Last year, the U.S. national team made a habit of staging late rallies to salvage results. This was alternately interpreted as a sign of strength and of weakness.
The fact that the U.S. was struggling and was either falling behind or failing to score until the late going made the team seem inefficient and vulnerable. But the resourcefulness of the U.S. was certainly impressive, and the team's ability to score late goals was proposed as a special skill in coach Bruce Arena's estimation.
First-round Gold Cup games confirmed this trait. In the three group games, the U.S. scored six goals, five with less than two minutes remaining in either half.
The U.S. does not have exclusive claim on this never-say-die characteristic. But the elite national teams do have this in common. Argentina, Brazil, Germany, and Italy have long traditions of dramatic comebacks, their players' confidence and concentration levels usually a notch above the opposition during crunch time.
Fitness levels and physical preparation play a part, but late-game heroics are mostly a mental exercise, and are something that will separate the U.S. from the smaller countries in this region.
The U.S. performance in the first round of the Gold Cup has shown that persistence is not enough, though. The national team has progressed in overall ability in recent years, the level of the MLS has improved. But the country is not producing a proportionate number of difference-makers.
DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan and, possibly, Clint Dempsey and Steve Ralston, are the only players who can be expected to produce offensively at key times among Gold Cup players. When Eddie Johnson, Eddie Lewis, and Brian McBride return, the team will be more dynamic. But the U.S. will have to develop more offensive threats, or risk being too easily defused by opposition tactics.
In the past, U.S. players were so similar that other teams' scouts would sometimes not even differentiate between them. The style was so predictable that defensive tactics would not be concerned with specifics or subtleties, just containing the directness of the U.S. players, causing them to overextend, then finding the right moments to counterattack.
In general terms, the world has defended against England's national team in much the same way. Scouts would note that the English display no real weaknesses, all the players are focused and strong, their technique is very good, and they can not only run fast, they can play fast. So, you do not fight fire with fire. You do not try to match their strengths at every turn. You wait for those moments when they burn themselves out, you slow things down, you confuse them.
The English were thought to be increasing in sophistication, thanks to the globalization of the Premiership and the presence of coach Sven-Goran Eriksson. But they were no match for 10 Brazilians in 2002, so there is still some ways to go. The U.S., though, is not yet at the England level, judging by the April exhibition in Chicago.
At its best and in the right circumstances, the U.S. can succeed against nearly any team. But without its best players, the U.S. is appearing quite ordinary.
One thing that is happening to the U.S. is that Beasley and Donovan are becoming increasingly targeted by the opposition. Defensive midfielders can be expected to continue to take some hard shots at them. Teams have been going after Claudio Reyna for some time, causing him to retreat to find space, forcing the U.S. to start its attack from well behind the halfway line. Reyna has been very good at remaining composed. But there are questions about how Beasley and Donovan will react.
Canada successfully baited Donovan in Seattle, causing him to take a caution for retaliation. Such provocation is not new to U.S. players; they endure some especially tough treatment in Latin America. But in the next World Cup, the increased media coverage could exacerbate circumstances, as it did in Euro 2004, when a Danish camera was trained on Italy's Francesco Totti, catching him in the act of spitting at Christian Poulsen. Next time, there could be a camera devoted to Poulsen, and it might reveal him as a not totally innocent party.
Referees are constantly reminded about not only catching the retaliatory party, but also the provoking one. Television cameramen are not given the same mandate, and the most graphic image is often the retaliation. A little shirt tug, a raking of the Achilles' tendon, the stepping on a toe, all can be irksome; but these are difficult to detect, and they often occur when everyone is looking the other way.
The point is, Denmark decided to defuse Italy by going after Totti. The tactic worked. The next World Cup will be staged in Germany, where Poulsen is employed, and Beasley and Donovan could well be subjected to some special treatment. So, the U.S. should be working on developing other game-breakers, and that appears to be what Arena is doing with Dempsey.
The problem is, nobody is quite sure of Dempsey's position. Dempsey joined the New England Revolution as a projected backup defensive midfielder to Shalrie Joseph, but soon demonstrated that he should be a starter, and in an attacking position. Arena said this about Dempsey after the U.S.-Costa Rica game in Foxboro: "It is going to be interesting to see what is the best spot for him, where he ends up as a player, what is his spot on the field. I tend to think it will be closer to the goal."
Dempsey is clearly going to be an important part of the future of the U.S. national team. In Dempsey's first U.S. appearance, a World Cup qualifier against Jamaica in Columbus last November, he broke away with one of his first touches, held off a defender but shot left-footed directly at the goalkeeper. Dempsey repeated that play against Costa Rica nearly nine months later, another signal that he lacks experience.
In between times, Dempsey performed as a defensive midfielder, attacking midfielder, and forward, scoring two goals for the national team. Dempsey is physical, skillful, uninhibited. During pre-game warmups, you can pick out Dempsey flipping the ball to himself and teammates a dozen different ways. It is another sign that Dempsey is not easily intimidated by circumstances or foes. He has not displayed enough of a threat to become a target in the international arena, yet. When that happens, Dempsey will have arrived.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.