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 Michael could, should, have been replaced by Pablo Mastroeni at halftime.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.