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United States, Gold Cup and a B-Team?

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Teammates celebrates with Landon Donovan (C) of the US after he scored a goal in the second half during a CONCACAF quarterfinal match in Baltimore on July 21, 2013
Teammates celebrates with Landon Donovan (C) of the US after he scored a goal in the second half during a CONCACAF quarterfinal match in Baltimore on July 21, 2013

With another high scoring affair, the United States Men’s National Team see themselves in the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Despite the 5 to 1 victory of El Salvador, it was competitive for a good portion of the match. El Salvador looked to be completely controlled until Rodolfo Zelaya scored quite the cheeky penalty in the 39th minute to reduce his team’s goal deficit from 2 to1.

The game was tight for the rest of the first half. Much of the second half was the same. The field opened wide, and the American attack seemed to need a boost. It came from a corner kick, off which Eddie Johnson headed in a goal 14 seconds after being substituted for Chris Wondolowski in the 60th minute. El Salvador seemed to run out of gas and be in a state of shock after yet another super sub made by Coach Jurgen Klinsmann. So badly was their momentum stalled, the US was able to knock in two more after Johnson thanks to Landon Donovan and Mix Diskerud.

The B Team?

The bigger story from the game, however, was not just the score of the match or the teams advance to the semi-finals. It was that the US camp is sending a message to their critics and competition. The message sent during this tournament simply says, “We are not a B team.”

Throughout this 90-minute match, they never let up, and kept their foot on the pedal until the final whistle. They continued to press and push their opponent back on their heels to score as many goals as possible. Post game, Donovan said the only thing he thought the team didn’t do well was score more goals.

So what's this whole "B team" thing about? Basically, when the Gold Cup roster came out, various articles appeared using this label. To hardcore followers of the team and to members of the national soccer press / punditry there might be some case to be made. But to the average fan, the one who simply wants to see the USA win games, this is nonsense.

Yes, there are certain names missing from the roster. Among others, Bradley, Altidore, Dempsey and Howard are not playing at the moment. Yes, there are players being given a chance to make the roster for the upcoming World Cup Qualification matches who would typically not get the chance to represent their nation.

But I believe it is insulting to the US program when people label the team "the B team" – and that they must really not understand the point of what Jurgen Klinsmann is doing. The side he put together is not only quality, but is the best that can be put together at this time.

Timing is everything

Unlike the last Gold Cup, this one is taking place during the break from World Cup qualifying. In addition, the European leagues are entering their pre-season stages. Simply said, you cannot play your top-flight players right now because of the risks involved. Plus, these players have already been taken from their club teams on a number of occasions for friendlies and the qualifiers, and there needs to be positive rapport between the USA and international clubs. Jurgen knows this. Just take a look at what Bruce Arena said about Donovan being called up. To paraphrase, they just got him back from his hiatus and he is on form. The Galaxy, according to Arena, do not want to lose one of their best players. This challenge for Jurgen is no different than for the managers he is competing against – at this event, and around the world.

Another major factor to consider is that most of the MLS based players that were called up are in form. I am not saying that players like Altidore or Bradley are off form. These guys are amazing footballers but there is a requirement for guys like this to have a break. Look at Landon Donovan for example. One of his main reasons for his hiatus was because he played for nearly two years straight. His body was starting to fail him during the latter portions of the MLS season last year. He was burned out. Again, Jurgen gets this.

The Gold Cup roster

Now look at the talent in the current player pool that has been featured at the Gold Cup or on the current roster.

Nick Rimando is the best domestic based American goalkeeper. My colleague here at football.com, Simon Allen, and I discussed this on his podcast, and we agree that there is no one else at the moment that should be given the cap in goal unless its absolutely necessary. Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid are currently backing him up, but Rimando is the man. Despite being called the third best in the goalkeeper pool, it’s pretty hard to say after his performance against El Salvador that he is “B team” talent. His double save effort early in the match was world class, and shows what kind of talent MLS has produced. Some have criticized his height as a disadvantage, but his athleticism surpasses that issue.

A name mentioned earlier that is relatively new for some fans of the USA is midfielder Mix Diskerud. Living most of his life in Norway, one may ask how is he allowed to play for the USA. That is a good question, and the answer is his mother was born in Arizona, and is an American citizen. As a footballer, Mix has played over 100 games professionally in Norway and Belgium. He got some UEFA Champions League experience as well when his former Club Stabaek played against KF Tirana (Albania) in a playoff match a few seasons ago. Currently he is a member of Rosenborg, the most successful club in Norway’s history. Despite only making 8 appearances for the USA, he has been successful while on the pitch. During his debut in 2010, in South Africa, he assisted the game-winning goal to Juan Agudelo. His goal against El Salvador was his second of his international career, and I don't think it will be his last.

Michael Parkhurst (right back) is another guy who has had quite a few chances for the national team, and is getting another thanks to Steve Cherundolo's health problems. In addition, Timothy Chandler’s status is up in the air. One day there are reports that he wants to be on the team and then there are others that say the opposite. Nevertheless, Parkhurst is a quality back, appearing 19 times in total for the USA. The defender has shown to be a threat on the wings under Klinsmann’s system. He is quick and capable of overlapping with whomever is on the right side of the pitch, especially Landon Donovan.

What separates Parkhurst from others is that he was quite successful in MLS when he played for the New England Revolution. While making 115 appearances for the Revolution, he was awarded the Rookie of the Year in 2005 and Defender of the year on 2007. His accolades caught the attention of the Danish club Nordsjælland and he was a starting fullback for them for three years, making over 100 appearances in the Danish Superliga, as well as the UEFA Champions league group stage against Chelsea, Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk. He currently plays for FC Augsburg in the German Bundesliga.

Alejandro Bedoya is one of those players on the roster that has flown under the radar for some time. Avid fans of the Nats know of him, but to the average fan, he's still unknown. I sat next to two guys in Portland who had no idea who he was, but were as supportive as anyone in the section who loves his or her team. These two said they watch occasionally, but with the rise of the MLS-era Portland Timbers and the success of WC qualification they have both decided to show up at more US National Team matches.

Bedoya, a midfielder, he took a much different route than some of the US born players on the roster. He went to Boston College and Fairleigh Dickinson University, and then straight to Europe. As a member of the Swedish club Orebro SK, he made 65 appearances and scored 8 goals during the first few years of his pro career that took him to Rangers before their ill-fated financial woes. He now is a member of the roster at Helsingborgs IF in Sweden where he has been scoring as of late. 6 goals in 20 appearances is not shabby at all.

There are also players on the roster that have come from south of the border that play in the Mexican Professional league. Current team captain DeMarcus Beasley has been a part of the national team for some time, 12 years to be exact. His career began in MLS in Chicago and has led him to PSV Eindhoven in Holland, Manchester City, Rangers, Hannover 96 in Germany and now to Puebla in Mexico. His team mate from Puebla Michael Orozco Fiscal (another MLS product) and he have shown to be a great side-by-side combination on the national team's back line.

Other players featured from Mexico's Liga MX are three teammates at Club Tijuana –Edgar Castillo, Joe Corona and Herculez Gomez (formerly of Santos Laguna). Where Castillo has yet to really break out as a solid left back, he has shown some promise as a threat on while on the attack. Gomez, as a forward has been scoring goals for both club an country since 2002 when he began professionally for the LA Galaxy. He had a bit of a hiatus from the national team under Bob Bradley’s tenure, but based on his recent performance, the development of his play in Mexico has paid off. Attacking midfielder Joe Corona, however, is the player to watch for now and in the future. His goals against Cuba and El Salvador showed that he has a cool head on his shoulders. His level of confidence is exactly what Klinsmann has been looking for and expecting from his squad. Currently sitting on 9 caps and two goals, but that will change. He will play more and will score more as well.

Other members of the roster are more or less some of the best that MLS has to offer. Klinsmann has some luck on his side. He has three quality central defenders to pick from. Matt Besler, Omar Gonzales and Clarence Goodson are not just good for MLS players – they are good players period. Remember Besler and Gonzales shut out Mexico in the Azteca and are typically on the roster for WC qualifying matches, if not starting. Goodson recently signed with San Jose and was a former player at FC Dallas. Since 2008 he has played in Europe for IK Start in Norway and for Brondby in Denmark. His 129 pro appearances in Scandinavia, plus his 40 caps for the USA is definitely not B level talent. Neither are his 24 goals (club and country total) too shabby for a center fullback.

What can be said about midfielder Stuart Holden that makes him B level? Nothing. Yes, he was injured and has been out of the game for some time, but he is quality and could end up on the World Cup squad if he continues to play as he has during the Gold Cup. During the game in Portland against Belize (yes they were a very soft opponent) he amped up the tempo when brought in late in the match. His addition made an immediate impact on the game. His passing and distribution of the ball was superb. He personifies never giving up. To never take your eye off of hope. His comeback to the professional game should be applauded, not called “B team.”

Chris Wondolowski has his fans and he has his haters. I have gone on the record before and trashing his “soft” goal he got against Guatemala. I need to retract that after seeing what I have seen during the Gold Cup. Yes he did under perform against El Salvador but leading the tournament in goals (5) and earning multiple assists says one thing. It is really hard to say that his first goal against Cuba was not world class finishing. It was superb. It says that he may be getting rid of that tweener status some of his critics love to give him. Is he “B team level”? It's becoming hard to say yes to that. He is a poacher in the old school goal getter style of Oliver Bierhof and Gabriel Batistuta. But should I even mention his name with theirs? I say let us see what the future holds for Wondo. He has only played in 14 international games, and I am sure he will see more. He has not come close to the level of achievement of Bierhof or Batistuta but he is tied for the most goals ever in MLS. He scores, and that is what he is paid to do.

Finally, we get to Landon Donovan. He is B team? You have to be joking. The media reports before the tournament about "what he has to prove" were laughable. He has had some dodgy moments this year in MLS. But name me a player that has never played poorly. His form was questionable when called up, but now look at the stats from the tournament: 3 goals and 6 assists in 4 games is stellar. To be involved with 9 goals is remarkable. Landon simply has been the player of the tournament.  His pass to Brek Shea to assist the winning goal against Costa Rica was spot on, and was what you'd expect to come from the best American soccer player ever.

The Competition

Those who disagree with my argument may point to the talent the US has faced so far. Yes the talent has been somewhat soft. Belize made their first appearance ever in the tournament and did not perform well at all. They had a goal differential of minus 10 with 3 losses. But they did score against the USA. And against Cuba, the current Caribbean Cup Champions, they also managed to score. The same goes for El Salvador. It was a penalty, but those count. Costa Rica held the US to a 1 to 0 score, but had the same score line when they beat Belize.

But in order to recognize that this team is much better than B team talent, you have to look at how the USA is winning their games.

Scoring a total of 16 goals in an international tournament is a big deal. And it has only been 4 games. Look at the competition that at the Gold Cup. Mexico lost to Panama and has to face them again. In the 4 games Mexico has played, they have scored 7. That is a large number for 4 games in an international competition, but only putting up 1 against Trinidad & Tobago in the quarterfinals shows they lack the punch and skill that the Mexicans have traditionally be capable of.

Panama, who finished above Mexico have scored 9 goals, but 6 of those came against Cuba, and they had a scoreless draw against Canada.

Costa Rica has been a tough team for the US and is considered a team that has a good chance of qualifying for the World Cup. But they failed again at the Gold Cup by losing to Honduras. Before that loss, they managed to score 5 goals in group play. Against Belize, they only managed to score 1 goal while the US put up 6. Was it the line up? Or was it just one of those games where nothing went in? Costa Rica had a good squad, with MLS stars such as Jairo Arrieta, Roy Miller, Rodney Wallace and Alvaro Saborio. Other members of the roster include some of their better domestic and international players as well.

Coming Up:

This leads us to the Americans’ next opponent. Honduras is no slouch. They are a quality side with young talent. Mario Martinez, Andy Najar and Marvin Chaves are names that MLS fans may recognize. Mix them with some of the best talent from their domestic league, and this team can beat anyone in the region. The rosters are different, but Honduras beat the USA in their first qualifier game in February, and only lost in their last match-up 1 goal to nil. During this tournament, they won their group but only scored 4 goals and lost one of their matches against Trinidad & Tobago. They also only managed to beat El Salvador 1 to 0.

But will they be easy? No. They are a physical team that is not afraid to get nasty. It is quite the opposite of the USA. Klinsmann has stated in the past that is one of the weaknesses of the USA. This is something they should expect to face. Honduras’ victory over Costa Rica was rough. More than 35 fouls were called, 26 of them in the first half,  before the game opened up in the second half when Honduras shifted their tactics to defend their lead.

Jurgen has gone on the record that this year’s Gold Cup will only be a success if they win it. It has been some time since the USA has hoisted the cup. Their last was in 2007. Can this team do it? It is safe to say that based on their performance so far, it's their tournament to lose. They have steamrolled through their games, with the exception of the Costa Rica match. A team of back-ups would struggle and make mistakes like many of us saw when Germany fell against the US in early June.

Have they played with perfection? No, they still have made poor choices, such as the ball watching against Belize or failing to get physical on Cuba’s goal at Rio Tinto. But are they playing like a B team? Not even close if you ask me.

Put it into this perspective. Remember when the USA lost in Honduras with what was called the “A team” by these same critics? And how about the thrashing by Belgium? That had some of America’s “best” on the pitch that game. It is ludicrous to say those teams were better. On paper, perhaps, but now that the games have been played, one needs to take a different look at the status of American soccer.

A close friend of mine and a president of the local Chapter of the American Outlaws in Portland (Oregon), Robert W. Cross told me in a conversation recently, “The Gold Cup squad illustrates the growing depth and level of talent of our player pool.  These players are playing throughout the world in quality competition. USA soccer is on the rise in both quality and quantity. Jurgen Klinsmann has more weapons at his disposal and it shows.”

Please let me know what you think about my comments. Have I over hyped the roster? Have I gone over the line about Wondolowski or any other player? Do you still think this team is a B team? Let me have it if you disagree. Finally, what is your take on the competition? Have I missed the ball on whether the US has really been challenged? Let’s discuss…