A Great Moment - But USA Needs More Donovans

By Paul Gardner

With much huffing and puffing and groaning and grimacing the old order of world soccer was restored in South Africa over the weekend. In the Confederations Cup, Spain put down the upstarts from South Africa, while Brazil took care of the even more uppity United States.

But the restoration of the old status quo was not easy. Spain needed overtime, while Brazil had to fight like the dickens for a three-goal comeback to see off the Yanks.

On top of that, I do not think for one moment that we're back where we started. The USA has made its point. It got to its first-ever FIFA final, and it played well enough to take a 2-0 lead against Brazil. That was a formidable achievement and yes, of course, it will leave its mark. The results and the scorelines, I mean.

Coach Bob Bradley managed to take the excitement out of the achievement with his usual platitudes -- try this for a soporific: "Progress involves understanding how you play in harder games when [you] have to play against the best teams ... It's not that we learned it today but I think we get confidence that we are able to go up against big teams and create chances and make it harder for them in terms of when they have the ball."

That is a typical Banality Bob analysis. A banalysis. Boring as all hell -- but with plenty of truth in it. The thread that runs through all of Bradley's droning statements about his team's achievements in South Africa, is that of confidence. Bradley is absolutely right to stress that. Confidence and experience. How else to explain the quite remarkable difference in the USA's tournament play in its first meeting with Brazil and this second one, only 10 days later?

Obviously, self-belief. There can be no other explanation. And no other is needed. The danger comes from assuming that the secret to future success has been discovered. That a barrier has now been overcome -- the one that somehow prevented American teams from showing their full worth against the world's top teams -- and that the next stage up from being in a FIFA final -- actually winning one -- is just around the corner.

Bradley's team has taken a huge step forward for the U.S. national team. But that huge step contains within its stride the possibility of its own negation. Can anyone doubt that a substantial factor in the U.S. success at the Confederations Cup has been that it was not expected to do particularly well? Certainly nowhere near as well as it did -- in other words, it was seriously under-rated.

Even in the final. Coach Dunga had certainly seen what the USA had done to Spain -- yet Brazil still played a lack-luster first half. The USA, to its credit, knew how to take advantage of the situation. An early goal, and then a superb counterattack goal put the USA into what ought to have been an impregnable position. The USA could now defend en bloc, which it did very well, and scare the pants off Brazil with its rapid, incisive counterattacks.

That worked well against Spain, but not against Brazil. Possibly there was a Dunga halftime rant, for there was to be nothing lethargic about the second-half Brazilians. Their pressure amounted almost to a fury, relentless attacking waves that forced plenty of panic moments in the U.S. defense. The quick score at the beginning of the second half could have surprised no one.

Now the game was even more about confidence -- but it was Brazilian confidence that was in full flight. Soon came an almost arrogant moment of confidence on the part of the Brazilians as they refused to be upset when an obvious goal was ruled out by the referee who refused to acknowledge that the ball had crossed the goal line.

The Brazilians had every reason to go ape over such an awful call, but they just got on with it and settled matters with two headed goals.

And between those goals and all the Brazilian pressure -- what was the USA up to apart from defending desperately? Not too much. There were a couple of useful -- actually dangerous -- counterattacks. Not much more. And before the USA (I don't necessarily mean Bradley and his players, I think they're a bit more aware of reality) starts celebrating the birth of world-class American soccer, there is this awkward fact to face.

This team -- and American national teams in general -- have no real game. There is no style, no pace, no rhythm, no cohesion, no harmony. Every so often, on Bradley's team, there is the suggestion that an attacking movement is moving with style, that things are beginning to flow. And the wonderful truth of those moments is that they -- all of them -- revolve around the skills and the movement and the thinking of Landon Donovan.

What a good player he is. If Donovan could do it all by himself, the USA would be a worldbeater. But he needs a strong supporting cast, and he doesn't have that. Clint Dempsey shows some promise, as does Charlie Davies and maybe Benny Feilhaber. Otherwise, we have hard workers and runners and lion-hearts -- and that is not good enough. Nowhere near good enough, in fact. Those who think it is can only maintain their illusion by imagining that other countries -- Brazil, for instance -- do not possess those qualities. What nonsense.

Burgeoning confidence took the USA far further in this tournament than most people -- certainly including me -- would have thought possible. But the very success of this team will provoke a stern reaction among future opponents. Things will get more difficult. Confidence alone will not do it. The next big step forward is to up the skill level of the individual players.

Admittedly, I could hardly expect Bob Bradley, in his banalysis, to say that he needs better players. But that is the truth -- he needs more players like Landon Donovan -- real soccer players, with smooth soccer movement and quick soccer brains -- defense-Donovans, midfield-Donovans and striker-Donovans. When those players start to arrive, then will the USA have the consistency to become a mover and shaker in the world order of soccer.


23 comments about "A Great Moment - But USA Needs More Donovans".
  1. Dragos Axinte, June 29, 2009 at 8:31 a.m.

    I had the joy of watching the game with my Brasilian friends here in the south of Brasil, and would like to offer their perspective. Here both the media and regular soccer fans are enamored with "Do-noh-vuhn." He and the U.S. team have gained more than respect here, they have a following. Many favored a US win yesterday, but mostly because they are the most critical fans of their own teams, and consider Robinho and a few others "salto alto" ("high-heeled" or too full of themselves). Donovan's goal was remarked by the TV commentators to be one of the best plays of the tournament (it was), and was followed by an analysis of Landon's sprint from one end of the field to the other: 67 meters, of the total field length of 108 meters.

    I agree with Mr. Gardner about the need for more Donovans, and I will add that our one Donovan is finally gaining consistency through hunger, after another frustrating stay in Germany. Without great players we will not consistently win big games. But we do have at least one other position covered in the "great player" department: goalkeeper. Tim Howard, awarded the Golden Glove for the tournament, is also recognized by the Brasilian fans as world class. And world-class goalkeepers often save lesser defenses, as we have seen in this tournament.

    Until the current youth generation ages to adult competition level, we will not have a steady influx of greatness. But between now and then we will likely see a number of existing players mature - some slower than others, while playing in the US or abroad - just like Do-noh-vuhn did.

  2. Robin Andrews, June 29, 2009 at 8:38 a.m.

    I have to say, that sums it up pretty well. It is time that US soccer stopped looking for players solely on speed, size and aggression. The ball skills of our players in general are far below that of top teams. So many times the US loses the ball because they can't settle the ball. They lack good movement away from the ball. And they have no style.
    I live near Philadelphia , where Peter Nowak, formerly assisting witht he US National Team, has been named the coach of our MLS team (the Phila. Union). On the 5 o'clock news, a reporter asked Peter what style of soccer the team would play. He replied, no style, winning..that's our style. Ugh!! None of them get.. I'm glad you do. Robin ...NJ

  3. Oswald Viva, June 29, 2009 at 8:42 a.m.

    Agreed, but if more Donovans are needed, young skilfull players deserve a chance. Bob Bradley had Jose Torres sitting on the bench; he may not be ready for prime time yet, but he has the skills to develop into another Donovan, but to get there he needs opportunities in the filed, not on the bench.

  4. , June 29, 2009 at 9:37 a.m.

    I live in Los Angeles and get to watch Donovan play with the Galaxy. IT is agreed that he has the best international skill of any American player.

    I also agree with Paul Gardner on the greater level--the USA played with amazing heart and confidence against Brazil. But, our country will really assume a place on the international stage when we can build a confident style that makes our play our own. And I am not talking the fast breakaway long ball per se. I think we can still lack a confidence on short passing that great teams have. Our players don't know always where their team mates are--and we don't always move off the ball like many international teams.

    The last ingredient we lack is the uber confidence. Brazil beat us yesterday on their reputation. They simply could not believe the USA would beat them. And they came out during the second half desperate to claim what they felt was theirs. And sadly, for me, they did reclaim that.

    A great comparison from here in Los Angeles would be with the Lakers. I feel the Lakers have been so good for so long--that they win half of their NBA championships--simply because they firmly believe they should. And I think that is why the Brazilians ultimately won yesterday. It is more eery to watch in Soccer, because--like yesterday--when it happens it is more striking and shocking.

    When the USA develops a sense of style and great self believe--we will be better able to stop the Brazilians next time.

  5. Gonzalo Munevar, June 29, 2009 at 9:57 a.m.

    Paul Gardner has it exactly right.

  6. Barry Ulrich, June 29, 2009 at 10:09 a.m.

    I heartily agree with Robin who wrote, "The ball skills of our players in general are far below that of top teams. So many times the US loses the ball because they can’t settle the ball." Too many times our players made passes directly to an opposing player, or made long down field passes to no one. And we were immediately put back into defense. What is it about controlling the ball (and the game) that the US disdains?

    I firmly believe that US Soccer should demand that its youth division (especially the highly competitive club programs) take immediate steps to stress ball control (passing, receiving and possession) in the open field and under pressure.

    When our team can pass, receive and retain possession successfully in every game, I firmly believe we will be competitive in those games.

  7. Doug Huston, June 29, 2009 at 11:09 a.m.

    Totally agree with Mr Gardner. Davies added a dimension to the front line we have never had before, speed, determination, grit, and, they say in hockey, someone who can dig along the boards. Altidorre grew up before our eyes and Donovan became the leader he had needed to be.

    Now, for the fact that we need more Donovan's, where are they going to come from? They have to come from MLS. Sending players over to Europe does nothing to develop an American style of play, American confidence or raise, appreciably, our level of play. Most of our WC roster of European players sit on the bench in Europe or play for lower level teams on loan. They aren't getting the playing time, developing their confidence level, nor being given the ability to become creative. Most are there to be role players on the defensive side. Donovan, having spent his youth in Germany, came back to MLS and has developed into the creative player he has become. Would he be that type of player had he stayed in Europe? I doubt it. Adu would certainly be further along in his development had he stayed in MLS. Sending players to Europe is not the answer to developing better players for the the National Team. It used to be because that's was the only chance they had to develop but not anymore. Until we keep these players on this side on the pond and let them develop an American style of play, we will have some success, but our utilmate goal, a World Cup final, will be hard to reach with such a lack of creative players such as Donovan.

  8. David Ward, June 29, 2009 at 12:14 p.m.

    If we wait until the players get to the MLS level to try and develop an "American sytle of play," it will be too late. A style of play must be developed at a much younger age, just as Barry suggested above. In a recent interview in ESPN the Magazine, Tim Howard discussed the improvement of American players and the comparison between the U.S. and the rest of the world. He said that the American player is getting better, but only because great athletes can play any sport they want. However, he noted that in the major soccer powers countries, kids play barefoot soccer from the time they can first walk and until the U.S. gets to the point that soccer is a street game, we will never have the technical ability of the other countries.

  9. , June 29, 2009 at 12:28 p.m.

    A definitive style, and the ball skills of our foreign counterparts are sadly still at least a generation away. US Youth soccer needs less focus on WINNING (especially at the U8 - U13 levels), and more focus on developing skills. Too much competetiveness at the lower levels chokes out a great deal of talent before it has a chance to develop. We can increase the size of the pool of talent for our older age groups if we keep it fun and stop burning out players before they even reach high school. As for style, there needs to be some sonsistency between what is taught at the different levels. While to some extent, style will be dictated by the type of talent you have, there should be a common Theme that comes from the top. Theme should flow from the National teams - down to the ODP programs - down to the clubs. And coaches at every level should stop trying to ram square pegs into round holes.

    One other thought: High School & college soccer is currently killing our game. Injuries are far more prevalent in high school and college play because the scholastic versions promote an emphasis on physicality and aggression. Too many promising young players have their careers ended in high school or college as a result. Physicality and aggression may help win high school or college matches, but they are not the key skills players are going to need to succeed internationally. Too often, coaches are not licensed or otherwise qualified; and are thus out of touch with what US soccer is trying to accomplish. The timing and/or length of high school seasons interfere with or dictate to club and ODP training schedules. The scholastic game needs to conform to the standard laws of the game; and be coached and officiated with some uniformity to the international game.

  10. Dirk Thomas, June 29, 2009 at 12:29 p.m.

    Amen! Until we start to see soccer as a game for everyone and not a suburban pasttime, we will always have the same types of players. It is pretty obvious that most of our players are cut from the same cloth: hard working, strong, brave, but ultimately we need players that play with joy, that have great ball control, that are fearless in attacking one on one, that can see the entire field and exploit the other teams' weak spots, and can play as a unit. Soccer will never become a national sport like we want it to be until everyone is involved in its evolution, not just a few elitists who refuse to include kids from all walks of life and experience, or at least make it more about money and thereby exclude them through lack of funds. When we start including the inner city kids you'll see a big upsurge in soccer growth. We have the resources, we just refuse to use or include them.

  11. David Sirias, June 29, 2009 at 12:31 p.m.

    Yes Paul. More Landons needed. But as I've stated often here, the USA got this far despite Bob, not because of him. The USA might have held on against Brazil had Bob brought in Torres and Adu, possession guys, Landon potential type guys, in the 55th minute when it was clear we needed them BEFORE the Brazil subs. (oh wait he never used them in the tournament, so it would have been risky). Instead we get Sasha K, biggest turnover machine on the team. Torres and Adu could not have been worse. Bob Bradley --worse in-game manager the USA has ever had.

  12. Delroy Wallace, June 29, 2009 at 12:54 p.m.

    The US squad played a better brand of soccer after their early disjointed and technically weak play in the earlier rounds. It appeared that Egypt and Spain played at a somewhat slow pace and the US squad despite technical deficiences could always "be in the game". Indeed the US played enterprisingly and got very good results in those games.

    Against Brasil in the first game, Brasil played good flank play and constant switching of play and the US could not stymie that tactic with a compact defense.

    The only noticeable difference in the Final was that in the first half Brasil played most of their attacking game centrally with little use of the flanks, and the US defence was very compact there. In the second half there was more flank play and overlapping by Brasil which involved Kaka on the flanks (left and right) many times and a continual stretching of the US defense and a lot of opportunities opened up for Brasil.

    Of course the US did very well but class usually prevails and it did in this case.

  13. Montele Graves, June 29, 2009 at 1:26 p.m.

    After the game I thought the exact same thing.... we (US Soccer) need 8 more LD's, 1 at every position minus GK, and the 2 center backs. I think Landon thinks the same as he pointed to himself and yelled out "Me... me... me" after he scored against Brazil. At least that's what I think he said.

  14. Joseph Breault, June 29, 2009 at 2:20 p.m.

    The comments on "style" of play must come from first from a "philosphy" of play which is a reflection of a countries society. I think American soccer does reflect it's culture...disjointed, satisfy me now, and the ends justify the means. That is how we have played for 20+ years. The development system for our youth teams relys on players getting time in Europe. That negates a very large portion of potential players. This group languishes in MLS or worse college and USL, where training is nonexistent and poor at best. They focus solely on tactical development and poor tactics at that. Our players do not grow up in a culture of "football" as do our competitors. As long as that is the case you will never see us consistently compete with the elite countries, never. That is why that Italian kid moved back to Italy. We are still a "third world" football nation to the rest of the world no matter what we do.

  15. Trudy Wells, June 29, 2009 at 3:51 p.m.

    The miracle on grass continued . . . the sounds of victory however belonged to the Brazilian ‘Samba Kings.’
    The eyes of the world were watching some of the highest paid players celebrate like they had beaten some famous number one Soccer team. Their jubilation and huge relief after
    beating an under-dog-team that played their heart out is what we will remember.
    Welcome USA to the world stage of Soccer respect!
    The 2 Goal-lead in the first 45 minutes stopped traffic in Europe, possibly all over the world and . . . it woke up America!
    May all those not yet Soccer Lovers now forever know the meaning of one Goal!

    And possibly . . . finally . . . the US Team may not be the loneliest country in the world any longer . . . at any World Cup. How I remember the loneliest country USA –
    in France – 1998! The only team trying to win the World Cup without any support from their country. [Brazil shuts down the stock market during a match of their team!]
    America may not be sleeping next time.
    May the power of the media shine . . . Be there!

    Clint Dempsy - Nr. 8 - we could feel your tears . . . remember moments of brilliance belonged to the Americans . . . mistakes shape the future.
    Soccer rules!

  16. Doug Huston, June 29, 2009 at 9:04 p.m.

    The thing is that our U14's, U16's, U18's do well on the International level. What happens to them then? The elite tottle off to Europe and some never are heard from again. They need to stay here and play and learn to be stars, learn to have the pressure of being relied upon, learn to be creative and not defensive. That's what happens when they go to Europe. The Europeans don't trust American players on the ball so they make them think defense first. Claudio Reyna, so far the best center mid this country has produced, played defensive mid exclusively in Europe.

  17. Barry Ulrich, June 29, 2009 at 10:11 p.m.

    Now, how does what we've all suggested get to US Soccer and US Youth Soccer? I'd really like to see the US Men's and Women's teams play at a higher more competitive level before I die! Paul, are you the conduit?

  18. Brent Crossland, June 30, 2009 at 8:23 a.m.

    The problem at the youth level is getting coaches, trainers, and PARENTS to stop placing all of their emphasis on won/lost records and focus on player development. Go watch a youth game that you are not affiliated with & listen to the instructions from either side of the field. We don't teach our players to keep the ball at their feet or keep the ball on the ground. We have kids playing defender from age 12 and they are repeated told to clear the ball long or play it into touch when under pressure. The theme song is Take No Risks! The Brazilians and Spanish learn by taking players on with the ball at your feet.

  19. Doug Huston, June 30, 2009 at 11:29 a.m.

    Yes, that's because they learn, like we used to learn baseball, by playing with other kids without coaches. How did Pele get so good? Because he played all day long, barefoot in the sand as a kid. You are born with God-given athletic ability, it can't be taught. If you play all the time you develop instincts about what you can and cannot do. You talk with other kids about what works and tactics. You read books and articles about the game. You study the game because it interests you. Now, kids never get together just to play. They have to have uniforms, coaches, trophies for everyone, picture day. They just don't play, which is how a kid really develops his skill. A coach refines a player but a coach doesn't develop a player. If a kid doesn't have the ability to try things without criticism, fail without recrimination, or succeed without a parent yelling at him, I'm afraid US soccer is not going to become one of the elite teams we would like it to be. Kids just don't get together to play anymore, which is a shame and a sign of our times, I guess. They still do in South America and Europe, which is the difference.

  20. Doug Huston, June 30, 2009 at 11:39 a.m.

    And, let me mention one other thing, many comments and articles have been written about the Hispanic player in this country and getting them involved in the youth programs. Great thought but it won't happen until US soccer gets its collect head out of it's **s and promotes programs within these communites to get these kids to the upper reaches of top level play. US soccer is held hostage by suburban aristocrats who price poorer kids out of the market. But also, US soccer will never reach it's potential until it begins to develop the game in the inner-cities. Until African-American kids start playing in larger numbers US soccer will not reach the level it could be. No one addresses this issue, Paul.

  21. Dirk Thomas, June 30, 2009 at 12:57 p.m.

    Thanks, Doug...... I totally agree. I've been saying that for years, and as a coach in the state of Nevada, it is even more obvious here. The inner city kids (primarily hispanic and black) are ignored and money seems to rule who gets to participate, even in the ODP program, which is a travesty. We should find and develop the best players, regardless of background, race, etc., and promote the game everywhere we can. As long as ANYONE is excluded, the game can't grow to where it needs to be in this country.

  22. Wendy Fitzwater, June 30, 2009 at 5:01 p.m.

    I have seen this same thing in several different states thru the years....the lack of involvement of inner city black /hispanic youth in ODP or higher level Club play. In Ogden, Utah there was a wonderful vibrant hispanic youth pick-up league playing on a field that was only half grass, if that-- none of those kids ever made it to Salt Lake City for ODP. Made the same observation again with Ohio's ODP program when we lived there. Now I am in PA and see the same cultural enthusiasm for the sport within local hispanic communities but few of these inner city youth ever make it to ODP or higher level club teams.
    Even if scholarships are offered by Clubs or State ODP programs, transportation remains an issue. US Soccer is not identifying "the" best players-- only those best players that can "find" avenues to US Soccer.

  23. , July 13, 2009 at 5:01 p.m.

    Amen. And there's also the issue of coaches with conflicts of interest. Clubs that employ coaches who also coach ODP use that as a marketing tool. In-turn, those coaches can't help but feel pressure to promote kids from their own club. Instead of a dream situation for a coach, getting to form a team of the very best in the state, it can become a nightmare choice between choosing the best kids - or choosing kids from the club that pays his salary.

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