As is my custom, I begin with three general thoughts about Friday’s 2-2 U.S. Men’s National Team draw with Slovenia at Ellis Park in Johannesburg.
- It was the Best of Sides…
Everyone knows how the Yanks responded to abject adversity last summer. They came out and pummeled one of the best sides in Africa 3-nil. With help from Brazil, this set the stage for the gargantuan effort and upset of Spain, and for forty-five minutes on the same field they played on Friday, they had Brazil on the ropes before succumbing in the second half of the Confederations Cup Final. Friday, the Yanks had no such grace period to recover and no top-three side in the universe to aid them in their quest for a miracle. It was simply them against Slovenia; two goals in the hole to a side on paper one of the finest at the World Cup at protecting a lead—45 minutes to decide four years. What happened next was nothing short of another, this time more impressive, miracle.
The tale of this miracle begins with Bob Bradley, who pulled all of the proper strings. He replaced the seemingly overwhelmed Torres with Maurice Edu, whose presence was felt immediately with a threatening, darting diagonal run that put the Green Dragons on their heels. Edu also plugged the space in the central midfield, stalling Slovenian counterattacks on various occasions and looking all-the-part of a Scottish Premier League player—one who was comfortable and getting stronger in a physical encounter that devolved increasingly into a rugby match as the clock crept ruthlessly towards full time.
Bradley also replaced Robbie Findley, who reverted to “I often don’t start at Real Salt Lake” RF in the first half, making breathtaking runs at ludicrous speed to absolutely nowhere, with Benny Feilhaber, who made the U.S. far less predictable with his ability to stay behind Jozy Altidore and play the ball to him accurately. Feilhaber dropped back to left wing later in the game when Bradley brought on an additional forward for Gooch, but this too was a master stroke for reasons to be discussed momentarily.
Beyond Bradley, there was leadership. Whatever Landon Donovan said at halftime must have made the orange slices and juice boxes taste of bad medicine. The United States came out with every intent to be the aggressor and were rewarded three minutes in when Steve Cherundolo, who again played a brilliant game on the American right, found Landon Donovan on the right wing in space. Donovan, who Bradley moved to the right after a frustrating first half on the left, took a touch and dribbled directly towards Slovenian keeper Samir Handanovic. With likely cross choice Clint Dempsey unable to escape his marker, Donovan fired a high shot directly at Handanovic’s head—and while you could argue the keeper could have done better, he’d have done well to stop Landon’s perfectly placed high shot. Suddenly the Americans were alive. One more. That was the credo in the Ellis Park stands and in living rooms and pubs back home.
The Americans should have been level nearly immediately as well—but Onyewu continued his tour-de-force performance of garbage by badly missing a wide-open tap-in after a masterful Donovan free kick. No matter. After what seemed like an eternity of pressure, the Americans were finally level after a Donovan long ball was superbly batted down towards the spot by Jozy Altidore, who played a monster of a game and answered the lingering question about what exactly the time in the EPL meant to him by thriving as the physicality of the match ratcheted to EPL dogfight levels. It was here, after Altidore’s header, that the choice of Gomez paid off, as he was able to drag Slovenian defender Bostjan Cesar left towards the far post, creating just enough space for MB 90 to finish one of his patented deep, late runs into the box. MB 90’s finish was sublime—the stuff that made him a legitimate scoring threat at Heerenveen and Monchengladbach, but it was the subtle things that made the equalizer so special. I’d bet the farm Altidore doesn’t make that header without his time at Hull (it was eerily similar to Brian Ching’s header to none other than Jozy against Trinidad and Tobago in qualifying in April of 2009), and I’m not certain without bringing on Gomez for Onyewu if MB 90 has the split-second, the six or so inches, he needed to get toe to Jabulani. The best part…the Americans weren’t finished. But you can’t help but think, and would be unfair not to point out, that it never should have come to this.
- It was the Worst of Sides…
It had been a year to the day since the United States had played as poor a half of soccer as they played Friday in Johannesburg. On that fateful day a year ago, the United States was menaced by Maicon tearing down the right flank, Conor Casey missed a five yard sitter that would have made a match a game, and Robinho took the single worst pass of DaMarcus Beasley’s career back and launched a terrifying and embarrassing counter at a helpless Tim Howard. On that day, we and other U.S. soccer outlets openly questioned Bob Bradley and the passion of his players. A few days later—we got an incredible response. Yesterday morning we needed, and received, a more immediate response. That doesn’t answer the obvious question of how the Yanks managed to get themselves into such a dreadful position in the first place. How, in the second game of the World Cup, in the most important game of the four-year cycle—did the Yanks manage to look so abhorrent for the first forty-five minutes? A second viewing of the match provided a few immediate answers.
Certainly, the Yanks were abjectly poor. Yet credit the opponent. Not much has been made of this in the local media (for reasons I’ll discuss shortly), but the Green Dragons came ready to play. The Slovenians attacked and pressured immediately the new central midfielder chosen by Bradley, Jose Francisco Torres, whenever he touched the ball, and forced him to make timid choices in his passing that were antithetical to the reason he was selected to start. Taking away what Torres did best is a sign of fine scouting. Essentially, Matjak Kek’s men had taken away the added strength of a starter while fully capitalizing on his defensive deficiencies. In doing so, they were able to control the center of the midfield. That’s gameplan execution personified.
When in possession, the Green Dragons funneled the ball to their playmaker on the right, Auxerre man Valter Birsa, and he, along with menacing runs from Miso Brecko, who the slower Carlos Bocanegra simply failed to contain, resulted in a great deal of pressure on the American goal mouth. Additionally, the Green Dragons capitalized early, with Birsa finding an absurd amount of space about 25 yards from the goal mouth and scoring on what amounted, to paraphrase the American captain, to a free kick without a wall. Why Oguchi Onyewu failed to close out the space, or Donovan failed to move centrally to help, or why exactly MB 90was so far forward, are questions for the coaching staff but what is certain is that the Americans simply cannot afford to play such haphazard, clumsy soccer in the opening fifteen minutes. This isn’t simply two games in a row- it is a reflection and continuation of a trend that has seemingly plagued the Americans over the past nine months, and it will be the death-knell of this team if it doesn’t cease Wednesday.
The Americans steadied themselves and nearly equalized just before the half, once on a marvelous Torres free kick and again when Donovan came up a foot short on a fine cross, only to relapse and send the masses into despair minutes before the break. This goal was the third goal of the World Cup involving Oguchi Onyewu, and asks questions about whether the steady but unspectacular Clarence Goodson may be the safer option Wednesday in Pretoria. On this play, Onyewu was so out of position that an offside call was not possible. Note on the replay that the other three members of the back four are holding a steady line—but Gooch is again caught in no-man’s land. Again, this goal can’t be completely laid at the feet of the big defender.
Two additional things are notable on Zlatan Ljubijankic’s cool finish. First, MB 90, usually responsible in his defensive choices, chose to come forward and make a possession-winning, counter-attacking starting tackle in the center of the midfield. He missed the tackle badly, giving Slovenia the space they needed to ignite a quick attack. There is an argument that this was the largest of several moments in the first half that the States missed Ricardo Clark. Torres himself was a bit higher than Clark likes to play at those moments, and although he immediately gave chase, he was unable to catch Milivoje Novakovic before he laid off to Ljubijankic. At that point, because of Onyewu’s clueless positioning, an offside call was impossible and Howard was left on an island with little hope, and so too, seemed to be the case for the Americans. And yet, the World Cup didn’t end. Except if ever the ending were bittersweet…
- Don’t tell me the result was just. It simply wasn’t.
The brilliant Jonathan Wilson noted at the end of his fine match review that “a draw, though, was probably fair.” Sorry, Jonathan. You’re just wrong. The core of “I’m covering the World Cup! Look at me!” American writers who issued similar statements trying to get the Americans to look at themselves in the mirror are similarly off-base. The facts are these. The United States played an awful half of soccer, arguably its worst in the World Cup cycle.
It then played arguably its finest half of soccer in the cycle. Having tied the game, it scored the winning goal on a Landon Donovan free kick that was tapped in by Maryland Terrapin Maurice Edu, only to have the referee, Koman Coulibaly, wave the goal off without so much as explaining a thing. Not a word.
The game, poorly officiated throughout, starting with Clint Dempsey not receiving yellow in the first minute for a problematic aerial challenge against Slovenian midfielder Aleksander Radosavljevic, who will likely win an Oscar for trying to sell the challenge as red-card worthy. While it wasn’t Daniele De Rossi bloodying Brian McBride’s face—it surely warranted a booking, especially if getting hit in the face with the ball warrants yellow for Robbie Findley about half an hour later. Coulibaly simply looked overwhelmed officiating his first, and hopefully last, World Cup match. The United States quite simply, had three points it without question EARNED taken from it. There’s no “well the draw is probably fair because the U.S. were dreadful in the first half.” There’s no “Well if they hadn’t been 2-nil down this wouldn’t have been necessary or happened.” There’s no “Well everything evens out—how fortunate Dempsey wasn’t sent off.” What happened was the U.S. fell behind 2-nil, and came back to win 3-2, except they didn’t. As Peter King rightly pointed out in his post-match column (the best of the soccer neophyte looks, by the way)—not only was the call awful, we have no idea what it was, which makes it different from the pantheon of other bad calls, such as Jim Joyce’s blunder two weeks ago. A foul on Bradley? Not likely as he was being molested in the six. Edu? How? He was untouched and initiated no contact. Offside? Impossible—Edu came in late, no one else played the ball. At least in other sports—we have accountability for such officiating fiascos. Here—we get none. While part of the appeal of the game, at least to me, is that soccer is so often a reflection of life—slow at times, boring at others, brilliant and magical in just enough brief moments to be fully compelling, and yes, often unjust—this goes beyond that injustice. This is a further reflection of the tragic, Shakespearian irony of FIFA’s “Fair Play” declarations. This was robbery at its fullest—violent and unforgivable. The problem now becomes—can the United States put it in the back of their minds and capture three points without robbery Wednesday. Let’s hope so.
Tim Howard, 6—Could have done little about the second goal, as he was left on an island. Seemed a bit off his line on the first—but it was a free kick without a wall, as Bocanegra noted. Made a game-saving save near full time on a blast from Radosavljevic.
Carlos Bocanegra, 4.5- Not a banner night for the captain. Was abused repeatedly on overlapping runs from Slovenian right back Miso Brecko, and failed to keep up with Valter Birsa, who scored the opening goal. His positioning, and his tracking back, were better in the second half.
Oguchi Onyewu, 3—All three goals in the World Cup have involved the AC Milan man and his positioning was tragic comedy on the Slovenian second. Failed to even attempt to close onBirsa on the first until ball left foot. Won an aerial battle or two, but not enough to remove the black eye in the performance, which included failing to connect on an A-plus Donovan free kick for the potential equalizer early in the second. I’m calling for Goodson. Right now.
Jay DeMerit, 6—I actually feel bad for tweeting that DeMerit as a likely goat, especially after the second viewing. Lunch pal game from the Watford captain that included several ball-winning or attack-silencing tackles. His clearances were far better than they have been in his last three outings, and he even produced a threatening header in the first 45. Fine night overall.
Steve Cherundolo, 6.5—Another outstanding night for the Hannover vice-captain. Defended well and was safe on Slovenian counters—only pushing up when it was responsible to do so, and rarely losing Slovenia’s most pacy player, Andraz . His link-up play with Donovan continues to impress, and his ball that sprung Landon for the U.S. opener was flawlessly placed.
Clint Dempsey, 6—A pair of crosses just missed him after he found himself in great positions. Was fortunate not to be booked. Brilliant pass was broken up by Brecko, otherwise it was a certain goal. Really the only effective American offensively in the first 45.
Jose Torres, 4—Ineffective largely but almost scored on a brilliant free kick in the first half. Collectively, too indecisive and didn’t bring the attacking, unlock-the-defense presence he was inserted into the starting lineup for. Seemed overwhelmed.
MB 90, 6.5—Absolutely stunning toe-poke finish scored the equalizer, and deserves more credit for his late run into the box. Made a poor decision on the all-or-nothing tackle late in the first half and was punished as Slovenia scored moments later. Beyond that, I counted eight second balls he won on my review—and as usual his energy is boundless.
Landon Donovan, 7.5—Stunning goal a reflection of his desire and confidence, and clearly couldn’t have come at a better time. The U.S. needed someone to lead and he answered the bell. Had a frustrating first half on the left side, but was menacing throughout the second half on the right. Even his deliveries improved in the second half.
Robbie Findley, 3.5—Made one play that was even remotely memorable—a nice pass to Dempsey after the Slovenian goal. Beyond that, was unfortunate to receive yellow for getting hit in the face with the ball, but basically looked like a man out of his league, making glorious runs to nowhere.
Josmer Altidore, 8—Fine performance. His touches were improved from the England game and he harassed the Slovenians throughout the second half with his pace and physicality. Created constant danger and drew several free kicks and two yellow cards. A better referee would have rewarded him by sending off a Slovenian after some of the make-the-NFL-proud tackles they pulled off. Dotted the “I” on a brilliant night with a masterful layoff to MB 90 for the equalizer.
Mo Edu, 6.5—Immediately impacted the game with a savvy diagonal run. The U.S. were immediately more organized and a better shape after his entrance, and he embraced the Ricardo Clark role of closing space just in front of the back four while offering more offensively than Clark. Might start against Algeria. Scored the winning goal in classic, scrappy Edu style. Except he didn’t score it. Somehow.
Benny Feilhaber, 5.5—Tactically had a big impact because he forced the Slovenian defense to think and account for his long-range ability, which it appeared they respected more than Feilhaber, who seemed reluctant to shoot. Found the ball more late when he moved further to the left. Distribution was sound.
Herculez Gomez, 6—Didn’t play long but made a huge difference, holding up Cesar just long enough to create the minimal, but necessary, amount of space MB 90 needed to send the game level.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.