Time for the real U.S. team to stand up 

June, 18, 2011

For all the hand-wringing about the national team's lackluster showing in the first round of the Gold Cup, including ours, Sunday's quarterfinal tilt against Jamaica is more opportunity than minefield.

First, the 2011 Yanks can start to figure out who they are. Which team will show up at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.? The side that slogged through the group stage, finishing second after a shocking loss to Panama? Or the team that has, time and time again under coach Bob Bradley, fought and clawed and scratched until it managed to pull a rabbit out of a hat when all had looked lost?

Beyond that, the knockout stage is a chance to affirm, in broader terms, what kind of program the U.S. has. The U.S. has produced more players with more important roles in bigger leagues than it ever has. They play long, pressure-packed seasons and must come together as a national team on short notice. There's no longer room for extended domestic national team camps, a la the 2002 squad, because too many good players are now overseas. In better soccer countries, these pros don't always have their A-game in every national team contest. But they respond when a competition is on the line. For these countries, starting a long tournament poorly means nothing if you end up making a deep run. Don't believe us? Just ask Italy.

Soccer aficionados know that the Azzurri have often looked terrible, even disinterested, at the beginning of major tournaments. They've also won four World Cups. Only Brazil, with five, has more.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. He has covered American and international soccer since 2002.