USMNT: Champions in Chicago

Well Done, Captain (photo: sports.terra.com)

Well Done, Captain. (photo: sports.terra.com)

OTF’s Gold Cup coverage concludes with Austin Fido’s summation of USMNT’s 1-0 win over Panama, and a hymn to DMB…

When DaMarcus Beasley retires from professional sport, it is assumed he will devote himself full-time to the production of jewelry. This is right and proper because Beasley is one of the most successful American soccer players of his generation: all those winner’s medals have taken a lot of precious metal out of circulation, it is appropriate for him to give back.

But right now, he’s still taking. The latest addition to the Beasley household’s trophy cabinet is the 2013 Gold Cup, which has brought DMB’s career a rare and wonderful symmetry. The 2000 US Open Cup was his first major trophy, and it was won at Soldier Field. Since then he has added four more domestic cups and five national league titles in three countries (USA, Netherlands and Scotland). Yes, I am counting the 2003 Supporters’ Shield as a league title.

And, of course, four international trophies: all CONCACAF Gold Cups, of which the most recent could well be Beasley’s last. So it is fitting it was raised at the venue responsible for kindling a career-defining proximity to shiny things.

Most satisfying, perhaps, was the manner of this glorious homecoming. The slender kid from 2000 came back to Soldier Field a slender man: captain of his country. Fewer than 20,000 watched the Fire win thirteen years ago, but more than 50,000 turned up to see USMNT win back Gold Cup under the leadership of a Mid-Western hero. Even Jürgen Klinsmann had the foresight and decency to leave a respectful distance between himself and his captain.

Sure, he might win something in Liga MX before that chapter of his career is over. Perhaps MLS will lure him back for a swansong few would begrudge. Wherever he goes, most likely Beasley wraps up international football after World Cup 2014 and settles into the sort of team that wants a veteran wide-man — which is probably not the sort of team primed to win a title. (The RBNY fan in me suspects he’ll be one of NYC FC’s first signings.)

One hopes this is not the final cup of DMB’s playing days, but if it is, it could not have been won in a more appropriate place. He’s your guy Chicago, give yourself a hand.

You've come a long way, Beasley. (photo: pinterest.com)

You’ve come a long way, Beasley. (photo: pinterest.com)

The final itself was a 90-minute tribute to treasured Mid-Western characteristics: perseverance, modesty, and a little bit of old-fashioned gangsterism. Perseverance came from more than an hour of possession-dominating play yielding nary a shot on target for USMNT. Modesty, from a goal so self-effacing the scorer’s name should forever be rendered with italics, parenthesis, and a question mark. 

(Brek Shea?)  (photo: nydailynews.com)

(Brek Shea?)
(photo: nydailynews.com)

The goal was no fluke, but (Brek Shea?) only got on the score sheet thanks to an unlikely series of errors. Alejandro Bedoya shanked a pass around Roberto Chen, who helplessly watched the ball bounce into Landon Donovan’s path. Donovan unleashed a Sunday League hack at the space previously occupied by the ball, and it trickled toward the far post. All (Brek Shea?) did was tap it across the line it was already set to cross. 

It was, of course, sensible football: follow the play, make sure the goal gets scored. Thus, Shea’s brazen theft of the credit for a goal he had no part in (he’d been on the pitch less than a minute; the left wing work that preceded Bedoya’s cross was done by Eddie Johnson) was simultaneously the act of a gangster and a good citizen. 

The 69th minute goal left time for further extensions of the Mid-West metaphor. No, not Johnson’s witless posturing with Leonel Parris — that wasn’t the act of a gangster, it was the act of an idiot. Rather, let’s remember an admirable desire to make Donovan feel better about missing his easiest chance of the tournament. Surely, Johnson’s extraordinary 84th minute flub from two yards out was an act of fellowship: shooting over the cross bar when you are almost directly beneath it takes some doing.

That miss came minutes after Shea simply refused to try to score again. Donovan split the defense with a through-ball that invited the fresh-legged winger to blaze through on goal. But the burden of all the punctuation he had suddenly acquired presumably weighed (Brek Shea?) down. He paused, cut back onto his right foot, remembered he doesn’t really have a right foot, and forlornly returned the ball to Donovan.

All this diffidence in front of goal wasn’t, however, simply homage to the deep dish of Mid-Western geniality. The Panamanian defense played a wonderful game. The term “bunkering” is too often used to obscure excellent defensive work. There is no shame in not wanting to concede a goal, nor any discredit in organizing a team to stifle the opposition’s greatest offensive threats. The man of this match was Román Torres, who delivered an epic, captain’s performance in the center of a defense to which I owe an apology.

The best player in the match doesn't always play for the winning team. (photo: upi.com)

The best player in the match doesn’t always play for the winning team. (photo: upi.com)

I did not think Panama’s defenders would stand up to USMNT as well as Costa Rica did back in the group stage. But in this match, they played better as a unit than any back line in this Gold Cup. Indeed, when the game opened up toward the end, and the Americans were forced into some “bunkering” of their own, it became apparent that it was El Tri’s defense — not attack — that let Mexico down against Los Canaleros

USMNT stifled Panama extremely well, largely by keeping possession, but also through solid, well-organized defending. Keeping Los Canaleros off the score sheet is an achievement that should not be overlooked in the rush to praise Klinsi’s goal-hungry B-team. 

For USMNT, this final continues an upward trajectory under Klinsmann’s stewardship which, it is hoped, will culminate somewhere in the later stages of World Cup 2014.  The team won: often handsomely, always with confidence. Most players advanced their claim to consideration for the roster that will fly the US flag in Brazil next summer, and the few who did not should get more chances. Only the dream of once again besting Mexico in a tournament final was left unfulfilled.

The injury to Stuart Holden, suffered in a seemingly innocuous first-half collision with Alberto Quintero, is the only blemish on this phase of Jürgie’s preparations for 2014. It is cruel compensation for a man whose rehabilitation looked set to be the most unexpected comeback of USMNT’s summer. One simply hopes he is playing again before the year is out.

The biggest winners from this tournament, however, could be Los Canaleros. They finished the June rounds of the Hex in fifth place, with scant hope of making next year’s World Cup. Of their remaining four qualifiers, two are against Mexico (in Azteca) and USMNT (in Panama). And they must travel to San Pedro de Sula, where Los Catrachos are near invincible.

Getting to 10 points, let alone to the 12 or 13 required to make a decent challenge for a top-four finish in the Hexagonal, still seems unlikely. But it is less daunting now than it was when Gold Cup began. 

Follow Austin Fido’s efforts to make sense of a world without Gold Cup @canetop

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