Several things to address, and apparently, autographs for the boys to sign in Pretoria before the Yanks take the pitch tomorrow in the first match of the long-awaited Confederations Cup, which the U.S. team admittedly concedes is the last real shot at top-flight world competition before next year’s World Cup. The fact that it gives the Yanks a chance to get acclimated to the weather, stadiums, new pitches, and travel schedule in South Africa a year before the tournament makes it an extra-special opportunity. The Yanks play Italy tomorrow at 2:25 pm (ESPN), in what will be yet another chance to prove the goalless efforts last year against Spain, England and Argentina aren’t a signal that the U.S. can’t take their game to the next level against the world’s finest sides. The following two games, against Brazil, and then the very underrated two-time African champions Egypt, afford the Americans a tour-de-force of contrasting football styles, from the cynical minded defensive World Champions to the freewheeling Brazillians to the strong and physical Pharaohs. At worst, the tournament is a chance to expose and correct what the American weaknesses are before it is too late– at best, the tournament provides another chance, given injuries, to answer lingering questions in the midfield and at left back. Bornstein, whose pace allows him to keep up with even the world’s fleetest attacking midfielders (as he did successfully for 65 minutes against Leo Messi in the Copa in 2007), has an especially great opportunity to put an iron grip on the left back spot, and given Heath Pearce’s inactivity at the club level and DeMarcus Beasley’s clueless performance in the position at the Saprissa– this is the question the Yanks will hope to answer in the affirmative, beginning tomorrow.
More on the Confederations Cup later– but first– let’s address the happenings of the last week, starting with:
The Bad: The early goal continues a disturbing trend. The good news was that it wasn’t necessarily a backline breakdown, though Carlos Bocanegra could have done a bit better and closed out a bit faster to prevent the strike. The bad news again is that a goal was scored, and it was a turnover by one of the Yanks best players. Perhaps Clint Dempsey was trying to do too much, which is entirely conceivable given the lack of attacking options that have plagued the Americans throughout qualifying. That said– a twirl and backpass, which he is completely capable of (as the 2nd American goal demonstrated)— was not necessary at the junction of the game. Demps had an outlet in Mastroeni just yards away, and his turnover put the Americans in a hole that they will have trouble getting out of against a better team on a neutral field.
The Good: Jon Spector, Ricardo Clark, and Benny Feilhaber gave inspiring performances. Spector has earned high praise from his manager Gianfranco Zola in East London this past year, and the former Man U system product gave the Yanks an EPL right side that provided greatly needed ball control and attacking depth throughout the evening. Spector has a great chance to make a big name for himself this summer, and quite frankly, his progress is necessary for a successful 2010 campaign.
Ricardo Clark was the man of the match. He isn’t sexy and will never, ever be confused with an elite attacking mid. But he does play with poise, has pace, is safe and consistent with his tackling, and is a fine passer. Clark’s runs in the first half and early second, one of which certainly deserved a penalty, turned the game around for the Americans. The criticism here is why it took so long to bring Clark into the fold to begin with, and the further question of what exactly Mastroeni is doing on the side at all. Clark’s dynamic play with fellow mid Stu Holden has turned the Houston Dynamo around in MLS, and Ricardo’s pace and poise are a lower risk-at worst same reward version of what an aging Pablo brings to the table. Pablo has done wonderful things for his country, but it is time for him to step aside. While Ridge Mahoney is correct to question whether or not MLS is a quality enough league to help the Americans in qualifying– I believe it is, with the caveat that aging MLS mids can’t help.
Finally, Benny Feilhaber provided the long absent attacking and creative spark off the bench in the second half. His build up play was instrumental in two great American chances, and Clint Dempsey missed an absolute sitter created by Feilhaber early in the second half. We’ll see if Feilhaber, who is finally back on the field for his club side, can continue to develop this summer. An attacking mid presence, whether it be Benny, Sacha, Freddy Adu or Jose Torres, is essential for the Yanks to move beyond the group stages.
Finally, I enjoyed the HEART showed by the Yanks, whose pure joy in celebrating the Bocanegra winner demonstrated what the win meant to them. It makes the remainder of qualifying far less stressful, and as Luis Bueno notes, it affords the Yanks the rare and wonderful opportunity to drive a stake in the heart of Mexico’s qualifying hopes, which are still on life support after a 2-1 win over T and T at the Azteca Wednesday, which I quite honestly felt was the most entertaining soccer game in CONCACAF qualifying.
B. Jermaine Jones– Apparently the Schalke mid, who is the son of an American serviceman– has left the German federation and will seek the chance to play for the U.S. This could be good news for an American team, again– desperate for attacking help in the midfield.
C. ITALY Injuries: I’ll put up a potential American lineup shortly, but note quickly that the Azzurri have some issues in the back, for once. Nicola Legrottaglie is out, and given that he is the backup to injured captain Fabio Cannavaro out, it is likely Alessandro Gamberini will earn the start. Gamberini is certainly capable, but the really good news here is that Fabio’s absence generates a likely scenario where walking defensive liability (NFL folks should conjure up images of a “swinging gate” left tackle) Liverpool’s Andrea Dossena could see some action. Dossena helped Everton reach the FA CUP Final by ballerina dancing around Dan Gosling before the 18 year old knocked the Reds out of the tournament this year. Liverpool hasn’t forgotten that loss in the “Friendly Darby” and Dossena recently mentioned that he would “run to Juve” if the Old Lady was interested in buying him. Not to worry, Dossena, I know at least one Liverpool fan who will happily drive you to Turin, free of charge. Just stop and play photo hunt with him occasionally.
Of course– it isn’t all sunshine. Lippi has hinted that he will start Bruce Arena’s favorite mistake– Giuseppe “the U.S. shouldn’t chase around 18-year-old players who can’t get games for their club team and tell me they want to play for Italy” Rossi. The young starlet is certain to celebrate in grand fashion if he scores against hte U.S.A. Maybe Rossi will be too distracted by the rumored transfer to the Old Lady and a pairing with Diego…then again… maybe he’ll celebrate by ripping off his jersey and revealing a “Little Pink Houses” John Cougar Mellencamp tour shirt. Eek.