February 12, 2002

U.S. triumphs in Gold Cup with a spectacular blend of youth and experience

Well, this hasn't happened since 1991. Nope, the American national team wasn't in this position since the last Bush was president. So what happened? The U.S. finally won the Gold Cup again, of course. And they did it with style: 2-0 over archrival Costa Rica. Less than six months from the World Cup, it's safe to say that the Americans have surprised many in this Gold Cup competition. Furthermore, they won the trophy with guys like Brian West (as a reserve) and other young talents like DeMarcus Beasley.

Personally, I thought the young Americans would learn their lesson against Costa Rica. The Ticos still boast arguably the best talent in CONCACAF. No one can finish like Paulo Wanchope. No one. Nevertheless, the U.S. won, and they won convincingly.

So what happened?

Quite simply, the U.S. really seems to have a formidable collection of young talent — young talent that promises a very, very strong U.S. team in the future if everything goes as planned. Sure, players like Landon Donovan still seem streaky, being pivotal in a certain game and then nonexistent in the next. Beasley seems downright scary, though. His speed and his relentlessly aggressive attitude only bode well for the squad. Others like Clint Mathis, Ante Razov, and Josh Wolff aren't exactly old timers either, and they should contribute in the future. Of course, Costa Rica could've been having a bad game, but the U.S. played well for the entire tournament.

Despite the success, the Americans still seem to lack a strong, young defender. Pablo Mastroeni played well in the back — especially since he was covering Wanchope — and, at times, Steve Chorundulo looks good, but neither exactly dazzles. Players like Agoos and Eddie Pope should hold down the fort well, but the U.S. has been blessed with good goalies, solid midfielders, and an occasional star striker or two, yet no great defenders (I'm sorry Alexi Lalas, but a short stint with a sub par Serie A team doesn't get you into the higher echelons). So, while the future may hold offensive talent for America, a few promising defenders would be nice too.

The Gold Cup win, while perhaps a rosy sign of things to come, may raise more questions than answers. Now, more than ever before, head coach Bruce Arena will have to make some serious choices before trimming his squad to 23 players for the World Cup. A few, like Claudio Reyna and Cobi Jones, are mainstays on the team, but what about players like Beasley? Personally, I think the U.S. would be well-served by taking a good dosage of youth with them this summer. Why? Because these young players are as strong a group as any currently available for Arena, and they will only gain strength through the experience.

Donovan especially seems inconsistent in international matches. Although he played extremely well for San Jose last year, his play at the top level continues to confuse. As an attacking midfielder, he obviously plays well for a 19-year-old, far better than most other teenagers, but he doesn't always seem at the top of his game during international games. Of course, that's hardly criticism, but when so much expectation slowly build up on just one player, more and more slight criticisms start to fall. Pretty soon, those criticisms start to grow. Quite bluntly, many expected Donovan to be our version of Michael Owen or perhaps a diminutive striker like Pippo Inzaghi. The young player, talented beyond his years, always makes a great story, and the U.S. team is desperate for coverage nowadays. Yes, Donovan can score Owen-like goals, making runs from midfield to goal, but he can also become rattled and unfocused, battered and bruised. That's the general defense against quick and speedy attackers — simply chop them down until they don't get up. Most mature strikers take the lumps with poise, but Donovan can still phase out of matches. It's forgivable now, but, pretty soon, he's got to rise to the challenge. Beasley already has, and Donovan must soon follow.

Undoubtedly, this is just a small worry — one slight remark about an exciting player and an exciting team. Overall, if Arena picks wisely, his squad should play well in June. Sure, the jury's still out, but wins have a tendency to silence all doubters, and the U.S. has won their first meaningful trophy in years. This should give the critics a respite, at least until a certain more important competition begins this summer.