Greatness is not proven over one match. That much is certain in the Beautiful Game.
Even Spain served up a clunker in their opener last summer in South Africa, losing to — gasp! — Switzerland before winning their next six straight on their run to the World Cup title. That’s a little footnote we’ve all conveniently forgotten.
Those Spaniards will be the first to tell you, it’s all about how you respond in your follow-up performance. Consistent play is key in becoming a truly great team. For the US, who resume group-stage play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup on Saturday, consistency has been one elusive mother.
And if the US are hoping to follow up their thorough 2-0 opening victory over Canada on Tuesday with another solid performance against Panama in Tampa, they’d be wise to look at the missteps of previous US squads in big tournaments.
Go back through every senior-team competition over the past decade in which the US fielded their “A” squad. There hasn’t been a single time when the Americans have been able to put together two end-to-end, comprehensive performances in a row to open group-stage play.
On the occasions where they start a tournament brightly, they’ll lay an egg in the next game. Conversely, if they have a clunker to open, that’s usually when that much-ballyhooed “American fighting spirit” comes into play and they’ll put up a heroic performance just in the nick of time.
Think about it. We all remember the stunning opener at the 2002 World Cup in which hardly any US fan could believe their eyes as the Yanks scored three times in the first half in a thrilling 3-2 win over Portugal. Five days later, they followed that up with a 1-1 draw with co-hosts South Korea in which they were lucky to escape with their lives, thanks almost completely to Brad Friedel.
Then the antithesis four summers later, when Bruce Arena’s men were dominated in every way in a 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen. Five days later, the US hunkered down and won a physical 1-1 slugfest with eventual World Cup champions Italy in an amazing showing in Kaiserslautern. Well, they won the battle, if not all three points, in their best performance during a highly disappointing summer.
Those two are the extremes, but it’s been a pretty consistent theme of inconsistency for the Americans over that period when the “A” team suits up: the ’03 and ’09 Confederations Cup, the ’07 Gold Cup, even last summer in South Africa.
Yes, even at the 2010 World Cup. There are plenty of you who saw the 2-2 come-from-behind draw against Slovenia as an amazing achievement and emblematic of that fighting spirit we keep hearing about. I still see a team that didn’t take their opponents seriously after bagging a point on England in the opener and were forced to chase the game against a team that was beatable.
There’s one lone exception to the trend: the 2003 Gold Cup, in which the US had a plum draw in their three-team group that contained El Salvador and Martinique. Brian McBride scored three of the US’ four goals over those two games as the Americans waltzed into the knockout rounds, schooled Cuba 5-0 in the quarters behind four goals from Landon Donovan and then succumbed to Brazil in extra time in the semis.
Still, the big takeaway here is that the USMNT rarely have been able to string two 90-minute performances in a row in tournament play. And if they have dreams of becoming a perennial power on the world stage, it’s time to realize that intensity and concentration isn’t something you get up for — for the world’s best teams, it’s a mantra. It’s how you go about your business every time you put that kit on.
The Americans' game against Canda was complete. They held the lion's share of possession, dictated the pace of the entire game, scored first — a pleasant change — and held onto their lead with timely stops and some brilliant saves by Tim Howard. It was the kind of performance that made you proud to be a US fan, especially coming just three days after a complete meltdown against the classiest of class teams in Spain.
So what's next against Panama? Will it be the all-too-predictable letdown performance against a team that, by all rights, the US should handle comfortably? The Red Tide are capable of springing a surprise on the Americans. Let's hope that annoying trend over the past 10 years gets solved in a hurry.
This current US squad has a veteran core behind it, a group of guys who have been the central figures dating back to that ’02 World Cup. They know the consequences of letting up, and they know the dangers of starting slow.
"This is an experienced enough group,” Howard told reporters after the Canada win. “It's just about rhythm now. It's about getting your cold baths, getting your nice light training days in, guys who didn't play pushing it a little more — but feeling like you're going into the next game at a good tempo.”
Let's hope that tempo stays at a thump, and doesn't slow down to a clunk.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.