Neil W. Blackmon
The following is what I wrote in the aftermath of the United States’ 5-1 victory over Scotland.
Jacksonville, FL —
The U.S. Men’s National team began what Jurgen Klinsmann dubbed a “five game tournament” Saturday night in Jacksonville, deploying a (somewhat) experimental formation and a lineup of around 7 bona fide “starting 11” regulars, led by the talismanic Landon Donovan. One fascinating factoid: at least eight, yes– eight– of the ten US field players chosen to start Saturday night have been utilized as a central midfielder for either club or country at some point in their careers. Needless to say– Klinsmann’s “proactive, not reactive” system looked a great deal different Saturday evening.
Scotland began the evening similarly situated, although the few traditional starters they were lacking were more integral pieces: Darren Fletcher and James Morrison among the most visibly absent. Still, this was a Scotland side that had had a decent rash of results recently, and it was well-represented by a starting eleven featuring exciting young midfield engine Barry Bannan and mainstay captain-for-evening Kenny Miller. The match also marked the eleventh match under new boss Klinsmann where Clint Dempsey (groin) and Landon Donovan did not feature in the same lineup. That streak may end Wednesday night against Brazil, but it was certainly the source of great frustration among the U.S. faithful in the match’s build-up.
In the end, the United States gave a dominating performance that left me with three ovearching takeaways:
First, this was the most outstanding, dominant performance by an American midfield in a long while (a decade?):
The U.S. brought great pressure from the outset, and most of it funneled through a four-man group of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in the central midfield, aided by Jose Torres and Landon Donovan in a 4-3-3/4-3-2-1. Terrence Boyd made his first start for the Americans up front (more on him in a bit), and Maurice Edu capped a midfield that at first glance looked too defensive-minded by playing what Klinsmann called after the match a “traditional, clean up 6”. Edu’s performance itself was quiet- but that’s a good thing when slotted in that type of position, and the fact that Klinsmann singled him out early in his postgame remarks indicates, at least to me, that his hold on a starting job is strong. Klinsmann noted: “Having Maurice back there to lie deep, shield and clean things up” really allows “Michael and Jermaine loose to get forward and support the attack”, and that was certainly the case early and often Saturday evening.
The Americans first goal was a textbook example. Jose Torres, who wrote a good first chapter to answer questions about his work rate Saturday evening, pressured the ball, forced a turnover and deftly touched off to Michael Bradley. For the first of many times on Saturday evening, Bradley showed exactly what Serie A has meant to his decisiveness in the passing game, as he quickly delivered the ball to Jermaine Jones. Jones patiently waited on an encroaching Scottish wall of defenders and then found Landon Donovan running diagonally into the center of the box. Donovan received the ball, turned sharply, fired poorly at Allan McGregor, who stoned him, but then stuck with it and fired a Slovenia-esque roofer into the net. Four minutes in, and the U.S. held a lead.
The hard work leading to the opener set the tone. On the second goal, which came seven minutes later, Jose Torres again began a dynamic exchange with a clever ball to Jermaine Jones, who, rather than engage two defenders calmly slid the ball towards a late-running MB 90. Bradley loves those late runs and has always had the ability to fire a howitzer, and he unleashed, scoring what was in my view the finest American goal from distance since (at least) Ricardo Clark found the net in qualifying at Trinidad and Tobago in 2009.
The Americans lulled a bit after thirty minutes, allowing Scotland to organize itself and swallow up most of the possession, but the Americans renewed their assault on the Scottish center early and often in the second half, and they were rewarded fifteen minutes into the second 45 when Landon Donovan connected on his second goal of the evening. Once again, MB 90 and Jermaine Jones were at the center of things, using terrific combination play to generate space which Donovan utilized centrally, hammering a Jones lay off past McGregor to put the game all but out of reach.
Bradley finished, as Carlos Bocanegra told us after the game, a “man of the match on most nights” performance five minutes later. After Jose Torres pressured the Scottish backline into yet another giveaway, Bradley collected his pass and and played the ball into a solitary Landon Donovan who coolly finished his hat-trick. The scoring was finished five minutes after that when Landon Donovan rewarded the other central creator by playing a pinpoint cross from width to his head, which Jones finished well for his second goal in the red, white and blue. All in all, it was a night to remember for the American midfield– and given that it occurred on a night where Clint Dempsey sat in the skybox, still nursing a groin injury, it was a nice, confident reminder to the American coaches and faithful that all the work spent developing central midfielders in this country may finally be paying off. One final thought on this group before moving on, because it bears repeating, and I’ve only really seen it spelled out this way by Jay Bell over at The Shin Guardian: It is no coincidence MB 90 is drawing interest from Italian super clubs. His improvement: calmness on the ball, quick, decisive, and yes, more accurate passing– all of these aspects of his game, which weren’t below-average to begin with– are night and day better after his full year with Chievo Verona. And for a country that has waited years to find a field general capable of guiding them– Saturday night’s match, on the sixth anniversary of his first cap as a senior team player, might have been a great beginning for Michael Bradley, mediocre opponent or no.
Second, Terrence Boyd gave a strong performance, and if timetables are your thing– the U.S. could have…gasp…options at striker in 2014:
Terrence Boyd looked like a deer in the headlights in his first cap with the Senior team, and after the disappointment of Nashville and Olympic qualifying, there were certainly some who wondered if the young and doubtlessly promising Dortmund forward would be in over his head with the Senior team for awhile. Those concerns were, if only for one evening, torn forcefully asunder and replaced by… hope for 2012 depth. With Jozy Altidore coming off a banner year at AZ Alkmaar, an enormous project within a qualifying tournament project for the Americans is finding some manner of depth at the forward position. Enter Terrence Boyd Saturday evening. Boyd’s work-rate was outstanding, and although he was not directly involved in any of the American goals, he demonstrated that he can play senior team international football as a target man and that he was not at all afraid of forcing the issue, taking on defenders, or tracking back to find the game. Like Maurice Edu, Boyd was one of those singled out by Klinsmann in the aftermath of the match:
“Well, I think Terrence is an obvious talent, and one we are trying to develop. And he’s a guy who should be in London 2012 this summer, and he’s not, and that’s terrible. It makes it more difficult for Brek Shea, Joe Gyau, Joe Corona and Terrence Boyd’s of the world to develop, so we have to bring him along, and help them whenever we can, and give them space to show what they can do. I think Terrence is, his work rate was outstanding and his hunger for finishing off chances is tremendous. It’s something we love to see. And we will keep working.”
The (lengthy) quote speaks to two issues: first– Klinsmann acknowledges overtly that depth at forward is a priority (no surprises there). Second, Klinsmann tacitly acknowledges that Caleb Porter’s Olympic failure was unacceptable, and that there were men in the back of the room listening who agreed with him, and were very upset about the developmental opportunity costs forfeited by the US failure to qualify.
Finally, Landon Donovan is sometimes so refreshingly honest that we overreact, parse and slice everything he says. And he wants you to know that he cares. A great deal.
A second hat trick in the state of Florida for Landon Donovan in a US shirt and there were countless articles and notes made suggesting that a night in the U.S. shirt was “just what he needed.” I’m not sure I view it that way, and if you do, that’s fine. What I will suggest is that Landon Donovan has, since the disappointments of 2006 in Germany, never hesitated to tell the truth or speak his mind when asked a question. And in this age of social media and instant quote commodification– that’s a recipe for overreaction, by media and fan types alike. Couple those comments with the Galaxy’s miserable start and it was the perfect storm.
So was it great to see Landon Donovan play like the damn fine soccer player that he is Saturday evening? Of course it was. Is it okay that he is questioning his “hunger” level? I think that’s okay too. There certainly may be a difference between inner hunger and want to– and Landon Donovan has certainly not displayed in the past year any signs on the field of losing his desire to win. Donovan benefited immensely from the splendid play of those around him, but when he got his chances, he took them ever so well. And after the game, he was quick to clear up any misconceptions or beliefs that his own lack of “hunger” means he somehow “doesn’t care”, or won’t give his all for country. “I don’t want to be mistaken for not caring– I care,” Donovan told reporters. “The goals fell to me, but don’t forget a lot of people did a lot of good things to make that happen. It was one of those nights.” Donovan looked, at the press conference, very much like a man content with where he was, pleased to have a bit of help after being the lone or one of the lone creative, attacking forces on this side for much of a decade. And at least in the candy-cane jersey, that should be enough for all of us.
– The U.S. now leads 8-1 over European opponents in Jacksonville, and if Landon Donovan has his way, they’ll be back soon. “I don’t make these decisions, but there’s a man in back who does, and I think we’ll be back here soon,” Donovan told us after the match. “The crowd was just awesome, tremendous support.”
– The Scottish anthem suffered from what one can only imagine is a serious shortage of talented local bagpipe talent in North Florida, but it wasn’t nearly as poor as the national anthem. The poor girl got off key and never recovered. It’s a tough song to sing, but after that performance, I hope we never hear people complain about the Timber Army or any fans supporters group singing the anthem instead of hired talent again…
– Hurricane Beryl missed the match by one night– and as it turned out, despite the heat, it was a glorious night for soccer in Jacksonville. The crowd of 44,000 plus was a record for a friendly match in the southeastern United States. That includes home matches in Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami and Tampa, among other cities.
No player ratings for this match. If you really, really haven’t seen any of these yet, and would like to give a few a look– here are some links to some good ones:
Jeff Carlisle over at ESPN always does a nice job…
John Godfrey with the New York Times…
FINALLY, on a personal note, being in the press box and back covering the US National teams and big time football Saturday night was a great deal of fun and a great moment for me. It has been a tremendous year– and it is only the End of May/Beginning of June!!!– I got married to my best friend, and we had a beautiful daughter. I thank all of y’all who came back to the site to read this. I can’t wait to keep providing you with more coverage. God Bless.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of the Yanks Are Coming. He has been writing about the US Men’s National Team since Germany 2006, has appeared as a guest on Sirius XM and the Sports Illustrated Soccer Podcast, and also writes for The Shin Guardian. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.