The Los Angeles Clippers still have a couple of roster spots to fill, which could go to known quantities like Lamar Odom and Maalik Wayns or could go to outsiders. Regardless though, we've arrived at the point in the off-season where the flow of basketball news is going to be a trickle at best.
For those of you who like baseball, there's always the Angels and the Dodgers. For the NFL types, pre-season is just around the corner.
Unfortunately, my two favorite leagues, the NBA and Premier League soccer, are both in the off-season at present. I don't like baseball and only tolerate the NFL, so this is truly the doldrums for me. Having said that, there is one sports team I'm excited to watch, and they have a big game this weekend.
The US Men's National Soccer Team (USMNT) is currently riding the best winning streak in the 100 year history of US soccer, having won 10 straight games. And not only have they been winning -- they've been doing so in dominant fashion. They have a chance to make it 11 straight tomorrow against Panama in the Final of the Gold Cup in Chicago. The game is at 1 PM on Fox.
By definition, every winning streak starts after a loss, and the last loss for the USMNT was a doozey. In a friendly against a very talented Belgian side that features something on the order of nine Premier League stars in their starting 11 the US looked completely outmanned. A 4-2 loss in that game felt a bit like an indictment of the Jurgen Klinsmann era. Klinsmann took over as coach after the last World Cup vowing to introduce a more attacking and aesthetically pleasing brand of soccer. But the results weren't coming, and after Belgium, it felt like the team was never going to get there.
They followed that loss with a 4-3 win over Germany -- a diminished German side playing in a friendly without most of their biggest names to be sure, but Germany is Germany and when the US beats a team comprised of a host of Bundesliga stars, it's a big deal. They rode that success into three straight World Cup qualifying wins in the Hexagonal (a six team qualifying tournament for the
CONMEBOL CONCACAF region of north and central America) and have gone on to dominate the Gold Cup, a bi-annual regional tournament.
There are plenty of caveats to be placed on the winning streak. The US hosts the Gold Cup, and that combined with a flurry of home friendlies has amounted to nine of the ten wins coming on US soil. Nor has it been the highest level of competition.
CONMEBOL CONCACAF isn't the strongest region in the world, and all but the Germany win have come against CONMEBOL CONCACAF teams.
Still, this is the region the US is in, and therefore these are the teams they frequently face, and they've still never had a run like this. Nothing even close, frankly. Including a win over Guatemala in their pre-Gold Cup tuneup, the US has outscored their last six opponents 25-4. Only one game in that stretch was even close, a 1-0 win over Costa Rica (a side that is likely to qualify for the World Cup, by the way). A six game stretch in which the US has averaged more than four goals and posted a plus-21 goal differential? I guarantee that has never happened.
It's been a great showing for Klinsmann's side, but it would be inaccurate to give him all the credit. The beginning of the run happened to coincide with his selection of a very strong team that hadn't been available together for a while. The depth of US soccer talent is improving, but they still have relatively few real difference-makers. Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are three of them, and they played together for the first time in a very long time against Germany and in the June World Cup Qualifiers. Altidore, who'd been in a protracted slump with the USMNT even while lighting up the Dutch first division this year, responded with four goals in four games, tying a US record.
The run of success also coincided with the emergence of some MLS stars in central defense for the US. Even as the US attacking has improved under Klinsmann, the defense has remained suspect in the extreme. But when Klinsmann teamed 25 year old Omar Gonzalez of the LA Galaxy with 26 year old Matt Besler of Sporting Kansas City as the central defenders, everything seemed to fall into place. Klinsmann also moved veteran DeMarcus Beasley to left defender, a position he had never played, and suddenly the team seemed to gel.
Amazingly, the strong run has continued with an almost entirely different side playing in Gold Cup. Beasley is the only starter that's been with the team the full tournament, though Besler and Gonzalez were called up for the knock out round.
And then there's Landon Donovan.
Donovan is arguably the best player in the history of US Soccer, but feeling burnt out after last year's MLS Cup, he took a sabbatical from soccer. After he returned to the Galaxy, Klinsmann left Donovan off the selection for the June qualifiers, saying he didn't feel he was in top form. Instead, he placed him on the Gold Cup roster, playing without the likes of Dempsey, Bradley and Altidore to take some of the pressure.
Donovan has responded by being by far the best player in the tournament. In the last three games, consisting of the Costa Rica game, the quarterfinal and the semifinal, Donovan has been involved in all nine of the team's goals. He scored three himself, assisted on five others, and made the pass that led to the assist in the ninth. Amazingly, his finishing has been a bit sloppy during the run -- he had several other chances along the way -- but his movement and creativity have produced chance after chance, which is the most important thing at this level.
I said before that the US has a limited number of difference makers. Donovan is clearly one of them, and when qualifying resumes in September, presumably he'll be in the starting 11 alongside Altidore and Dempsey and Bradley. Suddenly the forwards (with Altidore, Chris Wondolowski and Eddie Johnson) and midfield (Dempsey, Bradley, Donovan, Graham Zusi, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Stuart Holden, Fabian Johnson and others have all played well during the streak) look incredibly deep, giving Klinsmann a problem few US coaches before him have had -- too much talent at the skill positions. Meanwhile, Clarence Goodson has been a rock at central defender in the Gold Cup, and will apparently push Besler and Gonzalez for a spot there in the Hex. If Klinsmann can find long term solutions at the outside defender positions, this team could be very solid.
We'll see if any of this translates to real success playing against the top teams from Europe and South America. As it happens, the run of strong play has come just as Mexico has fallen into a terrible slump, leaving the US as the only power team in the region for the time being. That's good and bad -- a trip to Brazil next summer is more or less in the bag at this point given that none of the other
CONMEBOL CONCACAF teams appear capable of derailing the US. But at some point, the USMNT is going to have to prove that they can beat a top quality side, and do it outside of the US.
For now, I'll be rooting Sunday for win number 11. At least there's something to root for.