By Ridge Mahoney
If significant wins in friendlies can be discounted, shouldn’t the same apply to a resounding defeat?
Logic would say so, but little is logical when a national team aspiring to new heights takes it on the chin in a home game against a good but hardly fearsome team, as did the U.S. in a 4-2 loss to Belgium in Cleveland on Wednesday.
Is preparation, or lack of same, to blame? Belgium, prepping for a titanic World Cup qualifier next week against Serbia, took the friendly seriously enough to arrive six days prior and trained regularly up to the match. The Americans slated to play came in a day or two before and went through one session prior to kickoff, with the rest of the squad arriving later in the week.
That might explain how Belgium pounced on an early error to score in the sixth minute, and unfortunately, also gives insight into what transpired for the remainder of play. Along with a sputtering attack, porous midfield and rickety back line, the Americans also lacked an element essential to success regardless of the score or how the game is trending.
Leadership. Spirit. Determination. In the absence of Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley, not to mention Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra, who rallies the troops when the game goes bad? Against Belgium, Tim Howard got vocal at times, but a keeper is stuck at one end of the field and thus his influence is minimal.
Nobody else took on the mantle of responsibility to correct the glaring flaws in positioning and hesitant play. With just one day of preparation against a solid European team, this was always to be a tough test played on the fly in which adjustment and adaptation would be crucial. The USA looked capable and organized offensively on set plays, one of which produced a nice Geoff Cameron goal from a corner kick, but during the run of play the Americans were haphazard in the first half and overrun in the second.
Central mids Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan play for successful top-division European teams, yet not only were they not in sync and breached repeatedly by balls played between them, neither stepped up to get loud and sort things out. Centerbacks often serve as organizers but Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson, beset by their own problems of staying connected with their teammates and each other, never took command either.
Players seldom bring the same fire and intensity to a friendly as they do to a qualifier or other competitive match. Beating Italy in Genoa and Mexico in Mexico City last year were historic results in the history of U.S. Soccer yet no great shock waves – head coaches fired, roster upheavals, hysterical fan reaction – were recorded. Mexico took much more seriously the 0-0 Hexagonal result in late March than it did the 2012 defeat.
Still, leadership should be a constant for players entrusted with wearing their national team shirt. On short preparation for a friendly, players are nevertheless accountable to themselves and their teammates. When a game starts to unravel, they can’t look just to the bench for inspiration and solutions, they must find the power within themselves and thus inflame their teammates.
The dearth of candidates to fill that role against Belgium points out once again that the U.S. squad is rather thin on big personalities who rise above the rest no matter the stakes or consequences. No doubt the flaccid performance against Belgium and strengthening of the squad will produce better results and greater intensity in the games to come, but those who played in Cleveland should not soon forget how tepidly they succumbed.