At the end of the day, Tuesday’s 4-2 “Send-Off Series” loss to the Czech Republic was, if nothing else, a “friendly” reminder that while the World Cup is the pinnacle and embodiment of why we call soccer the “Beautiful Game,” the process of selecting World Cup squads is anything but beautiful. It is cruel, it is difficult, and at times it is practically impossible to explain. Here are three thoughts on the game and roster, the game having been well-covered by our staff writer Raf Crowley here, and then a final thought on Brian Ching.
- The game was much less about the result than it was about analyzing players, except the roster selections indicate it was about analyzing players for spots we didn’t think were in play
The prevailing sentiment in the blogosphere was that last night was about analyzing players, and not a result, and while you never want to concede four goals to an inexperienced, not headed to the World Cup side on your home soil, for a night at least, we could look past result and attempt to gauge player performance. Outside of the 2007 COPA America, Bob Bradley has always been about results—but even he admitted this game wasn’t about the score. “Tonight was about looking at guys,” Bradley noted at the post-game press conference. “We felt going into this game that we still needed to look at some different possibilities and options. Clearly, the [players] that we used tonight were geared towards looking closely at people and using that information along with everything else.”
Before I note the things Bradley couldn’t have appreciated last night, I think, given this morning’s roster selections, it is useful to dissect this quote with a bit of care. Mainly, it is at least worth looking at in the following context. It is quite apparent now that the “different possibilities and options” Bradley was referring to were, in fact, different possibilities and options than we writers and fans thought he was referring to. For example, the general sentiment was that Robbie Findley’s exclusion from playing in the match last night was concrete evidence that he had been the first player cut. After all, he was the only player who entered camp on the “fringe” and didn’t play. Surely this meant Bradley had eliminated him from consideration, correct? Well, as we learned today, wrong. What does this mean? I think it’s indicative of a couple of things.
First, it tells me that most likely; we had four forwards vying for two spots, with poor play meaning perhaps four for one. Brian Ching’s hamstring injury with the Dynamo likely created this situation during camp, and Bradley did a nice job staying quiet about the Hawaiian’s fitness. As such, we had Buddle, Gomez, Eddie Johnson and Ching duke it out on the field with an immense performance resulting in a guaranteed spot. That said, this theory has its problems—after all—Brian Ching was the best of the three last night, and this is true even though Gomez scored. Ching was dominant holding up the ball, had at least one marvelous pass that nearly set up a goal, and was leagues better at getting himself into good positions than Buddle or Eddie Johnson. Ching’s work-rate means he doesn’t get flagged for the old Eddie “What he was offsides” Johnson play at least once a match, and it does create space for the other striker on the field to operate. Essentially, we saw Brian Ching do what he has done so effectively for the United States throughout qualifying. And, because he did it better last night than he has done it in quite some time, we saw him appreciated for it by more than simply sportswriters. When the game ended, we felt even more certain of what we were certain about—Brian Ching was on the airplane.
Only problem is of course, Brian Ching is not on the plane. To call this development shocking is truly putting it mildly, but it is suggestive of three things.
First, Bradley must not have had full confidence in Ching’s hamstring and his ability to play 60-75 minutes. There was a moment in the second half where Ching led a run-out towards the Czech goal and appeared to be heavily favoring his non-injured leg. Bob Bradley is meticulous and notices those sorts of things we don’t think about when Ching is flicking back heels to Stuart Holden. That moment might have been enough, or, more likely, it was a collection of moments in Princeton over the past week.
Second, Robbie Findley was already on the team when the game started. I know this is shocking and a tough pill to swallow, given how meaningless Findley was to this team in qualifying, but while speculative, it is probably very close to fact. I’m convinced, given the midfield selections, that Findley was on unless Sacha Kljestan or Alejandro Bedoya made an on-field case to Bradley that it would be foolish not to take a tenth midfielder. I thought Kljestan had the better of the play among those two—he as steady on the ball and clean with his short passing, and had a cheeky back heel to Holden that set up another opportunity. He was victimized in the midfield on the final goal, but mostly this goal was Edu’s fault and Kljestan can’t be faulted too much for pushing forward, taking a chance, and losing the ball down a goal in extra time. Bedoya was mostly invisible, and he missed a sitter in the box a few minutes after coming on and was lazy defending on Fenin’s game-winner. The failure of these two players to capitalize meant that Findley was on the plane at the final whistle, in my opinion.
Three, never take anything Carlos Bocanegra says with a grain of salt. Earlier in the week the Captain had praised Findley for his work-rate, form and attitude in training, and he wasn’t giving what at least I thought was a rah-rah speech to Robbie to step his game up over the next four years so that he gets on the field in Brazil. On the contrary, Boca probably saw a chemistry developing between Altidore and Findley, and this chemistry was not lost on him, nor, obviously, on the gaffer. I’m very skeptical, mostly because Findley has never been anything outside of consistently awful in his national team appearances. That said, it is possible he will play, not sit, as has been suggested, especially if Bradley decides he needs a speed compliment to Altidore and not a more traditional sidekick, of which Buddle is the primary candidate. You don’t waste a spot on the plane—so put away the sentiment that he’s being dragged to Africa with zero chance of stepping on the field. As Mike Gundy would say—“That’s NOT true!”
- Oguchi Onyewu’s knee is an enormous concern
Certainly there is a huge physical aspect to recovering from a devastating knee injury. But to paraphrase Yogi Berra, sometimes ninety percent of a game is half-mental. That’s the deal with knee injuries, especially in sports that require athletic cuts, leaping and changes of direction. I don’t think Gooch will back down, but his performance last night had to concern you three weeks before he is tested by Wayne Rooney (which he will be even if Bradley hides him on the left, opposite the side of most our offense and as such counterattacks) and Peter Crouch. The Algerians present similar large, speedy and physical targets, and if Onyewu can’t do better than last night we are in for a short, but long, trip to South Africa. I’ve written before that Gooch is one of the three keys to our World Cup adventure. I still believe that is the case. Onyewu looked good in his movements, but was victimized on a set piece and committed a great deal of fouls. Too many, I think, and he’ll have to show more improvement.
- Left Back is a debacle
I wish Edgar Castillo had proven himself more at the club level, because one thing is for sure. Honduran hero Jon Bornstein, while a fine MLS defender, is not cut out for high-level international competition. Bradley has loved him since he was one of our best players at the disastrous 2007 Copa America. Remember, his pace and ability to recover allowed him to essentially put the shackles on Leo Messi for most the game down there, before the rest of the Americans wilted. His pace is one reason why if he sees the field I’m less concerned about the remarkably overrated Theo Walcott causing too much trouble June 12, but the Yanks can’t afford to commit fouls that set up Gerrard free kicks the whole first half either. It seemed every time I looked up Bornstein was committing a dangerous foul and it finally led to the Czech equalizer at the end of the first half. There is more to life than being really, really, really fast or being a hero in Honduras, and it is time for Bornstein to prove it. Hell—he should want to—if Heath Pearce hadn’t played like Southwest Sisters of Mary’s center back against UCLA last night—Bornstein might be a special guest of the Hondurans at the Spain match in South Africa, but not a player for any particular national team.
- Brian Ching
Finally, back to the cruelty of World Cup selections. Ching’s omission is difficult to explain and I have done my best. I don’t agree with it, and think it to be particularly unfair. At 32, Ching’s international career is most certainly over; unless he decides to be the company man he’s always been and suits up at the Gold Cup next summer, an unlikely prospect, for sure. Ching scored four times in qualifiers, was instrumental to the Altidore hat-trick in Nashville last April, captained with passion and integrity a young side that lacked heart and was embarrassed by Mexico on home soil in last year’s Gold Cup Final, and was one of the guys who still had the bitter taste of 2006 in his mouth. Ching recently scored in a friendly for the States, and was always thought of as a lock. Perhaps most fascinating, Brian Ching has always been criticized by a large legion of U.S. supporters. “He’s too slow,” they say. “He’s not world class,” they say. “He can’t finish,” they say. Win, lose, or draw—Ching’s name in the lineup never created too much joy in far too many Yanks supporters. I’ve always loved Ching anyway, because the 2006 MLS MVP has never cared about that. He’s cared instead about playing for his country, and he always left it all out on the field. The Flyin’ Hawaiian brought attitude, intensity, work-ethic and a lunch pal attitude to an American offense that has always had to grind out goals. He may not have been world-class, but as far as holdup men go, he was one of the best, if not the best, in CONCACAF. Don’t believe me, ask this Costa Rican international, who was interviewed by Jeff Carlisle. “There aren’t many players like him in CONCACAF,” said Costa Rican defender Gonzalo Segares. “He is big and strong and physical the way he plays, and it’s tough for many to slow him down.” Ching was a salty veteran and even though he wasn’t going to do the spectacular, you knew he’d work his rear off, and play his heart out, so that he could put a teammate in a position to do the spectacular.
On any team, in sport or in the workplace, there need to be worker bees, guys (and gals) who help make that oh-so-American group of individuals a collective unit, that push them to be better and get them where they need to go. Brian Ching embodied that spirit for the U.S. Men’s National Team, and after letting him push our team to be better, and helping us through qualifying—the coaches decided to leave him behind. I don’t understand, and I’ll never agree with it. Quite simply, it is wrong. But that’s life in the cut-throat world of international soccer. It’s a beautiful game, but it can be cruel to a player whose best trait is that he helps others play it beautifully.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com or @nwb_USMNT.