According to one tabulation, if you count the “friendly” games and pre-league tournament play of our boys in red, white and blue– the summer breaks down to this:
29,936 miles (Or once around the world and across America and nearly back)
174 Hotel Meals
2 runner up trophys
a bronze ball
a golden glove
a newfound identity
some lingering questions.
I will try to answer a few of those questions, or at least identify them, and review the 62 wild days of the U.S. Men’s National Team summer as we move within the one year mark to South Africa 2010. It was indeed, an endless summer. And one formidable challenge remains– the Azteca– but more on that in a later post. In this blogger’s opinion, the U.S. and it’s head man Bob Bradley learned a great deal about the team it will send to South Africa in eleven months. As Bradley himself put it after the loss to Brazil– the Americans felt this summer, “great disappointment, but also great pride.” The experience in South Africa, well documented on this blog until the final 45 of the Brazil game, provided great hope for the future. It also showed that conceding an early second half goal against a great opponent, even with the lead after the goal, can spell doom for a team that can’t afford even a brief letdown if it hopes to defeat the absolute best in the world.
At the same time, the game showed that the U.S. is capable of playing with absolutely anyone– even a team with a 35 game unbeaten streak and a veritable “Who’s Who” of world class elite players.
Let’s look at the positives, and the negatives of the Yanks summer:
The Americans found goals in the run of play:
The Confederations Cup saw two brilliant young players shine– Charlie Davies and Jozy Altidore. These are different types of players than the Yanks of the past as well– while no one doubts Brian McBride’s work ethic and certainly he has the European club results to prove his merit– these two are more than hold the ball up, powerful with their head strikers. Both have great tactical sense (see Altidore’s brilliant ability to stay onside and his good sense to turn after Dempsey’s pass in the Spain game) and both have good foot skills, though Altidore admittedly is a bit frustrating with his first touch receiving passes at times. Both bring the “McBride” physical element (see Davies plugging away in front of the Egyptian net to score the Americans first in the huge final group stage game, and both possess what no American striker ever has– quickness and speed with the ball at their feet. Couple this with great counterattacking goals against Brazil and Egypt, and you have a team that can, at times, score breath-taking goals. More importantly, for a team TYAC Contributing writer Jon Levy often calls “Italy Lite”– they defend, counterattack, and seem comfortable enough with approach play to come from behind if they are forced to. The final point is one they have not proven, with the exception of the Honduras qualifier, but certainly things are looking up offensively for the U.S., and with Davies moving to French side Sochaux, a side particularly reknowned for developing top-level strikers, and Altidore likely to see great amounts of playing time after his impending move from Villareal to Hull City, Everton or Fulham— the results can only get better.
2nd–While it might not be sexy, the U.S. seems to have decided to play a 4-4-2 with what are functionally two holding midfielders, and it appears to work.
Altidore/Davies, or Altidore/Ching– it matters not– each combo scares opposing defenses for different reasons, and the Spain and Egypt games prove they frighten defenses beyond the shores of CONCACAF. As they continue to improve as finishers, it allows one of the holding mids to move forward, though who that will be (Mo Edu, Jermaine Jones, Jose Francisco Torres) remains to be seen. This prevents opposing teams from playing too high a line against the Yanks, and that’s a good thing. Jen Chang noted after the Spain game that one of the more interesting comments out of the Red Fury’s post-game conference was the World’s Finest Striker, Fernando Torres, noting that the U.S. was a totally different team with Davies in the game than they had been in the first two matches against the Azzurri and Brazil.
Third, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are an immense pair in the midfield, and if you think otherwise, you are quite frankly, wrong.
The beat goes on in the “Landon Donovan is a coward for shunning Europe/Lando is overrated” hater train. At this point– who cares? Let’s put the cookies on the lowest shelf– it’s like saying Tim Tebow isn’t good at quarterback. It’s just wrong and stupid to say. It’s like thinking Trigeria is a country in Africa. (There’s Nigeria, but I digress…) Donovan’s performance and leadership were consistently immense in the Confed Cup, and he was sorely missed in the Gold Cup. He has since carved up Everton’s central defense in an all-star game (a tough chore for anyone, even when Merseyside Blue has no Phil Jagielka) and has looked like he belonged on the pitch with the incredible Barca midfield. Donovan has answered the critics with his work rate (incredible), his defense (Spain game) and the fact that he is without question the counterattacking hub of the U.S. team. Stop with the questions now.
As for Deuce– there were calls for his benching (See the ESPN US SOCCER MESSAGE BOARD) after the Brazil match. The main criticism, and one even a Deuce super fan like me had– was a question as to whether, like English midfielder Steven Gerrard, Clint was a guy who could play brilliantly for club but not as well on the international level. Dempsey answered the critics with a bronze ball. While Deuce still flails around a bit defensively (at least on the U.S. team)– there is no question that his job on the U.S. is to provide creativity and a spark. He provides what the team has lacked honestly for six or seven years– the moment of brilliance. There’s no question that he is the Yank most likely to create a goal out of thin air, and his braces against the likes of Chelsea and Blankcheckster City at the club level provide proof that Deuce shows up in big games
Finally, there is good to be had in results, and a note about the U.S. back line:
The level of technical acumen and guts the Yanks needed to even take a 2-0 lead against Selecao after falling 3-0 to the same side only a week before merits great praise. Sure– they didn’t hold on. It is certainly relevant that the Americans lost the lead. However, it should also be noted that Bob Bradley is proving himself to be extremely smart tactically (BEFORE MATCHES) even if he waits a bit too long to make changes in matches. He should have not put an out-of-form Sacha Klejstan on the field for the in form Feilhaber in the second half, a
nd in fact he should have played the creative and steady on the ball Jose Francisco Torres immediately after the Fabiano goal, and his failure to do so has been rightly criticized b/c the Yanks lacked an attacking pulse in the second half.
That said, let’s not forget what the Americans did accomplish in South Africa, and to a lesser extent, what a group of guys with hardly any caps did in the Gold Cup. They both made finals. For the Confed Cup side, they found a force in the back (Oneywu) and a brave performer who is rarely ever out of position to complement him (Demerit. As noted, Charlie Davies emerged and provides the perfect complement to the powerful, fast Altidore. What’s better– they found an in-form spark on the bench in Benny Feilhaber, whose ability to immediately dissect a defense was demonstrated most aptly by his 20 minute Gold Cup cameo in which he turned a tense tie into an American victory.
Finally, and credit to Bob Bradley here– the American defense is in great shape after both tournaments. Chad Marshall played a splendid Gold Cup, was not at fault on a single of the five Mexican goals in the Gold Cup final, and will seriously challenge Danny Califf for the final defensive roster spot. Heath Pearce was so awful against Mexico that I don’t dare speak his name and I am glad, quite frankly, that he won’t enter the discussion. Mexican Edgar Castillo, initially a member of what the Mexican media dubbed “The Golden Generation” with Carlos Vela and Gio Dos Santos, has decided to play for the U.S. instead and may get a look, which would provide pace and offense to the back line. Jay DeMerit provides the pace Gooch lacks at times and is well-equipped to deal with pacy, physical strikers– which is a good thing given that the odds are high one such player will find his way into the American Group at next year’s World Cup. Jonathan Spector has displayed the class that Manchester United so valued in their youth system and that Gianfranco Zola adores at West Ham.
Spector is healthy now and his skill and positional sense are better than any other American defender not playing for AC Milan. Spector is one of two defensive players in the American World Cup mix that can deliver crosses from the right, and his cross to Dempsey in the Egypt game was nothing short of sensational. Carlos Bocanegra plays left back at Rennes and his leadership proves he understands there is more to life than being really, really, really good looking. While I’m not certain he’s the terminal answer, and while I agree that Spector is vulnerable to pace (think what an Ashley Young or Mikel Arteta would do to him, or try it in a video game)– I think we are beginning to carve out a permanent answer in the American back, and that is unquestionably a good thing. Those are all positives emerging from the past 62 days.
While I’ve a bit of the bad above, I thought I’d include more of that in the posts before the upcoming Mexico match. Substitutions and a shaky second half and an atrocious second half, even with a “B-Minus” Team, come to mind immediately, and are of concern. Those issues, more, and July and August Yankettes of the Month Lady GaGa and Minka Kelly, later.