Eight games into the Hexagonal, and three-quarters of the way through the busiest year of the U.S. national team, I haven't been able to pinpoint just what is ailing the U.S. national team. But I do have an idea.
In beating El Salvador, 2-1, at Rio Tinto Stadium and nicking Trinidad & Tobago, 1-0, in Port of Spain, the Americans did barely enough to win. They were the better team, marginally, over the 90 minutes in both matches, yet only one Tim Howard save or fluffed chance separated a win from a tie.
El Salvador zipped balls through midfield to their dangerous attackers, against whom the Americans disquietingly floundered too many times. T&T found space in the goalmouth for headers that either missed the target or were gobbled up by Howard.
In neither case did the modus operandi of the opposing teams come as a surprise. The Salvadorans, good on the ground and quick up the field, had beaten Mexico at home in the Hexagonal, clear proof they weren't the listless road pigeons they've been in the past. A disallowed Jozy Altidore goal and several squandered opportunities kept the match close; a third U.S. goal might have killed their spirit, but it never came.
Four days later, a robust T&T team coached by former international Russell Latapy not only outmuscled or outhustled the Americans numerous times, but also created clearcut chances with balls to the flank and well-timed runs into the box. With Jay DeMerit sidelined and Oguchi Onyewu returning to the lineup after serving a suspension in Utah, an alarming number of balls reached the heads of Kenwyne Jones and Cornell Glen to be directed towards goal, and the flank play of right back Carlos Edwards and midfield work by Trent Noel unhinged the U.S. several times.
BLAMING BOB. The easy target is head coach Bob Bradley, or more specifically, his tactics and player selection. In neither category has he been exemplary, but in most departments neither have his players. And does anyone believe that simply by inserting Jose Francisco Torres or Benny Feilhaber or Stuart Holden into midfield, or speed-rushing left back Edgar Castillo into the lineup, all will be made right and just?
The middle is also a muddle in light of Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones. Edu spent the summer rehabbing an injury and desperately needs playing time at Glasgow Rangers to contend for a starting spot. The German-born Jones, also injured, plays for Schalke in the Bundesliga and is regarded by many fans and observers as a lock to start, even though they've never seen him play and won't see him in a U.S. jersey until later this year at the earliest.
One of the many flaws of such rationale is all those players are young - even Jones is only 27. If this team lacks anything, it's veteran leadership, especially in the middle of the park. There's youth everywhere, and unless past World Cup stalwarts Pablo Mastroeni and DaMarcus Beasley turn it back up, the Americans will be one of the least battle-tested teams in South Africa.
True, Landon Donovan is 27 and will be carry much of the leadership burden, but some experienced players, as in the case of defender Carlos Bocanegra, who often wears the captain's armband, are too error-prone to shoulder the burden. Others, like Onyewu and Clint Dempsey, have skills and abilities the team sorely needs, but leadership isn't among them. DeMerit has the requisite warrior personality and indomitable American spirit - his performance in the Confederations Cup sharply ratcheted up his street cred - but he has never played in a World Cup.
Right back Steve Cherundolo played in the 2006 World Cup and has amassed a wealth of experience playing for more than a decade in the Bundesliga. He can lead by example, assuming he gets the chance. Bradley has given a lot of starts to Jonathan Spector this year. Neither of them are forceful personalities, and nothing like Crew defender Frankie Hejduk, whose reckless abandon and indefatigable spirit inspire teammates much more skilled than him.
The leadership gap is also glaring in central midfield, where Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark could be the starters. Bradley is only 22; at 26, Clark is the right age but, again, doesn't have anything more solid than Gold Cups, qualifiers and the Confederations Cup to buttress his case. And, though he's cleaned up his touches and decision-making, and has the energy and range to cover ground and close down space, Clark is somewhat like Bocanegra in the unforced errors department.
There's more youth up front. Altidore just turned 20, and Charlie Davies has moved to French club Sochaux in his third pro season at the age of 23. They may be the right U.S. tandem at the World Cup to create and score goals, but are very young to drive the ship. Brian Ching, 31, is a longshot to make the squad, and backups rarely make ideal leaders.
SHAKY WIN. The Americans fouled up on enough occasions to mar stretches of crisp, confident play while beating El Salvador, 2-1, in Sandy, Utah. Goals by Dempsey and Altidore late in the first half brought the USA back from a 1-0 deficit inflicted when Christian Castillo headed home a Rodolfo Zelaya cross in the 32nd minute.
Referee Jose Pineda and his officiating crew weren't at their best, but by now the U.S. players should be used to the bizarre quirks of Concacaf officiating. Assuming every game in South Africa will be well-whistled is painfully naïve.
For significant intervals, the Salvadorans dictated play, and when left back Jonathan Bornstein hooked a clearance over his head right to Zelaya rather than simply putting the ball out of play over a sideline a few yards away, the Salvadoran chipped a ball into the goalmouth and as Howard came out off-balance, Castillo nodded it past him.
The central midfield pairing of Michael Bradley and Feilhaber scrambled to contain counterparts Ramon Sanchez and Ramon Flores. Their passes to Eliseo Quintanilla, Castillo and Zelaya found spaces, and if their crossing and shooting from distance been more accurate the Salvadorans could well have earned at least a point, for the Americans struggled to contain their buildup play around the penalty area.
Instead of holding the ball and moving to tire out the Salvadorans, the USA played too fancy for its own good in its own half, which allowed Sanchez and Flores and Arturo Alvarez to nick balls away from Bradley and Dempsey, in particular, and set attacks in motion.
Bradley set up the winning goal in first-half stoppage time by escaping pressure on the left flank and drop a ball for Donovan, who served an inswinging cross for Altidore to head home. A few minutes earlier, Donovan had driven a free kick from midfield near the right touchline; the Salvadorans trapped a few Americans offside, but not Dempsey, who came from a deeper position to head home.
Dempsey can be maddeningly lackadaisical at times, but not only does he score goals, he can help out defensively when he's in the mood. While Dempsey's finishing let him down on too many occasions, and he provided his usual boneheaded turnover, he used most of his touches well, and also contributed with a few tackles and interceptions.
Donovan covered amazing amounts of ground to support and prompt attacks while also tracking back to double-team opponent and collect loose balls. He continues to show he can be the man in South Africa, but he can't be the lone ranger.
Prior to the game, Coach Bob Bradley and his players talked about how a full week of training would sharpen their overall performance. Yet it lacked the poise, confidence and cohesion to subdue a determined and skilled opponent. Bradley rested Clark to better prepare him for the rugged, physical challenge he would face in Port of Spain.
ISLAND TEST. By the margin of the crossbar did the Americans prevail. Glen muscled past Bocanegra to reach a throw-in and lift a lob that bounced back off the crossbar in the first half, and Clark's 28-yard blast in the 62nd minute provided the margin of victory.
Glen's determined run marked just one occasion where T&T players prevailed in physical duels. T&T seized control of the flanks, and though Hayden Pinto seldom got free on the right side, outside back Carlos Edwards and midfielder Trent Noel were effective finding space to cross. Jones and Glen tested Howard with headers on several occasions as center backs Bocanegra and Onyewu struggled to contain them. A few times they challenged strongly enough to take the sting out of the shots, but Howard had to smother the ball on occasion.
The keeper also tipped away a blistering, long-distance Noel free kick with a spectacular dive. T&T won several such set pieces when its spirit and aggression swept up loose balls and channeled them quickly into the U.S. defensive third. When the USA did gain possession, its attempts to string passes together broke apart under pressure, as too many players lagged behind the pace of play.
Spaces began to open up at the start of the second half as T&T could no longer dictate the tempo against a more determined U.S. team. Clark nailed his right-footed missile following a nice buildup triggered by Bradley, who played a ball to Dempsey that he relayed wide left to Donovan. As teammates pushed into the penalty area to occupy opponents, Donovan waited before touching a diagonal ball to Clark, whose wickedly bending shot swerved through two defenders and away from Clayton Ince's desperate lunge.
Feilhaber replaced Altidore and went into midfield, with Demspey joining Davies up top. Dempsey's increased work rate and Feilhaber's fresh legs blotted out T&T's attacks for a few minutes, yet a when a partially cleared cross was played back in, it found Jones unmarked, and he headed right at Howard. A few minutes later on a corner kick, substitute Keon Daniel got free, yet sent his glancing header wide of the far post. Whether by fatigue or lack of communication or both, the Americans were often found lacking on set plays, and rather than manage the 1-0 lead and look for a second goal, they slugged it out toe-to-toe.
Sub Jason Scotland, who didn't arrive until the 84th minute, battled through multiple tackles to keep the USA on its heels, Glen never stopped working, and Kerry Baptiste, another sub, added his fury to the fray. Bornstein didn't repeat his dreadful error in Utah but his improvement was marginal at best.
In both games, the insertion of Holden as a substitute injected some life into the U.S. squad. His energy and drive nearly produced a goal against T&T, but Donovan first-timed his deflected cross from the right flank just over the crossbar.
Like many of the younger players, Holden looks capable of contributing and perhaps even dazzling next June in South Africa. From other sources must be found certain vital elements.
(This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)