Who knew it would come down to the final match? The United States squad, coming off a shocking loss to Panama in the second game of their Gold Cup campaign, need a result in the final Group C tilt to advance to the quarterfinals. And frankly, anything less than an emphatic victory against Guadeloupe on Tuesday night in Sporting Kansas City's new home is unacceptable. Bob Bradley knows this, his players know this, and the rooting public knows this.
The Americans will also know exactly where they stand when they take the field at Livestrong Park because they play after the match between Panama and Canada. The Stars and Stripes will understand the scenarios, recognize the goal differentials, and realize where they need to finish. But really, this game is about execution and getting three points, no more, no less.
Guadeloupe comes into the fixture with two more red cards than points. They are a side known for punching above their weight in the Gold Cup - it's their World Cup because their affiliation with France prevents them from full FIFA membership - but this isn't their tournament. The US will prevail. They have no other choice.
For the second time in a week, the Stars and Stripes need to learn after a bad loss. The difference is that the lesson against Spain was "Those guys are really good; moving on," whereas the post-Panama lecture should revolve around the US's inability to start games well. Against the Central American side, Bradley's boys were once again outplayed, outhustled, and outworked in the opening 45 minutes. It's an old problem, one that eventually doomed the World Cup campaign, and is threatening the Gold Cup as well.
The question is how to solve the issue.
The truth is that the opponent on Tuesday doesn't matter. As the US has shown - repeatedly - they can beat the best just as easily as they can lose to some of the worst. (No offense to Panama, but the Americans are a significantly more talented team.) The key to the match lies with the US's ability to seize the initiative from the beginning, capitalize, and keep going. Do that, and they will be fine. Fail, and it's going to be a long night in KC.
But changes are needed. Tim Ream has played three matches in eight days. That's a lot, even for a young player, and he needs a night off (although not because of his play). With Oguchi Onyewu still struggling, expect Carlos Bocanegra to slide into the middle and Bradley to deploy Jonathan Bornstein out wide. Fans won't like the move, but it's the correct one. Another change that needs to be made is to put Clint Dempsey at the top of the formation. Call it a hunch, but Chris Wondolowski will be his strike partner despite the brutal miss in the dying stages of Saturday night's affair.
And finally, there are the yellow cards. The coach can't afford to mess around with his starting line up to protect the six men - including Bocanegra, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones - who carry them, but expect to see some quick changes if the US goes up by two goals in the early stages.
The Caribbean squad's first goal should be keeping everyone on the field for the entire match. The Gwada Boys lost Mickael Tacalfred in the 38th minute during a 3-2 loss to Panama and Jean-Luc Lambourde after just four minutes in the 1-0 defeat to Canada. Who knows how well they will play with 11 men on the field for 90 minutes? (Then again, they tallied their only two goals while a man down.)
Coach Roger Salnot won't lead his squad to Gold Cup glory, but destroying the hopes and dreams of the US would be an achievement matching some of his country's more audacious efforts in the regional tournament. That's motivation enough to play out the string with maximum effort.
In terms of tactics, Salnot will adopt a relatively compact formation and hope that his men can catch the Americans with a counterattack. Any hope of sustained possession will go for naught, but the home side has a tendency to make sloppy passes. An alert Guadeloupe 11 can take advantage.
United States: Clint Dempsey
With apologies to, you know, everyone else on the US roster, but is there a better (or more important) player in this country? The Fulham star has so much confidence the struggles of his teammates are frustrating him. It's an understandable reaction, but the Americans could use a bit of his trademarked magic.
Guadeloupe: Brice Jovial
In addition to having one of the best names of the tournament, the Guadeloupe forward boasts his side's only two goals. Jovial, who plays his club soccer at Le Havre AC, earned his first cap in his team's first game and his first start against Canada. He could cause problems for the Stars and Stripes backline.
United States Starting Line Up
Howard; Cherundolo, Bocanegra, Goodson, Bornstein, Bedoya, Bradley, Jones, Donovan, Dempsey, Wondolowski
Guadeloupe Starting Line Up
Grandel; Comminges, Tacafred, Zubar, Viator, Loval-Landre, Fleurival, Racon, Auvray, Socrier, Jovial