Cycle 3, Part VII: Spielmann's End
The big story of the leadup to the last World Cup, at least in terms of Team USA, was whether Jeff Suarez would make the final roster or not. The aging striker's decline, my uncertainty if Luke Gee was any good or not, and my general indecision about what to do provided for many an American soccer columnist's livelihood in the autumn of 2033 all the way through summer of 2034.
Early on, I anticipated that we'd be repeating that story in the 2038 cycle, only this time with Ged Spielmann in the Jeff Suarez role. The winger had had a fantastic 2034 World Cup for us, even making the Team of the Tournament, but he was also 31 and would be 35 by the time Mexico 2038 rolled around. Suarez didn't survive to that age, at least not as a contributing USMNT player. Neither did Lee Holness. I had forcibly dropped former captain Andy Alvarez before he turned 35. Spielmann was a better player to begin with than any of them (including Suarez), but time is undefeated, and the clock was ticking.
By the autumn of 2036, his physical decline had begun. This is what his stats looked like on the occasion of his 100th cap, which he marked by scoring two goals and assisting one, a 6-0 beatdown of Guyana in qualifiers in September:
This is what they looked like the next March:
It wasn't the end for him, not yet, but it was close. His pace and acceleration were going, fast, and you need those if you're a wide player, particularly the only wide player on your side (which he is in the 3-5-2). Chelsea, which had signed him to a one-year extension the previous summer, had severely reduced his minutes and made no secret about the fact that they were not going to give him a new deal this time around.
So in order to spare myself another Suarez-esque "will he or won't he" period, I made the call in the spring of 2037: Spielmann would not go to the next World Cup, regardless of what happened. The 2037 Gold Cup would be the man's last hurrah, and then we would move forward without him.
I figured that by setting this decision in stone so far in advance, it would give me and the rest of the team (not to mention Spielmann himself) some peace of mind heading into the home stretch of the four-year cycle.
But Ged Spielmann is apparently not one for extended goodbyes. Mere weeks before the Gold Cup was set to begin, he surprisingly announced his retirement as a player, calling time not just with the national team but his club career as well.
The retirement was certainly abrupt, and my questioning of Spielmann, asking him if there was any outside pressure being exerted on him to walk away from everything didn't lead me to any conclusive answers. But he wasn't changing his mind, and thus there would be no farewell tournament for the national hero after all.
Spielmann retired on the same day as Cartagena icon Borracha, having attained 108 caps with the national team and having scored 25 goals, about half of which were absolutely highlight-reel material. He scored the match-winner in the 2029 Confederations Cup final, the 2030 World Cup Round of 16 match against Portugal (in extra time), and bagged a hat trick in the 2034 World Cup quarterfinals against France while playing in an unfamiliar position. For every one of his goals with us, he provided at least two assists, being a big part of the reason why Suarez and later Escobedo have been so successful in front of goal for us.
Spielmann was the first player I gave an international debut to who crossed the 100-cap mark with us (the others, Alvarez, Musa, and Espinosa, had all first played for Team USA before I took over), and at the time of his retirement had the most caps of anyone I gave a debut to. He will be missed.
Life went on, though, and we had the 2037 Gold Cup to deal with. I very much wanted to win it for a number of reasons: first of all, I obviously want to win every tournament we're entered in. Secondly, this was some of our Olympians' chances to get some tournament experience in with the senior team, and I wanted to see how they responded.
But third of all, and most importantly, I wanted to win this one because the concept of losing it was too depressing for me to process.
The four best teams in CONCACAF, in no particular order, are us, Mexico, Canada, and Costa Rica. Out of those four, Mexico and Costa Rica sent their A-squads to the Confederations Cup (Mexico placed third, Costa Rica didn't make it out of groups). Both would be sending B-teams to the Gold Cup. Canada was under no such restrictions, but we had just beaten Canada fairly comfortably back in November, and they had an older team than us. Basically, there was no team taking part in this tournament that I would feel remotely understanding about losing to.
Always a good mindset to have going into a tournament with a bunch of young, untested players. Luckily, our group wasn't too difficult.
Three things of note happened in the group stage. The first one happened in our opening match against Haiti. In the second half, trailing by a score of 1-0, Haiti goalkeeper Jean-Jacques Duvalier (no relation to Papa Doc that I'm aware of, however...) apparently became so captivated with a beautiful woman in the front row, he neglected to turn around, face the rest of the field, and thus did not realize whatsoever that a routine back pass was coming directly at him.
The second thing happened in our final game of the group stage: we recorded our biggest-ever win, a 10-0 thumping against Nicaragua. Notably, most of our goals were scored after I had told the team to ease off and conserve their energy for the knockout round, so we could have conceivably scored something like 12 or 13 if we really wanted to.
Phillips and Gee each scored four goals in the rout, with Escobedo and Josh Colon rounding off the scoring with a goal apiece. This brings me to the third event of note: Sam Phillips took up the mantle of our best and go-to player once and for all now that Spielmann was officially out of the picture.
In the first match, against Haiti, Phillips was named Player of the Match with a 7.8 rating despite not having scored or assisted. In the second match, he rested. In the third, the 10-0 beatdown of Nicaragua, he bagged four goals and picked up a 9.9 rating for his trouble, along with another Player of the Match award.
Phillips didn't stop dominating in the knockout round, though. In the quarterfinal against Trinidad and Tobago, I decided to start him again, with the idea that he'd rest in the semis and be fresh for the final. We won the match 4-0, Phillips scored another goal, and picked up another incredible 9.2 rating (though he didn't get Player of the Match this time, largely due to Luke Gee having scored twice of his own). All of the little holes in his game were fixed. His tendency to shoot long from an angled run had disappeared. He wasn't supplying any direct assists, but he was still setting up the attackers for success, and when he deemed he'd be forcing a pass, he took it in himself.
Jamaica upset Canada in the quarterfinal, earning a date with us in the semis. I went back to the 4-3-3, probably for the final time this World Cup cycle, and rested to Phillips. As a result, we struggled. We dominated possession and shots, but Jamaica decided to batten down the hatches and made sure that they stayed in the game regardless of the consequences. Spearing put one away for us in the 25th minute, and that proved to be the decisive goal. We were headed into the final, Phillips was rested, and we could go back to using the far-more-effective 3-5-2.
At first, the other semifinal didn't seem to be too interesting to us, unless you're a fan of El Salvador's national team and Cinderella runs. But their story came to an end by falling 3-0, and as a result our opponent would be who everyone expected it to be once the brackets were revealed: Mexico's B squad.
There was no winning this one from a PR standpoint. If we won, great, our A team is better than Mexico's B team, which, I sure freaking hope is the case. That wouldn't impress anybody. And if we lost... well, then we had serious work to do between now and next year.
The final battle ended up being a tale of two halves. The first half was an over-the-top offensive light show. Mexico took the early lead, going up 2-0 in the first 15 minutes by sending a lot of long balls through and generally catching our defenders napping. After I made some quick adjustments, our guys responded. Gee brought us within one, then Escobedo equalized, and then central defender Daniel Ledesma scored his first-ever goal with the national team on a set piece to take the lead for us. When the whistle finally sounded, we were up 3-2 at the half and everyone blinked, as if they had just come out of a daze. It hadn't been the most direct path, but we were 45 minutes away from victory.
Both managers preached buckling down at halftime, and as a result the second half was far more cagey and tactical. The foul count and cards given shot up as the tackles became harder and more merciless; Gee had to be taken off in the 50th minute due to injury. We traded yellow cards once, then again.
In the 60th minute, Óscar Ramírez, who had already scored once for Mexico, found himself on the end of a sharp cross. He didn't have the best angle at a shot, but tried anyway, kicking wildly in a half-volley to put the ball on net. He ended up hitting the ball with so much force from so close a distance, goalkeeper Emmanuel Musah wasn't able to handle it cleanly and it ricocheted off him into the net. 3-3, 25 minutes to go before extra time.
I fell into the same trap I did in the World Cup loss to Mexico seven years ago by holding onto my subs, preparing for extra time. I couldn't tell you if this was out of caution, fear, or perhaps even confidence that things would ultimately turn out. All I knew was that this lineup, playing in this formation, was already one away from tying a record for goals scored in the Gold Cup to date, and I figured they had a good chance of getting one more.
Enter Sam Phillips.
The 79th-minute strike wasn't an exact mirror image of Ged Spielmann's famous Confederations Cup-winning goal in 2029, but it certainly brought comparisons to mind. It once and for all cemented our star central midfielder as the new tone setter and key player with this iteration of the lineup, and it nicely put a bow on one of the greatest run of games that any American player has ever had.
Phillips finished with six goals and an average rating of 8.80 in the four games he took part in the Gold Cup (a record), winning the Best Player award by a landslide (not to mention placing second and third in the Goal of the Tournament voting). But, more importantly than that, he had given us the trophy itself.
When Liam Espinosa surprised everyone in the immediate aftermath of the tournament by announcing he would resign from the captaincy, I figured that it was time to make the transition official. Keeping tradition with me passing over the current vice captain in the line of succession in these AARs, I decided to keep Patrick Escobedo in his current role and handed the armband over to Phillips.
Escobedo, ever the selfless act, understands. Everyone already knew going into this cycle that this was Sam Phillips's time. He's already our best player, now he's our leader. The torches have been passed to him, first Cherneski's as our creative midfielder, then Spielmann's as our star man, now Espinosa's.
We have one year to go before the World Cup. Our fate is in Sam Phillips's hands.