This is no miracle on grass

Let me first say the U.S. win over spain is a shocking victory and one of the biggest wins in US soccer history. To win in the semifinals of a FIFA tournament against the undisputed number one team in the world that had won 15 straight and hadn’t lost in 35 (since 2006) is no doubt a landmark victory. But this is not a “miracle on grass” as George Vescey of the NY Times suggests and is not the impossible victory that many are portraying it to be. Why not?

Well because the U.S. is a good team. This is not – as George Vescey seems to think – an amateur side with little talent that defies the odds (as the USA Olympic hockey team was). First, ask yourselves if Mexico beat Spain would the world it be a “miracle.” No it wouldn’t – it would be a definite upset, but Mexico is very solid club that can play with the top clubs. So if the U.S. – who Vescey himself said that US should indisputably be ranked hire than Mexico for the World Cup – beats Spain its a miracle?

Vescey goes on writes:

as the equivalent of those one-off thrillers, like Gonzaga or Davidson beating one of the giants of American college basketball. Compelling? Sure. Significant? Not necessarily…The inequity is what made this match such a spectacle. The Spanish players are regulars for Barcelona and Liverpool in the richest leagues of Europe. The Americans play in the earnest Major League Soccer or are mostly role players and reserves in Europe…Nobody in the American soccer federation will dare to claim that this was the day the country came of age in the world’s most important sport. Not until American boys and girls play feral soccer on their own, for the love of the sport, will the nation develop its own Jordan, its own Pujols, its own Crosby or Malkin, its own Maradona.

There is so much wrong with this. Memo to George: we are not in the 1990s anymore. First, The U.S. majority of the U.S. players on the field are solid starters in Europe. Boca, Gooch, Dempsey, Bradley, Demerit and Davies are all solid starters in Europe. Spector and Altidore are both really young and are considered players with tremendous talent. The only MLS players on the field were Clark and Donovan – and Donovan was at Bayern in the spring. Second, American boys and girls need to play for the love of the sport? What exactly are millions of kids doing right now – they aren’t exactly playing for money? In fact, what needs to happen is that American kids need to start playing not just for the love of the sport but with an eye that they can get rich, gain glory and have a career – just as they do in basketball, baseball, and football. And you may have just witnessed the first American soccer superstar – Altidore is 19 and is as good as it gets at that age.

Third, this game is significant. Vescey describes it as a one off fluke. But this game is significant precisely because this is not a fluke. Now we are nowhere near as good as Spain or England or Germany or Brazil. But we have shown the world with this victory – and our performances over the last decade – that we are very very capable team on par with teams in the tier just below the giants – the Swedens, the Belgiums, the Polands. That may not sound like much to the always demanding American soccer fan. But think about it this way 20 years ago it was a legitimate “miracle” that we beat the small island nation of Trinidad to qualify for the World Cup. Seven years ago we were universally picked to finish last in our group and no international commentator knew anything about the American team. Today, British writers have said that the U.S. was the toughest challenge faced by Spain – meaning that they considered superior to South Africa, Iraq, and New Zealand. There was a time not long ago that that is exactly the category that everyone would put us in. A UK Reuters blogger writes:

the U.S are at least on a level with the second tier nations in Europe — the Swiss, the Scandinavians, the Belgians, the Austrians and the most of the teams from Eastern Europe and results in friendly games back up that view.

This matters. Being viewed as a legitimate footballing nation, means that scouts for the big international clubs will increase their interest in the U.S. and foreign clubs will take the signing of American players seriously. It also has direct significance for the players playing. The BBC football writer who was providing minute by minute coverage was drooling over Jay Demerit, writing only half joking that “Jay DeMerit adds another £5m on to his price tag with a brilliant block.” It could also mean more foreign interest in the U.S. domestic league – possibly helping to attract more international players to the MLS on loan deals. It will also mean that when we win a big international game – it wont be viewed as a “miracle” but because we actually aren’t have bad.

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That was miserable…

The U.S. looked bad against Brazil. We were outmatched and just didn’t have it. A really positive start to the second half – was once again torpedoed by another atrocious decision by the referee. A few points:

1. I think the loss of Ricardo Clark (and Edu) was a big blow. We simply didn’t have a solid ball winner in the midfield – Bradley is a good central midfielder but he isn’t a ball winning defensive midfielder – especially against Brazil. We need Jermaine Jones to come and Edu to comeback as soon as possible. But that being said I think the Clark-Bradley-Felihaber pairing was excellent in the first half against Italy and if given a chance could have given Brazil much more trouble.

2. After defending Bradley a lot he can definitely be criticized today. His decisions to include Beasley at LM and Klejstan while understandable, failed miserably. 10 minutes into the game it was clear that the lineup wasn’t going to work. Both Beasley and Klejstan are out of form and that has to be taken into account. klejstian looked shell shocked and just offered very little offensively or defensively and was not calm on the ball. Feilhaber and Torres would have been better options.
Also the U.S. seemed to lack energy – how can you lack energy against Brazil? And after the red card – why is no one getting angry and in the refs face. It looked like we had already accepted defeat. Unacceptable mentality.

3. Beasley is just a disaster right now. His touch – which has been poor since 2006 world cup – is horrendous. What’s worse is that he has seemed to lose all confidence and all soccer instincts. He may still have pace, but he doesn’t play fast. He doesn’t seem to have the skill or the belief that he can get by players. Without that he offers absolutely nothing. He can’t really make a tackle and his positioning kept on exposing the back line. He should be dropped until he gets with another team and proves he can play. But his loss is big for the U.S. Part of our problem is that we don’t have pace on the wings and without that it is really hard with our skill level – even though it is improving – to break the top teams down through the middle of the park.

4. We couldn’t possess. We played slow and were caught in possession way way too much. Klejstian and Beasley were the main culprits, but Donovan seemed to playing according to MLS time.

5. Dempsey has shown little and looks like he needs a break. But too often he gets the ball with little help around him, he is more solid defensively than is given credit, and despite some growing cries needs to be on the field.

6. Bornstein is out of his depth. He is young – but he is just not solid. He does fine defensively at times, but his decision-making when he gets the ball and his technical ability is all very poor. We would be better off playing spector on the left and wynne on the right. For the U.S. to control possession all players need to contribute and when paired with Beasley on the left it is a disaster.

7. Gooch has showed really really well and should land in a good place. Lippi the Italian coach said really good things about him and has seemed to eliminate much of his more awkward moments.

8. Altidore looks dangerous – he didn’t get many chances but he definitely looks like the real deal.

The case for whining

frings_handball_2002

The U.S. team does not whine enough. When a ref makes a horrendous call that will likely end our chances of getting out of the first round of an international tournament (or getting to the semis of the World Cup) we simply take it. Sure there were some small protests after the most recent catastrophic decision against Italy – but there was nothing all that substantial. Just imagine if the call had happened the other way around. The Italians would have been incensed. Italian media would have ripped the official a part, every other call that game would have been argued vehemently and the Italian coach would have whined to the press after the game. All of this creates a deterrent against rash and harsh officiating. An official knows that their life will be a living hell if they make a dramatic call against the Italians – or most other teams. As bizarre as it sounds, complaining more is about maturing as a soccer nation.

This is not the case with the U.S. You could mark this up to good sportsmanship and certain American stoicism, but we need to angry. Not necessarily the players on the field, but the US soccer federation and the coaching staff. The past three major international tournaments have all seen the U.S. dumped on very very dubious calls. 2002 the non-call on the Frings handball. 2006 two players sent off for innocuous challenges against diving Italians – followed by the worst penalty call of the tournament. And now game one of the confederations cup an unnecessary and overly harsh red card against Ricardo Clark.

Lets assess this call from the Chilean referee. The first thing that should be pointed out is that what put clark in the position to make the lunge was an obstruction (a foul not called) from an Italian player that delayed his arrival to the ball. He clearly lunged and got Gattusso high. It was a bad foul and his foot should not have been up there. But it was definitely not malicious – much more of a cynical trip than anything and possibly deserving a yellow. But the ref showed ref. By the letter of the law he was justified. Clark went in high and recklessly. But if you accept that WHY WAS THE ITALIAN DEFENDER NOT SENT OFF FOR THE FOUL ON ALTIDORE. He was the last defender. If you are going to adopt a strict interpretation for Clark then it has to apply both ways.

The U.S. clearly has a problem in international soccer. We not only don’t get calls, but being the U.S. we have officials that are both inclined to not like us, as well as not respect us. And what is worse they know that there will be little outrage from the U.S. team and international soccer if we get hosed. But just as a baseball manager needs to get thrown out of a game arguing a call just to make the point that you can’t walk all over us, so does the U.S. soccer federation. Egypt protested the way Webb made the penalty call against Brazil even though it was the right call. Bradley simply murmurs it was a little harsh.

There is a clear pattern developing and it is up to the US soccer federation – Sunil Gulati, Bob Bradley, and others to point this out that Americans are targeted. Put that thought in officials minds that they will be criticized vehemently for anti-Americanism after the game. And our players need to do more on the field to get in the officials faces. It is not good enough any more to simply take it.

The Loss of Edu is a huge blow to the US

Maurice Edu – on the last regular season game of the Scottish season – went down with a knee injury that will put him out for the next three months. He not only will miss the start of the Scottish season in August, but the coming confederations cup. This is big blow. One worry is that not being able to participate in preseason training and missing the start of the season could put Edu’s starting position in jeopardy – although Rangers seem very high on him. But this is also a big blow for the U.S.

The starting central midfield for the U.S. in the next world cup looks increasingly set with Edu and Bradley as the anchors. Confederations cup would have been a huge opportunity for them to develop more of a partnership, gain important experience against the top level competition, and get a preview of what next year will be like.

But it is also a blow for Bob Bradley – Confederations Cup was likely going to be a dry-run for the U.S. team and Edu looked like a key piece of that puzzle. Yes Edu had been in and out of the team but: he solidified himself at Rangers, Pablo is getting too long in the tooth, Ricardo Clark has shown flashes, and while Bradley could play there he is better when he can get forward then just sitting deep. With Edu it seemed that Bradley was close to having a very settled squad – with the exception of LB and LM – it was pretty clear that Boca, Gooch, and Cherundulo in the defense, with Bradley and Edu in the midfield, and some combo of Landon, Dempsey and Altidore out wide and up top. With Edu Confederations Cup would have given Bob Bradley a chance to see how well his midfield – and his likely world cup squad stacks up. If Bradley and Edu demonstrate they can cut it defensively – than perhaps he could gamble with more attacking fullbacks – if not perhaps you go with more of a flat back four.

Without Edu, the U.S. go with Clark and Bradley as the two options at holding midfield. I think its smart for the U.S. to move away from Pablo and even Ching – they are useful players in qualifying and have been good servants to the team – but aren’t at the level needed. I have always thought highly of Clark – he has good length, defends well, and is good with the ball. He was one of the better U.S. players in the copa america debacle. The Confederations Cup will be his opportunity to solidify a world cup spot – and perhaps put the 9 game ban behind him for kicking the crap out of Carlos Ruiz (as much as you might have enjoyed that – Bob Bradley did not and definitely led to some regression in his role with the USMNT). So on the bright side, lets hope that Clark grabs this opportunity and gives this squad so more badly needed depth. Who knows may be he will finally get noticed in Europe?

When going for it goes wrong

I have to give Bob Bradley credit. He went for it in Costa Rica last night. His lineup was pretty audacious and lacked any of the “safety first” mindset that you would have expected on the road at a place the U.S. has never won before. This is exactly the kind of thing fans hope for – a manager willing to take gamble and take chances. But it didn’t work.

Bradley premised the team on the ability of his right and left backs to get forward and provide width. The lineup was intended to be a 4-3-3. With Torres -Bradley – Pablo playing fairly centrally in the midfield and Donovan and Dempsey playing off Altidore. In this formation width would come from Beasley and Wynne – both of whom can fly. This formation and strategy is built on the U.S. being able to dominate the middle of the field and control the run of play thereby allowing the fullbacks to get involved. Once we were on the back foot this formation quickly descended into a 4-4-2 – with Torres and Dempsey as the left and right midfielders – neither of whom are really wingers. We lacked width then and couldn’t find a way to penetrate the Costa Rican penalty area.

It didn’t help that neither Beasley or Wynne contributed much going forward and both looked suspect defensively. Beasley was absolutely horrible and can’t yet be trusted to play left back against good teams. Wynne was better and looked more comfortable defensively – he at least plays that position – but lacks a good deal technically. Against Honduras it will be interesting to see if Bradley sticks with Beasley and Wynne – I like what he was trying to do, but fear that it just leaves us too exposed in the back.