U.S.A Beats Australia, But What Did We Learn?

The United States National Team defeated their Australian counterparts 3-to-1 this morning, with Edson Buddle stealing the headlines on the back of his two-goal performance.

The game, though a nice victory, was a bit of a bland appetizer before next week’s main course of the a first-round matchup against England.   A small stadium, poor field and half-throttle play for stretches of the game made it hard to get over excited about today’s victory.

And while I could use my previously favored method of looking at the glass as being either half full or half empty over a number of areas, with a week before the World Cup – where the glass is either over-flowing or shattered – I will instead just poke at a few interesting themes.

  • I’m having trouble deciding what’s more frightening… Oguchi Onyewu starting against England on June 12th or him not starting against England on June 12th.  If he starts, Bob Bradley has more faith in talent and experience than recent competitive game-time or proven recent form.  If Gooch doesn’t start, Jay DeMerit and Clarence Goodson need to play a whole bunch better against England.
  • Do we fall out of love that easily?   I’ve seen some of the post-match analysis from the “usual suspects” and the name that seems missing?  José Francisco Torres.   I’ve not been very impressed by the Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark combination’s ability to close things down,  possess the ball in the midfield or add the creative element so missing from most of our games.  Torres was a pint-sized revelation against Turkey, but didn’t get a sniff of the field today.   I haven’t seen any reports regarding Ricardo Clark’s apparent injury, and I hope he’s fine, but an injury there might force Coach Bradley’s hand a new direction.   (However, it’s not clear that it would tilt him toward Torres over Maurice Edu…)
  • Luckily, US fans can move from man-crush to man-crush fairly easily.   With our Torres love being put on the back burner since he didn’t play today, it’s now Edson Buddle, 24×7.  Hey, two goals will do that.  I’m happy to join the bandwagon and am all for playing forwards who are confident and in a hot-streak.  Oddly the USA appears to have at least two of them, but US Soccer golden-boy Jozy Altidore isn’t one of them.  Time will tell how bad Jozy’s sprained ankle really is, but at this point, I’m more worried about the center of the formation – both in midfield and defense – than who is up front. 
  • Clint Dempsey appears to have a chip on his shoulder.  This is good – as long as he doesn’t get pulled into some silly fouls.   I sure hope Landon Donovan wakes up with a similar chip… just so we don’t leave anything to chance.  Can we start a rumor that David Beckham was up in the stands calling him Landycakes? 
  • Every team needs a player who frustrates them by adding some ingredients the team really needs (like speed) while frequently screwing up the easy (looking) things.   For the USA, this is Robbie Findley.

Today’s win against Australia was a positive step forward.   It was imperfect.  It showed areas of weakness. But it was a win.

England, however, is more than a little better than Australia. Luckily, the USA is more than a little better than it played today.

Have a good week boys, the real game is next.

Dempsey: Exceptional American, American Exception.

Kudos are clearly warranted for Clint Dempsey as he hits his second goal in as many weeks for Fulham FC.  While his first professional coach and likely mentor, ex-Liverpool great Steve Nicol, might not immediately love that Clint helped Fulham take down Liverpool, it was clearly a significant achievement following a goal the prior week against wanna-be powerhouse Manchester City.

As a Revs fan, I was on the Dempsey bandwagon early.  He brought swagger, skill, attitude and the honest work-rate of a rookie who was both earning his keep while still making waves.   That same set of values transferred to the US National team as well, and has held down a steady starting role.

All is not perfect, in fact, I’ve been critical of Clint’s recent US National Team performances, where he seemed almost disinterested with his midfield role and only came alive when moved to forward.   Funny thing though, even in games where that criticism is leveled on him, he often scores important goals.  In some ways he’s turned into the USA’s Thierry Henry, a player who we always expect to do more than what is reasonable for our national side.  (Ask a Frenchman if they think Henry is as good for France as he was for Arsenal or even is for Barcelona.)

More troubling for the US isn’t the ascendency of Clint into a stand-out professional but the fact that there are too few of his ilk. Now, to be fair, there are MANY proven US professionals making a difference both for MLS clubs and abroad.  But, I’ll submit there what is lacking is any true “skill player” right now that is making an impact on the international scene.

There are many good summaries of US Players and their progress abroad and Steven Goff does an easy to digest version for the Washington Post here.   Skim that list for a second, and it’s hard to suggest US players aren’t playing solid roles for their professional teams in international leagues.

Could we have a more impressive list of clubs?  Sure.

Could more of the players be in “better” leagues?  Yup.

But that’s not my primary concern right now.   My primary concern is that of that long list of players, most of those seeing solid time are “workers” not “skill players.”

What’s my definition of a “skill player?”  I cannot suggest it’s nailed down, in fact it’s a bit like pornography, I know it when I see it.    When Dempsey does a feint, a back heel or whatever slick trick he has lined up, he brings that special something that is worth notice.  He brings the kind of game that makes a kid go to the backyard and try to do the same thing – something we have far too little of.   (Yes, as a US fan, I prefer he does these things well past the midway line and not leave us exposed – which has happened a number of times – but he’s young and still improving.)

While hard to define, I can offer some “skill player” boundaries though.

One easy place to start? Goalkeepers are clearly not in the list, they are their own animals.

Of the defenders in Goff’s list… maybe Michael Parkhurst counts, at least he’s not a destroyer in the classic sense – but he is no Maradona.  (But as a self-revealed Revs fan, I am a bit biased.)   Edgar Castillo is on the wait and see list.   And let’s be honest, even skillful defenders are not going to represent the crème de la crème of skill for the majority of the playing world.

Let’s skip to the forwards… only two are listed as having seen time this weekend. Jozy Altidore and Kenny Cooper.   Both have skills, but neither are magicians.   Jozy only saw 30 minutes for a bad Premiership club (though he’s had a number of unrelated club issues) and Kenny only saw 15 minutes in the second division of Germany.   Not setting the world on fire, either of them.

Freddy Adu is in that list – though he’s just as easily deployed as a midfielder or forward.  A “skill player” if there ever was one – and one I really hope finds success.  But, put plainly, he has not found success, consistency or playing time in any recent league or team.  A real let down for US fans that want skillful creative soccer from our team.

(I’m saddened not to mention Charlie Davies, due to his very frightening and fatal – for others – car accident.   I wish him a speedy recovery and acknowledge he was making a mark in Sochaux.  He brings the attitude and workrate  that Dempsey shows.  However, in fairness, he was a speed-demon with a nose for goal, not a “skill player” in the sense I am searching for here.   As many are, I am hopeful to see him back on the field to make that impact his recent run of form had promised.)

In the midfield – where for me the skill and magic lives – there are hopes outside of Dempsey.   But nothing that makes the world stop and take notice.  I like Michael Bradley, but he doesn’t fit my vague “skill player” definition, sorry.   Feilhaber is undeniably skilled – but Aarhus isn’t a club anyone I know has as a poster on their wall – so international impact is not something we cam claim here.   Torres has the skills, at least, I think (time will tell.)  But as much as respect as I have for the Mexican league (I do) there is still a gulf between it and the top European leagues.

Then there is the odd case of Landon Donovan.   Who knows what to say? He is clearly an impact midfielder with skill – perhaps the most of any US player.  He makes an impact in MLS.   How do we rate that?   I am hardly a Euro-Snob and generally have no problem with our best players playing at home.   But I’m the first to admit, scoring against Chivas USA isn’t the same as scoring against Liverpool, let alone Chivas Guadalajara.   (If you doubt this, please watch this weekend’s playoff “LA Derby” good fun, hilarious defending.)

That leaves Clint.   I’m happy we have an exceptional American to point to right now.

I’m sad he’s the American exception.

US Men v. Trinidad and Tobago: The glass is half…

It’s hard to feel bad about winning three points on the road in CONCACAF, since that seems to be a rarity nowadays.   Yet, it’s hard to feel totally good about this result either.

It is another perfect example of the half-full, half-empty conundrum.

I said after the El Salvador game that this match would tell us a lot about the team… and it did… sadly what it told us was pretty hard to interpret, as if spoken in some dialect I’ll never quite decipher.  Here’s what I did take away. . .

Glass Half Full View

  • USA won a critical three points, and while not a lock for the next round, it just got a lot more likely (big thanks to El Salvador for squeaking past Costa Rica.)
  • No yellow cards issued to the USA… considering our penchant for red-cards in recent tournaments, that’s quite an improvement.
  • Landon Donovan.   No offense to Carlos, but how is Landon not the captain of this team?
  • Howard made some big saves, Spector is coming into his own, and Holden has serious potential.
  • Relative to what was going on around him… I think the Bornstein haters should take a deep breath and pick on a few others for a while.  I’m certainly not his biggest cheerleader, and maybe Castillo or someone else might not usurp him, but he’s far from our only question mark.
  • A different ref, a different day, a different view… and that sliding hand-ball off Charlie D’s centering pass right at the start makes this a whole different game.
  • Apparently Bob Bradley can give a decent half-time talk.

Glass Half Empty View

  • The US midfield at times appeared like they had just met.  Passes too hard, passes to soft, passes to nobody in particular, passes directly to T&T… we tried it all.    Just a thought… how might Torres, Feilhaber and even Holden done in those key midfield roles at the start?
  • Hard for me to figure out Gooch… his towering headers in the second half will have some rate him highly, buty I thought he started slow and was indecisive at first (rusty, no doubt) and those towering headers (admittedly some important stops mixed in) typically went right back to T&T.    I wonder if A.C. Milan is thinking “loan candidate” yet…
  • If not for that cross-bar, what would this story line have been?
  • Dear Coach Bradley… why can’t you give your half-time pep talk 45 minutes or so earlier?
  • Clint Dempsey.  I’m a long time Dempsey fan and think he could be a real difference maker.    However, does someone know if the rest of the US team have all done something to annoy him?  He just seems like he’d rather be somewhere else for long stretches of recent games.   That’s not the Clint I remember…
  • Jump suit.   Could some US Supporters group chip in to by Bob B a sport coat?  Maybe a tie?  I realize there is no standard for coach attire, but he looks like he was running late from a workout and just said, “screw it, I’ll go the game like this.”  If he cannot get the team’s on-field play to respect the “beautiful game”… maybe his attire could at least?

While I know that a bad three points tonight was better than a well played tie or loss in our quest to be in South Africa next year, I just cannot get too excited about this one.

I found Bob Bradley’s quote that started “As the game wore on, our fitness was key . . . “ a stark reminder of how we still win – conditioning, running, fighting.    Or, positively spun, we “earn” our victories through “hard work.”

Effort, heart, determination and “finding a way to win” are all commendable traits that we can see in this team.    I just wish it came with a larger dose of smart, poised, cohesive, and yes, “attractive” soccer.

That would be something to get excited about.

US Men v. El Salvador: The glass is half…

Since thinking through results of soccer matches require a fair bit of perspective, and I’m often in need of some emotional detachment . . . I’m going to try offering a view double-sided view  of the US v. El Salvador game (and maybe others)  via a glass half-empty vs. glass half-full analogy.

(With this game, I am doubly drawn to a “halfway” view of an analysis, since that’s about how much of the game I saw . . . due to a significant (and certainly user-error-driven) mistake in DVR planning.)

Glass Half Full View

  • USA won a critical three points, just as they needed to and remains on track for qualification.
  • If it were not for some phantom calls (Dempsey-to-Jozy?) and a mis-hit breakaway (a tired Dempsey) this could easily have been 4 to 1
  • Seeing Davies and Altidore up there as a growing tandem warms the heart
  • In counter-attacks (and some pure passing motions) we often move quickly, precisely and are hard to deal with going forward
  • Presuming Charlie Davies isn’t badly injured, we got out of Salt Lake City without any yellow card or injury trouble (that we didn’t come in with)
  • CONCACAF referees are not what we would like them to be, and if there’s a karma issue here, hopefully we spent a good deal of the mystery call voo-doo that was coming our way in this game

Glass Half Empty View

  • We are incapable of keeping possession and managing a game against even presumed lesser teams – scenes from Azteca in midfield all over again, no possession . . . meaning any precise attacking sequences occur far to infrequently and the defense is constantly under pressure
  • Left-back roulette continues with the unspectacular Bornstein, the (club) homeless Pearce and the often-recalled-to-center-back Bocanegra . . . can Castillo or Orozco help?
  • Central defense was OK, if not over-powering . . . but if Onyewu is the answer we may be in for a wild ride (poor pre-season with AC Milan for my money, and hasn’t been playing since heading to Italy)
  • Qualifying just got incredibly interesting, especially now that Mexico has remembered how to play soccer . . . 3-0 at Costa Rica?  Ouch.
  • If this is indeed the best players we have in the country (and I’d have trouble naming an altogether different bunch)  and we continue to give up early goals and cannot control against CONCACAF minnows . . . is the coaching door really closed until after the World Cup?

Wednesday night’s game versus Trinidad and Tobago might tell us if we are full, empty, or in need of a new glass altogether.

Also, I wanted to point out a great blog over at the excellent No Short Corners.    Always on my must-read list, this particular post covers Colombia’s victory (always close my heart after the USA), the decisions against Arsenal and Chelsea this week and a very interesting commentary on the shady Jack Warner, the Trinidadian who is CONCACAF President.

Twellman on Terps, Dempsey, Nicol and more . . .

I thought this interview at Du Nord would be of interest for any New England Revolution fan.   Taylor Twellman talks about his injury, the University of Maryland program, his career, the US National team and personalities such as Steve Nicol, Paul Mariner and Clint Dempsey.   A few quotes I found especially interesting?

  •  “I’m there for the guys in the games, but I’m not going to sit here and lie to you: I miss playing. Because I know right now that team needs me and I need them.”
  • “Stevie, to me, should be in the running for the next national team head coaching job.”
  • “I’m a German type forward. I don’t think I’m really a Spanish-type forward. I don’t think I’ve ever done a stepover in my professional career.”   (Bob says . . . OK, that had me laughing)

When asked if the Revolution had done enough, in his view, to replace the talent they’d been losing.   He said “No.”

He also offered a thought on Clint Dempsey who “didn’t want to be here, never wanted to be here.”

A very good read. . .