U.S. heads into semifinals with no definable shape

The USA needed extra time Saturday night to down Panama in Philly, with a nervous-looking Kenny Cooper finally doing the deed from the spot to give the Yanks a 2-1 win.

Soccer fans should be thanking Cooper — he put us all out of a lot of misery.

This one was a painful game to watch. Even accepting that this is the USA ‘C’ team — that’s three rungs down the depth chart — and acknowledging that the Panamanians are hardly the class of CONCACAF, the match plumbed new depths in what has been a very poorly played and officiated Gold Cup.

Simply put, for long stretches, it was abhorrent and unwatchable. If there was ever an occasion where one longed for the “golden goal” rule to come back, it was this one.

Why was it so lousy? When did an American win become an occasion for hand-wringing? The answer to both questions is another question — why on earth can’t the Americans play any sort of recognizable style?

Regardless of who is on the field, most teams come out and play a game that, in some cases, is so ingrained it becomes shorthand — think of the azzurri and their famous catenaccio or the “Total Football” of the Dutch.

The USA, in contrast, rarely plays with any sort of style or pattern, and Saturday night, it was impossible to discern exactly what the team’s aims were.

In the first half, the Americans completely bypassed their own midfield, seemingly trying to play a kick and counter game. In the second, the Americans came to after conceding a somewhat sloppy goal, scoring immediately and pressing Panama, but lacked any sustained effort and, yes, style.

Were the Yanks playing a possession game? Seemed so in the second half, but if that was the case, then you’d have to say the problems in that game were up top, yes? But wait a minute — the strikers got plenty of service in the first half, and couldn’t generate any pressure either — so maybe it was the lack of any midfield steerage that hurt. Was it Panama’s play that made the midfield so congested? Perhaps — but if the USA was bypassing it, then why would that have mattered?

Why is this issue such a big deal? Because it presses to the heart of what works and what doesn’t about the national team. The lack of an organized formation makes it difficult (if not impossible) to tell if guys can successfully make the leap from MLS to the big time, and makes it very tough to truly evaluate guys at the top of the heap against one another.

Is Stuart Holden a potential replacement for Ricardo Clark? Is Robbie Rogers a guy with untapped potential, or a man who has regressed into predictability? In all fariness, it’s pretty hard to say one way or another when the team’s overall character is shapeless.

Since the Gold Cup is all about finding the guys who can sit at the end of the World Cup bench, I’d have to venture that no one is being well-served by this state of affairs. The guys currently making their way to Chicago this morning have to be frustrated, because they are trying to do what they are told, then being criticized when the team plays so poorly.

The coaches — who are, ultimately responsible for the tactics and formations — can’t be getting much useful information from these games, either. Is Kyle Beckman a potential sub at the end of the bench? I don’t think so, given his penchant for bizarre decision making and the fact that he makes one great pass for every five he muffs — but is he any worse than Sacha Kljestan?

It’s darn hard to tell when the whole team resembles an amoeba. Beckerman and Kljestan have to have someone to pass the ball to, after all, and that’s darn hard when your teammates are basically standing on top of you.

What can the USA do about this? Right now, not much. The players don’t seem to have any idea what they are supposed to be doing in a given match (that’s why the USA’s performance against Spain was both so shocking and so welcome — it was the rare outing where talent met tactics).

Clearly, someone needs to be giving the players defined roles and making sure they follow through on them, but no one since 2005 seems to have been able to do this. And, bluntly, while Bob Bradley has looked at a lot of players (85, off the top of my head) and we do seem to have a solid ‘A’ team, you have to wonder how many guys would look better or worse if they played the same style of game day after day. That makes me nervous.

In winning the game, the USA set up their third match against Honduras in the space of just over a month. Honduras now gets another shot to take down an admittedly depleted American side at Soldier Field this Thursday. The USA have beaten them twice in a row already, slogging to a 2-0 win in their third game of the Gold Cup, after the ‘A’ team recovered to beat them 2-1 in Chicago on June 6th in a World Cup qualifier.

In that last Gold Cup match, the Americans looked dismal, needing Benny Feilhaber and Charlie Davies to come off the bench and save them. Neither man is with the squad, having returned to their European clubs.

But winning or losing here isn’t as important as finding guys who can really help next summer. And that’s hard to do when the whole eleven doesn’t have a recognizable shape.

Jamie Trecker’s newest book, “Love and Blood: At the World Cup with the Footballers, Fans and Freaks” is out now from Harcourt. Jamie is assisted by Jerry and Janice Trecker. Contact Jamie at jamie.trecker@gmail.com and visit his blog and website at www.jamietrecker.com.

The views and opinions expressed by Jamie Trecker do not necessarily reflect those of the Fox Soccer Channel or FoxSoccer.com.