- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Less than a year after Spain won the World Cup, it’s already time to kick off qualifying for the 2014 tournament in Brazil.

Fortunately for the United States, it’s got another year to get its act together.

The Americans recovered from their stunning loss to Panama _ not regional powerhouse Mexico, mind you, or even Honduras or Costa Rica _ by advancing to the Gold Cup quarterfinals Tuesday night. But instead of inspiring confidence that the Panama game was a one-off blip, the 1-0 victory over Guadeloupe only served as a reminder that the U.S. has a long way to go before it can be considered the equal of the world’s best teams.

The U.S. did manage to take control of the game early, with Jozy Altidore scoring in the ninth minute on a thunderous shot from 25 yards. That alone counts as a major improvement for a team that falls behind with such regularity it seems to be part of the game plan. The defense was sharper, and the Americans played with a focus and intensity that was lacking against Panama and in a June 4 exhibition against Spain.

But there’s no way the Americans should be satisfied with a one-goal victory over tiny Guadeloupe, regardless of how lopsided the game really was. The United States had more than a half-dozen chances to score at close range and couldn’t finish a one of them. Give credit to Guadeloupe goalkeeper Franck Grandel for stopping a few of them, but most were simply poor execution by the Americans.

“We need to be sharper,” captain Carlos Bocanegra said.

Umm, yes. Because that kind of sloppiness just won’t cut it against a good team, let alone one of the great ones.

Take Clint Dempsey’s gaffe in the 76th minute.

Dempsey has developed into perhaps the finest player the U.S. has at Fulham in England, one of the few Americans who could make the national team roster for a European heavyweight. But this was a play a third-grader should make. Alejandro Bedoya slid a nifty cross in from the left that drew Grandel out and caused him to fall to the ground, leaving Dempsey with the ball on his left foot a mere 2 yards in front of the wide-open goal. But instead of quickly flicking it in, Dempsey hesitated, looking as if he was trying to set up a highlight-worthy shot.

Oh, it will get replayed all right. While Dempsey was dilly-dallying, Guadeloupe defender Julien Ictoi tracked back and poked the ball away, saving the score.

Now, the blunder didn’t amount to anything. The Guada Boys were never much of a threat to get the equalizer, with zero shots on goal. But do that in the knockout rounds of the Gold Cup _ or any big game, for that matter _ and the Americans will find themselves trying to explain away another loss. They’re just not good enough to squander goals like that.

“When we create chances, (we have to) hit the target more. We need to be sharper defensively, not making a mistake and give them opportunities,” Bocanegra said. “Later on, after the group stage, you pay for those mistakes.”

Thing is, the U.S. should be beyond those kind of mistakes by now.

It’s been nine years since the United States made it to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, a surprising run that declared the Americans were no longer part of soccer’s lightweight division. But what do the Americans have to show for themselves since then? A first-round exit in 2006. They made it to the knockout rounds last year, only to be tripped up by _ what else? _ their penchant for lackadaisical play.

Yes, they did upset Spain in the semifinals of the 2009 Confederations Cup, a victory that was as impressive as it was deserved, and followed that with a hard-fought loss to Brazil in the final, their first at a major FIFA tournament. They will still be favored to make the World Cup when the U.S. joins regional qualifying for 2014 next summer.

But while many of the key players have remained the same over the last five years _ Bocanegra, Dempsey, Altidore, Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradley _ there is little evidence of growth. Slow starts have been a problem since the last round of World Cup qualifying, and no one has an explanation _ or worse, an answer. The U.S. still hasn’t developed an identifying style of play beyond grit and determination, a problem that plagues its lower-level teams, as well. And the deeper talent pool expected to follow the spike in American interest in the game has yet to materialize.

After years of being a sideshow, the Americans finally have captured their country’s attention. To keep it, they’re going to need to do more.

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AP National Writer Nancy Armour can be reached at narmour(at)ap.org or follow her at http://twitter.com/nrarmour