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The USA's Best-Ever Game?
by Paul Gardner, June 24th, 2009 9:46PM

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By Paul Gardner

Bob Bradley is definitely the man of the hour here - but hold on, Bob - let the man you so soundly beat have the first say: "They had huge energy, were very quick in attack, and caught us by surprise," - the words of Spanish coach Vicente del Bosque.

And frankly, pretty pathetic words they are. Not worthy of such a splendid coach. So Spain was "caught by surprise," was it?

One thing that Bradley and his team have surely done is to bury that phrase - as applied to a game against the USA - for ever. When U.S. players claim, petulantly, that they don't get enough respect, it is this sort of thing they are referring to.

But after this game, this scoreline, there surely cannot be a team or a coach in the world who will dare to say again that they were "surprised" by the USA.

Least of all, I imagine, Brazil, the USA's likely opponent in the Confederations Cup final. What Bradley's team did yesterday was to play the best game that I have ever seen any U.S. national team, at any level, play. For the record, that takes in nearly 50 years of experience at all age levels.

The circumstances were, of course, somewhat special. The USA had nothing to lose, could play freely and adventurously. OK - but how many teams actually do that when the chance comes along? Bradley's USA did, and it was rewarded with one of the biggest wins in U.S. soccer history.

The measure of the USA's achievement is perhaps best approached by telling first of what they did not. The negative things that, playing against the best team in the world (everyone agreed on that) they might be expected to do. Firstly, they did not adopt a defensive formation, they did not play bunker-style as Bora Milutinovic's dreary Iraq had done (and had lost anyway). Secondly, they did not adopt an intimidating, physical approach - for most of the game they played well within the rules of the game. In a game in which they had to do a lot of defending and tackling, to commit only nine fouls is absolutely extraordinary. Thirdly, having scored the vital first goal, they did not abandon their open play - they continued to attack whenever they could.

Those three negatives add up to a massive tactical positive. I'm tempted to say that the USA started this game exactly the way that they finished against Egypt - with an almost abandoned search for goals. But I think that would not be doing either Bradley or his players credit.

This time there was - there had to be against a team as dangerous as Spain - a strong tactical presence. Primarily it made its presence felt as positional discipline. The Spanish midfield, so highly praised (including by me) was never allowed to take command of this game. Occasionally, it did - particularly in the second half - but even then the USA presented the threat of a quick, intelligent counter. The attacking move that led to Clint Dempsey's goal saw four U.S. attackers closing in on the Spanish goalmouth, faced by four Spanish defenders.

But the 4-4-2 formation was there to be seen throughout the game. Landon Donovan's nomadic ubiquity tended to upset the geometry a bit, but never did he harm it. And maybe Charlie Davies was not always up front with Jozy Altidore, but he arrived rapidly, almost at the same time as a pass to Altidore, and others were there almost as quickly. Never did I have the impression - so often given by modern formations - that either Altidore, or Davies, was isolated, that either one was left to "battle all alone" up front.

There were two noticeable, recurring features, both immense positives for the USA: the number of times that Spanish passes were intercepted in midfield, or that Spanish passes simply went astray. And, in the U.S. penalty area, the number of Spanish shots that were blocked almost as soon as they were made. If goalkeeper Tim Howard had a pretty straightforward game, which he did, much of it was down to his defenders' ability to smother Fernando Torres and David Villa before, or as, they pulled the trigger.

There was never any defensive mindset, everyone knew that one goal was unlikely to be enough, so the attacking brio continued until Dempsey took advantage of Sergio Ramos' dreadful error.

But by then, a dreadful error by Spain did not seem an unthinkable occurrence. Already we had seen plenty of Spanish passes going astray, sometimes going straight into touch, at others there were clear signs of recrimination among the Spanish players. The USA had utterly frustrated them, and had done it by playing good, if not great, soccer.

A lovely lesson here, in soccer stats - for the USA was on the wrong end of all those that matter - less possession, many fewer shots on goals and corner kicks, and - for those who see fouls as a measure of aggressiveness - fewer fouls. And the USA, with only two shots on goal, won the game 2-0.

A lesson, too, in tactics, or at least terminology. I suppose we'll hear about players "who do the dirty work" (an idiotic phrase if ever there was one) - but where was the dirty work here? Everyone ran their heart out, everyone tackled or tried to do so - and not many players fouled. Not much dirty about any of that.

Michael Bradley's red card, thoroughly deserved, was the only negative. So the USA will face Brazil without him - not such a bad thing, for Coach Bradley relies far too heavily on his son's limited abilities. No doubt Michael will be replaced by the equally reliable but also equally limited Sasha Kljestan. Which would be rather a shame, when young Jose Francisco Torres is patiently waiting on the bench.

And so to Brazil. I repeat: One thing we can be sure of - there will be no talk from coach Dunga - either before or after the game - about "surprises" from the USA.

Bob Bradley with his minimal tactics and his refusal to play negatively - and his players with their continuous commitment and willingness to exploit every attacking moment, have surely put a belated end to the phenomenon of people being "surprised" when the USA plays well.

 



0 comments
  1. Nathan Geason
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 8:43 a.m.
    Clearly the reason the US has won the last two games after having played so poorly the first, the team played with two forwards and neither of them were named Donovan. For reasons unknown, coach Bob Bradley kept up the tradition under Bruce Arena from the failed 2006 World Cup of putting Landon uptop. That might work in MLS, not here. While I would preder to having Landon as the central offiensice mid-fielder with Michael behind him, having him wide left or right has made a huge difference for the team with his ability to collect the ball and run at the defense.

  1. Anthony Calabrese
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 9:33 a.m.
    A positive report bu Paul Gardner on a non-South American team. Paul, are you feeling alright? If you are Paul.

  1. Gus Keri
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 9:40 a.m.
    The main differance between Spain and the USA is what they went through in their groups. The USA played two of the top five teams in the world and then played a huge game against the African champions. So, psychologically, they were fired up and energized for the semifinal. On the other hand, Spain played three teams that are ranked less than 72nd in the world. They were relaxed and overconfident. They approached the game with the mentality that they have already won it. In adddition to that, The lady luck was smiling big for the USA, while it turned her back on the Spanish team. May be, this was a lesson to the Spanish team not to underestimate any opponent, regardless. Let's not get carried away with this result. And this should not blind us from seeing the limitations of the US squad. It 's going to be a long way before they become the world beaters.

  1. David Hardt
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 10:25 a.m.
    They defended with their hearts. I never saw so many defenders throwing them selves on shots, looked like an indoor game or hockey. They the tried to get out and attack, not just stay there and wait to take it again. We sometimes complain that our guys simply blast the ball out of the defensive 1/3 only to have it come right back. We worked the ball out a little better but still, there is a time and place for clearing a ball instead of working it out, like the situation of our 2nd goal.

  1. Joseph Breault
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 10:57 a.m.
    A great game to watch and a fantastic result in a meaningful game. Bradley made all the right moves and "out coached" his opponent. Del Bosque did not field his best team, thinking he could get by the US and into what every FIFA exec wanted to see...Brazil vs Spain. Now they will have to give tickets away for a Brazil/US rematch. In our little pond one great win every 10 years will have to be enough. The Mexico and Portugal wins in WC were equal or better becuase of the stage. I think Bradley has done a fine job, but I would still like to see Klinsman come in and revamp the entire system from top to bottom.


  1. commented on: June 25, 2009 at 11:03 a.m.
    Even the players who have the best technical skills & most confidence (and reason for it) in the world, can succumb to relentless defensive pressure. Spain owned time-of-posession, but were much less comfortable in that posession than they are usually allowed to be. By playing with an assertive (rather than passive) defense, the US was able to interrupt the creative flow and cause enough turn-overs & bad touches to be successful. It didn't hurt that the US capitalised upon the chances they did create. The tactitcal take-away from this match for US coaches at EVERY level should be: pressure-pressure-pressure-finish.

  1. B F
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 11:05 a.m.
    A few interesting stats from FIFA.com to back up Paul's comments... The US was attacking. 36 pct of Spain's possession was in the attacking third... but the US was comparable at 33 pct. The US played hard but didn't slow Spain down by gooning it up. Spain actually committed more fouls (13-9) than the US. I was on the Sack Bob Bradley bandwagon last week. But if the last two matches have convinced him to drop his 'sit back and pray for set piece goals' strategy in favor of positive attacking soccer, I will enthusiastically jump off that bandwagon!

  1. Rene Guerra
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 11:40 a.m.
    Spain outplayed the US; the US outgoaled Spain. Altidore must be made work on trapping the ball; he gave the ball away most of the time a pass was given to him. Yes, a pass that counted a lot he trapped, and that trap made a big difference: a pivotal and great goal. In general, our players gave the ball away too much; either by just whacking the ball in panic, or by not switching, bad passes, bad trappings or bad dribbling skills. Coach Bradley MUST make them work HARD on keeping their cool, switching, trapping, dribbling and passing until they master them...if we are aiming at doing a decent job at the World Cup...if we qualify, which is very likely.

  1. B F
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 11:47 a.m.
    "Spain outplayed the US; the US outgoaled Spain." Fortunately, "outgoaling" the opponent is a key factor in determining the result of soccer matches. Rene is not wrong though... except that all the skills he mentions need to be worked on by coaches at the youth levels. If someone can't trap by the time they're 25, it's too late. We are not at the level of Spain or Brasil yet. But we're moving in the right direction if we can play a great team, attack and win.

  1. Trudy Wells
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 12:40 p.m.
    A miracle on grass . . . that stopped traffic in Europe. My brother in Switzerland almost dropped his coffe cup when the second goal happened. His extreme joy for his younger sister in Arizona [who was freaking] out knows no boundary, because . . . THEY were that good! Go USA! BELIEVE!!! Soccer rules! Trudy Wells

  1. Kent James
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 2:06 p.m.
    It was a well-deserved victory for the US. While the Spanish were a bit unlucky, and clearly have more talent than the US (and most of the rest of the world for that matter), the attacking mentality and aggressive defense of the US put us in the position to win. The difficult part for Bradley now is how do you adjust for Brazil. I thought both Dempsey (a bit lazy) and Altidore (poor first touch, very little energy up top) have not played that well most of the time, yet they both scored key goals. Bocanegra is a great player, but a bit rusty, and I thought Bornstein's played well (as have all the backs). I think Dempsey needs to go up top (he doesn't have the work rate to cover his defensive responsibilities), put Feilhaber in for Bradley, and then give either Torres or Adu a shot at the outside midfield spot that Dempsey's been playing. Perhaps put Davies in for Altidore (or bring him on as a sub for either Altidore or Dempsey). But keep up the aggressive defense and incisive attacking, and if we lose, at least we went for it. I'm so glad Bradley did not adopt the "they're better than us, lets sit back and clog the goal mouth and try to score on a set-piece" mentality. And I'm especially glad that he was rewarded for the attacking style adopted by the team. Let's hope (against hope) that they can do it again, or at least go down playing good, attacking soccer.

  1. Doug Lister
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 2:33 p.m.
    I can't believe that no one steps up to defend Michael Bradley. I recorded the game yesterday and immediately after the game watched the play a few times, watched it a few times last night before I went to bed and then just watched it a few more times. They arrived at the ball almost simultaneously with bradley arriving no more than a few milliseconds after the spaniard and getting a large bit of the ball. The spaniard popped up and didn't stay down. So I'll ask. Is it even a bookable offense?

  1. David Sirias
    commented on: June 25, 2009 at 2:59 p.m.
    I still don't think Bob is the right man for 2010. 1) DeMerit played only because of injury 2) Boca played left, where he should on THIS team, only because of injury 3) Beaz and Sasha are were not in form to be on this team 4) If Adu and Torres were not going to play, why bring them? 5) Davies played only because of 3) above. 6) Bob's subbing, timing personel, was and always is atrocious. E.g. He wanted to kill off the Spain game with Casey? WTF! Torrres and Adu sitting there. 7) His own son did not need every minute of every match. That goes for Dempsey too. If Bob was smart and fair, these guys would have gotten a little rest at some point, and junior would not have received the red in waning minutes of the Spain game. In short, Bob was on the precipice because of his own shortcomings, which forced his inflexible hand........ and he got lucky. We don't need a lucky coach. We need an international calibur coach. Though he has demonstared a limited ability to learn from his mistakes, and all credit being due, I still maintian that Bob WILL be exposed in SA next year for what he is. And that's a shame because the boys and the fans deserve better.

  1. Kent James
    commented on: June 26, 2009 at 11:30 a.m.
    Bradley played a fantastic tournament, and deserved every minute of playing time. His work rate and distribution were superb. His only flaw, as was evident by the red card, is that he makes rash challenges that get him in trouble. The red card was harsh, but certainly within the referee's discretion (though he may have gotten some of the ball, it was a very dangerous because of the force with which he made the challenge and that it was studs up, and he did get the Spaniard's ankle with his studs). It's a shame he won't get to play in the final, but at least it was a the end of the game this time!

  1. Matthew Martin
    commented on: June 26, 2009 at 11:54 a.m.
    Wow ! A great article and great posts to boot! David's harsh dose of reality at the end was a bummer but his points have their merits. Coach Bradley has some decisions to make and while I understand that one could make DIFFERENT choices with whom to field I have to go back to who sees this team on the practice field watches their match tapes from Europe or MLS (AT LEAST I HOPE SO!) and who has the US CONFIDENT despite relatively limited ability at most positions?....relative to BRAZIL, ARGENTINA, ITALIA, and SPAIN.....EVERY ONE OF THOSE TEAMS FIELD PLAYERS PLAYING ON THE TOP CLUB TEAMS IN THE WORLD.....THE US does not have anyone aside from maybe Tim Howard and Everton is just a tad better than midtable! If you tried to be THE SPECIAL ONE that would not work here. The very best coaches seem to be surrounded by the very best players...what I am saying is that Bradley has done damn well and LUCKY follows hard work and BALLS....it may be true that a star coach with visionary tactics and an amazing foreign pedigree is needed to "take the US to the top" but I believe that day is still another 5 or 10 years away and that a whole collection of excellent "star" coaches would all unceremoniously fail with this group of players because they are not of top5 or top10 caliber ON PAPER or even in the club world. Let us enjoy this day and continue to work towards supporting soccer in our home towns. If you don't like MLS because its not good enough you are part of the problem not part of the answer. We aren't the best, but for 90 minutes with a ragtag bunch of MUTTS (thank you Bill Murray) WE WERE THE BEST. THANK YOU BOB BRADLEY! Imperfections and all we found a way and for that he has earned his shot at 2010. Will we "fail"? That depends- now when we are in a GROUP OF DEATH it will be the others who are scared NOT US! NOT because we are suddenly a world power but because the coach knows his players and pulled out enough to keep us in Spain's face. It wasn't dominant but all those weaknesses Rene pointed out....(true ones) well, doesn't anyone think that might have had something to do with the competition? We do need to work on trapping and passing and vision....from the youth leagues up.....and after we get out of the group stages in SA (I Hope) then BB can hand over the reigns to the next coach because we probably will be humbled again in the later stages....our talent or lack thereof dictates that will happen, but again for now BOB has us going forward.


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