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Jun 20, 2007

U.S. team looking to close out games better

There are several images that sum up the United States' march through the Gold Cup. Most seem to project an American squad that has played solidly throughout most of the tournament. But some display the lack of ruthlessness shown by the U.S. side, with Clint Dempsey's blown opportunity late against Panama a prime example. The latter trait has allowed the Americans' opponents to hang around in games that should have been blowouts, and with the U.S. set to face an in-form Canada team in Thursday's semifinal, it's imperative the U.S. team finds that cold-blooded streak, lest it falls short in its quest to win its fourth CONCACAF title. This inconsistency is something the American players are well aware of. U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra described his team's play in the tournament as "up and down," and admitted that U.S. head coach Bob Bradley has already warned his side that the generosity shown in the quarterfinals can't continue. "We've addressed it as a team," Bocanegra said. "We realize that we didn't finish Panama off. But we're in a transition period and we still have some fairly young guys. Hopefully we'll sort that out and take advantage of our opportunities when we get them." Canada is a team capable of taking advantage of any gifts the Americans might offer. And unlike Panama, which was hobbled by suspensions to three players, Canada has all of its weapons available. In particular, the midfield trio of Dwayne De Rosario, Atiba Hutchinson and Julian De Guzman look especially potent. Each player has filled his role to perfection. Hutchinson's two-way game has seen him contribute much to the Maple Leafs' attack, while also protecting Canada's back line. De Rosario has taken his live wire game that is an MLS staple and moved it out wide, where his unpredictability has caused opponents problems. "We know [De Rosario] can create stuff sometimes out of nothing," Bocanegra said. "He's a good dribbler, and he scores goals, so he's going to be someone we're looking out for." Perhaps a bigger key for the U.S. is stopping De Guzman. Early in Canada's quarterfinal triumph, the Maple Leafs were struggling to play through Guatemala's packed midfield, so De Guzman began to drop deeper to get the ball. Initially, it appeared as if this would play into Guatemala's hands, because it took the Canadian midfielder further away from goal. But in this case, De Guzman's skill on the ball allowed Canada to keep possession better and build its attack. Once it got into the attacking third, the goals came quickly, with its second tally -- a clinical series of passes that was finished off by striker Ali Gerba -- a thing of beauty. For this reason, it will be imperative that the U.S. midfield -- led by resident destroyer Pablo Mastroeni -- puts its defensive stamp on the game and negates the influence of Canada's attacking trio. That will require keeping an eye on the mobile De Guzman, and making sure the U.S. has sufficient numbers in midfield to maintain pressure on the ball.

Gold Cup schedule
Semifinals
June 21
Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.

7 p.m. ET, U.S. vs. Canada

10 p.m. ET, Mexico vs. Guadeloupe

Final
June 24
Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
3 p.m. ET

Stopping De Rosario will be a different dilemma for Bradley. In Frankie Hejduk, Jonathan Spector and Frank Simek, Bradley has a stable of right backs who each offer something different. But the suspicion is that Bradley will continue to favor Hejduk's mobility over that of Spector and Simek. Hejduk also has the advantage of having seen De Rosario up close during his time in MLS, and that might also tip the scales in his favor. Of course, the best way for the Americans to stifle Canada's midfield is to keep possession themselves, and utilize the speed advantage against a Canadian defense that, while quietly effective against Guatemala, lacks the pace needed to contend with the likes of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley. Donovan was involved in many of the Americans' best attacking moves against Panama and his ability to tuck into the middle allowed him to run at the Canaleros' slower central defenders. The U.S. would settle for a repeat of that in the semifinal, but could also stand to have a little bit more balance in its attack, and that means finding a way to get Beasley more involved. Beasley did have his moments against Panama, and it was his defense-splitting pass that launched Donovan on a solo breakaway in the first half. But the American midfielder also went long stretches without seeing the ball, and this will need to change Thursday. Not only has Beasley been in good form, but any forays on his part will serve to occupy Canadian right back Paul Stalteri, who loves to get into the attack. But no offense in the world can compensate for a lack of sharpness in front of goal, and that is where the biggest room for improvement lies. Granted, if the history of soccer has proven anything, it's that finishing is the sport's equivalent of the Philosopher's Stone: chemical, and maddeningly elusive. Whether that can be fixed by inserting Brian Ching into the lineup is an open question. The Houston forward has a long history of playing well with Donovan, while Taylor Twellman has a similar past with Dempsey. Both Ching and Twellman have converted a low percentage of their chances, but given Dempsey's closer proximity to goal, that would leave Twellman in the lineup. There is also the possibility that neither player will see time, meaning Benny Feilhaber could regain his spot in the middle, the better to cope with the Canadian attackers, and also put pressure on holding midfielder Martin Nash (the younger brother of NBA star Steve Nash), who is clearly the weakest link. Mexico vs. Guadeloupe As for the other semifinal, the glass slipper appears primed to fall off the collective foot of Guadeloupe for its match with Mexico, but the exact same thing was said prior to the quarterfinal showdown with Honduras, when the Gold Cup debutante shocked the Catrachos 2-1. The French department's ranks will be bolstered by midfielder Aurelian Capoue, who returns from suspension. Given that Guadeloupe can only count so much on 41-year-old Jocelyn Angloma for its goals, Capoue's return is a welcome development. Mexico, which has taken the Americans' penchant for inconsistency to even more extreme levels, has seen its attack look worse as the tournament has progressed. In the quarterfinal against Costa Rica, it wasn't until the late introduction of Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Bofo Bautista that some creativity crept into El Tri's attack. However, the return from suspension of Nery Castillo, Pavel Pardo, and Kikin Fonseca should help in this regard, although even when these players were available, Mexico still struggled. Yet Mexico now stands on the cusp of reaching the final that everyone predicted. If both the U.S. and Mexico progress as expected, perhaps seeing their bitter rivals on the opposite side of the field will finally bring out the ruthless streak in both. Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.