Gold Cup

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USA benefiting from early setbacks?

FOX Soccer News: Review of USA's 1-0 victory over Costa Rica.
FOX Soccer News: Review of USA's 1-0 victory over Costa Rica.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The anatomy of a winning streak is invariably complex. But if ever one came out of nowhere, the United States men’s national team’s ongoing one, which is now its longest of all time, certainly did. Just five months ago, the roof seemed to be caving in on Jurgen Klinsmann, his reign as head coach and the experiment that would mark this brief era.

It had been more than a year and a half since he’d taken over. The effort to include more Hispanic-Americans looked a failure. The promised proactive football couldn’t be located. And the results were pedestrian at best. What’s worse, Klinsmann’s side looked like no more than a cheap imitation of his predecessor Bob Bradley’s, the man he’d replaced with the stated intent of raising the US Soccer program to the next level.

An ignominious 2-1 come-from-ahead defeat to Honduras in San Pedro Sula in February embalmed the team with the stench of mediocrity. And now, the players were publicly, if anonymously, griping about their coach, elaborately unloading their misgivings about his supposedly revolutionary methods.

And then, suddenly and without warning, the turnabout.

The Americans labored through their next two hexagonal round World Cup qualifiers – a 1-0 win over Costa Rica in a Denver blizzard and an ultra rare 0-0 draw in Mexico City. Come summer, the A-team prepared for the next three qualifiers with friendlies against Belgium and Germany. Belgium badly outplayed them 4-2. But against Germany, a breakthrough was achieved as the USA raced to an astonishing 4-1 lead, even considering Die Mannschaft’s diluted roster. The game ended 4-3, courtesy of a few late defensive lapses.

Winning streak: 1.

In that threesome of qualifiers, the United States turned in savvy, mature performances, mindful of both CONCACAF’s pitfalls and the special approach needed to break down defensive Central American teams. That’s how they kept their heads cool after a late Jamaican equalizer in Kingston and pulled the late 2-1 winner out of the fire. Then they surgically picked apart a tightly-packed Panama 2-0. And they eventually prevailed 1-0 over a similar approach by Honduras too, to take another three points.

TRIAL RUN

USA hopefuls will give Jurgen Klinsmann something to think about during the Gold Cup.

Winning streak: 4.

Next up were the B-teamers, anchored by the returned prodigal son Landon Donovan and a mishmash of players returning from injury, fighting for their national team life or hoping to start one. Together, they would set out to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time in three editions. They started off with a 6-0 hammering of Guatemala in a friendly.

Winning streak: 5.

The tournament itself had a nice progression in the strength of group stage opponents. Little Belize was dispatched 6-1. Cuba struggled harder against an American win, taking an audacious lead, before going down 4-1 all the same. And on Tuesday, a late breakaway salvaged a 1-0 win from a fetid affair with Costa Rica.

Winning streak: 8. A new record.

After a rough start to 2013, the United States men's national team picked up their eighth straight victory on Tuesday night (Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images).

The previous longest winning streak was set in 2007, when the United States beat China in a friendly and then won all six of its games at the Gold Cup, lifting it for the last time. It’s hard to say conclusively which achievement has more merit. This streak included World Cup qualifiers, serious money games, but the older one was pulled off in an “on-year” Gold Cup, with full A-teams.

Regardless, the record is broken and could be pushed further in a quarterfinal bout with El Salvador on Sunday and a presumptive semifinal against Honduras next Wednesday.

GREAT PRETENDERS

Building up talent is simply asking for trouble. Just ask these guys.

“You can see that there’s a chemistry developing that is fun to watch,” Klinsmann said after the eighth win. “They understand it is going to get only more difficult. In the knockout stage you can’t make any mistakes. You’ve got to be sharp 90 minutes or maybe even longer.”

There’s also a seriousness about this team throughout this tournament that has been bedrock to the Americans’ performance in the Gold Cup. “For us, it’s [about] continuing to do the things we’ve been asked,” said forward Herculez Gomez, one of the few regular A-teamers in the squad.

“For us, there’s no B[-team], there is no C, there is no A,” he added. “We are the United States national team right now, we are representing all the hard work we put in last few years under Jurgen. All the criticism, all the adversity that we faced, right now this is us representing all of that. We know what we’re dealing with.”

Out of a bad scenario, which might have doomed some campaigns to outright failure, good has come. From it has emerged a program better equipped to handle the rigors of its challenges.

And that, more than the winning streak itself, is the real win.

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