The Yanks showed two different faces on Wednesday in The Azteca; unfortunately while one of those faces was on display for only one moment of brilliance, the other reared its ugly mug for the other 92 minutes. Landon Donovan’s through ball to Charlie “Chuck D” Davies and the ensuing cool finish conjured images of everything that was right about the American attack in the Confederation’s Cup. As for the rest of the soccer match, the only images it conjured took place at the Saprissa in Costa Rica a couple months ago… and that was a ball possession beat down U.S. soccer fans were hoping not to relive anytime soon.
So why? Why did the good guys have so little of the ball that I was forced to hope against hope for a scoring chance every time they progressed the ball over the halfway line (which was about once every fifteen minutes in the second half)? And even more disheartening is that the Yanks kept repeating the same routine hoping for a different result! Mexico attack results in goal kick. Howard boots a long ball or passes short to a defender who boots a long ball. Mexico gains possession at midfield and starts to build an attack. Repeat. You may have missed a couple of these thrilling American possessions while the TV coverage was showing replays of the previous Mexican attack on goal or requisite shots of Javier Aguirre scowling.
While the failure to possess the ball and build an attack (gasp!) is a whole team problem, the responsibility falls on a couple positions more than others. The side backs and central midfielders have to be better in both keeping the ball and passing to men who aren’t forced into a challenge immediately. This requires better pass placement than we saw on Wednesday. I have no doubt that each one of Cherundolo, Bocanegra, Bradley, and Clark can pass a ball to an open man, but they need to be better than they were yesterday at getting the ball into space on the proper side of their intended target. This is the difference between a Tom Brady and a David Carr. Even under pressure Brady can deliver the ball to his target in a spot that a defensive back (or Mexican for our purposes) can’t get to it. David Carr gets pressured and makes passes that look a lot like what we saw yesterday, and we all get to talk about how he’s a nice player to have on the bench.
I’ve seen the four players in question make these passes routinely in the past, but I don’t know that they represent the right combination of starting sidebacks/central mids. I’ve previously stated my belief that Spector should start on one defensive flank and Cherundolo on the other, with Bocanegra shifting back to the middle. With Boca looking suspect on the left yesterday, despite the fact that he plays wide for his club in Ligue 1, I’m forced the stand by Spec (yeah yeah he’s my boy, I get it).
What’s a more interesting discussion is what to do with the center mids. We seem to have a wealth of options at those positions, but no Stevie G or Xavi that’s good enough to force themself into the lineup without question. Seemingly the closest we have to the total package is Michael Bradley who brings hard-nosed defense and to the table along with safe passing (usually) and a Howitzer of a shot going forward. But Bradley is far from a creative offensive player, and while he doesn’t lack for “want to” in the defensive department, he’s not exactly a paragon of defensive positioning. This is exemplified by his yellow-a-game record. While it may seem like all of Bradley’s cards come as a direct result of his fiery temper, most are actually more run of the mill; player gets caught in defense and does what he has to do to recover.
But this isn’t some sort of glaring indictment of Junior. He’s one of the best of an okay bunch. What Bob Bradley must be charged to do is find the right two person combination of Mo Edu, Ricardo Clark, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber, Stu Holden, Jose Francisco Torres, and his son. If the right combo includes Michael Bradley then so be it, but Bob may have to get realistic about the fact that his team might benefit from starting his son on the bench. I don’t think that’s the case, but if I was coach I’d definitely explore some different combinations.
Four of the aforementioned CMF options saw the field on Wednesday, but the inclusion of Stu Holden in the second half calls J.F. Torres’ role on the team into question. Is Bob looking at Torres as a wing forward or side midfielder exclusively? Is he looking at Torres at all? Everyone on the Conf. Cup roster has gotten a run out with the national side in the last month or two, even Brad Guzan… but not Jose Torres. He never saw the field in South Africa, and unlike Adu he wasn’t given a shot in the Gold Cup. This is because he was needed back at Pachuca, but the fact remains that he keeps making the trips with the national team and never gets in the game. Even off-form players like Beasley and Kljestan have been given chances to get their games back on the field, but all Bradley sees fit to give Torres are butt splinters. If he can’t touch the field against Mexico where he already plays his club ball then when can he? Hopefully soon, maybe even against El Salvador, otherwise his spot on the plane will go to someone else. Sacha Kljestan back in form and ready to be a creative offensive force? I can hope.
Finally, we got a great look at an American back four yesterday that stood rather tall considering they were up against a 47 minute barrage in the second half. We also got another look at one of the best goalkeepers in the world playing up to the billing, and no I’m not talking about Guillermo “Nothing To Do” Ochoa. The only real critique I had of the D was the lack of proper defensive shifting, and that was mostly due to mistakes by the midfielders. Israel Castro should have been marked by a midfielder near the top of the box before he fired home his rocket of a goal, but Bradley and Clark were BOTH busy pestering Cuauhtémoc Blanco for his autograph. Meanwhile, Jay Demerit had to help on the Sabah goal because of Landon Donovan’s defensive shortcomings, otherwise Jay would have been marking Sabah.
After the beating the team is still in good position as far as qualifying is concerned and they should be able to put this loss behind them. The real question is whether they’ll learn what they should from the loss and make the right changes, either in tactics, personnel, or both.
In the meantime, Premier League starts Saturday, so… CMON YOU IRONS!