As the United States progressed through the group stage of this year's Gold Cup, they gave fans and media alike plenty of reasons to be skeptical about their chances of hoisting the trophy for the fourth time. There were blown chances, some suspect defending and plenty of nerves. Even as the victories piled up, the suspicion that the Americans were not firing on all cylinders could not be shaken. But as I survey the wreckage from the other groups, and with the quarterfinal brackets now set, it was clear the path to another Gold Cup title looks wide open for the U.S.
Heading into the tournament, the Americans appeared to be have one of the tougher routes to the final. If everything went according to form, a semifinal against Costa Rica loomed, and if all went well, a final date with bitter rivals Mexico would crown the champion. That was before the tournament's bracket suffered an implosion of March Madness-like proportions.
Foremost among the bracket-busters has been Mexico. In stumbling to a second-place finish in Group C, El Tri have looked nothing like the well-oiled machine promised by manager Hugo Sanchez when he took over. This is causing considerable consternation among the Mexican faithful, although I'm sure former national team manager Ricardo LaVolpe must be stifling fits of laughter over the struggles of his former antagonist.
Costa Rica hasn't exactly torn it up either, finishing second in Group A behind Canada. As a result, Costa Rica will face Mexico in the quarterfinals; much earlier than anyone could have anticipated. The winner of that match will likely face Honduras, meaning if the Americans successfully navigate their way to the final, they will avoid facing two of CONCACAF's toughest teams.
Of course, if the opening weeks of the tournament have proven anything, it's that the terms "Gold Cup" and "sure thing" are by no means synonymous. But things are lining up in the Americans' half of the draw. Panama's melt-down against Mexico -- which saw midfielder Rolando Escobar and defender Roman Torres both sent off late in the Canaleros' 1-0 defeat -- means the U.S. will be facing a weakened Panama side this Saturday. A win there will set up a semifinal date with either Canada or Guatemala.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Even as the U.S. improved with each game, pitching shutouts in all three matches, the fact remains that the Yanks still need to raise their level of play in order to maintain their grip on the Gold Cup trophy.
Given the struggles of their chief rivals, the Americans first-round success is a bit more impressive than at first glance. Yet with the group phase now complete, this young U.S. side now faces the twin pressure points of being tournament co-favorites, as well as dealing with the unforgiving nature of the knockout phase. It will be interesting to see how they cope.
Even in their weakened state, Panama is guaranteed to pose more of a threat than any of the Americans first-round opponents did. The Canaleros will have nothing to lose, and their gritty performance against Mexico on Wednesday shows they will not be in awe of their opponents. They also have a striker in Blas Perez, who has the ability to pounce on the kinds of mistakes that Guatemala and El Salvador squandered against the U.S. earlier in the tournament. Perez has forged his reputation by leading Colombian club side Cúcuta Deportivo into the semifinals of this year's Copa Libertadores, and while he had some glaring misses against Mexico, Perez's undeniable ability will keep him foremost in the mind of U.S. head coach Bob Bradley.
Another worry for Bradley is that the U.S. defense did not always look convincing in dispatching Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago and El Salvador. Stat hounds will point to the fact that the Salvadorans did not record a single shot on goal, but that was due more to the Guanacos' scattershot finishing than dominant defending. And with the packed schedule and suspension concerns forcing Bradley to juggle his backline, it makes me wonder just how much defensive cohesion can be achieved before Saturday's quarterfinal. Certainly the sight of Jonathan Spector failing to step up with the rest of his teammates in the first half of the El Salvador match -- keeping Juan Campos onside to get a clear look at goal -- raises some doubts.
Another concern for Bradley has to be the continued struggles of Oguchi Onyewu. The hulking defender has looked dominant one moment and hesitant the next. With the yellow card slate now wiped clean, the U.S. manager has other options with Watford defender Jay DeMerit, as well as New England's Michael Parkhurst earning consideration. But I expect Bradley to lean on the experience of Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra.
Bradley has a selection dilemma in attack as well, but that is a puzzle of an entirely different sort given the good form of several American players. The U.S. manager has tinkered with roles and alignments throughout the tournament, with the Christmas-tree formation (4-3-2-1) employed against El Salvador yielding some interesting possibilities. It didn't necessarily make for breathtaking soccer, but I liked having the veteran presence of Pablo Mastroeni alongside Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley in midfield. Things are bound to get tense during Saturday's contest, and having Mastroeni's steel in the middle could prove to be a stabilizing influence during the game's more difficult moments.
Whether Bradley opts for a similar tactical approach remains to be seen, but having Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley all playing well will give the U.S. head coach plenty of options. The trio has been at the heart of the Americans best attacking moves throughout the tournament, scoring or setting up six of the Yanks' seven goals.
Yet as good as those three have been, they -- along with their teammates -- have not converted enough which is why a box player in the mold of Taylor Twellman or Brian Ching should take the field come Saturday. Granted, both forwards have squandered their share of opportunities as well, but the aerial presence that either player provides gives the U.S. an additional attacking dimension. And with chances certain to dry up as the tournament progresses, the U.S. will need as many offensive options as possible. That way, things may continue to break perfectly for the Americans.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.