Kansas City, Kan. The United States enters the final group-stage match of an international soccer tournament for the third straight year needing a win to secure a place in the knockout stage.
The Americans did it twice before, at the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2009 and the World Cup in 2010. Now, depending on the result of tonight’s early match, the U.S. could find itself in a must-win situation against tiny but tenacious Guadeloupe in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
“It would be nice to cruise through the group and be able to put your feet up,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said after Monday’s training session at Livestrong Sporting Park. “It doesn’t always happen that way.”
Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Panama, its first group-stage defeat, left the U.S. in second place, tied with Canada on points but ahead on goal differential.
Regardless of the outcome of the early match between Canada and Group C leader Panama, a victory will guarantee the U.S. a quarterfinal berth.
If Canada and the U.S. both win today, three teams will have six points each and all three will advance. But the third-place finisher will have to face Group A winner Mexico, which dominated its first three matches, in the quarterfinals.
With so much on the line, Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes insists his team won’t ease up against Canada.
“We’ll look at it the same as any other game,” Dely Valdes said through a translator. “We want to win it and we want to be first in the group. This is a process, and you always want to win it.”
While Panama is riding high going into the last group game, U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan said the Americans have to put aside the disappointment of Saturday’s loss.
“If you want to be one of the teams standing at the end, it’s a marathon,” he said. “You have to be careful not to get caught up in one result, one way or the other, in a group stage.”
No matter the result of the early match, U.S. coach Bob Bradley said, his team has to focus on avoiding a repeat of its slow start against Panama.
“We’re going out with mentality to win this game,” Bradley said. “Our response after a game we weren’t satisfied with is important.”
The U.S., 22nd in the most recent FIFA rankings, is a heavy favorite against Guadeloupe, a small French possession in the Caribbean. Guadeloupe is not a FIFA member and competes only at the regional level.
That said, Guadeloupe — unlike the other two last-place teams in group play — has not been a pushover, with a goal differential of only minus-2 despite playing a man down for much of its first two games.
“We’re frustrated,” said midfielder Stephone Auvray, who plays for Sporting Kansas City in Major League Soccer. “If we had played a full team in one of those matches, things could be different now. Hopefully, tomorrow we’ll be able to do it.”
Guadeloupe’s determination and its strong history in the Gold Cup — including a run to the semifinals in 2007 — certainly has the Americans’ respect.
“It’s not going to be an easy game,” U.S. forward Clint Dempsey said. “They want to win and they have a good team.”
Still, the U.S. does have a recent history of clutch performances in the last round of group play.
Two years ago in the Confederations Cup, the Americans needed — and got — a 3-0 victory over Egypt to get out of the group stage on their way to a runner-up finish.
Last year, the U.S. drew in its first two World Cup matches before Donovan’s late goal against Algeria gave them the points they needed to move on.
“Our teams have always come back really well,” Bradley said, “from games when we haven’t been at our best.”