Work commitments precluded me making the short drive to Tampa last night for the first Olympic qualifier. My intent was to provide a press box report of a triumphant US win. However, in this case sitting in front of the TV set gave me all the perspective I needed to make a determination on the state of this team and its coaching staff. Let me first exempt Freddy Adu and Dax McCarty from any and all criticism. It also helped that both of these midfielders were actually playing in the position they are most comfortable with. That was not the case for the remainder of the players on the field last night who were playing out of position or depending heavily on players playing out of position.
The decision by Peter Nowak to cut Arturo Alvarez and Robbie Rogers from the squad has had a malign influence on the teams ability to play an active game using the flanks. Placing two natural strikers, Robbie Findley and Charlie Davies out wide was a foolish experiment gone bad. Kamani Hill looked totally out of sorts on the back line wandering forward too often for a right back but as often as you’d expect a natural attacking player to. Marvell Wynne would be logical right back choice on this roster, but for whatever reason he hasn’t impressed enough in training.
Getting your best XI on the field at a given time is always a dilemma for coaches in this sport. Peter Nowak has obviously opted to play his best XI many of whom are natural attacking players in positions that require defensive responsibility. Blaming players for executing in a situation which doesn’t best utilize their talent and skill level is foolish. Blaming coaches for putting players in a position to fail is at this point becoming counter productive because quite frankly the lack of tactical savvy among coaches in the US is shocking, and a product of a poor system more than the individual coaches like Peter Nowak themselves.. The US is in serious jeopardy of not qualifying for the Olympics yet again. In the last Olympic qualifying the US never performed half as badly as they did last night and yet still failed to qualify. That semifinal run at Sydney 2000 seems like a distant memory right now, as do the 1999 World Youth Championships and the 2002 World Cup. The US Soccer program seems to be treading water and that’s where the blame should lie: at the very top.
A word on Cuba. The entire Cuban national program is improving and last night they played very well after a rough start. In fact until the unfortunate red card, they badly outplayed the Americans, whose dominance of possession and shots on goal like Chelsea at the weekend amounted to little more than playing into the hands of a lesser talented team that had a clear counter attacking strategy. Cuba should have won last night: They deserved to win last night, but couldn’t finish the chance they had to win on the counter and had another chance controversially reversed and result in a sending off.
The US better beware because for all the tough scheduling for the full national team, playing Poland, whose team is vastly under appreciated, England, one of the most talented teams on the planet with a tactical genius now coaching them (maybe he’ll finally teach the English how to play in something other than a flat 4-4-2!), Spain, a classically over hyped team whose Euro qualification quite frankly surprised me, and the mighty Argentina, many CONCACAF nations have figured out how to bottle up the United States while absorbing lots of pressure but taking advantage of the U.S.’ consistent failure to keep its shape. We saw this in the Gold Cup, where despite a US title, the second half of the match against Mexico represented the only good half of football for the United States in the knockout stages. The US beat Panama because of a somewhat dubious PK, and a sending off. Panama still scored a goal down a man. Canada? They beat the US as far as many are concerned. I don’t want to rehash that match but it was a tremendous embarrassment for the national team. So while the US has figured out over the past ten years how to beat a more talented Mexico side, other CONCACAF nations have figured out how to frustrate and potentially beat a more talented US side.
Going forward in Olympic qualifying I’d like to Stuart Holden on the left side of midfield, Sal Zizzo (when he arrives in Tampa; my understanding is he is available on the weekend, but given the reluctance of Hanover to release him, Nowak should have kept at least one additional winger) on the right side of midfield. Dispense with Charlie Davies and Robbie Findley in the midfield and Chad Barrett altogether. Place Marvell Wynne on the right side of the back line and give Maurice Edu the freedom to go forward and allow Dax McCarty to drift back to temporarily cover for him. (McCarty’s size always worries me, but he is a pit bull when fighting for possession) Keep Freddy Adu at the top of the midfield and attack early in games so that possession play in the 2nd half can be oriented towards killing off an opponent rather than desperately seeking a winner like last night. The US can still advance to Nashville but no margin for error exists any longer.