Fitting that only days removed from the heartbreaking defeat of U.S. Hockey in the gold medal game (I thoroughly appreciate the Facebook-suggested National Hate Sidney Crosby Day, and no, I still do not want to talk about it), the U.S. Men’s National Team would take to the field in the final match it will play before the Yanks coaching staff selects the twenty-three men who will represent the Stars and Stripes in South Africa this summer. Perhaps a good result will create an early (for this country) and extra buzz around the Yanks for the summer. Either way, the match in Amsterdam is, as previous posts have mentioned, more than simply a final audition. It’s the best team the United States will play, and the most hostile environment the National Team will play in, until our Second War of Independence on June 12. Quite simply, even though this game is a friendly, this one is big.
It’s big for the list of fringe players making final auditions, as highlighted in prior posts. It’s big because after four friendlies with subpar results featuring mostly “B” team and “C” team members of the U.S. player pool; the U.S. will field its strongest team since it wrapped up qualification in Honduras last October. Granted, the training table deprives Bradley of his strongest possible side, but this will be an American team with Everton starlets Landon Donovan and Tim Howard, as well as many of the other mainstay Yanks plying their trade across Europe. That means the Yanks won’t be able to rely on the excuse that this is a “B Team” anymore (even with injuries, it’s a B plus side) and they’ll be looking for a positive result against a great team to catapult them happily towards the final preparations for South Africa, which will begin in mid-May.
If things do go poorly, the Americans can still point to the absences of likely/at the very least possible starters Steve Cherundolo (who is in camp, thankfully), Oguchi Oneywu (training with Milan), Ricardo Clark and Clint Dempsey (apparently modeling the new U.S. away kits, so as to not to be outdone by his SI swimsuit wife). More likely, they will just point to the competition.
The Clockwork Orange, or Oranje, as they are known in Holland, are easily the best opponent the Americans have played since the Confederations Cup final, and arguably the best footballing nation to have never hoisted the World Cup. They are without a doubt capable of accomplishing the feat, and on two occasions came hauntingly close, losing to host nations West Germany and Argentina in 1974 and 78, respectively. They were quarterfinalists in 1998, but since have encountered what they consider an endless string of misfortune. This version of the Clockwork Orange looks to erase about a decade of disappointment, and their 8-0 record in World Cup qualifying (and an absurd PLUS 15 in goal differential) indicates they just might.
The Dutch aren’t a flawless side. Relative to other 2010 favorites, they are vulnerable defensively, and like their compatriots in England, they have serious questions at goaltender, as Maarten Stekelenburg is neither as athletic nor as sure-handed on set pieces as former national team keeper Edwin Van der Sar. Counterattacking football as well as long balls can test the slower Dutch back four as well, and the U.S. would do well to utilize its speed on the flanks. The problem with the long ball tactics, however, is that failed long passes feed into the Dutch strength, which is keeping more than a lion’s share of possession and utilizing this to offset its defensive weaknesses with relentless attacks.
Missing the centerpiece of its central defense in Onyewu, the Yanks will have to focus on maintaining possession, especially on the road. Having Mo Edu back in the fold should help in this regard, but the truth of the matter is that even (the possible World Cup starting tandem of Edu and Bradley) will have trouble containing Inter superstar Wesley Sneijder, and the American flank won’t be able to help much given their own enormous chore—defending FIFA Player of the Year candidate Arjen Robben and the tireless Dirk Kuyt. These players generate incredible pressure on any midfield, making possession all the more important and meaning that the U.S. back four, which has looked vulnerable since the second half of the Confederations Cup final, must be at its very best or they will be punished, either by the star midfielders or by the very capable Klaas Jan Huntelaar who likely will start up top for the Oranje.
The game as such is an enormous challenge, and when you throw in the fact it’s played at Amsterdam ArenA, you get a sense of what a great test of adversity it will be for the Yanks. That said, this has been a World Cup cycle that has seen the Stars and Stripes rise to the level of their competition quite often when faced with a great test. Bob Bradley will surely emphasize this to a side that wants a tremendous starting point for its final Cup preparations.
Additionally, this is a Dutch team that historically does not respond to adversity well at all. It may ultimately haunt the Clockwork Orange that qualifying was essentially a Sunday stroll. After all, Netherlands football (again, like their English compatriots) is filled with tales of what-could-have-been and there is always the constant risk that bickering among themselves will derail their Cup Finals at the first sign of adversity. This happened, quite literally, in 1976, when just before the EURO Semifinals against Czechoslovakia two players including star goalkeeper Jan van Beveren left the team, stating to the press that Johan Cruyff had “too much power.” The Dutch press then leaked that manager George Knobel would resign after the tournament—and the players essentially gave up. Two years later, Cruyff refused to even play with his countrymen at the World Cup. He found them too sneaky and backhanded. They qualified and made the final anyway—but it is a great tale of what might have been. Countless other stories of in-squad disputes litter the folklore of Dutch soccer.
This team is no different in that respect—Arjen Robben and Robbie van Persie can’t stand to be in the same room together, and will have on the same pitch this summer. Sneijder’s starring role on one of the world’s most-hated sides (Inter) does him no favors in the popularity department. No one likes Nigel de Jong, although he’s endeared himself to country for vowing to wipe away past Dutch failures. This does not make the silver spoon son of Dutch soccer royalty likable. How could anyone like a guy who literally, when talking of his ego no less, spoke in the third person!! “Nigel de Jong has put his ego aside,” he said, with apparently no awareness of the tragic irony. What’s the point? The Dutch aren’t the most headstrong group. If the U.S., or any side this summer, put them in a position where they have to battle, they’ll likely choose fighting each other over fighting for their Cup hopes. As such, a fast or at least composed beginning is critical for Yankee success tomorrow.
Either way, it is a big game. It’s the beginning of a journey that began in Barbados two years ago. Thus far, it has been a compelling tale, with great moments of triumph and joy and sad lows and unforgettable human tragedy. Most of all, for this columnist, tomorrow’s match is the beginning of the final chapters this we-started-in-a-coffee-shop after Orozco’s Olympic red card blog has chronicled throughout, at first without readers and now with a growing and loyal base. So, it is a big day. Cue the Rocky “Hearts on Fire” montage, and join me tomorrow for the live chat.
Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com or @nwb_USMNT.