Trying to think of one word to describe the USA's performance against Denmark, I have settled on "stale." Nothing new to be seen here, very much the same old same old.
Ignoring the result, which hardly matters, the chief disappointment was exactly the lack of sparkle. Obviously, there was one pretty good reason for that -- this was the USA's second away game in five days.
But why did the U.S. team have to have such a familiar look to it -- not only as far as the starting lineup was concerned, but the substitutions, too?
If this was an opportunity to "look at" new players -- and that seems to have been the general opinion -- then who were these new players? Of the 18 players, only Dax McCarty and Edgar Castillo really qualify.
McCarty got to play about 10 minutes in the 0-1 loss to Slovakia, and he got about the same time in this game. I'm not sure how exactly one defines "looking at" new players, but brief 10-minute slots squeezed in at the end of a couple of games doesn't look like the way to do it.
Of course, Coach Bob Bradley has had plenty of opportunity to watch McCarty in action with FC Dallas, so he should know quite a lot about him. His opportunities for watching Castillo play in Mexico for Tigres were no doubt more limited, but I can't see that Bradley will have learned much from what Castillo did and didn't do in the Denmark game.
Castillo's introduction to the U.S. national team came under rather extraordinary circumstances when he replaced Michael Bradley, for it is a rare occasion when coach Bradley pulls player Bradley off. Jonathan Bornstein continued to play at left back, Castillo's accustomed position. So Castillo became the wide left midfielder, a flank player. By the time he got into the game, Denmark was leading 3-1 and totally in command. The USA, for whatever reason, was having trouble getting possession of the ball, never mind doing anything with it.
So Castillo spent most of his time out on the left flank, where he had no doubt been instructed to stay, as a spectator. Maybe he touched the ball a dozen times. His passes were mostly one-touch, lateral or backward -- the caution of the debutant. There were no mistakes, but there was no dribbling either -- something of a shame that. For Castillo is an exciting player surging forward with the ball at his feet. But not in this game. Tactical instructions? Or the cautious debutant again?
I find it difficult to think of any cogent reason why Castillo should not have started this game. (One good reason why he should have started is that it might have consigned the increasingly erratic Frankie Hejduk to the bench.)
At least that would have given Bob Bradley a meaningful performance on which to make his judgments. These paltry minutes revealed nothing -- certainly nothing that would serve as a strong argument for either dropping Castillo or for continuing with him.
This is not encouraging, for it raises the possibility that Castillo will get the same treatment as Jose Francisco Torres. Like Castillo, Torres is American-born, but plays for a pro club -- Pachuca -- in Mexico. Both players could have opted to play for Mexico -- both, instead have chosen the USA. Torres got his first real chance as a starter earlier this year in a World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica.
A game in which the USA was outplayed in the first half, and went to the locker room 0-2 down. But one of the bright spots in an otherwise poorly played 45 minutes by the USA was the confident and skillful play of Torres. As the half came to a close, ESPN commentator John Harkes was praising Torres, saying the USA needed more players like him, comfortable in controlling and possessing the ball.
Bradley thought otherwise. When the USA reappeared for the second half, Torres was no longer on the field. A very strange decision on Bradley's part, to put it charitably. And the strangeness has continued. Torres was dropped for the next qualifier against Honduras. He was restored to the team for the Confederations Cup, but didn't get on the field in any of the five games.
Since then, Torres does not seem to have figured much in Bradley's calculations, at least not in any methodical way. And now we have Bradley's less-than-whole-hearted way of introducing Castillo to the team. So be it -- it is the lot of pioneers to be misunderstood. And Torres and Castillo are certainly pioneers, the first of the coming wave of American-born Latino players who will bring a much needed stylistic sophistication to American soccer.