CHICAGO—The United States men’s soccer team did not have Jurgen Klinsmann on the sidelines for Sunday’s Gold Cup Final against Panama. And for the first 45 minutes or so, the Americans seemed lost without their leader.
The wide play was clumsy. The midfielders couldn’t find that killer pass. Even Landon Donovan, named the best player of the tournament, failed to accomplish much.
Whether because of Panama’s strength or the American coach’s absence, the U.S. definitely struggled. But the team also showed plenty of determination. It gradually gained control of the match and eventually took the lead on a 69th-minute tap-in by Brek Shea, winning the 2013 Gold Cup, 1-0.
“By far the best team of the tournament was the United States,” Klinsmann said in a post-game press conference. “They were rewarded today for the fantastic Gold Cup that they played. They should be very, very proud of themselves.”
Though pleased with the result, Klinsmann wasn’t satisfied.
“We all know that there are other benchmarks out there,” Klinsmann said. “The global game is played in South America and it’s played in Europe and there are other benchmarks waiting for us. “
“I think they all understand that it takes a lot more to become really good. So a month from now we are already talking about World Cup qualifiers as the next benchmark.”
But for now? For today?
“Today they deserve the biggest compliment,” he said. “We will enjoy the moment.” Both teams came out in aggressive postures, pressuring the ball far up the field and seeking to control both the possession and tempo. It marked a significant departure for the United States, which had faced bunkering teams throughout the tournament.
Despite an open game and plenty of back-and-forth action, neither team had many clear chances on goal. In the 11th minute Stuart Holden found himself open with the ball at the edge of the 18-yard box, but his shot sailed on him and flew into touch.
In the 17th minute, two Panama defenders bumped into one another and fell in the six-yard box. Donovan jumped for the loose ball, but nothing came of it.
From an American perspective, the biggest moment of the first half came in the 23rd minute, when Holden tangled with a Panama player, fell to the ground, and stayed there. The oft-injured midfielder was determined to show that he could stay healthy throughout this tournament, and in the end he could not. Mix Diskerud came on for his injured teammate.
The change of personnel did little to influence the rest of the half. While the United States enjoyed the bulk of possession, it seemed particularly clueless in the final third. With Panama clogging the middle of the field in front of its goal, the U.S. needed to explore and exploit the flanks but failed to do so with any bite. Eddie Johnson, in particular, drifted to the left wing, but his go-to move, a stepover, let him down repeatedly.
The first half ended in an uneventful scoreless tie—with a grand total of one shot on goal. Panama, the underdog, must have been thrilled.
Klinsmann was not around to rally the troops at halftime, but the team came out with more purpose after the break. The U.S. had a great chance right after the restart when Diskerud was fouled a few yards outside of the Panama penalty area. Donovan took the spot kick and curled in a beautiful cross that found Clarence Goodson right in front of goal. Goodson, however, failed to connect and the chance went missing.
Gradually, increasingly, the Americans found the pace of the game.
In the 56th minute, Kyle Beckerman released DaMarcus Beasley down the left flank. Beasley’s subsequent cross found an unmarked Donovan in the six-yard box, but his sharp header flew wide of the goal. It was an awful miss.
The breakthrough finally came in the 69th minute. Bedoya, staying farther out on the wing since the break, crossed into the centre of the box and found Donovan. The U.S. midfielder took a swing at Bedoya’s pass but missed. The ball was heading toward the goal when substitute Brek Shea pounced and slammed the ball into the back of the net from one yard out.
The Yanks should have put the game out of reach in the 84th minute when Shea pushed down the left wing and delivered a picture-perfect cross to Johnson streaking in on goal. Somehow Johnson wasted the easy chance, blasting the ball over the Panama goal when all he had to do was guide it home.
With less than five minutes to play and still just one goal behind, Panama began to press forward, but the team played as if it knew it would lose. It couldn’t find the goal it needed, and it never pressed as far forward as it could have. The game ended somewhat anti-climactically, 1-0, with the U.S. in control in the Panama half.
A few minutes after the match, Klinsmann stomped onto the field—somewhat defiantly, it seemed—and started hugging and high-fiving his team. While he wasn’t on the sideline for the match itself, he was a huge presence throughout the tournament.
He admitted that “watching from the box is horrible. I am not good at that.” But the Gold Cup ended well for him, his players, and the entire organisation, and was punctuated by a “Champagne shower” that forced the coach to change clothes before meeting with the media.
Eleven wins in a row. First place in the Hex. And, oh yeah—what’s up with that Donovan fellow? Is he back in the plans with the A Team?
“There’s a very high probability that he joins us for the September games,” Klinsmann said, referring to the World Cup qualifiers in Costa Rica and at home vs. Mexico.
“It’s not even a discussion.”
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