The only difference between the recent performances of Bob Bradley's USA against Poland and Switzerland, and the display against England yesterday, was that the USA won the first two games. Yesterday it lost, thereby exposing the truth that all three games featured a side that is virtually devoid of attacking ideas.
A side that, evidently, sinks from sort-of-OKish to definite mediocrity when Landon Donovan doesn't play. At Wembley, the lineup said that Josh Wolff was playing up front. Throughout the first half the poor guy was invisible, no service at all. TV commentator JP Dellacamera suggested, at the 15 minute mark, that Eddie Johnson -- supposedly Wolff's attacking partner -- had just had his first touch of the ball.
Looked at from England's point of view, goalkeeper David James had as easy a 45 minutes as he'll ever have, having to make only one even slightly difficult grab.
I kept some stats on passes going astray and so on -- they're pretty bad, but really you don't need to see stats to know that this was a dull, dreary, deeply unsatisfactory performance. Logically -- given the gaping hole where the attack should have been, given the fact that this was an away game at (hushed pause) ... Wembley -- one might put the U.S. deficiencies down to their choosing to play defensively.
But that was not the case. This was not a defensively oriented formation, nor was there any evidence of a defensive mentality. Anyway, that's not the way Bradley's team play. This was a team that was quite keen to move the ball forward, to commit players from midfield.
Simply, none of them was good enough. Certainly not Michael Bradley or Ricardo Clark, too busily involved in fouling and charging about, not Clint Dempsey suddenly looking rather average, not DaMarcus Beasley who never came to life. At the heart of the defense, Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra engaged in a prolonged and powerful display of athletic clumsiness that may, possibly, have featured an accurate clearing pass -- if it did, I missed it.
Indeed, looking for players who played up to their own, never mind international, standards, one is left only with the outside backs, Steve Cherundolo and Heath Pearce.
I have not seen Bob Bradley's postgame remarks -- I've deliberately avoided them. I don't see what he can say by way of excuse for this performance. A chance to blood new players? That won't wash -- the starting 11 were all veterans. Bringing on Maurice Edu at the 78th minute and Nate Jaqua at the 89th is almost insulting, and makes a mockery of any suggestion that Bradley wanted to get a good look at them.
No, this was not the greatest game in the world -- a shame for the 1,000 or so U.S. fans who turned up to watch. It was thoroughly disjointed, with little flow to the play -- and it was displeasingly littered with fouls -- a total of 42, with England having 23 of them.
This is where we are with Bob Bradley. His team -- without ever playing anything that resembles flowing, or pleasing, or even accomplished, soccer -- can beat Poland and Switzerland in Europe, but can barely muster a decent attacking move against England. Such form will be perfectly adequate to carry the USA into the 2010 world cup, because the Concacaf qualifiers are a joke as far as the USA is concerned. But beyond that, there is little to praise.
Bob Bradley is skilled at producing workmanlike teams. But they play banal soccer -- if we didn't know that previously (those of us who suffered through his years at the MetroStars sure as hell did) we do now. Pedestrian soccer rules, and Banality Bob is saved, on occasions, only by the flair and brilliance of Donovan.
As long as Donovan is around, there is hope of something more rewarding than Bocanegra's crunching fouls or Michael Bradley's late tackles. The question that needs answering is why -- at this late stage in the Great American Soccer Boom -- the hopes for skilled, international-level play rest so heavily on one player. Is there an obvious replacement for Donovan waiting to take over? I don't know of one -- yet there should, by now, be three of four such candidates.
The essential, and ironic, point about Banality Bob's style of play is that it is highly unlikely to respond to his oft-repeated lament, "It's gotta be better, guys." The tactics won't get any better, and the physical commitment of the players can't be raised much. The skill level, also, is pretty good -- if you limit the horizon to basics.
But if you include, among the skills, all the artistry and creativity, soccer savvy and smooth trickery that characterize the better teams, then the USA -- without Donovan -- is nowhere.
An unhappy state of affairs that is certainly not Bradley's fault -- well not entirely. Because he and his generation of coaches are responsible for the players we have now -- they set the patterns, recruited the kids, gave out the instructions. Now, the underperforming chickens are coming home to roost, and Banality Bob has no option but to make the best of things and thank his lucky stars for Landon Donovan.