Don’t read too much into the Gold Cup

Jordan Morris fired an expertly placed strike into the back of the net in the 89th minute to lift the United States to a 2-1 victory over Jamaica in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final in Santa Clara last night, thus making sure The Yanks became the soccer equivalent of the valedictorians at summer school.
Don't get me wrong. You want to lift trophies under a confetti flurry on national television. That's quite the ego stroke. Girls love that stuff.
However, this tournament might have exposed the divide that separates our continent from Europe and South America in the world's beautiful game.
Keep in mind that Honduras reached the semifinals of the tournament without scoring a single goal.
Or that Jamaica reached the finals and it had already been eliminated from qualifying for the World Cup.
What can be discerned from the tournament, in my opinion, are two things:
1) Don't overreact about Mexico getting steamrolled by the Reggae Boys in the semifinals. El Tri stretched itself pretty thin in the last month or so, having sent its top players to Russia for a tournament of grander scale. I believe Mexico didn't take this tournament that seriously and got what it deserved.
El Tri has a comfortable lead in World Cup qualifying. That's not going to change.
Having said that, I wish the team had told its fans so that they wouldn't treat the tournament as life and death.
Hell, the USMNT had the same approach. It's the only reason I didn't travel to see the team play in Tampa. You send your B team to play in a downpour and want me to sit through a driving rainstorm? I'll pass.
2) Andre Blake needs to get out of MLS.
The Jamaicans are young, quick and well-organized on the back line. Tournament organizers called Blake — who plays for the Philadelphia Union — the best goalie. I agree.
He's also too good for MLS. For his good and the benefit of his national team, he needs to take his talents overseas against the best in the world.
3) Juergen Klinsmann was right. The United States needed to change its approach. Only his execution of that change stunk and current coach Bruce Arena has a clear vision of what the team will look like.
What do I mean? I think Clint Dempsey's days as a starter are numbered. Dempsey, who tied Landon Donovan for most goals in USMNT history during the tourney, was sidelined with a heart condition last season. As desirable as scoring is in any sport, a coach has to be able to rely on his players to stay alive.
I know that reads like a sick joke. Look at the men and women who play the game. It's a different body type. Soccer players are cardiovascular machines, built to run for more than 90 minutes. Can a man with a heart condition be expected to run at top speed for 90 minutes?
Which players acquitted themselves for a shot at the World Cup team, should the USMNT qualify? Morris, for one. I think midfielder Darlington Nagbe played with more creativity and intellect than the much-hyped Kellyn Acosta.
Anyone else? To be frank, no. Dom Dwyer got a look, but a missed penalty shot likely killed his future. How can anyone argue that his upside is greater than Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood, both of whom have played for superior European teams?
Simply put, if you follow soccer on our humble continent, you know who the better players are for both Mexico and the United States. You'll also see the difference when they play in World Cup qualifying in September.

There’s no gold standard in this soccer tourney

After more than a week of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, suffice it to say this soccer tournament is indicative of everything going on in North America right now. In other words, it sucks.

This is not one of those “I hate soccer” columns. It’s an “I love international soccer” one. No, it’s a “For soccer to continue to grow in popularity in the United States, you can’t expect people to watch this schlock” opinion. Gold is simply too precious a metal for a cup that clearly none of the bigger countries care about.

Of the 12 nations invited to participate in this alleged showcase of North American soccer, the United States and Mexico purposefully didn’t include their top players in pool play. They had reasons that made some sense. The Mexicans sent their best players last month to Russia for the Confederations Cup, a precursor to the World Cup. The Confederation Cup finished July 2. Mexico started Gold Cup on July 9.

Oh wait. That’s plenty of time to get over jet lag.

The Americans, meanwhile, sent their B team because they didn’t want to tucker out the first unit for World Cup qualifying later this year.

Golly, the more I think about it, these are craptacular excuses.

You know what’s also craptacular? The fact that only four of 12 teams were eliminated in pool play. Two-thirds advancing is similar to allowing the Cincinnati Bengals (6-9-1) into the NFL playoffs. The four “nations” that were eliminated? Two of them are so insignificant they played the French national anthem before their games. If nobody cares enough to write a song about your country, you have no business on the stage, Johan.

Oh sure. Now that the knockout round kicks off Wednesday — with eight countries that you’ve heard of — CONCACAF has allowed the surviving teams to reboot their rosters. The Mexicans and the United States were too happy to do so, with players you’ve heard of. The Americans swapped six front liners.

They shouldn’t get to do that. It’s kind of a punk move and I root for the U.S.

If the Gold Cup is merely a minor league version of World Cup qualifying, that’s fine. There are soccer junkies like me willing to see the next generation of players from Mexico and the U.S. who will get stomped by the Germans or Brazilians.

But at least be up front about it. Send your best or develop new talent. You don’t get to do both.

The curious case of the USMNT friendlies

Last month, I drove up to Jacksonville, Fla., and thoroughly enjoyed watching the U.S. men’s national team bludgeon Trinidad & Tobago 4-0 as part of World Cup qualifying. The Yanks didn’t need to win by that much to continue their quest to play in Russia, but had they lost they would have risked elimination a sickening two years before the tournament.

It shouldn’t have come to that, in other words.

What keeps me on edge about the USMNT under coach Jurgen Klinsmann is that since his hiring in 2011, it often has come to that. In trying to get the Americans to close in on the world’s elites, the former German superstar has worked to change the way we look at the beautiful game. He’s tried to influence where players sign (preferably Europe), how Major League Soccer operates and made stark roster changes (Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore).

As the Yanks enter “the Hex” — for the uninitiated, the last round of Cup qualifying matches — they warmed up with two friendly matches in the last week: an uninspiring 2-0 victory over Cuba on a sandlot and Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with New Zealand.

These games do not project confidence for the Nov. 11 grudge match with Mexico in Columbus or Nov. 15 against Costa Rica.

I don’t claim to be an expert on international soccer. If I were, I wouldn’t watch so much MLS. Having said that, my first thoughts on the USMNT going into those two difficult Hex games are:

1) Switch the formation from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2. Last night, the Americans couldn’t string together enough passes to control tempo and create chances. Against New Zealand, midfielder Michael Bradley lined up on the right side with Sacha Kljestan in the middle. I assume it’s because Bradley, who normally lines up in the middle, isn’t as creative with the ball as Kljestan.

I would consider making the middle four in the 4-4-2 a diamond as opposed to a line, place Kljestan at the top of the diamond to take advantage of his creativity and put Bradley at the back because he is a conservative-minded passer.

Instead of three forwards cluttering up the front, I would keep Bobby Wood and Altidore up top. They’re simply too good to have one on the bench.

2) Don’t panic about the goaltending. Neither game had the Yanks’ top goalies in net. Klinsmann wanted a glimpse in the future. He got one. Only one goal was allowed.

3) Unless there’s a compelling private reason I don’t know about, Darlington Nagbe needs some tough love.

Nagbe, who has been on the precipice of cracking the starting lineup for about eight months, asked not to play in the last two games. I don’t know why after a search. It could be a family emergency, but that’s guesswork. But if it’s to kick back after playing so much for the Portland Timbers, he needs to miss the hex.

This is different from Christian Pulisic missing the New Zealand game. He plays in Europe and his club needs him for Champions League matches. Pulisic’s playing world-class competition. The Timbers didn’t play at all.

Klinsmann has a history of benching players he doesn’t believe he can rely on, regardless of talent level. Altidore missed games due to being injury-prone. Landon Donovan took an international soccer sabbatical of about a year, and when he came back, Klinsmann said no thanks. I love Donovan. That one stung.

Ultimately, the hope going against two rivals is that these two matches are simply another example of Klinsmann experimenting a little too much for our comfort level.

If I’m wrong and he’s still tinkering in the hex, the Yanks could miss the World Cup.

USMNT reflections: Now that I’m sober

Yesterday, I made the road trip to EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla., to partake in some drunken patriotism. 

I like soccer. I love international soccer. Thing is, it’s a wonderful reason to drink heavily and talk so much crap that intellect vanishes. It’s like a death spiral for me. I drink. I’m very funny when I drink, and people buy me beer out of appreciation for the laughs. Then I get funnier. My improv version to the lyrics of the national anthem for Trinidad y Tobago should have gotten me kicked out and the game hadn’t even started yet.

Unfortunately, it also leads to me forgetting to zip my fly after I finish that postgame bathroom scramble.

So now that I’m sober after the Americans’ 4-0 triumph over Trinidad y Tobago in World Cup qualifying, I have a couple of thoughts:

1) Back in 2002, the U.S. opened the World Cup by punching Portugal in the mouth, if memory serves. What stood out in the game was the Americans had this brash teenager who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. So it’s 14 years later, and I see a lot of Landon Donovan in Christian Pulisic. 

Every international team needs a player who just doesn’t give a damn what you think of him. One who knows this game draws the eyes of a planet and still wants the ball. Not that Pulisic could play on Brazil, but if the Americans don’t have that type of player, they won’t get better. Pulisic could play in as many as five World Cups.

In the NBA, people wonder who will be the next Michael Jordan. I think we know who the next Donovan is.

2) I still count myself as a Jurgen Klinsmann backer. Man, that guy tinkers so much in games that it makes you want to spill blood. Having said that, the Yanks have scored 10 goals in their last two games without Clint Dempsey. They pitched a shutout without John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin. The only conclusion to draw is those awkward lineup combos pay off when it’s needed in World Cup qualifying.

3) A shutout is a shutout. Appreciate Tim Howard while you can. It doesn’t matter that neither Trinidad or Tabago can shoot.

4) This is kind of an obvious point: I can’t help but wonder if Klinsmann is rethinking the “let’s move on from Jozy Altidore” thing. Two goals Tuesday. Count me intrigued.

5) I loved the pregame tailgate with the American Outlaws. I respect supporters groups. Having said that, guys, let us know when the march to the stadium kicks off. We’re drunk. Sound off an air horn or something.

Or maybe we could at least send out a search party for Sam’s Army.

6) Anyone else notice Klinsmann avoided talking about Pulisic at halftime and instead heaped praise of Sacha Kljestan? Nice on two fronts: One, his opinion matters more to the teenager than mine. Two, Kljestan’s goal in the first half effectively ended Trinidad as a threat.

7) Very lame of Trinidad fans to get the police to ask the Americans in front, like me to sit down instead of stand. We were excited. We wanted to stand. However, in retrospect I’m glad the Trinidadians — or the Tobagans — had an unobstructed view of their ass-kicking.

The not-so-rapid reaction to the Yanks losing to Argentina

Whilst I rested the tormented rest of the sports fan whose team lost, a few Mexican futbol fans private messaged me about why I wasn’t criticizing the Americans as harshly as I did El Tri when it lost to Chile over the weekend in Copa America.

OK, not that I want to turn this blog into ESPN’s “First Take,” but here’s why:

People were looking forward to Chile and Mexico because the world thought these were two pretty damn good evenly matched teams and El Tri got humiliated 7-0. The entire globe took notice of that beatdown. 

The world also saw Mexico’s defense and midfield flat-out give up. And, of course, when your goalie has no defense and gives up that many goals, the world also noticed thousands of El Tri’s fans turn on their own goalie and call him a homosexual slur. A week after the Orlando terror attack, too, I might add.

Meanwhile, nobody expected the Americans to defeat the No.1-ranked team in the world. … Wait, I take that back. For reasons I’ll never know, three of four Fox Sports 1 commentators did. Seriously guys, that flag waving, were you from Fox Sports or Fox News?

How do you critique an inability to stop Lionel Messi, who scored an goal so stunning I needed a blood test to find out if I had taken hallucinogens before the match? Results negative. I didn’t get roofied in the sports bar.

What do you say? “Lads, that guy wearing 10. He’s good. You should have stopped him.” That’s like saying “Hi, Utah Jazz. That Jordan guy can shoot a little. Stop him.”

The entire world took notice — not of the U.S. giving up, but of Messi’s exceptional skill.

Sometimes, you simply get outclassed by a superior team. The thing I’ve noticed about Copa America overall? Some teams didn’t take the tournament seriously enough, such as Brazil. Other countries did.

The United States, to their credit, did.

But so did Argentina.

The only critique I could give the Yanks over that game came from USMNT legend Landon Donovan, who correctly pointed out that by fouling the Argentinians in midfield, you could have slowed the flow of their offense. Having said that, even if they did, they likely still lose by a goal or two.

But nobody thought for a moment the Americans gave up.

Mexico did.