Qualifying Perspective: USA vs. Antigua and Barbuda

I’ll be the first to admit, I’m having trouble finding the right mood after the USA’s 3-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda. And, I sense I’m not alone.

A two goal victory gives the USA three points in our first qualifying game, I should be ecstatic, no? Then why aren’t I?

For me (and maybe for everyone), however, my discontent did not start with that result. US fans have ridden a roller-coaster of emotions recently following a tremendous victory (5-1 vs. Scotland), a frustrating loss (1-4 vs. Brazil) and a baffling scoreless draw (vs. Canada.)

And, as if those results weren’t enough to stir the restless fan, some out there had extra angst invoked by coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s post-game commentary after the Brazil loss. I am very much in the angst camp on this one.

I won’t delve too deeply into those comments here, since Paul Gardner has it exactly right and well covered in Soccer America, here. However, the idea that a US coach could utter nonsense about hurting the other team publicly, after a “FRIENDLY” and about the not-surprisingly-superior five-time World Champion Brazil without any significant backlash saddens me.

Yes, the USA might need to become (more) difficult to beat and play physically, but if you cannot get the attention of your team in the locker room, don’t leverage ridiculous comments in the press to try to get it done. From our most experienced coach, a most amateurish move.

With that off my chest, I’ll try to reestablish some perspective. In prior World Cup qualifying cycles, I’ve used a glass half full/empty analogy, and this seems like a fitting time to revisit it.

Glass Half Empty View

  • The USA looked listless in stretches of a game against a team of USL Pro players with a couple English league additions from a nation of ~90,000 people. Frankly, any MLS team (well, maybe not Toronto F.C.) would be expected to play better than the US Men’s National team did for large stretches against Antigua and Barbuda.
  • Klinsmann might have an interesting history and great accent, but is certainly not infallible. It’s fair to suggest that no team would carry three left-backs into camp, so he was dealt a tough hand of cards with the injuries to Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, but the team’s motivation, organization and lineups are all worthy of scrutiny. Torres to left back was a gamble, but an understandable one. Others may have moved Bocanegra out left and trusted the other center backs on the roster against what were manageable forwards by International standards. Klinsmann didn’t. More baffling though is the mid-game insertion of Oguchi Onyewu, a player all US fans would love to have back at his best, but acknowledge that he is now where near that level. Why not use other center backs that haven’t shown such glaring errors recently? (Note to Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst: if there’s anyway to hide MLS in your resume it might be a good idea for this coach.)
  • We have a coach with international pedigree, players that are playing at extremely high levels around the world and all the training and preparation a nation could ask for, yet we cannot solve a simple issue: so frequently playing to the level of our opponents. Maybe it’s time for some voodoo?
  • The injury to Jose Torres might rob of us a good possession-enhancing option for the critical game in Guatemala.  Time will tell what severity he’s dealing with.

Glass Half Full Perspective

  • The USA won its first World Cup qualifier despite horrendously rainy conditions and an opponent who was resolute in defense.  The objective was to win and get the three points, and that is what was done.
  • Jermaine Jones didn’t maim anyone.
  • Herculez Gomez saw his continued hard work and club-success pay off with the US Men’s National team and has clearly added much needed pressure to Jozy Altidore and other forward options to say at their sharpest. The battle for that second (if we play with two) forward position next to Clint Dempsey is clearly on.
  • Mexico, which it pains me to admit is the class of CONCACAF right now, showed they too are imperfect by “only” beating Guyana 3-1 in Mexico.

The challenge today is that the US fan base expects more than results.  There is an understanding that CONCACAF opponents and situations are challenging, but that is no longer enough to excuse lackluster performances.  What the US fans have delivered over the last 180 minutes was certainly lackluster.

Tuesday night in Guatemala will be a difficult game in a difficult venue, so US fans might cut the team some slack.  But with the fan base continuing to hear that the team is a work in progress, learning a new system, with a new first-eleven and new coach, it needs to see just that.  Progress.

After that progress is achieved, please show us something that won’t necessitate most post-game headlines include the idea of “winning ugly.”

We’ve had quite enough of that.

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.

“Cero a Cinco” Caps a Long Soccer Weekend

Well, that was quite a weekend of soccer.   My eyes hurt.

“Cero a Cinco”

Surrounded as I am by a large Colombian family of in-laws, I understand and revel in the “Cinco a Cero” (5-0) hysteria that rang down as a high-note of 1994 World Cup Qualifying when Colombia downed Argentina by that score in Buenos Aires.   Any Colombian of the right age will remember that night, or at least remember the hang-over from the partying that ensued.   And why not?

I never expected that today’s Gold Cup final could be the flip side of that for the USA vs. Mexico. Since this wasn’t a World Cup Qualifier, it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as that Colombian victory . . . but Mexico really needed a victory like this against the US to set them back on the right path.  And I’m sure they are delirious South of the Border.  (Well, or in lots of places North of the border too, like Giants Stadium which looked like an Azteca preview party today.)

On Friday, I acknowledged that we didn’t yet know enough about our USA “B” team and that “. . . it’s Sunday against Mexico for the final where we’ll really learn something.”  Well, lesson learned.

Stepping back . . . a questionable penalty tilted the field toward the US goal and then the flood gates opened. The US team on that field is further away from the best 11 we’d start than the Mexican team was from their best eleven (since it certainly contained some first team starters.) And for good stretches of the match, the US looked as dangerous as Mexico.  At 0-5 though, none of that will matter, nor should it.

There is a bigger picture here, both in terms of the Gold Cup and the US v Mexico rivalry.

Gold Cup: As I noted on Friday, the pressure in the Mexico/Costa Rica Semi-Final was much higher than what the USA faced against Honduras – a representation of the fact that the USA’s group stages overall shouldn’t have been that hard to get through. Reaching the final inflated expectations which were brought down to earth in a hurry today. When we started this competition, everyone acknowledged this was NOT the best eleven for the USA but would provide an excellent growth opportunity and learning experience for a (mostly) young US Squad. Well, this is one lesson the players on that field won’t ever forget.

US v. Mexico: US fans have had it easy for a while. The USA has “owned” Mexico on our soil, beat them at the World Cup and overall had a pretty clear sense of superiority about them recently.  Is that real though? Are we better than Mexico? Probably need to define “better” . . . our best eleven can beat Mexico’s best eleven, we’ve proven that. But be it the National teams or club teams (as evidenced in Superliga, CONCACAF Champions League, etc.), what was proven today is that there remains a pretty serious experience gap after you dig deeper into the roster.

Again, I’ll avoid player ratings here, as there will be too many offering opinions already. I heralded Jay Heaps for his improved play after a rough start . . . if I were clairvoyant, I’d have begged him to take the accolades and run for the hills.  Missed opportunities in the final third and tackles that needed to be all or nothing but missed that mark were shared by many. Risks were inevitable after the team was a down by a couple goals  . . . but the disintegration of the back line screamed for experience. Too bad Jimmy Conrad’s bell was rung against Panama, he might have helped.

The real question is what will happen on August 12th in Mexico City. Can new found confidence push Mexico to leverage the Azteca advantage and romp once more?  Will the USA “first-eleven” feel the need for some “revancha” in Mexico and be even more motivated than they already were?

MLS Games

Funny things happen when the New England Revolotuion can get some of their better players (Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston) on the field.   They win.   I have a secret (and perhaps unreasonable) hope that this season has some potential left. Why? Based on no-data to prove this it seems to me that many teams which start out gangbusters tend to run out of luck (injuries) or otherwise lose their way by the playoffs, whereas the teams who work through early season injuries/issues are fresher and more focused come playoff time. Hmmm, perhaps all we need to do is sneak into the playoffs and keep recovering from injuries.

David Beckham played and even shook a fan’s hand, but he didn’t score.  His captain did.  Both were out done by the more than half-field goal by Claudio Lopez.

I didn’t see the Red Bulls / Colorado game, but I didn’t really have to, did I?  RBNY really is THAT bad.  Unfortunate for MLS.   Hysterical for a Revs fan.

World Football Challenge

I struggled to care about these games. How is it possible that some of the best teams in the world are visiting and I struggle to care?  Frankly, it’s sad to me that the crowds are coming out for a pre-season warm up “competition” in such numbers as to suggest they had no other soccer to watch in this country. I thought Taylor Twellman’s (whose team gets maybe a third of today’s crowd) tweet said it all “gosh I wish the stadium filled like this for OUR games be so cool.”   Yes, it would . . .

Taylor also tweeted on the joys of playing on natural grass. Which makes me wonder . . . if it is feasible to install a grass field for some of these one-off games is it really out of the question for MLS to do something for the part of their season that doesn’t conflict with the NFL?

As for the AC Milan / Inter Minal game, the idea that this game was anything like a true “derby” is laughable if I’m being generous. I’ve been to a European derby (Chelsea/Arsenal), a Brazilian Derby (Fluminense/Flamengo — OK, preseason, but still) and actually stood in the last row of Inter’s Ultras at the amazing San Siro.   The intensity of those games is hard to describe.   What happened at Gillette earlier today pre-season warm up with a little extra juice than the others we’ve seen in this tournament.  But not much more.

Friday Musings on the Gold Cup

USA.  USA.  USA.

We beat Honduras.   Again.   What have we learned about the US “B Team” – if we can call them that?   They are pretty good.   But, it’s Sunday against Mexico for the final where we’ll really learn something.  Watching  the beginning of  Mexico/Costa Rica was like re-watching USA/Honduras in fast-forward – more energy, more pace. Sunday will be intense for the new US players.  Sadly the crowd will not be pro-USA in Giants Stadium and the pressure will be on.

I’d be OK with ‘dos a cero.’   Again.  Good times.

There are already lots of player-raters out there, so I’m not sure I have too much to add, but  . . .

  • Stuart Holden has the US fan base swooning.  I think he will/should make a strong run at the first team for qualifiers.  (Have I joined the man crush?   I suppose so.)
  • I’m happy for Jay Heaps (as an unabashed Revs fan), he was beaten up over his first performance in the Gold Cup (mostly deserved) and has bounced back like the battler Revs fans know he is.
  • I never want to think Brian Ching brings much to a game.  But he does.  (Not sure if my bias is a remnant Revs-fan-fueled debates of “should be Taylor Twellman getting Ching’s chances with the Nats” days of the past.)
  • I wonder if Michael Parkhurst or his club FC Nordsjælland expected he’d see the field after getting called back in.   They are all probably just as happy he stays injury free.

Add a few countries, get a few fans . . .

What a world of difference an international competition(s) makes – attendances have been strong for both the Gold Cup and World Football Challenge.   However, do ‘we’ do all we can to use these games as a chance to build a “let’s go to the game” tradition that spills over into MLS?     Well, here’s a nice write-up from Goal.com on the atmosphere at last night’s double-header.   Lightning, rain, power outages and “extortion” (my word for $40 parking) weren’t enough to stop the fun.

Speaking of that parking cost . . .  Parking at a Chicago Fire game apparently costs $15 at Toyota Park which means the first-time Chicago-soccer attendees are incorrectly left with one more, pricey reason to not bother attending an MLS game.   Too bad . . .

I could get used to this . . .

Another competition . . . . another final.   Of course there is no comparison.  Of course the Confederations Cup was an unreal, unexpected and somewhat lucky run.   Of course the Gold Cup is stacked in our favor being played here in the good ol’ USA.   But I don’t care.   Arsenal fans used to have a shirt to the effect of “You win some, you tie some” during a crazy unbeaten streak they had a few years back.   Maybe the USA “Don’t Tread on Me” soccer theme will need the addition of “See you in the final.”

Never mind, I prefer the slogan we earned from last year’s Gold Cup.

“Champion.”