[UNDER THE MICROSCOPE] Considering the space and time afforded the U.S. central midfield in the second half against Turkey, just about anybody playing in a rougher, scrappier game with Australia would suffer by comparison with Jose Francisco Torres, who dug into tackles and used his touches well as the Americans rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat the tiring Turks, 2-1.
In the eyes of many fans and journalists that performance moved Torres alongside Michael Bradley in a preferred starting XI against England, yet both Torres and Maurice Edu sat out the Australia game as Ricardo Clark and Bradley went the full 90 in a 3-1 victory. The most likely scenario is that all four will appear in the group stage, since they offer different abilities and aren’t strangers to cautions. But which pairing Coach Bob Bradley will use in the World Cup opener against England is harder to project.
Examining his game minute by minute, touch by touch reveals that Clark played a very solid first half against Australia with virtually no turnovers, and while less efficient in the second half still broke up plays and set in motion attacking moves. His tremendous range has in the past been betrayed by sloppy passing and overzealous recoveries from poor starting positions, but there were few examples of those shortcomings on Saturday.
Clark glanced around constantly to check his positioning and that of his teammates and opponents, which is an encouraging trend for a player sometimes prone to tunnel vision and ball-watching.
In the first half alone, he helped set in motion three threatening attacks, one of which produced a goal:
He scraped a ball away from Josh Kennedy in the U.S. half and recovered quickly enough to find Clint Dempsey with a flicked ball; Dempsey turned that possession into a through ball that Robbie Findley took past keeper Mark Schwarzer but shot wide. Clark played several such balls during the 90 minutes and most of the time was perfectly willing to play it safe and square rather than force it upfield.
He lunged into a tackle deep in his own half and as he went head over heels, literally, from the collision, Bradley launched the attack that produced Dempsey’s low shot and a fingertip save by Schwarzer.
In the 31st minute, stationed near the left touchline, Clark switched play with a crossfield ball to Steve Cherundolo, who darted clear down the right side to hit a cross Edson Buddle headed home for the second U.S. goal. Cherundolo made a great play after Clark spotted the right back in acres of space and chipped a 40-yard ball right to his feet.
A few of his first-half passes could have been more precise – he rolled a pass a yard or two behind Cherundolo, who nevertheless collected and kept it, Findley mis-trapped and lost a ball he should have controlled – but none of them went to the opposition.
The second half wasn’t as good, though it started well when Clark stripped Vince Grella of the ball in the Australia half to set up a scoring chance. A couple of his turnovers could have been costly, and he lost one ball not more than 30 yards from goal though nothing came of it.
Clark also coughed one up near the center circle but by immediately applying pressure – one of the holy truths preached by Bob Bradley – helped the U.S. get it right back. A foul by Michael Bradley awarded Australia a ball he was tussling for, on another occasion they missed connections and the Aussies picked up the loose ball. He fought through a couple of double-teams to keep possession but also came off second best once or twice.
Most of his passes found their target. In the second half, Clark tried a through ball that crossed the midfield line; though it was intercepted, he and his teammates were in good spots to defend. He committed two fouls, one early in the half near midfield. Very rarely did he get near the sidelines except when trying to win the ball; with the U.S. in possession, he stayed in the left channel to give Dempsey plenty of room out wide, yet also provided support by stationing himself five to 10 yards away prior to Dempsey taking off on his runs. Occasionally he slid across midfield to aim balls for Landon Donovan.
Of the central pair, Bradley committed more turnovers in the first half, yet got forward on a few occasions, triggered two dangerous attacks with early balls out of the back, and drilled a fierce shot on goal that Schwarzer parried. The active, aggressive Aussies hit a few American players more than once; hard tackles took out Dempsey several times. Clark limped off in stoppage time with a tweaked hamstring, which might have impaired him in the second half as Bradley’s game grew stronger.
Aside from being knocked ass over teakettle in that first-half tackle, Clark did nothing spectacular. To the tasks assigned to him, however, he did most of them well.