If the U.S. national soccer team is feeling the weight of the CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal against Jamaica today at sold-out RFK Stadium, the players and coaches aren't showing it.
Since their arrival in Washington on Thursday, the Americans have spoken coolly and confidently about recovering from a turbulent first round.
"We came through group play feeling good that we were tested and certain things came to light," coach Bob Bradley said. "Now as a group we are excited and ready to go."
The reassuring vibe, however, belies the broad implications of defeat.
It would not only eliminate the Americans at the earliest stage of the regional championship since 2000, but also jeopardize Bradley's employment less than a year into his second term.
It would extinguish hopes of qualifying for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, an important tuneup for the World Cup a year later in Brazil.
It would undoubtedly prompt serious introspection, just a year after the U.S. won its World Cup group and two years after upsetting Spain en route to the Confederations Cup final.
"In the last four-year cycle, we raised the level of the national team, we raised the expectations of people in this country, we raised our own expectations," captain Carlos Bocanegra said. In the Gold Cup, "it didn't go exactly as how we wanted [in the group stage], we lost to Panama and everybody was disappointed, but we gave ourselves a great opportunity" to continue pursuing a championship.
A loss would raise questions about the U.S. Soccer Federation's pre-tournament management — it scheduled a lucrative but inconsequential friendly against world champion Spain just three days before the Gold Cup opener — and Bradley's decision to allow his two most influential players, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, to miss three days of practice and meetings leading to the Jamaica match so they could attend sibling weddings in California and Texas, respectively.
The USSF declined to answer questions about the pair's arrival time, but while Dempsey was expected to rejoin the delegation late Saturday, Donovan was on a later schedule because of the distance. Donovan stayed in shape by practicing Friday with his Major League Soccer club, the Los Angeles Galaxy. The USSF is paying for private planes to transport them to Washington.
While rival Mexico obliterated its first-round competition, the U.S. failed to manufacture a satisfying performance. In the opener against Canada, a strong start offset a rickety second half. In the next match, defensive shortcomings resulted in a first-ever loss to Panama. And in the finale against Guadeloupe, the U.S. missed many opportunities, settling for a 1-0 win.
"We know we haven't played our best soccer yet," defender Steve Cherundolo said, "and we are hungry and motivated to do that."
On paper, the U.S. team has plenty working in its favor today: a 9-0-8 all-time record against Jamaica and a 12-3-4 record in Washington since 1991, including a current six-game unbeaten streak.
"History is made to be broken and rewrote," Jamaica assistant coach Warren Barrett said.
Jamaica, seeking its first semifinal berth since 1998, won all of its GroupB matches. They played with typical speed and style but also exhibited better organization and defensive fortitude in helping goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts register three shutouts.
"When you are playing well, that tends to exude a lot of confidence," Barrett said. "You can smell it in the air around the team camp — a lot of positiveness."
Despite lackluster results, the Americans believe they're still on course to reach the final.
"This is a tournament, and you're supposed to be building as the tournament goes on," U.S. defender Clarence Goodson said.
"What's most important is doing well toward the end and, obviously, playing your best match in the knockout rounds."
U.S. VS. JAMAICA, 3 P.M.
TV: Fox Soccer Channel, Univision
EL SALVADOR VS. PANAMA, 6 P.M.
Site: RFK Stadium, Washington
Tickets: Sold outCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun