The most extraordinary defeat of Bob Bradley’s United States national team reign left the Americans' Gold Cup campaign on shaky ground and its coach facing a fresh wave of criticism.
USA’s 2-1 loss to Panama in Tampa on Saturday piled the pressure on Bradley and his players and brought into stark focus that the side is facing very real problems that urgently need addressing.
Bradley’s men were stunned by the underdog Panamanians, ranked 67th in the world and sixth in the CONCACAF region, throwing the Americans' predicted run through the tournament off course in only its second game.
The result does not affect the possibility of a dream final against Mexico, but any sense of a feel-good factor that surrounded the Americans was emphatically wiped away on a steamy night in Florida.
Saturday’s disaster was a serious embarrassment regardless of what else happens in the tournament – a warning sign to the USA that its current crop is in a definite form slump.
Bradley knows his players are fully capable of responding and going on to lift the trophy the Americans last won in 2007. However, this was a significant confidence shaker and a wake-up call that not all is well.
A chance to bounce back presents itself against one of the weakest teams in the Gold Cup, Guadeloupe, in Kansas City on Tuesday. But what Bradley really will be looking for is a genuine victory against a respected opponent to both lift spirits and ease pressure on himself.
Assuming the USA finishes in second place behind Panama in Group C, it likely would face Jamaica in the quarterfinal, a game for which the Americans would be a strong favorite despite Saturday’s slip.
But Bradley and the American soccer public know there are serious issues to address before he can start to feel positive about the future prospects of this team, with an eye already turning toward the 2014 World Cup. These are times of limbo for the squad, with several players heading to the twilight of their careers and a crop of emerging youngsters not quite ready for full international responsibility.
The defense looks particularly shaky, highlighted by the troubles that youngster Tim Ream experienced against a lively Panama attacking formation. Ream’s central defensive partner Clarence Goodson got the USA’s only goal but was far from solid at the back, and Bradley is well aware that greater stability is required.
Goodson’s effort in the 66th minute was too little, too late, with a Luis Tejada strike and a Gabriel Gomez penalty putting Panama clear in the first half, a lead that was fully deserved.
Going behind is nothing new for Bradley’s team – it happened early in three of their four World Cup games – but this time there was no great response, and most worryingly, little in the way of spirit and fight back. Panic may be too harsh a word, but the kind of composed response Bradley would have hoped for and expected from his senior players was not forthcoming.
Still, there were chances, as Chris Wondolowski and Landon Donovan were presented with opportunities to level the score late, only for both to snatch at their strike and miss the target.
It all capped off what might have been the worst week of Bradley’s time in charge, one where his side has suddenly looked unsettled enough to prompt concern even three years out from a World Cup. Surely things will have fallen into place by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around, but the lack of attacking firepower is a serious headache for the coach.
Juan Agudelo is a hot prospect but so was Jozy Altidore three years ago, and Altidore has yet to fulfill his potential as hoped. The dilemma of whether to push Clint Dempsey into attack is bound to be discussed at length in the coming months and years.
Either way, Bradley will hope things get better from here. A 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Spain in Boston last Saturday could be neatly and comfortably explained away by the standard of the opposition and the decision of Bradley to rest several key players.
Similarly, the team’s Gold Cup opener against Canada on Tuesday provided little in the way of true indication as the contest was a mismatch. But there was no tidy explanation for this result, and the USA’s proud record of never having lost a Gold Cup group game burned at Raymond James Stadium.
For a team that considers itself to be the class of the CONCACAF region, it was a truly miserable night. It is not time to press the panic button yet, but the USA has learned some harsh lessons.