By Paul Gardner
Another reprehensible evening for Bob Bradley and the U.S. national team at the New Meadowlands Stadium. Not as bad as last year's feeble surrender to Brazil, but bad enough.
Of course, a 1-1 tie with Argentina looks like a respectable scoreline, but don’t be fooled. For most of this game, the USA was thoroughly outplayed. Against Brazil, goalkeeper Brad Guzan was voted (by whom?) Man of the Match -- even though he played only 45 minutes. This time Tim Howard got the award, and that tells you everything. The USA still relies heavily on its goalkeepers to stave off embarrassing defeats.
Bradley has now had more than six months in charge in his second spell. That’s ample time to show evidence of a new approach, something fresh, some new and different players, at least an attempt to change the pattern of his college-game thinking.
But nothing has changed, not a thing. This is still a team without style, a team that has nothing better than craven defense to offer in a home game against a strong opponent.
Of course, Bradley denied that. In his well-orchestrated, coach-friendly post-game press conference, he said it wasn’t the USA’s intention to play defensively in the first half, but that Argentina had found its rhythm so quickly that the USA had been forced into a defensive mode.
Oh, really. A team that takes the field with one guy up front, that abjectly retreats into its own half en masse whenever the opponents get the ball, that is so obviously looking for the quick counter, right from the start ... a team with the evident intention of getting through to halftime with a 0-0 scoreline -- this is not a team with a defensive mindset?
The game started with Michael Bradley, unchallenged, hitting a cross-field pass ... that went straight into touch. That was not an aberration. The quality of the U.S. passing, particularly out of the back, was atrocious. Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra are players whose time has come and gone.
OK, Omar Gonzalez was not available, but is he then the only young replacement? We might have got a look at Tim Ream -- after all, he plays just down the road for the Red Bulls -- but, no, that was evidently considered too risky. So yesterday’s players soldiered crudely on.
Oguchi Onyewu, once a lively, skillful outside back has been turned -- by his coaches, who else? -- into a lumbering, physical center back of doubtful quality. We did get something new defensively when Timothy Chandler came on in the second half -- replacing Jonathan Spector -- the least worrying of the U.S. defenders. But Chandler is not an American-produced player.
Chandler, along with the other second-half sub, Red Bull Juan Agudelo, made a difference, for sure -- it was a difference that they could, presumably, have made much earlier ... had Bradley been willing to start them in a less defensive formation. Too risky, no doubt.
In midfield, the best-ever American player, Landon Donovan, had a totally vapid game. We can blame Donovan -- or should we blame the coach who sends him out in a formation that seemed almost designed to negate Donovan’s undoubted playmaking skills? Jermaine Jones made but one memorable contribution by scything down Lionel Messi.
Clint Dempsey did well enough, under these negative conditions (negative conditions imposed by his own coach, not by the Argentines), while Maurice Edu showed himself, yet again, to be nothing more than the sort of physical enforcer that Bradley admires in midfield. As for Jozy Altidore, the lone stranger up front -- what chance did he have?
Bob Bradley, good old Banality Bob, let fly with the banalities post-game. This game was all good for the USA, it was good for the players to experience the quick way that Argentina moves the ball, the USA’s responses were good, it was a good result against a good opponent. Good, good, good. Good grief! -- but there was more goodness to come.
Asked about Agudelo, Bradley made the standard remark about Agudelo “putting himself into good positions” (is Agudelo auditioning for a role in Kama Sutra, the Musical -- or a place on the national team?) and then commented that he had a “good attitude about working on little things ...”
We’ve been listening to this twaddle about little things for over four years now. How about working on some of the big things, Bob? Like developing a passing game? Something that might mean that goalscoring moves begin to look like a natural part of the USA’s play. That would be a welcome relief from the reliance on smash-and-grab counters or -- as in this game -- on a set-play and a goalkeeper error?
A statistical comment -- one that also tells us a lot about Bradley’s player selection. On the USA’s 18-man roster, only two players -- Donovan and Jonathan Bornstein -- were less than 6 feet tall. Argentina, with a 24-man roster, had 15 players under 6 feet.
Among those 15, the smallest player on the field, the little genius Messi, with his shining, lapidary skills. The contrast between the beautiful artistry of Messi and the sheer lubberly ordinariness of Bradley’s defenders was utterly embarrassing.
Of course, Bradley knows all about Messi, he explained to us about his quick little passes, and his delayed darting runs with the tedious, bloodless detail of a technician who’s been studying the tapes ad nauseam. Defending Messi? Bradley has it all worked out, it means stopping that final pass, either from him, or to him. Sounds simple and clean. No doubt. But mostly it translated as “safety in numbers” -- surrounding Messi with a posse of defenders and simply crowding him out.
Which worked -- up to a point. Messi simply bamboozled everyone with his marvelous dribble that led to Argentina’s goal. And he was unfortunate to be called back in the 63rd minute when he was in the process of ghosting past everyone -- as the referee whistled too early to give Argentina a free kick they could have done without.
Next, it’s Paraguay. Mexico showed, on Saturday, that free-flowing attacking soccer can beat Paraguay. Will Bradley opt for that? Is he capable of even entertaining such an idea? Will he take the risks, which are not that great, of sitting the old guys down and starting the youngsters? Bradley says he is thinking about it.
More than thinking is needed now. Without some evidence -- and we’ve had none so far -- that he is willing to be much more adventurous, Bradley has no future with this team, and the team has no future with Bradley in charge.