By Kevin Baxter
6:45 PM EDT, July 27, 2013
Sunday's U.S.-Panama final in Chicago will mark the conclusion of the three-week-long CONCACAF Gold Cup. But for a small handful of U.S. players, the tournament's end might prove to be just the beginning of a journey that takes them to Brazil for next summer's World Cup.
They have reason to keep their fingers crossed. U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann, like most coaches, favors competition over complacency. As a result he has refused to publicly guarantee anyone a spot on the World Cup team — just as he has refused to rule anyone out. And that has turned the Gold Cup into an audition of sorts for players hoping to make the jump to the first-choice national team.
"It's an opportunity for us to see players coming through the system, and you want to evaluate them and see them in every training session," said Klinsmann, who has used six starting lineups and 23 players this month. "You want to see them every minute they are on the field in order to get a better picture of them toward the World Cup in 2014."
Klinsmann will watch the final from the stands after being suspended by a CONCACAF disciplinary committee for his actions in the waning moments of Wednesday's semifinal win over Honduras. Angered over Costa Rican referee Walter Quesada's refusal to sanction Honduras for a number of rough fouls late in the game, Klinsmann spiked a ball on the turf while yelling at the official. For that Quesada sent him off and CONCACAF added Sunday's final to his penalty as well.
Until then Klinsmann's auditions had gone well, with the B team winning all six of its matches this month, outscoring opponents 25-4 and extending the national team's win streak to a U.S.-record 10 games. Don't expect that streak to end against a game and talented — but ultimately overmatched — Panama, which took the U.S. to penalty kicks before falling the last time it made the Gold Cup final in 2005.
And though the Americans have compiled those gaudy numbers mainly against Belize, Cuba, Guatemala and El Salvador, none of which are ranked among the top 80 teams in the world, Klinsmann has seen enough to be impressed.
Chris Wondolowski, who did not play for the U.S. in World Cup qualifying, scored six goals in his first three games in July despite starting only one of those matches. Defender Clarence Goodson, who has gotten a long look from Klinsmann and his staff, proved dangerous on both ends, scoring twice in five games and setting up two of the Americans' three goals in their semifinal win over Honduras. And keeper Nick Rimando, though rarely tested, made some terrific saves when he was called upon.
"The players that are representing us in this Gold Cup, they clearly know that this is a huge opportunity to prove their value and their case to the coaching staff," said Klinsmann, whose player pool might now be deeper than at any time in U.S. Soccer's 100-year history. "So, two big things: One is to win the competition and two, allow the players to build their case for the World Cup. The door is always open; you never shut the door in soccer to players."
It might not remain open for long, though, because despite their impressive play this month, even the top players on the Gold Cup team face long odds in making the squad for Brazil, should the U.S. qualify.
When the Americans resume World Cup qualifying in September, the best Rimando can realistically hope for is an invitation to camp as the third keeper behind Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, who combined to give up only three goals in six qualifiers. Goodson, meanwhile, is waging an uphill battle for a spot in a congested central defense, where the Galaxy's Omar Gonzalez and Sporting Kansas City's Matt Besler top a long list of talented players. And up front, Wondolowski is trying to force his way onto a roster than already includes Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Eddie Johnson and now Landon Donovan, the one player who has clearly earned a promotion.
With seven goals and seven assists, the former Galaxy captain has accounted for more than half his team's goals in July. And until coming off in the 71st minute of Wednesday's semifinal, he was the only American to have played every minute of every Gold Cup game.
"He's proving the point that he's hungry to come into our picture and always be going forward toward the World Cup qualifying," said Klinsmann, who challenged Donovan to do just that after he took a self-imposed three-month break from soccer on the eve of World Cup qualifying last winter. "With every game he wants to prove that and show that. And he's doing all that.
"Not only on the field but also off the field, how he's reintegrated himself in the group."
After Sunday's final Donovan might not see many in the group again for some time. But Klinsmann is happy to know they're there, giving him choices and providing the team with depth.
"A year from now, you do not know where players will be at or who might have injuries," he said. "You can't look into the future, so we need to find solutions now, deepen our pool and make players understand what we expect from them, introduce them to the high competition in order to get them adjusted to it."
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