Before I dive into the player rankings, here are three quick thoughts on the Yanks World Cup opening draw with the Three Lions Saturday in Rustenburg, and what we might look for as Bradley’s men try to secure three critical points Friday against Slovenia at Johannesburg’s famed Ellis Park.
- The United States deserved a point.
Regardless of what the English tabloids say (and they’ve been predictably harsh towards the Americans, casting the blame also entirely on the 24 karat goalkeeping error by Robert Green), the Yanks certainly earned a point Saturday night. It is unquestionably true that Green’s error may radically alter the course of his career, and may end his international career altogether. That said, it is in error to say that without the error the Americans were surely doomed. The Yanks responded from yet another atrocious opening ten minutes to a World Cup finals with ninety minutes of industry and fighting spirit, at times controlling the midfield and for at least one ten minute stretch in the first half essentially overrunning the more fabled English midfield. Green’s gaffe has shifted criticism away from Fabio Capello’s tactical choice to deploy Steven Gerrard in the center with Frank Lampard, and as the Three Lions move forward this deflection of critical analysis at least has the potential to be extremely costly. Gerrard and Lampard lacked the ability to hold the center, both opting to move forward (albeit in Lampard’s case in particular, with little success) instead, and their failure to track back may have created the space Dempsey needed to take his shot which led to the tying goal. Without a calming, holding presence, the Three Lions looked vulnerable to attacks directly at the center in front of the back four, and without a fit Gareth Barry, the Americans at least seemed aware of this tactical deficiency. Capello’s choice hurt the English offense as well, because without Gerrard slotted to the left, Wayne Rooney was less inclined to track back and make interweaving runs with Gerrard, who, deployed on the flank, allows Rooney to make darting runs to the left and also creates space with his interior forays for Ashley Cole to move up from his spot on the English left. This creates chaos for most defenses, and it may have made the difference last night, because despite a frenetic final twenty minutes, Bradley and his players seemed to be in control, or at least prepared, for every attacking idea the Three Lions threw at them.
Meanwhile, MB 90 had an excellent night. He played within himself, pushing forward enough and distributing with purpose at times, and his midfield partner Ricardo Clark, who was at least partially to blame for Gerrard’s early goal, recovered and played admirable defense that helped the Yanks neutralize the midfield. While the less celebrated American midfield partnership certainly didn’t take control of the game throughout, they remained organized, limited (especially in Clark’s case) turnovers that were a concern, and held their shape with a determined and responsible effort. Bob Bradley perhaps put it best: “”There was a big battle in midfield all night long, and I felt our midfield did well all night.” In fact, for all the drama of the final twenty, Grant Wahl, among others, is correct to point out that truly it was the Americans were the closest to scoring in the second half, and it was none other than Robert Green who denied them after Jozy Altidore had embarrassed Jamie Carragher, looking more like a USC Trojan tailback hitting a corner on a student body right than a young striker taking on a world-class centerback.
- The U.S. back four answered a great deal of questions.
At least for one night, the questions about the ability and fitness of the American backline have been resoundingly answered. On a second viewing, Onyewu was probably a bit to blame for the English goal, not stepping up and seeing the play earlier and arriving late after Clark had momentarily lost Gerrard. That was the last let down for Onyewu all night, who did a wonderful job frustrating Wayne Rooney and made an outstanding block on a Frank Lampard drive late.
Jay DeMerit lost several aerial battles with Emile Heskey, who has been surprisingly lamented by the English fans and press. To me Heskey was perhaps one of England’s best players on the night, though I agree his rocket directly at Tim Howard lacked imagination and he could have done better. The thing is—if you want imagination or better finishing from an English striker, you generally aren’t talking about Emile Heskey. DeMerit did maintain his positioning well and helped when asked on Rooney. As usual, just when he appeared overmatched, he dove in front of shots from distance and sacrificed his body to prove he would always compete. That’s enough for me, and it’s been enough against England and Spain.
Steve Cherundolo played his finest game in an American shirt. His runs in the first half were so good that Capello had to remove Milner from the game after Milner lost the diminutive Californian a second time in three minutes, resulting in an awful challenge and a yellow card. No word on whether Milner has recovered his pride or jock strap, but he’ll have a day or two to look before England heads to Cape Town this week. After Shawn Wright-Phillips came on, the perception was that Cherundolo was somewhat less effective. I’ll agree that his link-up play with Donovan diminished after the change, but some of that credit goes to Cherundolo for being responsible with his runs and remembering that his largest responsibility was defense.
The Captain was his usual responsible self, and his effort perhaps was the most impressive. It is easy to understand why he has the armband because while he was clearly bothered by Aaron Lennon’s pace, he never took an unnecessary chance and made a total of zero obvious “mistakes” on my second viewing. The only real criticism I’d have would be he could have helped more on Glen Johnson’s dangerous runs, which were almost the difference in the match—but you get the sense he trusted Clint Dempsey and Stuart Holden to help and was more concerned with drifting to the center to help Gooch and DeMerit, especially later in the match, as a desperate Rooney moved deeper and deeper, demanding the ball and trying to run directly at the American center when he received it.
- We may need Jose Torres to unlock the Slovenian center
The Algerians had ample opportunity to take the lead today, but poor finishing by Ziani and Matmour kept the Slovenians in the game until the game’s two shocking developments: a) Slovenia got its feet under it and played organized and disciplined football; b) Algeria, long a paragon of discipline, received a red card. Okay. Obviously those developments were about as predictable as the western sunset. Slovenia grabbing the three points changes things, and they’ll likely be content to play for a draw, something that qualifying tells us they are particularly well-suited to do. Faced with a Slovenian formation that will resemble a 4-5-1 with a defensive mid more than Matjak Kek’s traditional 4-4-2, the Americans may face as many as eight men behind the ball, plus goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, who is a rising star. That means the Americans will need to be much more productive on the attack, and may need to rely on short passing and more build up than we see in their traditional counterattack.
Jose Torres’ performance against Turkey makes you think he’d be the guy for this role, and it will be interesting to see if Bradley, who some believe outcoached none other than Fabio Capello yesterday, will make an adjustment.
Tim Howard, 8—His save on Heskey’s rocket was remarkable simply because there was no rebound and Heskey couldn’t have hit the ball harder. He played bravely, perhaps even with broken or deeply bruised ribs. Was blameless on the goal, and made outstanding decisions, particularly on set pieces. Made a late save on a long Lampard shot look easy, and it was at that moment, not during Green’s gaffe (which most any pub league keeper stops), that the gulf in class was so evident.
Carlos Bocanegra, 5.5—See above. Troubled by Lennon’s pace for sure, but no significant mistakes, and smart to drift towards the center when Rooney received the ball deep.
Jay DeMerit, 6—A bit slow to step to Heskey after the throw in that led to Gerrard’s goal. Lost aerial battles with Heskey on at least three different occasions as well. That said, got his feet under him and played the brave, fighting man’s game that might as well be named for him (IE: “That guy is a competitor man!” “Definitely, he’s an absolute DeMerit.”)His positioning was outstanding throughout as well.
Oguchi Onyewu, 6—Are you noticing the trend? The more the big fella plays—the better he gets. There were a pair of shaky moments in the first half. He got lost on the goal, perhaps even more than DeMerit, as he was pulled far too forward and left too much space. Also made a poor decision on a set piece—seemingly misjudging the ball in the air. Fortunately it fell harmlessly past everyone. Played a monstrous second half, and his late challenge on Frank Lampard was key to securing the draw. Frustrated Rooney throughout the final 45 and kept his cool doing so—a big deal.
Steve Cherundolo, 8—See above. Finest game in an American shirt. Absolutely proved his class against James Milner, forcing his substitution. His link-up play with Donovan was excellent in the first half, and I don’t believe it dropped off in the second half due to a less effective performance—rather, I would argue ‘Dolo was responsible about getting forward given SWP’s pace on the ball. It seemed he made the cognizant choice to contain Phillips, which he did.
Clint Dempsey, 6.5 – I’m tired of reading the same “Isn’t it classic Dempsey to be not particularly involved yet find the net, etc?” lines. Give me a break. OPTA indicates he covered the second most distance, meaning he was putting in the effort on defense he’s rarely received credit for outside of Craven Cottage. He was also easily the most effective American passer—at a (both sides) game-best 88 percent. Oh, and he found a bit of space and was optimistic. After the Juve strike and the Stoke goals this year—why shouldn’t he be.
Ricardo Clark, 4.5—Lost Gerrard on the goal and really has no excuse for that. Certainly DeMerit and Onyewu share some blame, but Ricardo is on the field not to fall asleep and that was a bad moment. Seemed to settle down immediately after, and was unusually accurate in distribution, at seventy-one percent, which was third on the American team.
MB 90, 7—Excellent night that was arguably his best as a national. Would have liked to see him be a bit more adventurous on his patented runs into the box, but he chose caution without unnecessary back passing, and that is big progress. Always seemed to be where the ball was and his distribution was far better, at least in the first half, when the American attack was more effective. Passes were a bit off in the second half but he continued excellent defense. Avoided a yellow card, too—which was shocking in an emotional game like this one.
Landon Donovan, 6—Set piece service was improved from the Send-off matches, and he was extremely effective linking with MB 90 and ‘Dolo in the first half. Should have been rewarded for constant industry by Altidore after a perfect cross found the youngster free in the box, but Altidore shamefully missed badly. Troubled to assert himself in the second half, once ‘Dolo defended more and MB 90’s distribution waned.
Robbie Findley, 5—Pace was awe-inspiring and might be a springboard to Europe. That said, I’d like to see someone else start in the next couple of matches because Findley’s passing was a bit off and his decision-making suffers from an obvious ailment: lack of experience at this level. Absolutely a difference maker in spots, as his late run and turn on Carragher proved.
Jozy Altidore, 5—Needs to be better than one brilliant run a game, but showed that he understands that by playing full-speed for the first time in a few matches. Green made a fine save on him after his brilliant run, but we need more in the next two matches and his miss on the Donovan cross was inexcusably poor.
Edson Buddle, 3—I think he was eaten by a lion or went to see if he could find a vuvuzela for Robbie Rogers. Who knows? Didn’t see him after he entered, even on a second view when I tried to see him,
Stu Holden, 5.5—I love that Stu tracks back defensively with a willing heart. Would like to see him earlier because his few passes were sharp and he has the potential to be a big difference maker, which is what World Cup subs are about.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.