By Neil W. Blackmon
The bad news: the United States lost 4-0 on home soil today to the European and World Champions and for very little of the ninety minute match did the Yanks look even remotely like they belonged on the field with what was essentially a B-PLUS version of La Furia Roja. The good news: what’s done is done, and the meaningful games (hard to swallow, I know, but true) begin Tuesday at Ford Field in Detroit, where the USMNT kicks off its 2011 Gold Cup campaign against our friendly neighbors to the north. The silver lining in the bad news? Easy. Today’s match played like two matches- one in the first half, which saw the Yanks demolished 3-0, and one in the second half, where yes, Spain took their foot off the gas pedal a little bit but the US also showed a bit of fight and grit, losing 1-0. As such, while the final score reads Champs 4, Yanks Zip, it seems more fair to divvy out player ratings based on which half the player participated in, with the exception of the four brave souls who played ninety minutes. Here are three final thoughts on today’s convincing defeat, and then player ratings, as always.
First and foremost- as our Jon Levy wrote in his preview piece, this game shouldn’t have been scheduled. Grant Wahl is among other writers echoing that sentiment here, but with a disclaimer of course, it bears repeating. First the disclaimer: it isn’t that we at TYAC oppose scheduling high quality opponents. On the contrary, we’ve repeatedly praised Bob Bradley and the USSF for doing so. But there is a time and place for everything under the sun, or so the Good Book or The Byrds remind us. Three days before a critical international tournament? That’s not a good time nor place to slot in a friendly against the World Champions. Sure—it is a great marketing ploy for US Soccer and a great chance to make money. That’s obvious, and today’s crowd at Tom Brady’s house was indeed the largest crowd ever to watch a soccer game in New England. And yes, there is at least a viable argument that this is the type of high-profile game, played on a weekend in front of a national audience, that can rile up soccer passions right before the USMNT takes the field this summer. Maybe that’s true—but those justifications just aren’t enough. The problem at least in this particular context, at this particular time— is the only true function this game served was a money making function.
The primary reason to play high quality opponents is to test yourself against the best teams and get a gauge of exactly where you stand. The gauge is only fair if it occurs with your best matched against their best (or as close as possible to their best). The US has played friendlies in the past year that have met this high standard: Argentina this spring; the Netherlands, Turkey, Australia and the Czech Republic last year before the World Cup. The common thread in those matches? Each side played most of their first team, and the underdog (in nearly all of those matches, that was the United States), was able to field its top team with an eye on fighting its rear off to earn a result. Today’s match, on the contrary, featured an American team with one foot already firmly in Detroit and another, while seemingly in Boston, not at all suited to fight and seek out a result.
This matters, because as Wahl pointed out, the mainstream perception of the USMNT is still relevant in this country, and a poor result against an elite opponent negatively affects that perception. Maybe you don’t care about the mainstream perception of the team stateside? If so, good for you, but I assure you it does matter and a loss like this does a disservice to the growth of the game stateside and to the momentum the game is building with mainstream television and media. This should have been painfully evident when one saw the wave of US substitutions for the second half: in an effort to stop the profuse bleeding, Bob Bradley played five players an entire half that he most assuredly would rather have rested a bit longer given the three matches in ten day gauntlet the team now faces. The ploy worked, with some help from Spain, but the bottom line is three days before a critical tournament is no time to be testing your mettle against the best side in the world. The US talent pool and depth has come a long way—but they aren’t ready for that yet—and to be honest, not many countries are. This isn’t to suggest that the Yanks should play New Zealand like Mexico did—that’s not a fair tune-up either: but there has to be a happy medium and the USSF would do better next time to find and schedule it.
Second, it was one half against the best team in the world, but those who clamored for a Jones-Edu midfield combination in the month or two leading up to the tournament, including some of your very own Yanks Are Coming writers, got just what they wanted from Bob Bradley today, and the result was a stern warning. Our friends at The Shin Guardian pointed out (only half-joking, we think) that the best US player in the first half was certainly the much-maligned MB 90, who sat and watched as both Jones and Edu played with little intention to track back and defend, with sloppy passing in rare moments when the US actually possessed the ball, and worst and most unforgiveable, with seemingly little passion.
Jones was shaky early and he was caught ball-watching too often. He had a nice sequence in the first half around the 20th minute where you thought he was turning things around, and where you could see his upside. The truth is he is one of the only US midfielders capable of consistently winning a fifty-fifty ball, even against elite opposition, and using that “win” to aid attack. This is precisely what occurred in the 20th minute, where after Jones made a bit of a shaky pass, he immediately won the ball back from Spanish midfielder and humanitarian champ Sergio Busquets. This led to a string of complted passes and a good shape to a potential American attack, but eventually build-up was squandered by a clueless pass off the right foot of Oguchi Onyewu. Even with that nice moment, Jones simply wasn’t that good, and worst of all, he was poor and unwilling to track back on both the second and third American goals.
Speaking of unwilling to track back on the second and third goals, Jones’ first half partner Maurice Edu played another lackluster game in an American shirt. Most egregious was his complete lack of ball pressure in the midfield just before Negredo scored in the 32nd minute. Any amount of ball pressure probably makes that pass off just enough to allow Eric Lichaj, who wasn’t horribly out of position, to recover—but Edu simply watched, appearing to be standing in cement. This happened too often today: Edu looked slow and out-of-sync, and worst of all, he looked uncharacteristically disinterested. Maurice Edu is a nice defensive midfielder—but he just isn’t good enough to turn the “care button” off ever, let alone against Spain. His passion for the game and work rate are why Walter Smith loves him so much- we saw none of that today, save two nice runs in the first half where Edu showed flashes of an offensive skillset before spoiling the runs with dreadful passes. The final verdict, then? Edu-Jones isn’t the right starting pair, and we knew that before MB 90 came on and settled the US midfield dramatically in the second half. Again, it was one match against the best team in the world, so I am not certain that neither of these gentlemen should start, but it is safe to argue that only one of them should: MB 90 is safe again, and that’s an okay thing.
Finally, be proud of Clint Dempsey. He’s world class. And so is Steve Cherundolo, who may be the most underappreciated American soccer player ever. Oh, and take a deep breath, folks: the real challenge begins Tuesday and the stated goal of the summer- winning the Gold Cup—remains right in front of this team.
Dempsey came on at the half and immediately provided an offensive spark to a Yanks team that didn’t threaten the Spanish goal mouth in the first half. Dempsey made some creative runs to find himself in space once or twice, and although he often found himself one or two on five, he at least attacked relentlessly. Also it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have finished, given his form, had Sacha Kljestan been less indecisive after a great run where he was freed towards goal by who else—MB 90 and Clint Dempsey.
As for Cherundolo, obviously it shouldn’t be surprising that his entrance immediately slowed David Silva, who looked more like Leo Messi in the first half, a bit. He wasn’t faultless—beaten ever so slightly on the fourth Spanish goal—although that was more brilliant soccer by Spain than fault on the part of the Mayor of Hannover, and anyone that disputes this is encouraged to watch Valero’s divine pass again on Youtube or Sportscenter. More telling were a couple of offside calls against Silva that Spector was unable to produce in the first half. These happened simply because Cherundolo understands positioning better than any American defender in history. In fact, on the fourth Spanish goal, Cherundolo saw what was happening, but he was an eyelash late, just missing another offside whistle. The reality of the situation is that Cherundolo isn’t ageless, and his international retirement is likely imminent. That’s a shame. He’s the most underappreciated American soccer player ever, and his class will be sorely missed.
Tim Howard, 6—Couldn’t do anything about any of the goals. Made a spectacular save on Silva in the 38th minute that briefly kept the game 2-0. Wore the captain’s armband, which is nice, but shouldn’t excuse Bob Bradley’s mystifying decision to leave him on the field to take a beating for 90 minutes in the first place.
Jon Spector, 3.5—Just plain lacked the pace to keep up with Silva and other menacing Spanish runs. Actually did okay on the opener, but his work containing Silva on the right in that instance was spoiled by a ball-watching Tim Ream and a hopelessly disinterested Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu. Moved to the midfield in the second half, and contributed nothing to the attack except a handful of bad passes. More playing time in the Championship should be very helpful.
Tim Ream, 4—Better in the second half, but even adding Iniesta to the mix, Spain had taken its foot off the gas pedal a bit. Was ball-watching on the first goal and that is inexcusable. The second goal saw Negredo torch Lichaj after a brilliant over the top ball, but as mentioned above, again one had to wonder exactly what the American central midfield was doing on the play. By the time Negredo was past Lichaj, Ream was late and couldn’t recover. There will be better days for the Red Bulls man.
Oguchi Onyewu, 3—Looks more and more like a shell of the player he used to be. It would be a painful experiment to watch video of the 2009 Confederations Cup game vs. Spain and then watch Gooch in this game. Shaky on the ball, and when he did come forward for a pair of set pieces, he promptly received the ball and turned it over. Ruined a nice build-up with a clueless pass to the American Outlaws around the 20th minute—and in many ways, that play was a metaphor for his afternoon.
Eric Lichaj, 3.5—So busy trying to relieve pressure on the flanks that he was unable to get forward and help the attack, which is why he’s on the field. Didn’t look any more technically capable of relieving pressure on the flanks than Bornstein either, for what it’s worth. He’s young, and his work rate is good, and he was capable defending set pieces, which is a good start. There will be better days for him too.
Maurice Edu, 4—Discussed at length above, the highlights were a pair of nice box-to-box runs that opened up the Spanish defense a bit. Both were soiled by poor distribution from the Rangers man, however—which is a problem he developed in Scotland playing a more advanced role this past season. Most concerning was his genuine disinterest in playing hard, which has NEVER been a problem for Maurice before. Needs to step his game up in the month to come.
Jermaine Jones, 4.5—Only keeping the rating this high because tactically Bradley’s decision to play two extremely deep rows of four kept Jones from getting forward and being useful in attack, which is something we know he can be having watched him at Blackburn this spring. He was sloppy with the ball though, committing too many turnovers and generally being impatient. Won a nice 50-50 ball that led to a good build up in the first half, but that was ruined by Gooch.
Sacha Kljestan, 5.5—If you think this is a silly rating, you can express your outrage in the comments box. I’d also suggest re-watching the match. The US created four “threatening” attack sequences in the first half, and two were started by fine through balls off the Anderlecht man’s foot. He was one of the only Americans interested in keeping possession all game, and one of the only Yanks whose work rate was visibly relentless. Much, much better in the second half when he moved to his more natural position in the center with MB 90, a player with whom he has a nice rapport based on years of combination in the US system. Should have scored or passed to Dempsey (who would have scored) after a brilliant run saw him free on goal in the second half, but we’ll focus more on how much space he created himself than his poor indecision in that instance.
Robbie Rogers, 3.5—Service on set pieces was adequate but other than that he was mostly useless, failing to track back aggressively and flubbing a good opportunity with a weak shot in the first half. Missed a wide-open Jozy Altidore who could have easily made it 2-1 on that play too. Bottom line is Rogers is a classic NFL Combine Freak type : the measurables are tremendous, but don’t ask him to play football, because he’s just a combine freak.
Jozy Altidore, 4—Literally touched the ball twice in the first half. At least this time it wasn’t because he was refusing to come back and find the game. He did that willingly, but received no service. Agudelo appeared to want to get him involved as well, but was also hopelessly outnumbered.
Juan Agudelo, 5—Not bad for a 18 year old, bright eyed kid. Was one of the only Yanks early who didn’t seem uncomfortable with the ball, relentlessly attacking when he received it, and not turning it over dangerously. Most impressive moment for Bob Bradley will doubtlessly be two instances where he tracked attackers all the way back to Howard’s box—in fact, on the Cazorla goal that made it 3-0, he was the only American in the area who seemed interested in defending. That’s not a good thing.
Steve Cherundolo, 6.5—Settled the American defense and prevented further David Silva bloodletting very well. As mentioned, what he’s lost in pace (not much yet, to be honest), he’s made up for in brains—his positioning is flawless and various offside calls prove it. Was an eyelash late on the final goal, or Valero’s brilliant pass would have also seen a raised flag.
Clarence Goodson, 6—We love to say we told you so, so we will. Goodson should start. Served as a calming influence on Tim Ream in the second half, and actually provided stability on the ball and an eye for an outlet pass as well, which was particularly noticeable early in the second half when Iniesta was intent on getting in on the scoring. Avoided his usual “one-dumb-set-piece-moment” a game meltdown, which may indicate that Brondby has been a productive location for his development.
Ale-Ale-Jandro Bedoya, 5.5—Was impressed that he willingly tracked back throughout his half hour on the field. Committed a silly turnover early but that’s forgiveable when you aren’t seeing much of the ball, and it didn’t prove hurtful. First touch let him down badly after a brilliant run saw Clint Dempsey send him through towards Iker Casillas, who was quickly off his line to spoil the moment.
Clint Dempsey, 6.5—I don’t think Bob Bradley wanted to play the Fulham Player of the Year for 45 minutes, but once he entered the game, at least the American attack had a pulse. Dempsey probably would have scored had Kljestan laid the ball off for him too, but Sacha proved guilty of indecision. Most of all, Deuce looked every bit like a player who belonged on the field with the Barca and Real giants chasing him.
Chris Wondolowski, 5—Maybe it’s just my affinity for Brian Ching, but it is hard to not like a guy who tries as hard as Wondo did today. He also proved he can make smart runs off the ball, which would be extraordinarily useful against a team like Spain if he were say, faster. Found space in the box early in the 2nd half but a cross was half a foot too high.
MB 90, 6—Did an immense job stabilizing the Titanic that was the US midfield from first half to second. Worked relentlessly, as usual, tracking back and getting involved in tackles and then making just enough forays forward to give the US some attacking life. Really like his interplay with Sacha Kljestan, who seems more confident next to Junior than he does surrounded by his other mates.
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