There are two US teams. One showed up in the first half. The other in the second.
In the first half the US came in as favorites to win, a psychological position which the US simply does not know how to deal with. The team was lethargic throughout the first half. Defensively the team left huge gaps in space (which led to both goals), midfielders weren’t working hard to win back the ball when Slovenia was in possession, and when we had the ball no one was moving off the ball.
Bob Bradley got the tactics all wrong. The US strategy offensively was to play deep balls in the channels or wide areas where speedy players like Robbie Findley or Jozy Altidore could get on to the ball. This was why the backline players were constantly booting the ball up field. This utterly failed. Slovenia played deep and compact – if the balls were won there was rarely space to do much with them, but the Slovenes are huge most aerial balls were easily dealt with. We were essentially playing counterattacking football against a team that sat back deep.
But then in the second half, the US could play as they mentally like to play – as a team with their backs against the wall. This really is the “don’t tread on me” team, a group that thrives on being counted out and being the underdog. Before the game I noted this match would be a test of the US team’s maturity: could they win when they were supposed to. The answer is not yet. When we play top teams in the world we show up with a chip on our shoulder and put it all out there. We play with something to prove. But we simply don’t know how to play as favorites.
So in the second half, the US went for it.
Bradley made some great tactical substitutions in the second half, as Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber replaced the ineffective Jose Torres and Robbie Findley. They brought more fluidity to the midfield and the addition of Edu allowed Bradley to take off Onyewu late for another striker. That was well managed.
Landon Donovan the US captain had what could be the goal of the tournament just a few minutes into the second half. This raised US spirits and they went on to create a number of good chances. The second goal, which seemed inevitable, but also seemed like it would take an eternity to come was worked and saw Michael Bradley – a regular goal scorer – make a truly composed finish.
In the end, the US was robbed – as it so often is in international tournaments. The referees overall had a shocking game. On every free kick the referees allowed Slovenia to blatently tackle the American players, which could have quite easily been called as penalties. Jozy Altidore was denied a goal scoring chance, but instead of red the Slovene defender was received a yellow. But the referees however saved the worst for last. The US scored the third and winning goal but the linesman flagged for offsides. The only thing one can fathom was that he saw Michael Bradley, who was being tackled, ahead of the play, but Bradley had no involvement in the resulting goal. It was shocking. And Bob Bradley should make a lot of noise about the US constantly getting hosed in big international tournaments.
This in the end is a very good result from the US. But against Algeria the US will again be the favorites. This time a draw won’t due – it is must win and the US cannot show up as the lethargic team we saw in the first half. We need the “don’t tread on me” team from the get go.