U.S. v Jamaica:
What went wrong and what can be fixed?

Photo: Gilbert Bellamy / Reuters

One of the primary complaints about the U.S. Men’s National Team during the Bob Bradley years was the coach’s insistence on using two defensive-minded midfielders in the middle of his 4-4-2 formation. The likes of Michael Bradley, the coach’s son, Rico Clark and Maurice Edu were charged with winning balls and then just getting them away from the U.S. goal by any means possible. There was no one to play the role of a Number 10, a player to pull strings and orchestrate attacks with incisive passing, a trait the team has lacked since the retirement of Claudio Reyna.

When Jurgen Klinsman took the reins of the side, we were promised a more pro-active, possession-oriented style. No longer would the U.S. team be the hard-working, athletic sort. There would be technical ability, a free-flowing style from back to front.

Well….

Continue reading “U.S. v Jamaica:
What went wrong and what can be fixed?”

Same as the Old Boss

United States Men’s National Team Coach Bob Bradley is back. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was unable to resist Bradley’s steely blue-eyed gaze and handed him a new four-year contract that will see him helm the Nats through the next World Cup cycle. Excuse me while I vomit on my team sheet.

One can argue the pros and cons as the program goes forward: stability v. staleness, comfort v. upheaval. All mere conjecture. What we can tangibly discuss is whether Bradley’s past performance merited the extension. And while I’m willing to give him some credit, ultimately, his shortcomings should have spurred a search for new blood.

The primary criticism is that Bradley failed to integrate young talent into the side. Think about the breakout U.S. players of the last cycle. The first name that comes to mind is Charlie Davies. His injury mars memory, but recall that he was on the outside looking in for nearly the entire four years, despite having the best goal-scoring record among Americans in European leagues. It wasn’t until the Confederations Cup last summer when he got a serious look and that was only because of the Nats’ abject performance in their first two group games. Faced with almost no chance of advancement, a resigned Bradley handed Davies a start.

One sparkling performance later, Davies became an automatic selection and proved to be one of the most dynamic players on the team. It was desperation, rather than foresight, that hastened Davies’ inclusion and so it has been with a number of players. Benny Feilhaber and Jose Francisco Torres are two of the best Americans with the ball at their feet, yet they remain on the fringes of the starting lineup in favor of the likes of Ricardo Clark. Stuart Holden didn’t even get 45 minutes in South Africa and he’s expertly pulling the strings for Bolton in the center of midfield.

It’s my contention that you put your best 11 players on the field. Instead, Bradley adheres strictly to formation. There is no place for the creativity of the above-mentioned players when insisting on a 4-4-2 with twin ball-winners in the middle of the park. Faced with no Davies in South Africa, Bradley held tight to the 4-4-2 and started Robbie Findley three times (and it would have been four if he wasn’t on a yellow card suspension for Algeria). You mean to tell me that a 4-2-3-1 wasn’t a better option? That a dangerous Feilhaber or marauding Holden or clever Torres, all technically superior players, weren’t a better option on the pitch than Robbie Fucking Findley?

His lineups are baffling and including Rico Clark in the Round of 16 game against Ghana is the worst kind of example. That decision alone cost the U.S. the game. Maurice Edu had played better all tourney and was forced to enter in the 27th minute after Clark picked up a yellow (and his giveaway resulted in Ghana’s first goal). That wasted substitution might have helped in extra time, you know?

Maybe an even worse instance of Bradley not knowing his players occurred in a qualifier in Costa Rica. Saprissa Stadium is every bit as intimidating as Azteca in Mexico, the former’s unpredictable turf standing in for the latter’s smog and altitude. Such a contest cries out for experience and veteran leadership. So Bradley handed a first start to Marvell Wynne.

Marvell Wynne.

Following the 3-1 loss–and it wasn’t that close–we have not heard from Marvell again. There’s a right way to bring players along. You put them in a position to succeed. You run them out there in friendlies. You experiment with formations. Especially if you have a four-year contract. To put it succinctly, and in terms the kids can understand, this team needs more “ballers.” It doesn’t need the limited talents of Clark or Jonny Bornstein.

As I said earlier, Bradley does have some strengths. He’s a very good leader. He can claim responsibility for the team’s spirit, which is world class. He got expected results (and an unexpected one), even if it wasn’t at all times attractive or easy. The thinking among U.S. Soccer honchos is that the American soccer player is unique and therefore best understood by an American coach. Hence eight years of Bruce Arena and now eight of Bradley. This is a short-sighted view. Advancement of the program demands an emphasis on technical ability, on tactical maturity. These are the areas in which American players are lacking and a rigid insistence on “The American Way” will only serve to stunt the growth of future players.

U.S. Soccer had the chance to take the next step up. By retaining Bradley, they’ve sentenced the program to more of the same.

Recruiting

On Sunday night, I watched an MLS game, Galaxy at DC United. Part of it was a need for some Proper football to help ease my hangover from the World Cup. Part was a burgeoning desire to support the league more fully and to learn about (and see) some of the young players I’d been reading about. Specifically, for this game, 17-year-old United midfielder Andy Najar.

Najar came to the U.S. three years ago from Honduras and was spotted by a United official who brought the youngster into the club’s Academy. He’s been a regular this year and generated a lot of chatter for his fearless play and undeniable skill.

For example:

Najar impressed v. Landon Donovan and Co. as well. He scored United’s only goal in the 2-1 loss, beating USMNT striker Edson Buddle to power home a header off a free kick (Najar is generously listed at 5’7″). He showed tremendous work-rate up and down the wing and even displayed a willingness to defend, an awareness lacking in many young players.

Naturally, the big question surrounding the kid is, “Which national team will he play for?” I found myself furiously looking for clues online. I didn’t find the answer. What I did find is everyone else is wondering the same thing.

As mentioned, Najar hasn’t tipped his hand one way or the other. He remains a Honduran citizen, but has a green card in the U.S. (he’d need to secure citizenship on these shores before he’d be eligible for the Nats). His “no comment” is especially impressive considering this article, where a Honduran journo presses the issue no less than five times (my favorite being where he asks who Najar’s favorite Honduran player is and follows that up with, “Well…what if HE asked you to play for the Catrachos?”)

Najar’s case points to a trend among the powers that be at the United States Soccer Federation. With the high-profile “defections” of Guiseppe Rossi and Neven Subotic, USSF officials are going to great pains to track down and recruit young players with dual nationalities. Qualifying for next year’s U-20 World Cup gets underway shortly and the U.S. player pool has expanded world-wide.

There are a few forces at work here. One, U-20 Coach Thomas Rongen was widely blamed for Subotic’s choice to represent Serbia after the coach snubbed the defender, so it’s in his best interest–that of continued employment–to beat the bushes with new-found thoroughness. There’s the U.S. youth soccer club system, which is generally for affluent suburbans who can afford the time and travel. The system fails to identify and recruit urban talent–often the children of recent immigrants–who feel more allegiance to their parents’ homelands and have contacts with family and leagues in foreign countries where they are more likely to be given tryouts. Former U.S. captain Claudio Reyna has recently been tapped as Youth Technical Director to help expand the opportunities for these players. There has been, until recently, a reverse bias against U.S. soccer teams, long though to be short on invention and world-class talent, not to mention their low-profile in the media.

The last has surely changed after the World Cup, which should serve as a powerful marketing tool for the U.S. as a soccer nation that has arrived. On the field and in the papers and in the pubs.

Andy Najar’s decision will draw plenty of attention and his will not be the only saga played out on message boards (but hopefully not during one-hour specials on ESPN) as future National Teams take shape. One thing is for certain, for American soccer, we’re gonna need a bigger melting pot.

Postmortem

At halftime of the United States-Ghana game, I stood outside the pub with scores of others, smoking furiously and despairing at the Yanks going behind early once again. The mood remained upbeat, however, the same mood that has engulfed this team since its fight-back against Slovenia and the stunner against Algeria. At one point, I mentioned that Ghana’s goal was a soft one, a near-post finish that Tim Howard should have been better positioned for. Cue the end of “upbeat.”

Several fans savaged me for that observation. I had crossed the line. I had become critical of a team which had become darlings of the sports landscape. Never mind the truth, that the U.S was favored to get out of the group, that they found, in the knockout stages, the easiest possible route to the semifinals, that for all their heart-stopping entertainment (Will Leitch called it “terrifying fun”), they remained mistake-prone at the back and lacked a legitimate scoring threat at striker.

endYes, we all thrilled to their exploits and, at the end of the Ghana loss, it seemed cruel to point fingers. The effort did not lack. The two-week ride exhausted our bodies, our brains and our cynicism. In the pub, as the Yanks filed off the pitch in disbelief, we applauded with genuine thanks and admiration and then exited the dim bar, blinking into the stark, afternoon sun.

In the light of day, in the darkness of our frantic minds, we see the errors. The schoolboy defending on both goals, blatant cases of being a step slow in instinct, a thought slow in anticipation. It’s not as if the U.S. team’s penchant for gift-wrapping early goals was a secret. These must be addressed and game-planned on the training ground. And not fixing that issue is a primary reason they are out.

Another was the very existence of Rico Clark on the field, where he was directly responsible for two goals in just over 90 minutes played. We see a feckless Robbie Findley, all that pace useless when you run to nowhere or into the teeth of defense that is organized, physical and every bit as fast as you are. Coach Bob Bradley did not send out his best team against Ghana (Clint Dempsey up front with Jozy Altidore; Stuart Holden or Benny Feilhaber in the midfield with Maurice Edu instead of Clark), a mis-judgement compounded by Clark’s yellow card and the need to expend a precious substitution in the 27th minute of a game that would ultimately go to extra time.

And yes, Howard, the unquestioned backbone of the team. You absolutely can not let that goal in at the near post. He was one, maybe two, strides from where he should have been when that ball was struck. In the correct position, he scoops it up harmlessly at his feet. I’ve not read a single word about this anywhere. Maybe because Clark’s giveaway was so much more glaring, as was Jay DeMerit not closing down the shooter quickly enough. Regardless, a world-class goalkeeper is the one who bails out his team and Howard didn’t do enough in this crucial situation.

Maybe it’s simply because Howard is a symbol of this team, an athlete who overcame personal odds (he has Tourette’s) to succeed at the highest level in the EPL and internationally. As soccer fans in America, we ardently wish our overseas players make a mark, give respect to the game on our shores and Howard, and others, have done that. They make us proud, as if they were our own children. Sometimes, however, children are naughty. They disappoint us, let us down, and we are forced to punish them, to break out the Parent Speech and guide them. Afterward, we may feel badly, seeing their remorse, the pain they feel at being criticized by the ones who love them most.

It hurts to play the heavy, necessary though it may be. And so it is, this team that brought us so much this summer. I’m sad to see them go. But they have lessons to learn and they can not be absolved of their failings. Until they correct them.

Four years should be time enough.

Land of the Free Kick

For the last 48 hours or so, I’ve tried to craft an in-depth, meaningful essay on The Moment, on the feeling I had seeing Landon Donovan stroke it into the net, the emotion of watching the goal over and over, and perhaps most tear-jerking, the compilation of reactions from U.S. fans everywhere (the guy sliding down the stairs kills me). But I can’t. It’s beyond me in my current adrenaline-overloaded state.

cele

I wanted to talk about how the goal, and the entire U.S. World Cup run so far, has basically eliminated the stodgy bullshit from mainstream media columnists, who have never failed in the past to trot our their tired and dismissive drivel about America never being a soccer nation. Which is awesome. Because we already are a soccer nation.

I’ve long since gotten past trying to convince non-soccer fans of the intrinsic beauty of the game. I don’t care if you like it or not. I don’t need you. The U.S. team doesn’t need you. And I can blissfully skip past any ignorant comment after years of red-faced defense of this game I love. Today, I am secure in knowing those people missed out. Serves ’em right.

Ink will be spilled coast to coast about What It Means. I’m usually annoyed at that stuff, too. For every success or failure, we have to hear how it will affect soccer in the future. What other sport is faced with such repeated analysis?

Here’s what it means. It means we won a game in dramatic fashion to save our skins. It means casual sports fans have taken notice because the U.S. team’s fight and belief (and this insane ability to pull goals out of their ass in the waning minutes) is something Americans admire. They don’t need to know a set-piece from a settee to feel something for these Yanks. It means I’m going to bar tomorrow to hopefully re-live one of those scenes from the video, a bar where the proprietor suggested I get there three hours early to avoid being turned away by the fire marshal.

Ghana is a tough foe. They will be very difficult to break down defensively and they have athletes all over the park. Their ability to score goals is suspect, but their discipline and work-rate will be a huge issue for this U.S. team, as will the Yanks’ ability to recover from a physically- and emotionally-draining performance just three days earlier. The game threatens to be 0-0 for a long time, increasing the pressure with every passing minute. This game is as close to a toss-up as you will find.

But watching this U.S. team in this World Cup, would you bet against them?

U.S.A.: Group Winners

The last time I cried after a soccer game was when I was 13 and I let in a soft late goal in a 3-2 loss to our hated rivals. Until today. Until the U.S. improbably topped the group after (not improbably) leaving it late to beat Algeria 1-0 in the World Cup.

Those assholes in Red, White and Blue are taking years off my life with these cardiac event-inducing performances. Though, when Landon Donovan slotted home the loose ball in injury time, he may have saved me from getting in my car and driving off a cliff. And, this stalwart U.S. team, ultimately gave me a sporting memory I’ll never forget.

landy

Analysis, at this juncture, seems superfluous. Anyone who suffered through those 90+ scoreless minutes wouldn’t quibble with the effort, the only lingering memory beyond Donovan’s goal being the Americans inability to finish. Kudos must be handed out, however.

To Jozy Altidore, who has beeen immense the last 180 minutes, his skied sitter notwithstanding. He has learned much at Hull; his hold-up play is top-notch, his patience is vastly improved and his ability to get into dangerous spots, while not yet translating into goals in his account, has opened up lanes for others to exploit.

To Michael Bradley, who has tamed his baser instincts (chiefly, the urge to chase the ball and dive into tackles he has no hope of winning) and been a calm and persistent presence in midfield. While he is not yet a distributor who can carve up defenses, he has been far more composed on the ball and kept his giveaways to a minimum.

To Jonathan Bornstein. I had a moment of sheer panic this ayem when I saw he was in the Starting XI. He’s been abject for six months. But this was a masterstroke from Coach Bob Bradley. Algeria’s set-up and approach virtually ensured Bornstein’s defensive responsibilities would be minimal and the Chivas USA player was in to try to get forward and exploit Algeria on the flanks. It didn’t exactly happen that way, but the change did strengthen the back line, with the Bocanegra/DeMerit pairing yielding excellent results compared to the previous two games.

To Clint Dempsey’s tireless work. He could have had three (and did, in fact, have one), but he kept his head and his run helped crate the game-winner.

To Bob Bradley who has fashioned a team to be admired. Not nearly a top-20 team in terms of skill, but maybe #1 in the world in terms of Team. Captial T. Their belief and spirit is remarkable.

And to Landon Donovan, who was largely absent most of the night, but who put the g.d. ball into the g.d. net and remains one of our country’s most approachable and likeable sportsmen. As the de facto figurehead of U.S. soccer, we can wish for no finer ambassador.

The Round of 16 awaits. For now, I’ll relish the next 72 hours until I will live and die with them again. My most favorite memory, well beyond the end of this tournament, will be that I watched this game with my 8-year-old son, AJ. It’s rare he’ll sit through and entire sporting event, but not only was he riveted by the action, he was emotionally invested. He cried, too, ’round the 82nd minute when it seemed all those missed chances would be the 2010 epitaph for this U.S. team. When the ball hit the back of the net, I leaped in the air, screaming, “It’s in! It’s in!” My son jumped into my arms, we hugged, rolled on the living room floor and shared the moment.

Thank you for that, U.S.A.

U.S. Scenarios

What does the U.S. need to do to advance out of the group after today’s two contrasting draws, one thrilling, one as boring as boiled tomatoes.

First, the table:

Team W L D P GD GF GA
Slovenia 1 0 1 4 +1 3 2
United States 0 0 2 2 0 3 3
England 0 0 2 2 0 1 1
Algeria 0 1 1 1 -1 0 1

Now, the tie-breakers:

1. Head-to-head
2. Goal differential
3. Goals scored
4. Goal differential in games featuring tied teams
5. Goals scored in games featuring tied teams
6. Lots (yes, lots are drawn from a hat)

Scenarios:

If the U.S. loses to Algeria:

They will be eliminated.

If the U.S. tie Algeria:

They will advance if Slovenia defeats England.

If England and Slovenia draw, they will advance on the third tie-breaker–goals scored–if England score fewer than two more goals than the U.S. does on Wednesday. For example, if the U.S. draws 1-1, England would need to score at least 3 goals (a 3-3 draw with Slovenia? Unlikely).

They will be eliminated if England beat Slovenia.

If the U.S. wins:

They will advance regardless of the other result and can top the group if Slovenia draw or lose.

Got it? The easiest route would seem to be beating Algeria, who were decent tonight v. England. They have some skill on the ball and crazy pace at left-back, but I didn’t see anything in defense to make the U.S. tremble. Their clean sheet was more a product of England’s poor decision-making and touch, than any outstanding display. Boy, do the Three Lions have issues.

I Didn’t See That Coming

So many talking points after the U.S. came from behind to gain a point in the 2-2 draw with Slovenia:

* The U.S. continues to concede goals early, a glaring deficiency.

* Oguchi Onyewu resembled nothing more than a statue on both Slovenia goals, failing to close down Valter Birsa on the first and keeping Zlatan Ljubijankic onside for the second.

* A lackadaisical first half, seemingly played at half-speed. If you’re starting Robbie Findley and Jose Torres, isn’t the idea to use your pace advantage and move the ball quicker?

bradleyusa

FUUUUUUUUUCK! YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!

* Bob Bradley’s halftime substitutions. Outstanding. Maurice Edu provided cover in the middle for Michael Bradley (and Onyewu). He wasn’t at his best, but the change allowed the rest of the midfield to push forward. Benny Feilhaber didn’t have as much of an impact, but pushing Clint Dempsey forward gave space to Bradley and Donovan behind the strikers. And Herculez Gomez, desperately on for Onyewu, made a great clearing run on the equaliser. Not to be overlooked is that last change could not have been made without Edu’s versatility, as he effectively moved to centerback after the goal.

* The amazing comeback. Remarkable to come from two down in a Woirld Cup against a defense-first side that only conceded four goals in 10 qualifiers. At half-time, I couldn’t rationalize it.

* The disallowed goal. It’s now being reported the foul was called on the “scorer,” Edu. Bollocks. There’s no replay in the universe that supports that view, but plenty that show four U.S. players being bear-hugged and ball-tickled.

* Unbelievably (and I mean UNBELIEVABLY), the U.S. still has its own destiny in its hands. Beating Algeria by two goals or more puts them into the knockout rounds regardless of the results of the two other group games. That is eminently do-able. If they can manage to not fuck up the first 15 minutes.

I’m of many mixed emotions. A draw with Slovenia is not exactly something to crow about (though, credit to them; they were good and dangerous all day), but the manner in which it was achieved is certainly cause for celebration. The U.S. were literally eight minutes from being 95% out of the tournament. And now they control their destiny. Relief. The probable winner was taken away by a poor decision. Infuriating.

Going into the final group game, a big question will be the lineup. Will Onyewu get another chance? I think so. The only palatable option, one that doesn’t include Jonny Bornstein or Jonathan Spector, is pairing Edu in the middle with Jay DeMerit, but there’s a lack of experience and familiarity there. Findley is out on two yellows, so do you go with Edson Buddle or Gomez up top, or put Dempsey up there from the off and bring in Feilhaber or Stuart Holden? It will be an attacking formation, regardless of personnel. So will Bradley Sr. get it right?

I’m relieved to have five more days to think about it, rather than staring at elimination.

How the U.S. Can Win

We’re 48 hours away from U.S.-England and I’m about ready to shit myself. I haven’t been able to sleep in days, awakened by various nightmares of Aaron Lennon bearing down on Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson trying to track Wayne Rooney. It is my logical mind breaking through the veneer of fantasy I’ve been trying to construct.

That fantasy is that the U.S. can win this game. By any reasonable analysis, the Three Lions win by two goals. At least.

You didn’t come here for reason though, did you? Good. It’s often been said that one of the strengths of Yanks is their self-belief, even in the face of substantial odds. So let’s go ahead an perpetuate that stereotype. Here’s how the U.S. can win:

1. Pressure

It’s all on England. They are burdened by their history, agitated by their fans, preyed upon by the media. No bit of minutiae is left unexamined and the entire country has been in giddy anticipation since the Group draw was announced. Suffice to say, the pundits don’t see any cause for concern.

easy

The pressure has begun to assert itself. See Rooney’s yellow card against some South African pub team. Or Capello’s rants at both his players and photographers. Perhaps most damning, the England manager has restricted his side’s access to their notorious WAGs, allowing them only to see each other on the day after games, thus hindering a pleasurable way to release some steam (so to speak).

2. Injuries

Rio Ferdinand is out of the tournament and Gareth Barry is not available for the U.S. game, so Capello needs to find some solutions in the Engine Room. Either Ledley King or Jamie Carragher will start in defense for Ferdinand, but the picture is less clear regarding Barry’s replacement and if you’re a U.S. fan, you’re hoping that it’s Steven Gerrard.

Not because Gerrard is a downgrade, but because he’s never formed an effective partnership with Frank Lampard in the middle of the park. Gerrard is much more effective for the national team out wide or in the free position behind a lone striker (see Torres, Fernando at Liverpool). Together, Stevie and Lamps spend to much time staring at each other trying to figure out which is going forward (You? No, please be my guest. No, after you). If Capello prefers an out-of-form Michael Carrick in the destroyer role (or the inexperienced James Milner), the drop-off from Barry will be mitigated by a more fluid attack.

3. Possession

The U.S. most frequently gets into trouble when they are not able to release the pressure on their defense. Look, we all know they’ll play conservatively, will hunker down with eight men behind the ball and hope to counter. But a vital aspect of playing defensively is being able to move the ball out of the back and string a few passes together instead of just hoofing it long and re-setting.

The primary issue with this is Coach Bob Bradley’s insistence on playing two defensive-minded midfielders in the middle (he’d argue he doesn’t, but he’s wrong). Neither Michael Bradley or Rico Clark (the expected starters) are adept at selecting good outlet options (or even delivering a good pass). They will need to step up, get the ball wide to Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan to run into space, space which should be there as England sends Ashley Cole and Glen Johnson forward on the flanks. Aside from giving a breather to the back-line, a few jaunts up the pitch might limit the frequency of runs from the marauding English outside backs.

4. Moment of Brilliance

The U.S., collectively, faces a talent chasm roughly the size of the Mariana Trench. But the side does have individuals capable of world class play (see: Dempsey, Clint v. Juventus or Stoke). One unexpected strike could change the tenor of the game.

5. Calamity James

The one position where the U.S. does have an advantage is in goal. While David James has largely overcome his penchant for the odd howler, he will never truly shed the label. One gaffe can alter a team’s chances (see: Seaman, David v. Ronaldinho). I expect Bradley to insist the U.S. test James from any distance, put a few on frame early and see how he deals with the occasion, and the much-discussed new ball.

6. Underdogs

It’s a role the U.S. relishes and its World Cup history is pock-marked with the corpses of more talented teams. Portugal in ’02, Colombia in ’94, even the man-down draw with Italy four years ago. The club does not lack for fighting spirit or a confidence in each other, both of which will grow the longer the game remains in doubt. The first twenty minutes will be key as England will come out roaring and the Yanks will need some time to settle their nerves. If they can weather that storm, will the game into their kind of rhythm, avoid unnecessary cards and fouls in their defensive third, then it’s game on.

gazza

In the end, a loss by a single goal would be a good result for the U.S. in terms of getting out of the group, which is the primary goal, after all. But dang it’d be sweet to win. They’ve pulled these upsets before.

Maybe then, I could get some sleep.

The Buddle System

Are you prepared for a world where Edson Buddle is the Savior? No, me neither, but the U.S. striker’s two well-taken goals were the highlight of the Americans’ 3-1 win over Australia on Saturday.

More troubling were the continued defensive lapses–Jay DeMerit was particularly culpable–and the lingering mystery of Oguchi Onyewu’s health. Gooch only played the last half-hour, so questions must remain whether he will be able to withstand a full 90 minutes, let alone a full game in the heat of a World Cup. John Harkes and Martin Tyler, announcing the game for ESPN, repeatedly said the coaching staff decided to ease off on Gooch after riding him hard at training recently. If that is indeed the reason. Poppycock. I’m sure that’s the info the U.S. team is providing, but you don’t exhaust a guy in training when what he needs is match fitness. Unless you unintentionally exhaust him because he’s out of shape. Or because he still seems to walk/run with a discouraging limp.

I’d say the odds are high of a Clarence Goodson-DeMerit central pairing in the first game v. England, and judging by the gaps the two have left the past couple games, it’s a work in progress. Aussie striker Josh Kennedy missed two sitters, chances that Wayne Rooney will not fail to convert (though Emilie Heskey will).

buddle

As for Buddle, he and strike partner Robbie Findley were dangerous, though occasionally seemed confused about how to work together. Findley caused the turnover for the Nats’ first, Buddle lashing a shot past Mark Schwartzer after first trying to play Findley in (fortunately, that option wasn’t available, since Findley missed two open nets). Buddle’s second was also well-taken, thanks to an inch-perfect cross from Steve Cherundolo, who started and played all 90, further fueling the sense that ‘Dolo has won the right-back slot over a struggling Jonathan Spector.

As expected, Jozy Altidore was held out of the game with his injured ankle (though he participated in training today), so whether Buddle has seized a starting spot as Jozy’s partner, or remains a late-game sub, remains to be seen. Coach Bob Bradley can go a number of ways in the opener on Saturday. He’s long resisted a lone-striker set-up, but it’s my opinion a 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 (with Dempsey or Jose Torres in the withdrawn striker role) is the Americans’ best option.

The team got out of the game without any new injury worries (though Dempsey was man-handled on a few occasions and Ricardo Clark limped out late, thanks to what was later called cramps) and what should be a decent amount of confidence offensively. On the defensive side, however, we’ve six days left to worry.

Rossi Gutted; U.S. Rallies

See what happens? I bail on polite society for a four-day bender Memorial Day weekend (at least two of my internal organs threatened to shut down) and all hell breaks loose in the Soccer Universe with big names left off World Cup rosters and the U.S. regaining a little bit of its mojo in a send-off win over Turkey.

I’m a little late, but let’s try to get to some of it, starting with Guiseppe Rossi.

The Jersey-born striker was cut from the Italian side, unleashing a torrent of schadenfreude from U.S. fans, still stung by Rossi’s decision to cast his lot with the Azzurri instead of the Red, White and Blue. The thing is, such criticism is unwarranted. Rossi never flip-flopped; his intentions were always clear. He represented Italy as far back as U-16s and politely declined when then-U.S. Coach Bruce Arena invited him to camp in 2006.

rossi

But that’s besides the point. You’re either with us or against us and after Rossi scored twice against the Nats last summer in the Confederations Cup, the hatred was cemented. Hell hath no fury like a fanbase scorned. The most talented U.S.-born striker in the world is not playing this summer and Americans will say it was his hubris–that he could crack the mighty Azzurri–that doomed him to that fate.

I’m not doing any celebrating over the news. Rossi has always spoke well of the U.S. team and he took the blow with class. However, there is perhaps some good news in this for U.S. fans beside a few hours of gloating. The U.S. youth teams have several promising kids with dual nationality possibilities–the Hoyos brothers, Sebastian Lletget and Joseph Gyau to name a few–and Rossi’s situation may have some of them thinking twice about trying to represent countries with deeper and more talented player pools.

Come to America! We suck! Guaranteed playing time! Wonder if we can get Nike to create us a slogan.

*

As for those poor souls who couldn’t dream of playing for Italy and toil for the current U.S. side, they had to be breathing easier after a 2-1 comeback win against Turkey last Saturday. It wasn’t an overwhelming performance by any means. The defense, including the midfield, looked completely disorganized in the first half. Even when they had eight back, there was plenty of space for the Turks as the Yanks chased the ball–notably Michael Bradley–lunging into late challenges and hitting only air, which I suppose is fortunate, since, more often, he lunges in and hits someone’s knee and gets a red card.

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The Turkey goal came from a counter when Jonathan Spector got caught in possession just outside the opposing box and nobody filled in behind him for cover, a missed assignment from the centerbacks and central midfielders. Yes, Spector was awful for all 45 minutes he played (and his replacement, Steve Cherundolo was excellent, so maybe the right back position is up for grabs), but the blame wasn’t his in this case.

In truth, better finishing could have had the Turks up three at the half, but to the Nats’ credit, they reversed momentum and took over the game in the second frame. Jose Torres was all class after coming on as a sub, not only pulling the strings in midfield, which we know he can do, but also showing some bite defensively, a long-criticized aspect of his game. Bradley stopped spraying passes all over the pitch and used his spastic energy to much better effect. And gasp! Robbie Findley was the one to unlock the Turkish defense with an exquisite chip to Landon Donovan.

That goal (Donovan squared it across to Jozy Altidore who tucked it into a wide-open net) showed how dangerous Donovan is, how dangerous other teams believe he is. When Findley received the ball, there were two Turkish defenders in the area, but both backed off Findley when Donovan made his run, giving the Real Salt Lake man time to settle and lift a perfect ball over the top.

Clint Dempsey’s game-winner was all quick-thinking (to settle a difficult pass) and Texas muscle. Oguchi Onyewu got 45 minutes in the second half and looked far more comfortable–and effective–than last week. And those of you who had 28 seconds in the “Length of Time Jonathan Bornstein is on the Pitch Before He Gets Skinned” Pool, collect your prize at Soccerati HQ.

And now that I spent all day catching up, I’m behind again. What happened today?

U.S. Tries to Avoid Another Turkey

The U.S. faces Turkey tomorrow in Philadelphia in its penultimate friendly before the start of the World Cup. The Turks brought a strong team, one that didn’t qualify for South Africa but made the Euro 2008 semifinals, so this is a good test for the home side.

Expect to see a reasonable facsimile of the eleven that will take the pitch against England in just more than two weeks time (two weeks! Squeeeee!). A better result will be expected than the 4-2 loss to Czech Republic in a game that featured mostly back-ups (and guys who got sent home).

Barring injury, only two starting slots are up for grabs. Either Ricardo Clark or Maurice Edu will line up alongside Michael Bradley in the central midfield (I think Clark stats tomorrow after Edu went 90 minutes against the Czechs). And who among the pool of inexperienced forwards will pair with Jozy Altidore up top?

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The U.S team meets a bunch of suits at the White House.

So what will the U.S. team be looking to get out of the friendly? Cohesion, I suspect. Most national teams train together for such a short time that the learning curve is steep. In the team’s favor is their experience and familiarity with each other. We all saw how the team grew with each passing game in the Confederations Cup last summer. What will need to change is slow start the team had in that tournament.

Tactically, the game will be played without frills, partly because of that lack of training, but also to not unveil any surprises to the scouts of their World Cup opponents.

Since their runner-up performance in South Africa last summer, we haven’t seen the U.S. display that top-level form. Sure, they topped the qualifying group, but hardly looked like world-beaters in doing so. A good result against a solid Turkish side will give them the confidence they will need going forward.

And, you know, scoring a goal in the run of play would be nice, too.

Essien Out and Other Injuries

Ghana captain Michael Essien has been ruled out of the World Cup as he has not recovered from a knee injury picked up in the African Cup of Nations in January. The absence of the Chelsea midfielder, Ghana’s most accomplished player, is a huge setback to the Black Stars and they must now be considered long-shots to get out of Group D, which includes Germany, Serbia and Australia.

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In other injury news, Spain’s Fernando Torres returned to full training with the Euro 2008 champions after six weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury, a certain boost to the co-favorites (with Brazil) and likely also to those clubs hoping to pry the striker away from Anfield later this summer. Torres recently rubbished his agent’s statements alluding to the star staying with Liverpool after a distasterous campaign, raising red flags all over Merseyside, and also at my house.

Closer to home (home, in this case being Group C), England gaffer Fabio Capello is not yet ready to rule out Gareth Barry, who continues to rehab an ankle injury suffered earlier this month. Barry, Capello’s preferred defensive midfielder, had scans on the ankle this week that were inconclusive. Considering the middling performances of James Milner and Michael Carrick against Mexico, it’s clear Capello will consider Barry until the last possible moment.

U.S. players with questionable health include the (many times) aforementioned Oguchi Onyewu. Some pundits claimed he looked about 60-70% against the Czechs, but I’d say that assessment is rather optimistic. Centreback Jay DeMerit, with his new cornea, appears recovered from a strained abdominal muscle, as does captain Carlos Bocanegra, who underwent a recent hernia operation. Though U.S. fans will breathe easier regarding those diagnoses if both take the field Saturday for the U.S. team’s final stateside friendly against Turkey in Philly.

Ladies and Gentlemen…YOUR U.S. National Team

Live! From ESPN HQ and my mother’s basement! It’s the 2010 U.S. Men’s National Team World Cup Selection Show brought to you buy several large advertisers and this bacon and egg sandwich I just made for myself.

Coach Bob Bradley is–in mere moments!–handing out 23 cherished tickets to South Africa and while the kleig lights lend the occasion a bit of pomp, the truth is there should be no surprises at this juncture. The only intrigue is the final two slots. Contenders are Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez on the front line and midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Robbie Rogers. Bradley could elect to take both strikers, but it’s unlikely that both Bedoya and Rogers make the team.

Here we go:

It’s Bob Ley! The U.S. players are standing on a random field, looking uncomfortable and sweaty.

Goalkeepers- Tim Howard, Marcus Hahnemann, Brad Guzan

Given. All three of our keepers are bald or balding. I’m glad I stopped playing goalie at 13, otherwise I might not have this magnificent head of hair.

Who was the last goalkeeper with great hair? Schumacher? Higuita?

Defenders — Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, Steve Cherundolo, Jonathan Spector, Jay DeMerit, Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein

Nothing crazy here, but for the continuing scourge of Bornstein. He’s like herpes.

As mentioned in last night’s post, there’s a lot of versatility in this group should Gooch be physically unable to go (I spent a good half-hour last night trying to convince myself he was just rusty; didn’t take). Bocanegra can play in the middle or at left back. Spector has played right back from the U.S., but left back for West Ham (to middling results this past season). Maurice Edu is a capable centerback. And Jonathan Bornstein can go play in traffic.

Midfielders- Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, DaMarcus Beasley

Bedoya out. That means an extra striker. Congrats Edson Buddle!

I am Michael Bradley! I will not look at the camera!

Most agree (and by “most,” I mean the people I brow-beat into agreeing with me) the U.S. is best served by starting Dempsey up top with Altidore and sliding Torres or Feilhaber or Holden into Deuce’s outside midfield slot. It gets your best players on the field. Of course, Dempsey has been most effective as a striker when moving there later in games, as opposed to starting there. And one also assumes he’ll see less of the ball on the forward line, a fact which has, in the past, caused his focus to wander.

We’ll get a better line on Coach Bradley’s thinking after seeing the lineups for the next two friendlies.

Forwards- Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez

Wow! A stunner! Ching out and Robbie Findley in. I’m officially speechless. Taking four forwards likely means Dempsey in the midfield. To start.

Alright boys. Get to work.