Two years ago, amid the turmoil of the economic recession and pro-democratic protests in the Middle East, the United States was beginning its campaign in the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa.  The tournament was a trial run for the nation of South Africa, played in the newly renovated stadia and among the then unfamiliar din of the vuvuzelas that have now become a familiar, if not annoying, part of the beautiful game.  The Confederations Cup would serve as one of the United States’ last opportunities to showcase their abilities against the world’s best in competition before the World Cup.

The group draw for the Confederations Cup was tricky for the United States drawing African Nations winners Egypt, 2007 Copa America winners Brazil, and reigning 2006 World Cup Champions Italy.  In the group stages the United States looked rather unimpressive, being over-matched in their first game against Italy. The United States was able to recover after a Ricardo Clark red card and went up on a 41st minute penalty from Landon Donovan, but conceded three goals in the second half, with American born Italian strike Giuseppe Rossi scoring two.  The second group stage match also saw the United States finish a man down with a similar result, losing 3-0 to Brazil.

The two early group stage losses meant that the USA would have to win against Egypt, have Brazil beat Italy, and score enough goals to make their goal differential better than Italy and Egypt to qualify.  Well on June 21, the perfect storm was brewing in South Africa as Italy were beaten and in dramatic fashion, Charlie Davies, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey would all score to give the United States their spot in the semi-final after drawing level with Italy on points and goal differential, but moving on as a result of goals scored.  The United States had survived and advanced, barely.

The next match would be the high point of Bob Bradley’s reign as manager as, the United States would take advantage of Jozy Altidore’s size and strength and a Sergio Ramos blunder and win the day 2-0.  However, the match would see Michael Bradley sent off in the 87th minute meaning that one of the most influential players in the squad would miss the final.  In that final against Brazil, the United States managed to go up 2-0 early in the game after goals from Dempsey and Donovan, but would end up losing the match 3-2 after the Brazilian squad came roaring back in the second half.  Despite the losing result, it was a good performance and the squad had a lot to take away from the competition.

The 2009 Gold Cup was played shortly after the Confederations Cup and as a result many players were left out of the squad to stay fresh for the World Cup qualifying campaign or take some much needed time off after their busy club seasons.  The “B-side” squad had no trouble in the group stages, beating Grenada and Honduras before drawing with Haiti to win the group.  They then needed extra-time to beat Panama in the quarterfinal, but easily won 2-0 against Honduras again in the semi-final setting up a rematch of the 2007 Gold Cup Final against Mexico. 

What would come next was one of the most embarrassing performances in modern US Men’s National Team history, a 5-0 loss at the hands of arch-rival Mexico.  After going into the half level, the “B-side” US squad showed their worth in the second half, conceding five goals to Mexico over the course of the final 45 minutes and yet another red card towards the end of the match.  This defeat ended the USMNT’s home undefeated streak against CONCACAF opponents and marked the team’s first loss to Mexico since 1999.  In a region with only one other internationally competitive side, the United States are forced to measure a lot of their success based on these matches against Mexico and as a result of the drubbing by Mexico the Gold Cup cannot be considered a success by American soccer fans.

The United States would recover from the loss to go on to qualify for the 2010 World Cup with relative ease suffering their only defeats in the campaign away to Costa Rica and Mexico.  They would finish at the top of their qualifying pool and draw England, Algeria, and Slovenia for their group. 

Many USMNT fans had high hopes for the 2010 World Cup, the team had been impressive against other top sides like Spain and Brazil and many thought the United States had a good opportunity to make a run deep into the knockout stages.  The United States would also face rivals England in the first World Cup match, making the occasion that much more special.  One of the major concerns for the US squad was who would step up to replace Charlie Davies, who had been seriously injured in a car crash in October 2009. Bradley named MLS strikers to the squad, Edson Buddle and Robbie Findlay, but the majority of the squad was identical to the one that featured at the Confederations Cup.

The World Cup began about as poorly as possible for the USMNT as Ricardo Clark left Steven Gerrard unmarked in the box just 4 minutes into their opening match; Gerrard capitalized on the opportunity and made it 1-0 for England.  The United States would find their way back though after a shot from Clint Dempsey was mishandled by England keeper Robert Green and the US were level 1-1.  The remainder of the game was a tenacious affair with Tim Howard being forced to make several saves, which eventually resulted in him being named Man of the Match at the conclusion of the match which ended 1-1.

The second match against Slovenia began just as badly for the United States as they were put at a 0-2 deficit at halftime.  The US showed little in attack and adjustments were made at halftime such as Robbie Findlay being taken off after 45 minutes of ineffective play.  The US did manage a comeback in the second half after a beautiful goal from Landon Donovan just after the start of the second half and another by Michael Bradley.  They United States had reason to complain after this match, having a Maurice Edu goal disallowed for a foul that didn’t seem to happen.  Despite this, the United States were in a position to qualify with a win against Algeria in their final group stage match.

The final group stage match for the United States against Algeria turned out to be a frantic affair over the course of the 90+ minutes.  Early on Algeria nearly scored, but were denied by the crossbar and several chances from Jozy Altidore went begging.  The United States also had another goal disallowed, this time for a phantom offside call against Clint Dempsey.  It was looking as if the United States were going to go out as the game was scoreless entering added time at the end of the 2nd half, but Landon Donovan was able to hammer home a loose ball after a scramble in the box.  The dramatic goal not only gave the United States a place in the knockout stages, but also their first group win since 1930.

The Round of 16 match pitted the US against Ghana and saw them concede yet another early goal due to a Ricardo Clark miscue, this time in the 5th minute to Kevin Prince-Boateng.  This game also saw yet another ineffective performance from Robbie Findlay who was taken off after halftime, giving rise to more criticism after his previous lackluster performances.  The United States did manage to battle back to level after Clint Dempsey was fouled in the box, Donovan drove home the penalty and the game would go to extra time.  In just the 3rd minute of extra time, Asamoah Gyan was able to chest down a high ball, hold off two defenders, and beat American keeper Tim Howard to give Ghana the goal and the win. Another disappointing end for the United States. 

After the match many criticized Bradley’s decision to include Ricardo Clark and Robbie Findlay in the squad after the pair had been responsible for the majority of the criticism the US received during the Group Stage.  Bob Bradley defended his selection and despite not entering new territory for US soccer, Bradley’s contract was extended for another four years. 

Going in to the 2011 Gold Cup the international situation is roughly the same, the economy is in a slow recovery and the Middle East has been swept by democratic protests, but American expectations for the tournament remain the same.   The United States’ expectations of winning their group in addition to the competition began well with a solid 2-0 victory over Canada. 

These efforts took a tremendous blow on Saturday, as the United States fell 2-1 to Panama.  The United States reverted to some of the hallmarks of poor performances under Bradley, irresponsible marking defensively led to the first of Panama’s two first half Panama goals, while a comical effort by Tim Ream led to the second.  Tim Ream’s penalty given to Panama was an embarrassment for the entire team as Ream missed clearing a ball, and while falling in a style reminiscent of Lucy snatching a football from Charlie Brown, fouled Blas Perez.  The penalty was easily converted and despite their best efforts, the United States could only claw one goal back thanks to the heroic defending of Panama’s Baloy and a shocking miss by late substitute Chris Wondolowski.  

Tonight’s match sets the stage for the United States to secure their place in the Quarterfinal with a win tonight, however it will mark an occasion that another of Bradley’s squads have disappointed in the group stages of a competition.  Under Bob Bradley, the United States have reverted to clawing their way back from early deficits, and although this can make for some very entertaining and dramatic finishes, it leaves some including myself asking why America are falling behind in these matches in the first place.  Going in to this competition I expected the United States to win, and for arguably the most talented team in the region, to struggle to qualify for the following round is an embarrassment.

The match against Guadeloupe will likely see the United States move through to the next round, however Bradley will be forced to use more first team regulars.  The additional game on the legs of the players as well as possible disciplinary actions will affect the squad for the quarterfinals through the rest of the tournament.  Panama have already shown themselves to be formidable opponents and Mexico will prove to be as well, if the United States is going to win this competition as the nation expects them to, improvement will have to be shown.  Improvement is necessary if the United States want to go on to claim their place in the world football pantheon and any result in this competition other than a victory would yield another unsatisfactory rating from the fans for manager Bob Bradley.  American fans are tired of underachieving; the time for victory is now.