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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

Gold Cup
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Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks shaky in USMNT struggle vs. Panama

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- When it comes to the U.S. defense, manager Jurgen Klinsmann is engaging in a high-wire act and he knows it.

For the second time in the Gold Cup group stage, the U.S. men's national team manager trotted out his first choice back line, albeit one with some youthful elements, and for the second time in succession they failed to inspire much confidence.

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Ventura Alvarado, by his own admission, was mentally "a little bit relaxed" at the start of Monday's 1-1 draw with Panama and a lack of attentiveness nearly resulted in an own goal midway through the first half.

John Brooks, the lone U.S. player sitting on a yellow card coming into the match, couldn't avoid picking up his second of the tournament, and is now suspended for the quarterfinal against an opponent still to be determined.

Both looked overpowered at times by Panama forwards Luis Tejada and Blas Perez, specifically on the latter's 34th minute opener. Replays did show that Tejada strayed offside during the build-up, but there were still elements of the play in which both Alvarado and Brooks needed to do better.

Combined with another uneven performance from right back Timothy Chandler, and you have a U.S. defense that was well short of its best.

"We're not going to kid ourselves, we need to try and put together a 90-minute performance," said goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

"Obviously the conditions were quite warm for both teams. But in saying that, we need to find a way to make sure we start games the way we tend to finish them. And we got to make sure we put together a complete performance."

Klinsmann, for his part, is determined to take the long view when it comes to his defense. He knows there are risks involved in blooding younger players, and he realizes his central duo of Alvarado and Brooks is going to make mistakes. For now, he's prepared to take the bad with the good.

"What we do is we read the potential of the players, and then we hope to help them really reach that potential one day," said Klinsmann afterwards.

"But they need to carry it on. They need to understand to go through difficult moments and clean things up. It's not going to be perfect. There's no way it's going to be a perfect run in this Gold Cup. It will be a very difficult Gold Cup to win...This will be very, very tough competition. But they're going to learn a tremendous amount."

With Brooks and Alvarado learning on the job, the question now is whether they adapt quickly enough so that the rough edges can be smoothed out in time to win the tournament. The second half certainly hinted that it's possible. Both players looked steadier and more assured.

John Brooks, left, and Ventura Alvarado, right, have come under scrutiny for their performances at the Gold Cup.

"The only way for younger players to mature and get better and get stronger is to grow into these games, and have that experience," said Klinsmann.

"I think both Ventura and also John, they grew with every minute. There were some situations that were shaky in the first half and they cleaned it up. They were absolutely on top of things."

It certainly helped that the U.S. spent more time on the front foot in the second 45 minutes, as opposed to the first when Panama knocked the ball around with confidence. And Alvarado indicated that a half-time pep talk he gave to himself got him in the right frame of mind.

"Mentally, the first half I feel real bad," he said. " I was real bad. I mentally just got mad with myself, and I was like, 'I'm going to give it my all. I have nothing to lose.' I felt better. It wasn't a great game for me, but I've got to keep my head up."

The knockout rounds will likely be more demanding, however, in that the quality of forwards will increase.

Tejada and Perez are solid performers, but the Mexico duo of Carlos Vela and Oribe Peralta is a notch or two higher in terms of ability, and Brooks and Alvarado will need to play at a consistently higher level in order for the U.S. to raise the trophy in Philadelphia.

One alternative is to opt for players with more years of experience like Tim Ream, who will likely get his chance in the quarterfinal, and Omar Gonzalez. Klinsmann could call in some reinforcements from the supplemental roster.

The fact that Ream and Gonzalez have already played a match in the tournament is certainly a plus. "They're ready to jump in, and it's not a big deal," said Klinsmann.

But sifting through Klinsmann's words, he seems committed to the Brooks/Alvarado partnership and so, assuming the U.S. safely navigates the last eight stage, the duo will need to step up in the semis.

The U.S. will be hoping then that the elusive complete performance is found and, with it, comes considerably less drama.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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