and cracking at the axles. The Gold Cup merely reflected all that back to us.
The individual performances will come or they will not. There’s not much Arena can do about Kelyn Rowe coming to play or not. But what he can do, and what I think is most important in not only this Gold Cup but in every one to follow, is set up a style and a basic framework for 2018, whether these are his horses for that tournament’s paddock or not. That is why the opening Panama match was concerning on a base level. Not because of the individual blasé-ness of it all, but because the interchange was bored and laggardly, the gaps between the back line and the defense were horrendous in size, and the crater where the creator should be was smoking and ruinous.
These are foundational things that can tell you a significant about a coach’s plan (or conversely, that there isn’t much of one). It is the Gold Cup, of course, and reading microscopically into every detail will forever be a fool’s errand. But continue to watch the tactical cohesiveness with which this team plays. From there, everything else should follow. Including the praise and ultimately the criticism.