When the U.S. men's national team endured a slow start to the 2007 Gold Cup, U.S. coach Bob Bradley insisted that the most important thing was for the team to show improvement as the tournament progressed. Ultimately, they did just that in claiming the CONCACAF crown.
Granted, this result has more disclaimers than a bungee jumping class. The first 30 minutes seemed like a recurring nightmare, with Argentina carving up the U.S. defense, and looking every bit like the No. 1 ranked team in the world. Had U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard not delivered a quartet of stunning saves, the Americans would have been dead and buried by halftime. Howard was also lucky not to be whistled for a penalty when he appeared to clip Argentine attacker Sergio Aguero on a second-half breakaway. And the Albiceleste's 20-year-old maestro, Lionel Messi, whose defense-splitting passes caused the U.S. countless problems, was substituted after 45 minutes of work, much to the relief of the Americans.
Yet rather than use the opening half hour as an excuse to surrender meekly to Argentina, the U.S. picked themselves up and were on even terms with the visitors for the remainder of the match. A thumping header from defender Oguchi Onyewu rattled the visitors' crossbar in the second half. Some deft passes from substitute Maurice Edu allowed the U.S. to get behind the Argentine defense, and the sight of Donovan and Freddy Adu engaging in some no-conscience attacking runs showed the kind of guts and swagger that observers have long been expecting from both players.
Not even a phantom red card issued to American midfielder Pablo Mastroeni in the 71st minute could change the Americans' mentality. Prudence demanded that the U.S. close up shop and play for the draw. But there was Donovan, celebrating his 100th cap in fine style by repeatedly threatening on the counter. His stoppage time pass to Sacha Kljestan nearly resulted in a game-winning goal, only to be denied by a desperate tackle from an Argentine defender.
This is not to say that this match was a "statement game" or that the U.S. team has "arrived." There is only one tournament where those kinds of games take place and that isn't due to happen for another two years. But with World Cup qualifying set to commence next weekend against Barbados, Bradley can at least take comfort in the fact that his team will enter the two-game series with a nugget of confidence, and that they exhibited some growth against Argentina.
The primary source of self-belief will be in an attack that for once, wasn't heavily dependent on set pieces to create moments of danger. Not only were the likes of Donovan and Adu active and aggressive, but Clint Dempsey looked like a player happy to be back on American soil. DaMarcus Beasley also looked to be getting back to peak form, contributing on both ends of the field.
Of course, the same can't be said for Eddie Johnson, who in a sign of just how low his confidence has sunk, opted to pass instead of shoot when provided with a clear look at goal in the 67th minute.
It's also worth noting that as improved as the U.S. attack was against Argentina, it will face an entirely different challenge next weekend against Barbados, who can be counted on to bunker in and try to frustrate the Americans. It's a tactic against which the U.S. had a modicum of success during last summer's Gold Cup. But with the confidence gained from Sunday's result in their collective back pocket, the expectation now is that the Americans will have little trouble dealing with such an approach. The game itself may offer up something different, but that's what happens when a team shows progress. It raises hopes and gives people a reason to believe.
Player ratings: (scale of 1-10)
Tim Howard, 9 -- If not for Howard's saves, this game could have been ugly.
Heath Pearce, 7 -- Got forward well, and dealt with everything Argentina threw at him. With this performance, the left back job now appears to be his to lose.
Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- Nearly donned the hero's cape when his second half header hit the bar, but he'll have to settle for a solid performance in the back.
Danny Califf, 5 -- Needed to give fellow defender Cherundolo a little bit more help, but defended competently, while keeping his fouls to a minimum.
Steve Cherundolo, 4 -- A tale of two halves. Was nearly overrun by Argentine forward Julio Cruz in the first half, but recovered to make some vital clearances in the second.
DaMarcus Beasley, 7 -- Provided some valuable defensive help early on, and got more involved in the attack as the game progressed. He might have earned an assist if Johnson had been greedier.
Michael Bradley, 5 -- Found life difficult in the early going, but gradually came into the game and finished his 45 minutes of work on a positive note.
Pablo Mastroeni, 5 -- Personified the team's gritty approach. I still don't know why he was sent off.
Clint Dempsey, 6 -- Much improved performance, as he was much more involved in the attack. He also drew some fouls at key times in the first half, which allowed the U.S. team to collect itself.
Landon Donovan, 7 -- Showed the kind of aggressiveness in attack that fans want to see every time out.
Eddie Johnson, 4 -- More of the same, in that he took up good positions, and even played at a faster tempo, but needs to do better with the chances he gets.
Maurice Edu, 6 -- If he can continue to make the same pinpoint passes shown in this game, a spot alongside Bradley seems assured.
Freddy Adu, 6 -- Needed a bit more tactical awareness early, as he was stripped twice in his own end. But he quickly settled down and showed some good initiative in attack.
Jay DeMerit, 6 –--The U.S. defense didn't miss a beat when he entered the game.
Sacha Kljestan, 6 -- Helped keep the Americans' attack dangerous.
Eddie Lewis, 5 -- Has shown enough in these three games that he deserves to play a part in qualifying.
Frankie Hejduk, NR -- After playing an MLS match the night before, Hejduk is the U.S. team's new Iron Man.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.