As usual, though a bit late, here are three quick thoughts and player ratings from Wednesday’s 1-0 United States Men’s National Team victory over South Africa in the Nelson Mandela Cup. I promise to litter a bit of optimism in my piece without discounting Dr. Crowley’s egg-nog sized glass of pessimism. I found a few things in the Yanks Cape Town performance particularly worthy of optimism, and since we’re nearing the holidays and that’s the season of perpetual hope, I’ll begin there.
First, Bob Bradley’s changes at the striker position changed the dynamic.
Forget the hype about Agudelo (I think I’ll address that below in the player ratings). I want to note that it was a particularly good international fixture for Bradley. First, he called in and capped several players of dual nationality, one of whom, Mik Diskerud, played an integral part in the first goal and noted he was “proud to be an American” after the match. Second, he made all the right changes and got a victory with an experimental side that had hardly trained together. I brush aside most the tactical criticisms about this game because of the short practice time and all the new faces. What matters isn’t system-installation as much as personnel evaluation in match conditions. There isn’t extensive training time in this type of fixture date to evaluate, so all you get is what happens under fire. In that respect, Bradley couldn’t have written a better script if he were David Stern himself. Not only did they grab a win to turn the calendar over after a marvelous and at times mystifying 2010, he made the changes that enabled that to happen, and the players responded despite a lack of familiarity. Teal Bunbury and Juan Agudelo both brought more calmness on the ball and in their movements than the increasingly hopeless Robbie Findley, and a more calm or perhaps more inspired Eddie Gaven helped these two send waves of pressure at Bafana Bafana in the second half. Bunbury had a nice strike in the 54th minute forcing a fine save, and this only moments after Alejandro Bedoya delivered his best moment of the night on a probing cross to Eddie Gaven that forced a nice clearance. The Americans looked all the part of the only side thinking of scoring, at least until they did, after which they did a nice job with possession in the South African half to at least stall a Bafana Bafana side that desperately was seeking an equalizer. The changes mattered, the new faces did well, and they all played. That’s all Bob Bradley could ask for and tip your hat to the gaffer.
Second, while the Yanks lost the possession battle on the evening, they were far more organized and defended admirably.
I agree that possession should be better and tactical changes are necessary to make that happen with some degree of regularity. Again, I blame at least some of that on training time and familiarity. What was inspiring, given that, was the Yanks’ organization on defense, something lacking in most the games with the A Team recently, and the calmness of the back four. This was particularly evident with Clarence Goodson’s performance—which was rock steady in the air, but more importantly, displayed an understanding that center defenders can help build possession from the back. Look, the Americans have plenty of win the ball in the air defenders—Goodson’s willingness to probe forward a bit more, albeit responsibly, is a breath of fresh air and a new wrinkle. I think he should start, especially now that he’s with a class side in Brondby and Onyewu is choking strikers but not making the eighteen ever in Milan. There’s your dose of cold hard truth for the post. Meanwhile, Eric Lichaj was again outstanding on the right. I heard a bunch of comparisons via Twitter to Steve Cherundolo, but a younger version. I suppose, but I see a more physical player to complement the pace Stevie brings to the table. In fact, my only complaint about Lichaj was the youthfulness he showed in continuing to make risky physical challenges while carrying a yellow. He should be more careful. That said, if he marks speedy wingers as well as he handled Tshabalala, who only bettered him once in numerous attempts Wednesday night—he’ll continue to play. I understand the last two opponents have hardly been attacking dynamos, but I’ll say it for the record: this starting back four, or at least three of them, deserve the right to play with Bocanegra as starters against Chile.
Finally, curb your overenthusiasm.
I have pointed out the positives and I am an optimist about the new faces. They are just that, however: new faces, and there’s no need to get carried away and make bold proclamations about the future just yet. Agudelo has scored in his debut, and it’s a great story—but it’s what happens from here that matters. How does he handle the first tough night? That’s what we want to know. The Americans didn’t concede for the second match in a row, but Chile will be a far more daunting offensive challenge. They’ll need to prove that they can keep a high line and not take risks, as Ream did once or twice in the air in the first half, resulting in one play that looked eerily similar to the Gyan stoppage time winner this summer, except Clarence Goodson recovered for Ream unlike Jay DeMerit for Bocanegra. That has to happen less, because you can’t rely on heroic keeping all the time to bail you out, even with goalkeepers like Howard and Guzan, who incidentally played his finest match in an American shirt. Finally, the possession was an issue and Dr. Crowley is correct, tactical experimentation is required before the Gold Cup. Keep in mind Mexico has three youngsters entering their primes, including Chicarito, who is flat out scary. You could argue the Yanks have an equal number of young bright players entering their primes, and you’d be about right. But the Americans will have to keep the ball better to secure Confederations Cup qualification next summer. The good news is, I think Bradley knows it.
Brad Guzan, 7.5—Clean sheet is big for Brad’s confidence after a few shaky performances for country in succession. Looked much, much better on set pieces, aggressively coming off line to catch the ball or punch it away. A pair of fine saves in the first half compensated for the lack of an American attack.
Eric Lichaj, 6.5—Did very well getting forward, and like Cherundolo, he’s aggressive when he decides to make his runs. Thought he was turned once by Tshabalala, but given the countless times Bafana Bafana went at him, acquitted himself well. Clearances need to be crisper when that’s the choice he makes.
Tim Ream, 6—That’s a pretty solid debut, especially in aerial challenges, where he lost only once. I don’t have a huge problem with that either, but the choice that caused him to lose was concerning, as mentioned above. Was caught in indecision on a close out and bailed out by Guzan in his other shaky moment, but his clearances were superb.
Clarence Goodson, 7.5—Starting to think he’s a plain old donk. I think he’s starting to threaten for a starting job, actually, and if he can help build possession from the back, which he tried to do when Eddie Gaven or Brian Carroll weren’t losing the nice passes he fed them, that’s a huge bonus given his obvious prowess on set pieces.
Jon Bornstein, 4.5—The most capped player wasn’t the captain after all and it was a good thing, as he whiffed early on an Anele Ngconga run that resulted in a shot on goal at the quarter hour and was generally shaky in everything but clearing the ball elsewhere. His once nice cross was soiled by Bedoya having no clue where he was in the six and not jumping at the ball.
Robbie Rogers, 5.5—Better, so there’s that. Early giveaways and his reluctance to track back early suggested more of the same, but he was much stronger as the game wore on. His runs improved and on one he found himself in a fine position where he unleashed a rocket shot at Khune that was testy, while another found a fine cross soiled by Bedoya’s lousy finishing.
Logan Pause, 5—Didn’t help keep possession, which, by the way, is his job. His marking and tracking back were admirable though, which led me to comment that he essentially did what Ricardo Clark does when he plays well, which is remain largely anonymous and not get exposed or red-carded.
Brian Carroll, 4—Unfortunately mixed a couple of fine early passes and cutting diagonal balls with some carless giveaways early cost the US possession and put the back four on their heels. Defense was better after the opening twenty, but made little impact.
Alejandro Bedoya, 6—Better in the second half making cutting runs inside of Bunbury. Crosses and passes were crisp too, and so was running with ball at feet. Absolutely dreadful finishing on one Rogers cross, and lack of knowledge of where he was on the pitch on another Bornstein cross keep the grade lower—but he’ll get another look and warrants it.
Eddie Gaven, 5.5—Lost possession several times in the first half, but was at least pressing the issue and you can write some of that off to the horrendous forward play in front of him. Did well to deliver to Rogers in the 24th minute, leading to a rare US first-half shot. Made much more of an impact once he had link-up help in the second half, getting deeper and quicker with his decisionmaking.
Robbie Findley, 2—Probably eaten by a hippopotamus somewhere around the tenth minute. Made one quick turn on a defender which led, predictably, to a “Findley”, which is American soccer code for a “fabulous run to nowhere.” The Yanks need Charlie Davies healthy and fast.
Teal Bunbury, 6—Gave the Americans a physical presence that improved hold-up play and allowed the Yanks to attack deeper in the second half. First touch impressed too, which is a rarity for a young American forward. Deceptively quick, he’ll need to learn to get in better positions, but promise is there.
Jon Spector, 4.5—Looked every bit the player lost on a relegation bench in England. His spacing was much improved, for example, but the rust showed throughout on poor clearances and a pair of errant passes resulting in giveaways in troubling positions.
Juan Agudelo, 7.5—Finish on goal was marvelous, bettered only by quick touch that enabled it. Aggressive and made smart runs. Possession in the corner after the goal killed time perfectly, which is what he’ll need to do. The key thing now is managing the hype, which will be outrageous like it always is with new toys, and doubled because it’s an American forward, and they are increasingly looking like unicorns.
Mik Diskerud, 7—Tracking back was the first thing you noticed, to be honest—it was a Holdenesque willingness to find the ball and attack it defensively. Patience and calmness on the ball in the build-up to the goal was outstanding—there’s only one or two senior team starters capable of that type of brilliance. Time to see what happens when he plays higher-level opposition.
Nat Borchers, 6—Steady in the air in his time on for Ream, and his positioning is textbook stuff. There’s a reason he was a Defender of the Year Finalist, and he showed it Wednesday night in his first USMNT match in five years.
Gabe Agbossoumonde, NR—Didn’t see enough time to acquire a ranking. In the only bad move of the night, the referee didn’t allow him to get in position on a set piece right after he was substituted into the game. Still, good job by Bradley capping the dual national—let’s see it again soon.
And now, a new feature for ESPN games—HARKESISMS, or, the finest John Harkes commentary moments of each match.
Best Harkes-ism of the First Half: “It’s amazing how the game has become so globalized.”
Best Harkes-ism of the Second Half: “Agudelo was real happy with his goal, Ian. You can tell by the way he celebrated.”
Until 2011, player ratings—- over and out.
Neil W. Blackmon is co-founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.