Monday, July 13, 2015

Gold Cup: The U.S. Frustrates Panama, and Honduras/Haiti Bores Neutrals

That some serious, long-term casting for bully and toady.
Holy shit, that was fun! The U.S. v. Panama was a damn good game. The way the first half ended with that roiling boil that threatened to pour over every side of the pot? It rarely gets better than when an underdog pops the Alpha with a surprise shot to the chin. Good times, good times...

Know what wasn't good times? Honduras' tournament-ending loss to a, let's face it, solid Haitian side. Somewhere in the middle of a lengthy rant that shifted from a specific point – e.g. the prolonged, pointless whine that Honduran coach Jorge Luis Pinto directed at that match's fourth official – to a general one – e.g. the general, embarrassing bitchy petulance toward referees by Major League Soccer players and coaches – the commentating crew noted that the second half of Haiti v. Honduras boiled down to Haiti inviting Honduras to try to break them down. And, lord did they have time for that rant about whining players. That game contained more dead air than a coffin.

They never did it. Honduras, I mean. They barely accepted the invitation to attack, and came close all of once. So, beyond congratulating Haiti for going through, the less said about that game, the better.

Fortunately, the night's second act made up for a grimly poor first and on multiple levels. Panama came out firing on all cylinders, pinning the U.S. back into their own half for large portions of the, well, the half. The Central American side put a young, fairly untried defensive set through a tricky set of wringers before the whistle blew for halftime. As someone who watched the game with me pointed out (and please claim via tweet, if you read this), the Panamanians serve up a mean cross – and that's something they carried into the second half. Panama knocked, knocked, and knocked again, until they finally scored the goal they needed to lift them over Haiti in the Group A standings.

It was after that moment that the game turned entirely wonderful. Cheap foul followed cheap foul, the ref missed and/or ignored a reasonable call for a foul by a pair of Panamanian defenders on Alejandro Bedoya as he barreled toward goal – a moment that shouted "CONCACAF!" to the heavens, if ever there was one. Fisticuffs promised to break out on a couple occasions thereafter. And, yes, the ref could very well have been the recipient of the first swing – see, the moment where, first, Kyle Beckerman, then Michael Bradley got within accidental-spit-flecking range of the ref's face. This, for me, is the perfect pitch: the tension and energy of violence absent actual violence. As a fan, your blood is up high enough to want to scream obscenities, or even throw a punch. All it takes is that half-second of thought to realize how stupid and pathetic such an action would be. Like, say, throwing stuff at the opposition forward after they scored a goal. Embarrassingly stupid shit, right? Thank god no one at Sporting Park did such a thing. Ahem...

Credit recently-minted FOX Sports pundit Brad Friedel for getting things entirely right during the halftime break: as he said, the U.S. would adjust at the half, as they'd done all tournament, and things would look better from there. And they did. Clint Dempsey, the U.S.’s unquestioned Gold Cup lucky charm so far, came on and absolutely changed the game. At this point in The Program's development, and given the right opposition, the U.S. needs only a single moment to turn the game on its head. Tonight's equalizer was aided by a lucky bounce, even if said bounce came far enough before the actual defining moment to lend the luck an air of fate. (So, is that the rule? Is it two or three smart passes that excuses a lucky bounce?)

It sure as hell wasn't all light and sunshine for the Yanquis. As noted/argued above, Panama piled on the anxious moments throughout the first half. Guzan saved the U.S. from a serious own-goal scare and they survived more than a couple desperate defensive scrambles. Bradley's desperation bomb from over 30 yards away was the Alpha and Omega of the U.S. attack for the first half. So, no, I doubt any U.S. fan pining for the Days of American Excellence on the International Stage walked away from this game anything like satisfied. That said, there are very real reasons why the U.S. looked something like off tonight, and I'll address those below. Before that, however, I've got a love letter to type.

To Blas Perez, With Love (Smooches!)
If one man can represent the plucky cynicism of CONCACAF within his own person, that man is surely Panama's/FC Dallas' Blas Perez. Whether it's the flagrant (and, it bears admitting, skillful) attempts to draw fouls or the cheap shots at every defender he throws his big body against, Perez embodies the referee-enabled gamesmanship that gives our region its defining quirk. What I appreciate more than that, perhaps, is the Bully-Toady dynamic he encourages among his teammates. Tonight's game featured a wunnerful, wunnerful example where Perez forced a U.S. defender to stand him up near the center stripe – think it was Venturo Alvarado – where, in the ensuing fracas, Alvarado's hands strayed toward the general vicinity of Perez’s head. In a tradition that would bring a tear to the eye of a Barrymore, Perez flopped to ground as if shot and the ref rewarded the masterful performance with a yellow card to the American defender (who may or may not have been Alvarado; honestly, it doesn't matter, Perez’s particular talents are the focus of this ode). A minimum of three of Perez's teammates faced off with Alvarado, demanding that he answer for such a heinous crime against one of their team's star players, thus subverting to beautiful effect the bully-toady dynamic – e.g. the bully becomes the victim in this scenario and the toadies plea his victimization. What I love about Perez is that he gives absolutely zero shits about fairness. It's a simple equation: if you can’t beat 'em, trick the guy who calls the shots. It's cynical as hell, it's only occasionally pretty, but, hell yes, it's a real talent. And, within our region, it's talent that helps the minnows punch up a little. If, arguably, to their long-term detriment.

OK, now some quick shots on what went wrong and well for the U.S. tonight.

A couple key players had very clearly poor nights tonight. The entire internet has flagged Gyasi Zardes' leaden touch, so there's not much point in dwelling on that one (though, to argue a point, I think his essential skill-set – e.g. a one-touch shot on goal, duplicates Chris Wondolowski’s – only without the latter’s upside). Timmy Chandler got dragged through Twitter's mud again, but he walks through a(n arguably justified) shit-storm every time he pulls on a U.S. jersey. I'd also include the first-half, left-side tandem of Alfredo Morales and Fabian Johnson, but the most important player to suffer a bad night tonight was, shockingly, Kyle Beckerman. Normally one of the Yanks’ safest player on the ball, Beckerman's passing failed him all over the field tonight, including and up to direct give-aways to the opposition. Your #6 just can’t do that, regardless of formation, though it's worse in a diamond formation. Panama ain't bad, but, still, a better team would have given the mistakes Beckerman made tonight 20+ lashes. It's even worth wondering how much of the pressure the U.S.’s shaky backline absorbed was down to Beckerman’s errant passes and ayptical lack of presence. Credit to the Panamanians for all the good things they did tonight, but they got tons of help from Beckerman playing out of the back and from Zardes coughing up damn near every ball whenever the U.S. hit the attacking third.

Right, in Bullet Points
1) For all its struggles, count me a fan of Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to start, and even rely on, a young, fairly untested backline throughout the Gold Cup. Blood 'em early, blood 'em often, especially in games where there’s nothing on the line but pride. The fact that Panama wanted it clearly and fairly ably, only improved the value of the test. And, to their credit, both John Anthony Brooks and Alvarado for how much they improved and adjusted as the game went on, especially when it came to Panama's crosses.
1a) Thank your for the Kool-Aid, Mr. Klinsmann! It was delicious!

2) Brad Guzan Is Awesome.
And Aston Villas is stupid. He's the hero tonight for the double save off the near-own-goal and the immediate follow-up alone.

3) Dempsey, Absolutely Unbound

I don't think it’s even sort of an exaggeration to say that the game changed with Dempsey's introduction. Based on tonight, especially, Klinsmann looks to have given Dempsey an absolutely free role, which had him dropping near, and sometimes beyond, the midfield stripe. This was huge, really. While those half-dozen flicks he pulled off to unsettle Panama's defense caught the eye, Dempsey's presence in midfield provided his biggest contribution on the night. More than an extra body by far, Dempsey passed reliably as anyone this side of Bradley, and often from a fairly deep position; a healthy share of the U.S.'s most effective attacks grew from those passes. However you come down, personally, on the love/hate equation for Dempsey, he has carried the U.S. so far. At one point late in the game, he and Bradley came very, very close to playing right through Panama's defense at incredible, one-touch speed; it was the kind of stuff Deuce produces with Obafemi Martins on their best day. To put that another way, anyone watching tonight's game caught a 10-second glimpse of a bright, shining future where the U.S. can play with that kind of speed and understanding. Some of that will go away when Dempsey retires. That said, I am confident there will be others who pick up the mantel.

OK, that's it. Again, great game, great drama. And a tough one for Panama. To go up a on a goal that means everything to your team, only to have it taken away with an annoying kind of inevitability: can't imagine the sensation. But, as Americans, we haven't had to. Ever, really.

That’s a blessing and a curse for the next level, I think.

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