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US National Team: Now the Challenge Begins


The United States National Team faced three of its four easiest qualifying matches at the beginning of the Hexagonal schedule. The expectation that the United States would capture nine points from these three matches and have a security buffer against failures in the summer and the fall has not been achieved.

Yet largely thanks to the schedule, the US finds themselves atop the Hexagonal, leading an over achieving Costa Rican team by a point and Honduras, the most viable competition the US faces in the region by three points heading into a two month qualifying break. Mexico, whose national team is in a state of decline is fourth in the Hexagonal which reflects both their tough opening schedule which featured match ups with the other three potential qualifiers from the region as well as the dysfunctional nature of their management structure.

The dominating performances we saw from the US in the Hexagonal of 2005 under Bruce Arena have been replaced by uneven, questionable play and even more difficult to explain tactics. A 3-0 win over outclassed Trinidad & Tobago at home while appearing convincing on paper, actually opened up more question marks as the US was beat repeatedly on the counter attack: the sort of chances that will burn you on the road against better opposition, like Honduras and Mexico, not to mention non CONCACAF opposition. Trinidad and Tobago has fallen so far from their 2006 form that they failed to qualify for this summer’s Gold Cup being beaten out in Caribbean qualifying by the likes of Guadeloupe, Grenada and Haiti.

I felt fairly good about the US team a week ago, even though the less than stellar performance against a Mexican team that travels badly had me a little bit concerned. But the last two matches have reminded us that outside of Landon Donovan, most American attacking players lack the imagination and quality to break down a bunkered down defense, and that the US is more suspect at the back than anytime since before World Cup 1994.

For all the criticisms of Steve Sampson and the 1998 World Cup, in that competition the US only gave up five goals in three matches. But with the current form of the US defense, this American team should be expected to concede twice that amount in South Africa. The US has repeadtly shown in qualifying that it is a mess away from home. Struggles against the likes of Barbados and Cuba on the road were shrugged off at the time but in hindsight were harbingers of a trend which shows the US losing its way against CONCACAF minnows off of the friendly home soil.

The next six competitive US matches outside of the Gold Cup are as follows: @ Costa Rica, Honduras at home, Brazil, Italy, Egypt all at the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, and then @ Mexico likely played at Azteca. Given the US’ recent performances, several changes tactically and from a player selection standpoint will need to be made before the summer to ensure the US does not collapse during that stretch.

The US must integrate another creative midfielder into the starting XI. Either Freddy Adu or Jose Francisco Torres must start beginning with the match at Saprissa against Costa Rica. Adu’s lack of playing time at Monoco should have no affect on his selection, given Coach Bob Bradley’s willingness to play Jozy Altidore, Heath Pearce, Mo Edu and DaMarcus Beasley all players receiving little or no playing time for European clubs negates the argument about Adu’s lack of pitch time in France.

Torres for his part has been brilliant in the Clausura for Pachuca, and is playing his club football at a higher level right now than just about any other US National Team regular field player call up. Clint Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu are the only other two Americans playing exceptionally well at the moment at the club level, and quite frankly Pachuca’s roster offers more competition for Torres than Fulham’s roster does for Dempsey or Liege’s squad does for Gooch.

Secondly, DaMarcus Beasley must be dropped from starting XI but kept on the squad because of his near legendary training work ethic which is likely to rub off on the team. Jonathan Bornstein and Heath Pearce are also poor options at left back. That means either Jonathan Spector, Michael Orozco or pushing Carlos Bocanegra out to left side.

Thirdly, the US must drop the bucket formation and play either a traditional 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1 with a traditional #10 in central midfield. One of the Bradley’s two holding midfielders must be removed from the lineup. While Michael Bradley would be the obvious choice to be dropped leaving the reliable and savvy Pablo Mastroeni in the starting XI, chances are that if forced to drop a holding midfielder, Coach Bradley will not drop his son. I happen to think Michael Bradley is the perfect role player that serves as the first or second option off the bench late in matches. His fiery personality combined with his almost reckless attacking demeanor after minute 80, makes him a viable attacking option if the US is behind. More viable than let’s say Eddie Johnson or Brian Ching.

Fourth, the US cannot play scared. You could literally see the fear in the eyes of the US players in San Salvador. If the US goes into Saprissa, San Pedro Sula or Azteca with that attitude, the squad will be routed. Same goes for the neutral site Confederations Cup where the US could very easily be intimidated by the site of Italy or Brazil.

The US has the talent in its player pool right now to be a force next year in South Africa. But since the successful 2002 World Cup where Bruce Arena swallowed his pride and fielded the brilliant Clint Mathis, personality issues and rigid standards have been applied by US coaches to player selection. Taylor Twellman and Jay DeMerit could have helped the US in 2006 more than Chris Albright or Brian Ching. Yet neither was selected. Currently, Frank Simek, Jeremiah White, Charlie Davies and other accomplished European club players along with Kyle Beckerman in MLS seem to have been completely ignored. That’s in addition to the continued misuse of Adu and Torres, who despite being regularly called in, are not being utilized properly in the current setup.

The US will qualify for World Cup 2010, but perhaps will not win the CONCACAF Hexagonal. The result in El Salvador will be so damaging in the FIFA Rankings, it’s highly unlikely the US can approach gaining a seed for December’s draw. That means the US likely will be grouped with a major European or South American power and must improve its play dramatically to stand any chance of advancing from the group stage in South Africa.

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  1. Earl

    April 4, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Great post. One of the best ever by you. Too bad so many find fault with it. That’s why we won’t evolve as a soccer playing nation.

  2. joel es latest soccer news

    April 3, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    They played much better than the El Salvador game. The real test will be Costa Rica away and Azteca.


    April 3, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    bah humbug

    while the el salvador match was worrying we came from behind to get a tie.

    then we crushed t&t who was in the last world cup.

    if we demonstrate the one touch football we did wednesday we can compete with argentina, brazil, spain, england, germany etc.

    i think we will beat costa rica and mexico on the road. the el salvador game was our wake up call.

  4. Travis

    April 3, 2009 at 2:21 pm

    This is probably your best and most realistic piece yet.

    I liked the podcast with Trecker also. He made it clear that the expectations of American fans have changed and for the better.

    I think people really want to see more creativity in the midfield and the ability to maintain good possession for large stretches away from home.

    Right now, we don’t see any of that.

  5. shubbz

    April 3, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    I agree with Soccer Guy. And no Bob wont drop Michael Bradley thankfully, not because he is his son but because Michael is the best midfielder we have! He can defend, attack and score goals!!

  6. STEVE

    April 3, 2009 at 12:10 am

    To finish, the US looks more like the team of ’90 than ’02. Why? To win in international competition, you need to have players that can produce that one moment of magic. Turn an ordinary play/shot/pass into something special. Right now, the US is scared to have someone on the field like this. This type of player needs 75-90 minutes on the pitch, not 15 minutes. Guys like Torres & Adu, while young are the only players to be able to create and take on defenders. All one has to witness is Adu’s play against Brazil in the corner. No one on the current starting IX is capable of that, no one. If we take no chances, we will end up qualifying for ’10 South Africa, but that’s all we’ll be doing. I’d rather play with some spirit and style, then watch another ’06 performance. Remember, when the other team is being pressured by your offense, it makes your defense look better.

  7. STEVE

    April 3, 2009 at 12:02 am

    Here’s the US starting IX:

    Goalie: Tim Howard (backup Hahneman not Guzan)

    Defense: Johnathan Spector, Gooch, Bocanegra, Cherundulo (Sub Jay Demerit & Simek)

    Mid: Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Torres (first sub Adu/Defensive sub Maurice Edu)

    Forward: Altidore, Cooper (sub Charlie Davies)

    Some reasoning: The team overall needs to be younger and hungrier. Defense is the weakest it’s been for awhile, but Gooch and Bocanegra are solid, if any falters DeMerit should get a shot. As far as left back, it will always be a weakness but Spector to me should get the nod for his youth and ability to cross.

    In the midfield, Donovan should be on the left. Torres has great composure over the ball, and while I think Adu will ultimately be a better number 10, right now Torres deserves a shot. Dempsey is solid. Bradley is far and away the best passing defensive mid on the roster.

    Up front, I like the tandem of Cooper and Altidore, with Davies as the sub. Davies has great speed while Altidore is just a natural finisher, much like Gary Linekar from England. The kid just scores goal. Also, these two can hold the ball while Donovan and Torres to run a defenders. Also, the forward/mid sub should come on in the 60th minute, not the 75th. I’m even for halftime subs if the team looks listless (ie in El Salvador)

    My biggest problem with Bradley and the US Soccer Federation is that y

  8. Seybold

    April 2, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    The tactical discipline in the center of the pitch was awful. They were caught on the break again and again—with two defensive midfielders! At home! With the lead! This is ineptitude that you can get away with against T&T, but Honduras and Costa Rica will have noticed, and they’ll be licking their chops if this isn’t corrected.

    You are 100% correct about the fear in their eyes in San Salvador. Especially Guzan. Composure is critical on the road in Central America, that’s why Cobi Jones played in 2005, even though his national team career was basically over and his speed was gone—he had the composure.

    The current lineup won’t get the job done in South Africa. A lineup with Donovan, Torres and Adu would give us three genuine skill players, players who would demand the attention of any side in the world. That’s something we’ve never had before, and opens up who knows what possibilities. Torres presence showed what two of them can do.

    And Altidore? He has ice in his veins. Once he was in after his move past the defender for his second, I knew he was going to score. I have that feeling with no other USA player.

  9. Joey Clams

    April 2, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Realistic commentary? OK. No one on the field last night could play a dead ball. Onyewu forced Howard into playing a nasty half-volley. Hejduk, God bless him, lunged and dove for 90 minutes. Beasley was afraid and threatened only when he was way out of position; the fact that he even had to play left back shows that Bradley hasn’t a clue who should be there. Donovan wide left in the midfield? Find a spot for him, will you, Bob? Most of the crosses were late and clumsy. And Bradley gave the ball away.

  10. eplnfl

    April 2, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    Many people point out that Adu and Torres are still minor parts. Kartik has said we can be a force in 2010, well if we get both Torres and Adu going then watch out Brazil.

  11. Ryan

    April 2, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    “Either Freddy Adu or Jose Francisco Torres must start beginning with the match at Saprissa against Costa Rica. Adu’s lack of playing time at Monoco should have no affect on his selection, given Coach Bob Bradley’s willingness to play Jozy Altidore, Heath Pearce, Mo Edu and DaMarcus Beasley all players receiving little or no playing time for European clubs negates the argument about Adu’s lack of pitch time in France.”

    But Freddy hasn’t received consistent playing time since he was in MLS almost 2 years ago. And his inconsistency has been an obvious problem, on par with Sacha’s that has seen him move from everyone’s A-list to having people say he shouldn’t be called in again. You may as well have said “Either Torres or Justin Mapp HAS to start in Saprissa” for all intents and purposes.

  12. Berlin

    April 2, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Kartik, we dominated a bad team yesterday. What else are we supposed to do? Dominate and win by 7? Not a mention of what a stellar performance Altidore put on even though he’s being wasted at Xerez? I agree that a 4-4-2 would be great, but why not play Torres or Freddy with Bradley. Frankly, I think the setup we saw last night was pretty good in the mid and front. I’m Houston biased, but Ching’s back to goal style played well when paired with Jozy up top. We badly need help on the wings in back, but our options at LB are pretty limited and yes, Spector deserves a run out but DMB’s speed is hard to replace. Glass half full, we won remember.

  13. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    April 2, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I was much less reactionary than some after the El Salvador game. If we play the bucket keep Bradley, but we have to sacrifice someone to play a 4-4-2 diamond to get Adu or Torres in an attacking midfield role. Keep Pablo at D-mid. If we play a 4-5-1, you can keep Bradley for sure in a twin setup with Pablo.

  14. Soccer Guy

    April 2, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    I’m not sure why I bother to read your stuff anymore. Sitting Bradley? Are you joking? The kid starts every week in the top flight in Germany after coming off the best year a Yank Abroad ever had in Holland. Scored twice against Mexico…but we sit him? That kind of comment shows incredibly tactical naivety on your part and a Jamie Trecker-like desire to criticize without any basis or fact.

    Nobody with half a brain believes last night solves all problems with the US team, so who’s the straw man making these claims?

  15. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    April 2, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    It’s important to note the great team the US beat last night did not qualify, with the likes of Grenada, Haiti and Guadeloupe qualifying ahead of them from the Caribbean. What we don’t know is how the US will perform in Costa Rica or Honduras. Maybe things go well down there, but it’s foolish of many in the blogosphere to take last night’s result against an outclassed opponent and claim all is well with the nats.

  16. M.

    April 2, 2009 at 12:54 pm

    No reason to be so down on the squad. You could not “literally” or figuratively for that matter, see fear in their eyes in Salvador. The players you mention, most likely Torres, Adu and Davies, will play a role. Chill.

  17. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    April 2, 2009 at 12:25 pm

    BTW, the Gold Cup groups are out, but I bumped this post up because it is likely to attract more interest. The next post down on the site has the groups, venues and some analysis.

  18. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    April 2, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    Lou- combination of both. Mexico isn’t very good and Honduras is very good. they’ll be even better when they get David Suazo back from injury.

  19. eplnfl

    April 2, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    Ok, I know it was T&T but they were dominate. Honduras is a great team or is Mexico bad? Mexico has lost or tied 4 out of their last 5, right?

    I can’t wait for June 6 to see the US v. Honduras game in wonderful Soldier’s Field. A good early ticket purchase has taken place. Hope to see you all here in the Windy City. Promise no snow come June.

  20. Fan

    April 2, 2009 at 11:24 am

    April Fool’s was yesterday. When are you posting some realistic commentary?

  21. Joey Clams

    April 2, 2009 at 10:51 am

    The very fact the Bradley persisted with the bucket as he did shows that he’s not the guy to lead this team.

    Last night they bored me to tears.

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