U.S. 1, Guadeloupe 0: Yanks Survive Shaky Start, Horrendous Finishing

A third-minute Guadeloupe corner kick squeaked past the U.S. near post, ricocheted around the goalmouth, and nearly ended up in the back of Tim Howard’s net last night, as Guadeloupe defender Stephane Zubar rocked a shot off the crossbar.

It would have been the 207th* time the U.S. had given up an early goal in an important competition during the past two years, but, fortunately for the Americans, the ball did not go in.

And just six minutes later the U.S. got the only goal they’d need, a sensational 25-yard scorcher by Jozy Altidore. The Yanks could have put the game away on many occasions, as they missed a small bushel of chances, including seven by Clint Dempsey, two of which were the kind of opportunities he usually buries without thinking.

Highlights here:

With the win, the U.S finishes second in Group C behind Panama (which tied Canada 1-1 last night) and moves on to the quarterfinals to face Group B winners Jamaica.

Hopefully the Americans can avoid a sleepy start against the speedy Jamaicans, who feature six MLS players and won all three of their group games while outscoring the opposition 7–0.

We’re looking for positives in the U.S.’s underwhelming group-stage showing, and … here’s one: Remember the 2009 Confederations Cup, when the U.S. looked out of their depth in early losses to Brazil and Italy, only to produce an extraordinary three-goal win over Egypt and make a storybook run to the final?

Maybe that’s the model we should look to here: Underperform, raise the ire of Big Soccer message-board posters, generate us-against-the-world mentality, and peak in the knockout stages.

(Yeah, that’s all we’ve got in the way of silver linings right now.)

Here are the quarterfinal pairings:

Saturday, New Meadowlands Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.

Costa Rica vs. Honduras, 5 p.m.

Mexico vs. Guatemala, 8 p.m.

Sunday, RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.

Jamaica vs. United States, 3 p.m.

Panama vs. El Salvador, 6 p.m.

The winners at each venue meet in the semifinals, so the U.S. could get a shot at redemption against Panama, as well as a meeting with with Mexico in the final on June 25 at the Rose Bowl.

*Slight exaggeration.

Do or Die for U.S.—and coach Bradley—Tonight

If you care to revisit the turning points of the U.S.’s first-ever loss in Gold Cup group play, here are the highlights from Saturday night’s terrible 2-1 defeat to Panama:

The loss has provoked predictable firestorms of criticism for coach Bob Bradley, and this time it’s hard to argue against them. (According to Luke Cyphers at ESPN, former U.S. national teamer Marcelo Balboa said during an MLS broadcast that Bradley should get the sack.)

We’ve defended Bradley in the past, based on his results, which have ranged from respectable to pretty good. But this one, obviously, was downright awful—it was history-making in the wrong way, and easily the worst result of Bradley’s two terms as U.S. coach.

If the U.S. stumbles tonight against Guadeloupe (9:00 ET, Fox Soccer), we say that’s the end of the line for Bradley—and we’d bet U.S. Soccer agrees.

The Yanks entered this tournament looking to win it; failing to advance out of group play would be grounds for the coach’s dismissal. (The U.S. can advance with a tie, or even a loss, but will need to rely on the Panama–Canada result in those scenarios. Guadeloupe played most of both of its first two games down a man, losing 3-2 to Panama and 1-0 to Canada.)

But the Americans have bigger problems than a coach who may have run his course. As a friend of Backpost told us recently, the Yanks “have a solid midfield (with good players and good depth), and a quality keeper. After that they are in big trouble. No real forwards and the back line is alternately old, young and suspect.”

Bullseye. And what’s worse, the two best players in that midfield, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, will be 32 and 31, respectively, come Brazil 2014. Their replacements have not yet materialized.

Whatever complaints there are against Bradley, that aspect is not his fault; it’s simply a personnel issue. Where are the world-class players? The U.S. has deepened its player pool in recent years, for sure, but it hasn’t produced another Donovan, Claudio Reyna, or Brian McBride.

Those types of players have come “out of nowhere” in the past (Dempsey is an example), so a new core certainly could develop before the World Cup, but right now … the player pool looks stagnant.

And the team at the Gold Cup—even if it beats Guadeloupe as expected tonight—does not look capable of containing the high-flying Mexican side, which has outscored opponents 14–1 in three game so far, and will be waiting in the knockout stage.