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Wanted: A Brain for Midfield
by Paul Gardner, June 5th, 2008 6:45AM

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Spain 1 USA 0. A better showing by the USA, better than against England? Oh yes, a hell of a lot better, particularly in the first half. But still a worryingly patchy, scrappy, style-less affair.

No one could possibly have believed that the USA could play worse than it did against England. The players' pride alone would surely have prevented that. And in the first half the U.S. players showed, if it needed showing -- and after the England game, maybe it did -- that they have plentiful reserves of energy and pride to call on.

There was also the skill factor. Freddy Adu made a difference there -- bringing something that had been lacking. Something that we could have expected from Clint Dempsey, but Dempsey is quite definitely out of sorts at the moment. With Adu able to hold the ball from time to time, and ever willing to dribble at defenders, Eddie Johnson was turned from the surly spectator that he had been at Wembley into a player who looked sharp and dangerous.

The best that can be said of Eddie Lewis is that he knows how to make the most of his limited abilities. He performed well enough. The other midfielders -- Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley can be defended only on tactical grounds that I find questionable. That you "have to have" players like that who charge about and tight mark and commit fouls. But even if you do, neither Edu nor Bradley made a good job of such activity.

Bob Bradley's by now well-known reluctance to substitute his son was carried way too far here. Michael could, should, have been replaced by Pablo Mastroeni at halftime. To bring on Mastroeni with a mere five minutes left, comes over as yet another insulting substitution.

When discussing the U.S. midfield, one cannot leave Landon Donovan out of the equation. Without him -- as last night -- it is, very literally, a different ball game. The fact that the USA's best chance came in the first half, on a sudden, ultra-sudden and speedy breakaway after consistent Spanish pressure is significant. Because the ability to create dangerous attacking movements built on ball possession was really not much better in this game than it was against England.

Was there at any time in this game -- you can add in the England game, too -- an example of the ball being advanced quickly and confidently down field by the exchange of wall-passes on the run?

No, I'm not claiming that is the only way to attack. But it is one way, an important way, a skillful way -- and it is a way that the USA seems to almost deliberately eschew. I guess it makes little sense to expect such moves -- which can involve a fair amount of subtlety -- from a midfield inhabited by the far-from-subtle Bradley and Edu, and an off-key Dempsey.

As for the back four, little change there, Steve Cherundolo and Heath Pearce were competent enough, while Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra upped their commitment level into a startling array of slides and lunges that -- frequently at full stretch -- kept Spain out. Until, that is, a pretty remarkable goal from Xavi.

While assessing the USA's performance, it needs to be remembered that, for most of the Spanish players, this was a game in which the important thing was not to get injured. The fear of missing out on Euro 2008 by picking up an injury at this stage inevitably meant we saw a Spain functioning at something less than full steam.

So the USA has lost to England and Spain. Hardly any reason to feel disgraced. But the soccer played has ranged from downright poor to only acceptable. Can it get any better against Argentina, the team currently ranked as the world's No. 1? A home game ... but one of those home games the USA has to put up with, where a huge number of fans, possibly a majority, will be supporting the opposing team. If Donovan plays I would expect the USA to give its best performance of these three friendlies, because he brings the urgently needed imagination into the midfield. Without him, I cannot see the USA producing the desired level of soccer.

I'm emphasizing the quality of the soccer played rather than the results, because there is nothing other than that to be learned from these games. They are oddities anyway -- with opponents like England, anxious to show that they are not as bad as their press clippings, Spain, equally anxious to keep all their players fit, and Argentina -- which has nothing in particular to play for, but which has a key World Cup qualifier against Brazil coming up in a couple of weeks.

If the USA loses all three of these games, that would do nothing to hurt its chances of qualifying for World Cup 2010. Even playing as badly as it did against England, the USA will qualify. So the short-term news is good. In the longer term the outlook -- particularly when viewed from that ponderous midfield -- is much less encouraging.

 



0 comments
  1. Paul Bryant
    commented on: June 5, 2008 at 12:07 p.m.
    All of your descriptions are very apt, especially the way you described Eddie Johnson as a "surly spectator." I thought the ESPN color commentator was right on target when he spoke about the U.S. team's lack of immagination, and the willingness of U. S. midfielders to hold the ball and move the attack forward. I thought Maurice Edu was an improvement over Ricardo Clark. Clark has no business on the national team. Michael Bradley showed a lack of quickness, immagination, and maturity in the game. Also, I did not realize Clint Dempsey was in the game until half-way into the first half. I believe the infusion of Altidore and Donnavan would certainly have made a difference on the attack. Dempsey and E. Johnson don't appear to have the strength to hold the ball against defenders like Ramos and Puyol. Heath Pearce is not a credible right back in my opinion. I liked the fact than Onyewu sent long balls down field trying to energize the attack. The U. S. plays "basketball" passing from player to player instead of passing to a forward area so that a player can outrun his opponent and create something.

  1. Mike Swift
    commented on: June 5, 2008 at 12:15 p.m.
    Overall, I'm glad to read your courageous opinions are supported with accurate facts. Without question, the US needs a stronger midfield corps. Adu is too inconsistent with his play, especially when the other team keys in on him. Bradley and Edu usually work with him in the international youth squads, so I could understand the pairing for the friendly, however, there still aren't enough technically creative skill players who have consistently demonstrated they deserve to stay in the lineups for the entire match every time. In defense of Dempsey, he'd been hacked down a number of times, especially in the second half, without many calls going his way. That would put any man of his A-Game. However, the dearth of creative talent at midfield isn't dependent upon the support offered by the officials' whistle. In defense of the US friendly schedule, I'm pleased that talented squads with world-class players are still willing to schedule matches against the Men's National Team. Our entire nation needs to understand that our international players need to play wherever they can receive the best opportunity to develop their skills. If that means they play overseas instead of the MLS, we need to support that necessity. At the end of this friendly tour, the Men's National Team should have a clearer focus as to our place in the world's game and a stronger desire to stay motivated to work hard and improve.

  1. David Sirias
    commented on: June 5, 2008 at 3:01 p.m.
    Why are absent or only muted criticism's of coach Bradley in the US Soccer Press? Yes, he can probably lead the team through CONCOCAF, but his team is a disaster waiting to happen. At best, bad substitutions, dubious roster selections, inflexibility in "system = mediocre coach. (Eddie Johnson! What more is ther to say). At worse, reapeating the same mistakes expecting different results = madness. International coaching is much more about the coach than club ball. If US soccer does not have Bradley (and Gulati) on short leashes, they deserve what they get in 2010.


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