Assessing US World Cup Performance

The US had a successful if disappointing World Cup

The US showed some great strengths and glaring weaknesses in its four games at the 2010 World Cup, but overall this team is in position to continue its improvement before the next World Cup in Brazil in 2014. The top players performed well, young players had solid tournaments, and coach Bob Bradley showed admirable flexibility and courage. By far the most impressive feature of this US team was its ability to create scoring chances. Not only did it put in five goals but it created numerous excellent opportunities to get more.

The flip side of all those chances is the failure to convert many of them into goals, a real weakness that must be rectified if the US is going get to the next level. Of equal concern is the frailty at the back, which is a combination of lack of skill and consistency. That inconsistency plagued the whole team at times, and solving that problem will be key to stepping up to the next level. And Bradley needed to be flexible and courageous because he often got the original team selection wrong.

Top players: The American’s top players performed well and drove this team through the four games. Tim Howard came up big against England and was solid throughout. Steve Cherundolo was the best defender throughout the tournament. Landon Donovan put the team on his back in the second half against Slovenia. Clint Dempsey was a force against Ghana. Donovan and Dempsey each played well against Algeria and both scored even though only Donovan’s was allowed to stand by the referees. Steve Cherundolo was the one bright spot in an otherwise poor performance from our experienced and established defenders. Oguchi Onyewu looked rusty and was caught out on several early goals. Jay DeMerit was nowhere near the player he was in the Confederations Cup. And while Carlos Bocanegra moved into central defense and helped keep a clean sheet against Algeria, he was badly beaten against Ghana.

Young players: Michael Bradley emerged as a force in the center of midfield and got the crucial tying goal against Slovenia even if his performance was at times uneven. Jozy Altidore, even though he didn’t score himself, set up the Bradley goal and could have had one himself were it not for the post in the England match. Maurice Edu settled the midfield and brought both defensive cover and composure on the ball. Benny Feilhaber is the best passer in the squad and the team looked by far its most dangerous with him on the field. Jose Torres had only 45 minutes on the field which coincided with the team’s worst passage of play, but he passed the ball well and created a number of chances.

Coaching: Bob Bradley has been criticized for a cautious approach and a failure to make adjustments during games. Well, we don’t have to worry about that anymore. The bold shakeup at halftime of the Slovenia game put the team in position to make the charge that earned the draw. He dropped Gooch when his rustiness was jeopardizing the team. He rolled the dice against Algeria and threw everyone forward in a bid to get that winner. He had the courage to replace Ricardo Clark in the 30th minute against Ghana when it looked as if he would compound his error that led to the goal by being sent off.

But it wasn’t all roses and glory for Bradley. He was never able to prepare the team so that it wouldn’t have costly breakdowns in the first fifteen minutes of games. He made some baffling team selections which prompted the need for all those in game corrections. Why he decided to start Clark against Ghana is one of the mysteries of the tournament, especially after the team had performed sol well with Edu screening the defense from the center of midfield. He also never started the lineup and formation that clearly brought the best out of the team – Feilhaber in the midfield and Dempsey up top.

Chances, made and missed: The constant worry leading up to the World Cup was where would the goals come from. That fear seemed to be born out against England, when the only real US chance of the game came on Jozy’s individual effort to beat Jamie Carragher and fire off Green onto the post. But those issues disappeared about midway through the first half against Slovenia – even their second goal came just moments after the US nearly tied it. Against both Algeria and Ghana, the US had chances in abundance, enough to get the job done with room to spare.

But we didn’t, and that’s a real problem. The defensive lapses get the most attention (and we’ll get to those in a moment), but the real reason the US squad is headed home instead of to the quarterfinals is that it failed to finish off Ghana in regulation despite numerous chances that should have won the game. While Ghana looked dangerous, they created few genuine chances, they just took both of them. Jozy had two which could have ended it. He also missed the sitter against Algeria which would have eased the pressure on the squad and perhaps left some gas in the tank for the extra period against Ghana. Its not all Jozy, as Dempsey, Findley, and Donovan all missed good opportunities to score. It’s a ‘next-stage’ problem, finishing off the chances you create rather than devising ways to create them. But it still leads to the same result – not enough goals to advance.

Defensive lapses: We’ve been through a lot of this before so we don’t need to dwell on it, but we were very shaky on defense at the games – including the beginning of the extra time session which is essentially a 30 minute game. Poor decision making, slow reaction time, lack of cover, and psychological frailty all contributed. While he wouldn’t have solved all those problems, a fit and in form Gooch would have really have helped prevent at least some of these goals. His strength was sorely lacking when Assamoah Gyan brushed Boca aside and fired in the winner. Or at least we needed a strong and powerful central defender to command the defensive line. We’ll need some new defenders too because Boca, DeMerit and Cherundolo have probably played their last World Cup games because of their age.

Overall, there is more to feel good about than bad. We won respect as a soccer nation. Our players earned praise and likely promotion to better clubs. Our younger players emerged as promising talents and our established offensive stars should still be around for the next tournament. The mistakes we made were concentrated at the back and in team selection and game preparation. It still stings that we are going home after just four games, but we should view the US team’s performance as a success.

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One Response

  1. In general, I am in broad brush agreement. Highlights learned for me; the pool of talent is still very shallow to compete at the highest level and the players chosen and fielded, while being decent in the main are not of the quality to seriously threaten to win this years World Cup, even in our wildest optimistic dreams. The development stream of young players must ensure that more of them get to play with teams outside of the US and definitely bypass all NCAA competition. Two of my sons followed that path in the 1990s at Division One level and it is a complete waste of time in developing talent to the level needed. The MLS is just a tad better but has a long way to go.

    Summary; from the early ’80s as a coach and league and club official in the nurturing of youth soccer in Pennsylvania to the mid ’90s, I would never have expected that we could achieve what has been done to date. Now is the time to devote more effort to really nurturing our up and coming talent; we are finally getting better athletes to follow the football passion and must give them every chance to be successful.

    Your column ended strongly and your evaluation above was your best effort. Perhaps our future teams will get the same results if we start the process today. Our national spirit is there; now we got to get the talent on the field. Good luck to you and the US national team.

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