June 2010

Out Of Miracles, Opportunity Lost

I can’t tell you what it really is,

I can only tell you what it feels like,

And right now it’s a steel knife to my windpipe…

— Eminem  

Marshall Mathers describes the pain of this one pretty accurately. It hurt. It still hurts. And to a large extent, it is hard to believe the United States won’t take the field in South Africa again Friday afternoon. Certainly that is the feeling among the many new fans I’ve talked to—a feeling of disbelief and an aching sadness. That’s how captivated the country was—for the first time in our brief footballing history, run of the mill folks are truly sad there won’t be another US Soccer game to watch. Even a quarterfinal defeat would have been more bearable, they’ve told me. Just one more game—an early jumpstart to a Fourth of July weekend. All we, the long devoted, can tell them beyond the obvious is to stay with us. Hang around for the Gold Cup. We can’t tell them to tune in for the Copa America next summer, either. The U.S. sent an experimental side in 2007 and will not be invited as punishment for taking that tournament lightly (regardless of the value of sending that team, which was arguably great). Japan has been invited in our place, along with CONCACAF qualifying runner-up Mexico. We can’t tell them about qualifying. It is two long years away. We’re left, like they are, with only one feeling. Abject disappointment.  

Today, with the country finally coming to terms with the fact that the Americans memorable but all-too-short World Cup run ended in a 2-1 defeat to Ghana in Rustenburg Saturday evening, I offer three final thoughts about that match, which really is the first Yanks Are Coming piece with an eye towards the future of this blog and more importantly, towards Brazil 2014.  

The United States let what was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip away.

With the eyes of a nation fully fixated on the U.S. Men’s National Team, Bob Bradley’s men simply ran out of miracles. Conceding in the 93rd minute, the Americans yet again still had time to come back. A date with Uruguay in Friday’s quarterfinal was still in reach and Al Michaels was still on speed dial to call the semis. Bars and living room parties across America were well-aware there was time, and the spirit and atmosphere of each of those places, while dimmer, was nonetheless still a still-photo of optimism. And yet, there was a sense the Americans were out of miracles. They looked tired and a step slower with each fifty-fifty ball and each pressing minute. They looked desperate but too exhausted to organize and do anything about it. Out of substitutions, the few shots of the bench audiences from Sacramento to South Beach received showed more glances of dejection rather than resolve. Yes, this time there would be no glorious equalizer, no redemptive penalty-kick shootout that only minutes earlier you couldn’t tell an American fan or sportswriter the USA would fail to win. The USA were out of miracles, I told a friend. A golden quadrant of a draw where the U.S. were the highest ranked side, surely capable of victory twice, was thirty minutes from being squandered. This time elimination, not an equalizer, was simply a matter of time. What was possibly a once-a-lifetime opportunity for US Soccer to reach a World Cup semifinal and then what, with the minimal possible level of resistance, was lost and gone forever.  

As American fans scurried out of bars, dejected and in disbelief, the job of any man or woman who has devoted this World Cup cycle (and beyond in other cases) to writing about this team was forced to put away the grief and misery and answer a terrifyingly painful question. Why? 

For the first time in this World Cup, Bob Bradley made errors in his lineup choices and the attendant tactical issues they created meant the U.S. paid the ultimate price.

It starts where the answer to World Cup exits starts in any language, from English to Spanish to Swahili—at the top—in this instance, with Bob Bradley. He made two lineup choices that resulted in tactical deficiencies that were exploited by his counterpart, Ghanian manager Milovan Rajevac. Both choices were again corrected by Bradley, who continued to impress with his ability to read a game and make immediate, decisive decisions in response to typical match ebb-and-flow—but in each particular instance, the damage was done before the reaction. Here are two devastating lineup decisions that directly led to the United States’ elimination. 

First, the choice to start Ricardo Clark over Maurice Edu in the center of the midfield. The logic of the decision was two-fold. Bradley thought Clark’s fresh legs would be useful tracking back against the sneaky-quick midfield pairing of Anthony Annan and Kevin Prince-Boateng. He also felt Clark, a tenacious fifty-fifty ball-winner, would give the US teeth to at least negate any offensive presence the similarly matched Ghanian midfield may offer. The strategy worked after the early goal against England, against the far more reputable Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Saturday, it failed. Part of that was a tactical change on Ghana’s part. Every notable scouting report and surely any game film of Ghana in the tournament showed Annan operating deep, a 4-5-1 at the very least that sometimes operated like a 5-4-1. Instead, Rajevac substituted Samuel Inkoom for Prince Tagoe and with Inkoom offering additional cover on the flank to contest both distribution to Donovan and his ability to create, the Ghanaian mids were better able to move forward. This was much needed support for striker Asamoah Gyan, who, just five minutes in, was able to benefit from a position of less isolation when Prince-Boateng, playing higher in the midfield than he had defensively throughout the tournament, stole the ball from a lazy and indecisive Ricardo Clark and slotted the ball home after running nearly unmarked for fifteen yards.  

The insertion of Inkoom also allowed more interior help, meaning Altidore, who was working hard, was nonetheless outnumbered in the American attack and Ghana was able to swiftly counter with midfielders already placed further up the field. This advantage was magnified by the usually cautious Ghanaian left back Hans Serpei moving forward more freely and linking up with the pacy Marseille man Dede Ayew early and often. As Jonathan Wilson notes here, while this didn’t necessarily result in a large number of chances for the Black Stars, it did result in the Americans chasing the game and becoming tired more quickly than in the previous three games where they had trailed early, only to steady themselves immediately. 

The second large tactical error was the choice to start Robbie Findley, who after flashes of excellence on home soil against Turkey three weeks ago and a better-than-most run of play against Australia in the final friendly, returned to the glorious-runs-to-nowhere MLS platoon starter we all feared he may be. In Bradley’s defense, there is no question that the Charlie Davies injury forced his hand in the selection of Findley. Bradley knew the American counterattack was far more potent with a pace player to pair with Altidore, and he took a chance that Findley would shine on the largest stage because he felt it was a better risk than play-it-safe but disrupt our ability to rapidly counter choice Brian Ching. In the end, however, Findley simply wasn’t good enough on this level and his tepid finish on Dempsey’s exquisite pass in the 35th minute was a metaphor for his entire tournament. Simply put, Findley was overwhelmed worse than the prior two matches by the additional coverage Ghana’s tactics provided, and the U.S. lacked any balance or offensive ideas in the first 45. Again, I stress this because it is a big difference from the other times the U.S. trailed, where they were able to quickly steady themselves and threaten the opposing goal mouth nearly immediately. Saturday, it was not until Bradley made adjustments that the game began to turn in the Americans favor. 

What were those adjustments and why did they work? How did they ultimately hurt? First, Bradley was brave enough to admit his mistake 31 minutes into the game when he replaced Clark with Maurice Edu. I’m certain if he had it do over he’d have started Edu, who helped the United States better restrict Ghana’s passing lanes and, by providing a bit more of a threat getting forward, allowed Landon Donovan to tuck inward and support the American center. This tactical move directly resulted in the build-up that led to Findley’s above-mentioned chance on the right, and was the first sign the momentum was shifting. Edu won several second chance balls on the night and his energy level actually outpaced even Michael Bradley late, a sure sign that he was fresh enough to start and a painful reminder that Bradley’s error had been a rather foolish one, based on the past and not the last week of matches. 

Bradley’s second adjustment was to bring Feilhaber on for Findley at halftime. Why Feilhaber didn’t start is a large mystery, given his run of form this tournament and given his ability to help the Americans build possession from the back through the center. It can’t be emphasized enough how effective the American attack is when it is less predictable, and this is exactly what Feilhaber offers the U.S. His choices on when to move centrally from his spot on the left were correct all evening, and his near-miss minutes after halftime was a warning salvo that the Yanks were ready to turn the tide of the game. His placement on the left and tidiness on the ball had a domino-effect on the American offense, and they resulted in the equalizer seventeen minutes into the second half when Clint Dempsey, now playing up top with Jozy Altidore and giving the Ghana center all it could handle, was fouled in the box by Jonathan Mensah, who looked mostly helpless marking Dempsey in the second half.  The second goal, ironically, came about to some extent due to the tactical changes Ghana was forced to make to account for Dempsey, as Ghana reverted to group play form after the American equalizer. Again, Annan dropped very deep and the Black Stars were content to allow the Yanks to have the lion’s share of possession. Ayew came back to help when Cherundolo made forays ahead to attack, and it was from a relative deep position where he lofted his close-your-eyes –and-hope long ball that Gyan took down and brilliantly struck past Howard.  

It was after the second Ghana goal, fittingly, that Bradley’s tactical errors finally outweighed his adjustments. Having brought on Herculez Gomez for an exhausted Altidore at the end of full time, his choice to start Clark meant he was without a final substitution. The Americans were left to chase a goal with an ill-suited for long-ball football Herculez Gomez and a tired, battling but “I’ve been on the field the whole tournament” Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. Alas, it was too much for even the Americans to overcome, and a team that had become a bright ray of sunshine for a country still battling a seemingly interminable recession and the worst environmental disaster in its history was left without the magical distraction they had come to embrace as a country only a few days earlier. 

Where do we go now? Where do we go? Where do we go now? Where do we go?

Sorry for the weak Guns and Roses reference but it is a fair question. We’ll cover this in great detail in the weeks to come at Yanks Are Coming. Indeed, as I write, word is out that US Soccer Federation President Suni Gulati will meet with Bob Bradley in two weeks to make a decision about his and the nation’s soccer future. There are arguments on both sides.  

One side says that Bob Bradley has improved the developmental structure in this country ten-fold since taking over. Claudio Reyna as head of technical development was a huge administrative upgrade and one that was absolutely necessary. Bradley made most the right moves and took the U.S. to knockout stages in the two largest international competitions. He is probably the best option if the Americans stick with a domestically-born manager. Most of these arguments are true, and the last one, regardless of what advocates say about Houston Dynamo head man Dominic Kinnear, is at least true in this sense: no other American-born coach would be an upgrade. That seems to be the silver bullet of the pro-Bradley camp: what’s your alternative? Why is it better? 

The other side of the argument says this: we need a foreign coach to take this side to the next level. Administrative upgrades are one thing but Reyna is independent of Bradley as technical director. A foreign coach can help with other developmental upgrades. He’ll also bring a level of success on the global stage that commands respect immediately from his players. Plus, we’ve seen what happens when you give a manager a second World Cup cycle. Domenech and France? Embarrassing. Decimated. Lippi and Italy? Sent home. Bruce Arena’s failures in 2006 make this argument seem to ring the bell for change even louder.  

I take less of the last argument into account than most. I’m aware of it, but the bottom line is that the U.S. team in 06 simply wasn’t good enough to escape its group, despite drawing the World Champion on their best day. Second cycles aren’t always abject failures, and the other arguments just seem more compelling. In the end, I think the Americans will, and probably should, make a change. But it needs to be decisive and it needs to be an upgrade. Hard as many infatuated Yanks fans will find this pill to swallow, I’m not sure Jurgen Klinsmann is the answer. We’ll see though, and we’d love your input as we all try to put a dark Saturday in our rearview.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Amy

    Excellent point about Bradley being out of subs– really thought Buddle could have helped us after the second Ghana goal.

    As a whole, it is an awful tough pill to swallow b/c Ghana is so imminently beatable. I’d venture to say as bad as England looked against Germany– they’d have beaten Ghana, and probably Uruguay too…that’s the sad thing. Margin for US error is so small.