This has been in the works for a few days…so excuse me if it is outdated, actual work in the way…
Just about 3 days after the US pulled out only the 2nd ever injury time goal which prevented a team from going home and sent them through to the knockout stage, they were sent packing by the same team that did so in 2006. A bit of a mouthful there, you may have to read twice.
Looking back, those first 45 minutes shouldn’t have been surprising. The Algeria game ended in such spectacular fashion and was such an emotional victory that the chances of a letdown had to be pretty high. Everyone out there, with the exception of Clint Dempsey on occasion, just didn’t seem up for the game. Ghana was running circles around them, moving very effectively and maintaining an unheard of 2/3 advantage in possession.
Nobody really seemed interested in having the ball. Michael Bradley seemed tired and was not his omnipresent self we have come to expect this tournament. Maurice Edu was a good early sub by Bob, both because Ricardo Clark’s confidence had to be shattered and he was already on a yellow card in a game the US had to chase; too state the obvious, chasing with only 10 men is even harder.
It took over 30 minutes, but they did finally apply some offensive pressure late in the half. A great chance fell to Robbie Findley in the 35′, but he couldn’t keep his balance and his effort ended up being pretty lame. This was the first real moment of the tournament where I thought to myself, “oh Charlie Davies, how I miss you.” It was a glaring example of the lack of technical ability in US Soccer (More on that later).
The 2nd half saw the US start very positively. Benny Feilhaber had a chance fall to him early and his first touch might have been a bit heavy but Richard Kingson did very well to stop his flick attempt.
Some dangerous balls came through the box, the US fought back to get possession closer to the 50/50 that it needed to be, and they had Ghana looking very leaky at the back. Clint Dempsey, probably the American’s best player all night, finally got the breakthrough by winning a penalty in the 61′ minute. Donovan excuted, and the American’s were back on terms. They continued to press and looked the more likely side to get that next goal, except of course for their lack of finishing ability and the superb goalkeeping of Kingson.
Altidore had a first touch which was too heavy in the 67′ and wasted a chance. Michael Bradley got into great position in the 76′, did well to keep his shot low but it was straight at the keeper. Altidore again got so close in the 81′, one of the only times he looked himself all day, but just couldn’t get his effort on goal.
The US seemed to let off the gas towards the end of regulation and came out a little light at the beginning of extra time. Once again, a defensive lapse did them in. We like to think that defensively the US is very solid, but this is more of an effort to find false positives in the face of growing expectations on the world stage. Defensively this team was suspect all along; Onyewu not 100%, Demerit too often content to back-pedal in the face of pressure, Bocanegra just too slow or weak.
Overall, it was an emotional ride. I am glad that they went out in a fair game which can present no arguments about being shafted by FIFA (a la Mexico or England). Ghana barely deserved to win that game but they were the more opportunistic side and sometimes that’s all it takes. The margin for error in the knockout round of the World Cup is incredibly slim and the US made too many mistakes.
Rather than this game alone….here are my thoughts on each one throughout the tournament. Each is accompanied by a grade as to make me feel as powerful & important as possible.
Jozy Altidore had an ok tournament. His physical stature and style allows him to be competitive at this level but US Soccer has stated that they are not here to just compete. The lack of finishing ability was a glaring weakness in this team and no player is a better example of this than he. Altidore needs to be more comfortable with the ball and more lethal in front of goal. 4 years is a long time, especially as he now returns to a completely uncertain club situation; dealing with the routine of playing professionally, fighting for his spot, and busting his ass day in and day out to improve is asking a lot of someone who has a reputation for being immature and lackadaisical. He can be the first American striker to even approach the World Class level but he has to work at it. A lot more will be expected from him in 4 years and just ticking off the days won’t get him there. C.
The other US strikers, Herculez Gomez/Edson Buddle/Robbie Findley, can all be lumped together – none are really cut out for this level. Gomez and Buddle are ok but seem to be a little unsure of themselves most of the time. Findley also doesn’t seem cut out to play at the international level. He just isn’t comfortable enough in front of goal, his chance on Saturday was clearly compromised when he lost his balance for no good reason. I would be surprised if any of them are in Brazil in four years time. D.
Landon Donovan did carry this team through the group stage. On occasion he went long periods with out having the ball but was a driving force when it did come to him; picking out good passes and getting the ball into dangerous areas. Contributing 3 huge goals from the midfield was obviously invaluable to this team, if not for him, there wouldn’t have even been that round of 16 matchup. Saturday though, he seemed to fade heavily. It was almost as if he blew his load against Algeria, considered his goals accomplished, and then totally forgot to bring it against Ghana. Advancing could have freed him from the weight of expectation and allow him to raise his game again. Instead, he seemed to shrink from the stage, even his goal celebration was unfortunately subdued. Tying that game was a huge accomplishment, celebrate like it. His career arc for the next 4 years will be very interesting to follow; he will probably go back to Europe but he cannot expect to be as fast as he is now and must develop his game to compensate. A-.
Clint Dempsey was kind of the opposite of Donovan. He was wasteful in front of goal against Algeria, kind of absent against Slovenia, but really was the only US player to show up for the whole game on Saturday. Throughout the tournament he worked his tail off. Never afraid to get himself in the mix, his overall performance was very good but another goal or two would would have been nice, if not expected. We can only dream about what might have been if Bob had been willing to start him at forward instead of having to make the in-game switch every single time. B.
Michael Bradley was the most consistent player for the US throughout this tournament. He plays box to box very well; tackling effectively, distributing accurately, and being calm with the ball at his feet. He is probably the most technically sound player on this team and for the most part wanted to have the ball. He did come out a little flat on Saturday but got into the game in the second half. He showed how dangerous he can be going forward with a huge goal against Slovenia and illustrated his maturity by not accumulating a single Yellow Card; an accomplishment for a CM with his reputation. If this team isn’t already his, it should be by the time they get through qualification for ’14. A.
Benny Feilhaber was good enough to get a lot of people wondering why he didn’t start. His experience at this level and previous national team performances really did beg for him to start in Dempsey’s midfield role and push Clint upfront to pair with Altidore. His vision, passing, and movement were all on full display every time he got into the game. His willingness to track back and be an active defender was also impressive. He actively wants the ball and is always looking up with it at his feet. He was prone to over-thinking and got caught in possession a few times though. B+.
Jose Torres only got 45 minutes of time on the field over the four games so there is not a lot to go on. However, his short performance does still show that he has a ways to go in his development. He seemed out of his depth and nervous. His normal level of confidence was not there and it was reflected in his stray passes and indecisiveness. Hopefully he can learn from the experience and continue to develop, being 22 there is a chance for him to be a part of this team for a while. D.
Ricardo Clark continued to show why many observers of the program did not think he warranted a starting role. He is tough in midfield but too often concedes possession and is not at all confident with the ball at his feet. The US had been punished by his mistakes before and it happened again on Saturday. For someone who’s job it is to protect defenders, he must minimize mistakes and play within himself. He did not do either in his 120′ out there. F.
Maurice Edu ended up getting quality playing time throughout the tournament but showed why BB was a little hesitant with that role. He is much better than Clark with the ball but can have some issues with his distribution and giveaways on occasion. He isn’t as good defensively but this should come with age. He must continue to get better, but if he can stay healthy there is promise in the midfield partnership with Michael Bradley that should carry this team to Brazil. C+.
Steve Cherundolo has been a part of 3 World Cup teams so it was nice to see him finally get to play a significant role. Throughout the group stage, he was an offensive force for this team. Causing all sorts of problems for the opposition combining down the right hand side with Landon Donovan. One of the few players in the entire tournament who was not having issues crossing the ball as well. Besides a few lapses, he was defensively sound as well. Against Ghana he did have some trouble with Ayew in the first half and couldn’t find as much space in the offensive half. Overall he should definitely go home proud, and knowing that when his chance finally came, he was up to the task. B+.
Jay Demerit gained a lot of fans in this country with his hard nosed style of play, very reminiscent of his home town Green Bay Packers. He was very physical throughout the tournament both in the air and on his feet. He covered ground well, often making tackles that allowed everyone else to get back and defend. His main area of weakness seemed to be a willingness to back-pedal too far/not step up fast enough…the best example being his refusal to challenge Kevin Prince-Boateng earlier on his first half goal. His story is awesome though and you must appreciate the fact that he even made it to this level. B.
Carlos Bocanegra is an interesting player to evaluate b/c he occupied two different roles. On the left side, he was kind of playing as a more 3rd CB, allowing Cherundolo to get forward often. However, he did have numerous issues with speed on the outside. Speed on the outside is a popular trait and it is hard for a slower outside back to compensate for a lack of it. He did okay though and didn’t make any glaring mistakes. His move to the center of defense saw him get a lot more comfortable and he stepped up with a very good performance against Algeria. Through 90+ minutes against Ghana he was very good too, positioning himself well. Of course, this is the nature of the position, the glaring error he made was the one which lost the game. His former club teammate, Asamoah Gyan made him look like a child when he out-muscled him and put himself in position for that goal. B-.
Oguchi Onyewu was clearly not 100% for this tournament so to grade him is a little unfair. While he might have been fine physically, mentally he was clearly not up to speed. Going back to AC Milan could be an excellent move for him if he can get on the field. The club has a history of developing world class defenders, ‘Gooch developing to that level would be a massive boost for the American defense. D.
Count me among the Jonathan Bornstein doubters prior to this tournament. I actively hoped he would not get a chance to make a glaring mistake and so I was worried when he got the start vs Algeria. However, he was quite good on that day and even better against Ghana. One of the few players to show up for the first half, he was constantly making positive runs and seeking out the ball. His touch still lets him down occasionally which can be frustrating, and he is not the prettiest player out there, but Bradley’s faith in him has finally paid off. Probably the LB for the next four years. B+.
Finally we get to Tim Howard. Often a rock in the back of this team, his performance was not consistent enough throughout this tournament. He was brilliant against England, had a good 2nd half against Slovenia, and was a key contributor to that key goal against Algeria. However, the first half against Slovenia saw him get caught on an early goal and there has been a lot of talk about how he might have done better against Ghana. He was subject to two excellent finishes over the weekend but it is only because of his past performances that we think he could have done better. The US has always lived and died with brilliant goal keeping; Howard didn’t quite get to that level and now we are all reduced to rooting for other teams. B-.
Bob Bradley has had a good run as the coach of this team. He won the important Gold Cup in 2007 to earn a spot in last years Confederations Cup, which he took advantage of with a huge US victory over Spain in the semi-final. He took what was mostly a B team to the Gold Cup final last summer before getting smoked by the Mexican A side. He got out of the group stage, the main goal, in this years World Cup. USSF President Sunil Gulati seems to disagree, he apparently expected more but at least getting to that point was an important step.
He got an unprecedented number of players capped and made sure that the squad he took to South Africa was full of the best options he had. He has navigated the US through CONCACAF qualifying successfully and established them as at least equal to Mexico in this region. He has shown the ability to prepare the US to compete with and even beat a few of those teams which can truly be considered world class.
However, there is a huge gap between CONCACAF qualifying and playing England/Spain/Brazil to a tie. There is a whole level of teams that rank in the neighborhood of the US which the US continues to have trouble with. There seems to be a level of entitlement when they come up against Ghana/Slovenia/Algeria, where unless their back is against the wall they aren’t prepared to win, and this is where the real issue is.
They can beat most CONCACAF teams purely based on talent and they can tie powerful teams purely through being defensive/well organized and counter-attacking effectively; not easy to do but also not exactly revolutionary. Coming up against equally talented opposition, of which there is a massive amount, is when it comes down to tactical decisions. This is where Bob Bradley is truly lacking.
Teams at the US’s level are very similar to the US, they are not going to open themselves up to the counter attack often enough for the American’s to be able to rely on it as the only tactic. The US has looked lost at times when they aren’t asked to just defend stoutly out or attack all out. Players don’t seem comfortable having the ball in the midfield, often don’t call for the ball nor distribute effectively. There isn’t a willingness (and possibly ability) to play simple passes in small areas and patiently force the defense to move around and exploit the gaps that open. Movement is often very linear and direct, lacking any general ability to hold possession and use the space a team opens up.
Now, I am not saying that the US should go out and knock the ball around like Spain or Brazil does. American’s just cannot match the talent level of teams like that, and therefore cannot truly play a style like that. But there has to be a level of confidence in your ability to use the ball to your advantage, allowing the game to be played effectively from a draw.
If this is a result of the lack of ability from the players out there, then that is one thing. However, if that were the case then the US wouldn’t rank in the top 20 teams in the world.
IF it was up to me, Bradley would continue as the coach of this team for the time being. Next summer’s Gold Cup is an important test of where they stand moving forward. It is a CONCACAF tournament and should be his sweet spot. If he cannot win that, then I think it is time to reevaluate with 3 full years remaining until Brazil 2014.
Thought this might be fun to try…
I am going to post something more about soccer in America, but probably after the tournament…when we can see the full viewing patterns.
I also want to talk about what I see as flaws of American soccer and what is keeping us from being realistically in the hunt for a semi final berth.