The stakes were set, the lines were drawn, and as the sun slowly descended upon Livestrong Sporting Park on Tuesday evening, the United States men’s national team knew exactly what it had to do to save itself from one of the most embarrassing outcomes in its soccer history.
Beat or tie Guadeloupe in the final game of group play, they knew, and they would advance to the quarterfinals of this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, just like they were supposed to.
But lose? Well, yikes. Not only would they be eliminated early from a tournament they were expected to do extremely well in, but they would also become a worldwide laughingstock, the big bad Americans who lost their second match in a row to a country literally a fraction of its size.
So yeah, it should probably come as no surprise that the United States came away with a 1-0 victory before a frenzied and passionate crowd of 20,109. After all, did they really have a choice, considering the alternative?
“A loss wasn’t in the cards tonight, man,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “We feel like we’re a powerful team in this region, and you can’t lose two in a row, not in two games you’re expected to win. That wasn’t an option.”
Even still, the Americans didn’t completely shed their annoying knack for coming out flat – one that has plagued them for much of the past two years. But this time, a breathtaking near-goal by Guadeloupe snapped them out of it in a hurry.
It came in the fourth minute on a corner kick that fell to the middle of the area, where defender Stephane Zubar came in to unleash a blast that got past U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard only to have it hit the crossbar and bounce over the net.
But the U.S., which was still smarting from a lackadaisical start in its history-making 2-1 loss to Panama on Saturday, responded immediately with a good chance of its own, as star midfielder Clint Dempsey was tripped from 30 yards out and awarded a free kick in the sixth minute.
Dempsey’s shot — a screamer toward the corner — was deflected away by Guadeloupe goalkeeper Franck Grandel, but Grandel wouldn’t be so fortunate in the ninth minute. That’s when forward Jozy Altidore received the ball from teammate Michael Bradley on the right side, took a touch and unleashed a rocket from 25 yards out that found the near corner and gave the United States a 1-0 lead.
The good chances kept coming for the U.S. from there, as Dempsey spearheaded a U.S. attack that racked up 21 shots over the course of the game, compared to Guadeloupe’s five. But amazingly, the Americans continued to find a way to come up short each time, with the most egregious example coming in the 78th minute, when Dempsey found himself alone inside the box, only to be dispossessed at the last second.
“I thought no one was on me, that I could take two touches,” Dempsey said. “It was the wrong decision on my part.”
Dempsey added that he felt like he couldn’t buy a goal — and he was right — but at that point, it really didn’t matter. With the momentum on his team’s side and a win all but certain, the United States already had its ticket to Washington, D.C. for their quarterfinal matchup against Jamaica at 3 p.m. Sunday all but wrapped up.
And while their chances of winning their fifth Gold Cup remain up in the air — especially with Mexico’s recent dominance — the Americans can at least take solace in this: on Tuesday, in Kansas City, Kan., before a rowdy crowd of red, white and blue supporters, they successfully managed to avoid a date with ignominy.
“We want to do better,” said star midfielder Landon Donovan. “This is a game we probably should have won 3-0 or 4-0. But the reality is we won, and so that’s all that matters at this point.”