Featured, June 2012

The Thin Grey Line: Loss To Brazil Shows The U.S. Still Have Some Wilderness to Navigate

Herculez Gomez was not just a great story Wednesday night. He was a great player.

Neil W. Blackmon

A bit behind the flurry of post-match analysis, but perhaps that’s okay for a more analytic look at the United States’ 4-1 loss to Brazil at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland Wednesday night.

The most certain (though maybe not the largest?) takeaway from the match? Brazil is still really good, even if they aren’t The Samba Kings version of Selecao our parents told us about or took us to see in 1994 (a somewhat poor example, as that team was led by the gritty Dunga and played a suffocating brand of defense, but you get the general point)– and rumors of the rapid decline of Brazilian football (looking at you, Four Four Two Magazine, among other publications) appear to have been greatly exaggerated. This incarnation of Brazil– a mix of the young stars who will form the Olympic team in London and the starlets who will be charged with leading the senior group to the only acceptable place– the winner’s podium at Brazil 2014– was particularly outstanding on this night. They did a number of things the 2010 version struggled with– notably,keeping the ball in play after a dispossess with little to no room and launching lethal attacks the other way, quick ball movements to space, not necessarily to players (alla Barcelona), rather clinical finishing (a Pato goal post from five goals aside). They also showed at least this writer that they are capable of bringing some tenacity and attitude without compromising attractive football, a concern Dunga consistently had was his teams weren’t mentally tough enough, and the press at home did not forgive him for the perplexing thought that these things were inconsistent. Marcelo and Thiago Silva played edgy, hungry football, both soiling their jerseys with grass and dirt while at the same time scoring (the latter, then the former) and terrorizing the American left flank throughout (the former).

Yes, Brazil is still Brazil. And as difficult as it is to comprehend how they’ve never won a Gold Medal– it may not need comprehending for much longer. And as long as Neymar keeps getting better, there chances of defending their home soil (and the permanent legacy of this group of players) in 2014 seem bright. In the end, however, it is difficult to say that is the “largest” takeaway from the evening’s proceedings. In defeat, you got the sense that the Americans were “getting it”, even if just a little bit.

There’s an old saying, oft-utilized by southern preachers, that there’s a thin line between Saturday night and Sunday morning, and only a small grey sliver of wilderness separates the rip-roaring debauchery on the one end from the solemn quiet on the other. I couldn’t help but see an American side somewhere in that grey sliver Wednesday night. Forget which part of the analogy, Sunday morning or Saturday night, happens to be the promised land: I’ll leave that to personal taste. What’s true, or seems to be, is that Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT has decided, for better or worse, that there is a particular way they’d like to navigate the grey wilderness that’s enshrouded this national team since Jay DeMerit misjudged a long ball against Ghana two years ago, and they are hell-bent on leaving. The only problem is there are a lot of obstacles to navigate before they can see the horizon. The good news? It’s going to be a really fun, unique ride.

The old Gooch died in 2009, at a stadium not far from where he played abysmally Wednesday night.

Here are two other thoughts, one of which is perhaps the largest obstacle remaining in the wilderness, based on Wednesday’s proceedings, the other of which gives us a great deal of hope.

The central defense, and really the “traditional, clean up 6” Klinsmann states he wants to allow his central midfield to play frenetic, pressing football, need more consistency, and yes, more quality.

Talk all you’d like about the scoreline being harsh– and it’s true that the penalty on Oguchi Onyewu, while based on the rulebook plausibly a proper handball, was a tough call– but the United States central defense was outclassed and overmatched all evening. Even prior to the handball, Oguchi Onyewu had two sequences where he simply appeared to be moving in cement attempting to mark various diagonally cutting Brazilians, and his central defense teammate, captain Carlos Bocanegra, suffered one of his least memorable evenings in the U.S. shirt, looking old and slow trying to keep up with the young Brazilian Leandro Damiao.

On the second goal, there was a lack of communication on a set piece that must have given Tim Howard flashbacks to oh, every September and October at Goodison Park, when Everton perform their typical early year shambles and comedy hour. Oguchi Onyewu decided to plant himself in no-man’s land on no one in particular, shoving Jermaine Jones towards Thiago Silva as the ball was put into play. Meanwhile, Jermaine Jones, who looked against Scotland every bit the “Champion’s League regular” Jurgen Klinsmann believes he is, decided to spectate, trusting that Maurice Edu, who had jumped, would head the ball towards safety. Edu missed (full credit here to the set piece taker, not Edu’s leap), but since Jones had gambled, Silva was unmarked, and it was quickly 2-0. In less than half an hour, we learned that even a young, experimental Brazil had the attackers to outclass the Yanks regulars in the center, and we learned that Brazil hadn’t forgotten how to score on a set piece (another odd point of Dunga emphasis, given the culture).

It isn't a matter of "want to" with Maurice Edu. But it might be a matter of "class."

The third goal broke the Americans back, and again, the American center was the focal point for blame– Jermaine Jones again was caught too far ahead in support of an American attack, Maurice Edu had abandoned his “6” responsibilities getting forward as well, and Hulk and Neymar played a two man game against Steve Cherundolo, which jokes about age aside, is hardly a fair fight. Marcelo finished a feed from Neymar, and the furiously rallying Americans were sunk.

So what of the American backline? Well, the largest issue, in my mind, is that they simply aren’t capable of playing the game fast enough at this level. Carlos Bocanegra admirably can (on some nights), and his performance in Genoa just three months ago serves as a fine reminder of this fact. But Oguchi Onyewu, as we have written at this site for a long while, is simply no longer of use at the highest level internationally. He might help the U.S. grind a few matches out as a roster-filler in qualifying, but putting him on the field against Brazil is a sad reminder of what happened at RFK in October 2009. Then, he was fighting for time at AC Milan. Then, he was three months removed from a massive Confederations Cup. Then, he was the physical, fearless, heartbeat of the American center.  Nearly three years later, a short drive from that park, we saw a shadow of the man who took the field that night. He’s a shadow of that now, and even late in the game, when he appeared to earn a measure of redemption with a fine header, his hopes died on the woodwork.

Is there depth here or help on the way? Hard to envision much, at least in the short term. Omar Gonzalez, the most obvious answer, is still doing laps in the rehab pool. Clarence Goodson tries hard, and he acquitted himself “okay” in Paris, but against Brazil he’d be outclassed, and his “good for one gaffe a night” guarantee might turn into two. Geoff Cameron is the people’s champion, but his performances in a US Shirt leave so many questions. Michael Parkhurst is gritty, but elite world sides is a major jump in class. Tim Ream is, to quote a source close to the team this week, “so far off the radar right now it isn’t worth discussing.”  One interesting thought is that fine Middlesbrough prospect Seb Hines could be called in-– he’d have to file a one-time FIFA switch– but at his point, that would certainly be worth a look.

As such, the real answer would seem to be deploying a reliable and consistent (dominant is too much to ask) “clean up 6” that Klinsmann would like, and then tempering the pressing, up field style against more elite teams by hammering “defensive responsibility” into the capable minds of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. And herein lies the rub: Maurice Edu probably isn’t up to the task at the most elite level internationally either. Edu is what NFL gurus would call a “combine” guy– most everything looks splendid on paper: size, physicality, speed, decent enough distribution, reads the game brilliantly (see Italy, 2012) and you can deal with the weaknesses– a suspect first touch, not a shooter. The problem is a the most elite international level– Edu simply doesn’t play the game fast enough to compensate for the areas where he is overwhelmingly “average.”

Edu’s turnovers (he had five statistical giveaways) are a product of his inability to quickly process and make decisions on the ball. Couple that with a suspect first touch that means he generally has less time than another player who takes even an average time to receive the ball, and you begin to understand. Is this a product of the league he plays in? Darius Tahir thought so in his review at The Shin Guardian, and it is a good read, and there’s some merit to that argument. Of course, it also might be that he just isn’t good enough, and that if he did upgrade his competition, it might not be something he would get better at. That’s the easy way out, I suppose– but it is worth pondering the following question: When has Edu had a poor night for the U.S. against an equal or lesser side? I’d venture to say that has happened few, if any times. His problems are always against sides with great class: Spain 2011, Mexico same, last night. The Hulk and Neymar two-man game goal was largely a result of this– Edu simply didn’t have the class to recover on his gamble. It wasn’t a lack of want to.

Could Stu Holden fill that role? That’s another, engaging discussion, but we’ll travel that Boulevard of Broken Dreams when the time comes, if it ever does. For now, be satisfied that Maurice Edu can likely do the job properly in qualifying, even if a trip to the Azteca will be, as ever, disappointing.

These three were splendid against Brazil, and in Johnson, the US finally have a mainstay at left back.

Because we mentioned the (gasp) possibility of striker depth in the Scotland piece,  and we’ve got more on MB 90 later in the week, we think it better to fixate on the continued, if not begrudging, emergence of Fabian Johnson at left back.

Johnson has certainly won hearts and minds, both in the Bundesliga, where he’s arguably the best left back in the league, and among the American rank and file. Johnson had a second consecutive great night, and while the Brazilian defense wasn’t the most formidable grouping they can deploy, it wasn’t scattershot for swaths of the game simply because of inexperience either. A great deal of credit should go to the Americans, who actually, as we hoped they would, dictated play for swaths. Much of this had to do with Johnson’s marauding runs from the left flank, the best of which would have led to an easy Donovan goal (after a pretty turn) had he delivered a ball two yards better; the second best of which saw him scorch his marker and deliver a brilliant ball that Herculez Gomez finished in stride. The goal gave the Americans a big jump, and although it was short-lived, it was neat to see the U.S. respond against a great side with a vigorous assault.

All of this is great news given Timmy Chandler’s continued reluctance to answer the ringing red phone for international duty, and even more great considering this is a kid that really wants to play midfield– just not as much as he really wants to play. And because he’s already filed a one-time FIFA switch, he’s a mainstay for the long-term. Given that even last summer the Yanks were fielding left backs whose names rhyme with Bon Jornstein, this is immensely welcome news.

Quick Corners:

Obviously, Michael Bradley wasn’t just one of the best Americans on the field, he was one of the best players on the field, zipping the ball around like Eli Manning in a Super Bowl. We also liked that when the Americans played “long ball” (generally believed to be a Klinsmann no-no), they did so mostly through Michael, who played those passes with a purpose. And his report with Herculez Gomez, the starter at forward, looked special given the limited training time…

— Herculez Gomez has earned the right to start again, we think, even if Jozy Altidore is match-fit. There is nothing wrong with bringing Altidore in for thirty bullish minutes off the pine– ask AZ Alkmaar how that worked out…

— The national anthem was much better, thank God. Brazil still has one of the best “world” anthems– not as violent and outrageous as the French anthem, but a fine song. Still– can’t we just fly in a “Puma Chorus” group of the Timbers Army and let them sing?

— CANADA!!! Our friendly neighbors to the north are the ones really to blame for our epic Olympic fail. Revenge is a dish best served…in Toronto in the summertime?


Luke Cyphers of ESPN with more on Fabian Johnson’s bright future with the US here (subscription required)…

Avi Creditor with the player ratings at SI…

Christopher McCollum with the same at Yanks Abroad…

Brian Phillips of @RunofPlay fame at Grantland, with an amusing discussion of elevators and cranes, fading hemispheric hegemons, Jurgen Klinsmann and the American Dream…or something like that.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt. He has appeared on Sirius XM’s Soccer Network, the Sports Illustrated Soccer Podcast, and also writes for The Shin Guardian, or so the Germans would have you believe.


Neil W. Blackmon