US qualifies for World Cup: What did we learn?

Photo by CLF

Photo by CLF

The US team has qualified for the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa. The US has now reached six consecutive World Cups, something only five other teams can claim (six if Argentina makes it). Simply put, we expect to qualify. But that shouldn’t diminish the accomplishment or our happiness at reaching world soccer’s biggest showcase.

That commentators or fans are more relieved than excited is a testament to the development of soccer in America. With qualification assured, very quickly we have turned our attention to the tournament itself and what we have learned about this team and the prospects for a deep run next summer.

Perhaps the most significant positive thing we learned about this US team is its resiliency and grit. The team won ten points from losing positions, coming back to beat both Honduras and El Salvador at home, and beat Honduras and earn a draw with El Salvador on the road. They found themselves trailing in crucial games, both with the pressure of needing wins at home and in hostile road environments, and recovered to get the points they needed more often than not. Only in the total blowout at Costa Rica and the late winner for Mexico in Azteca did the US fail to at least get a draw in a match that they were trailing. That takes heart and is a good quality to have in the World Cup Finals (more on the propensity to fall behind later).

One of the most common questions asked about the US team is where are the goals going to come from. No more, as the US is the only team in the final qualifying group to have scored in every match. The US team has plentiful attacking options, from Donovan and Dempsey in the midfield, to young strikers that Davies and Altidore who are growing in their roles and should be even better by next summer. Getting consistent scoring from attacking players means it’s a game-changing bonus rather than absolutely essential when others chip in like Michael Bradley or Ricardo Clark.

It’s remarkable that Altidore, who is the team’s top scored with five goals, is not even guaranteed a starting spot. That’s genuine attacking depth that the US team has not enjoyed recently, perhaps ever. No one is saying that we’ll match Spain or Argentina, but when you can have both Donovan and Dempsey on the field and still have two other attacking players higher up the pitch as well as options on the bench, scoring goals should not be the problem.

Coach Bob Bradley gets a lot of stick from US fans, most of it undeserved. Max is right, he has guided this team through a difficult period when it lost its best striker and best midfields to retirement, and its most accomplished European club player to a disastrous dip in form. The attribute I like about him most is his willingness to go for the win and put out an attacking lineup rather than retreating into a defensive shell in tough games. It didn’t work at Costa Rica, but it did on Saturday. Bradley is no Capello, but he doesn’t shy from big games – exactly what we’ll need in South Africa.

Beyond the US team, we learned that Concacaf is an improving region. As much as I hate to say this, Mexico is a good, talented team that could do some real damage next summer if it is able to keep up this good run of form. Costa Rica is no pushover even though they are prone to dips in form. And if Honduras makes it, I am glad that we can’t be drawn with them – they are a solid and improving side that is very strong in the midfield and can put the ball in the net. The Hondurans will give any South American team all they can handle if they’re in the playoffs, even Argentina.

But it isn’t all champagne and roses for the US team, as the qualifying matches exposed some key weaknesses that could really hurt our chances of getting to the knockout stages of the tournament. The biggest problem the US team has is that it struggles to maintain possession and has a hard time dictating the pace of the game against decent opposition. Much of that is the result of poor play in central midfield – if we go into South Africa with Bradley and Clark as our starting midfielders, we are not going to fair very well.

The US team has not yet been able to replace Claudio Reyna’s calm control. The best passer on the team is Benny Feilhaber, why he doesn’t play more is a mystery to me. Donovan is the best with the ball at his feet, but his best position is farther up the pitch. Bradley is a decent player, but he has yet to leave an imprint on any game by putting his foot on the ball and regulate play. His game winner against Trinidad notwithstanding, Clark just doesn’t do enough to warrant as much playing time as he gets. There is hope because Maurice Edu would likely play before Clark if healthy, and should Jermaine Jones recover, his introduction to the squad would greatly boost our central midfield options.

The lack of possession means more attacks and counterattacks by opposing teams which puts more pressure on the US defense – pressure that is a big problem because the backline has a disturbing propensity for sloppy mistakes. Everyone is guilty of them – like Gooch’s giveaway then foul that led to Honduras’ first goal Saturday. Sloppy errors killed the US team in 2006 (Keller’s rash punt that led to the Czech’s first goal and Bocanegra’s terrible “clearance” that brought about the penalty against Ghana) and we simply can’t afford to repeat such carelessness. This team may be able to score more goals and Concacaf may be improving, but giving away too many chances is the kiss of death in the World Cup Finals.

Even though I think Bradley deserves significant praise, his in-game management is by far his biggest weakness. If he is willing to go for the win from the beginning, his in-game tactical adjustments are poor and he is very slow to recognize that his team needs a substitution. Dempsey was simply terrible in the game at Trinidad, giving the ball away cheaply, failing to track back and help out Spector at right back, and wasn’t even that much of a goal threat. Yet when Bradley made his first sub, he went back to the familiar pattern of taking off Altidore, pushing Dempsey up to striker, and replacing him with Feilhaber. Dempsey only lasted 20 minutes there before also being removed for Stuart Holden who went in to play right wing. The US needed more wing play in that game – but didn’t get it until the 80th minute and only after both starting strikers had come off.

That T&T game was also an example of Bradley’s hesitancy to make substitutions even with the same system. The first half of that game was as poor a half as the US team played in the who qualifying tournament – but it was still 0-0 and when Trinidad did attack, it was more on the flanks rather than through the middle. We simply didn’t need both Bradley and Clark in a very defensive central midfield, Feilhaber’s passing would have been a big asset and his relatively weaker defense was not likely to hurt the team. Now, Clark did get the goal that won the game in the 61st minute, but there were goals to be had in that game if the US had come out with a more attacking lineup in the second half.

This US team has qualified out of a pretty tough group and now has some genuine weapons that can hurt even the best teams in the world. But there are still some critical weaknesses that could leave the team exposed next summer. The two things I’ll be looking for over the next nine months will be finding a stronger partner for Bradley in the midfield and more consistency from the first choice defenders. The other pieces are there and this team could be poised for another great run in South Africa.

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