A case of U.S. players lost or led astray

Reasonably entertaining, moderately interesting and ... well, and nothing. The USA's 2-0 win over Honduras last night gave us nothing new, neither in fresh players nor in a new approach to the game.

Actually that second possibility was never on the cards, and it's a bit silly of me to even mention it. Bob Bradley's teams will go on looking like they have always looked. They do not sparkle. They are efficient, athletic, and, definitely, well-coached.

I don't mean well-coached in the sense that they play nice soccer, because they do not even try to do that. I mean well-coached in the sense of well-drilled. The modern, pragmatic approach of making sure that no one is standing still at any moment of the game. The movement, though, has to be meaningful and Bradley has got all that stuff well sorted. The defense is rarely caught under-manned, the attack is quickly supported from midfield. Numbers are important -- in the right place at the right time.

So we got a lower-level version of what worked so brilliantly against Spain. It worked again, though Honduras tired rather badly as the second half wore on. But beating the world's No. 1 team in the Confederations Cup brought along with it a tremendous charge of excitement that simply suppressed one's ability -- even one's willingness -- to see just how straightforward and plain ordinary much of the USA's soccer really is.

Individual touches, flair, skillful dribbling, unexpected passes, close-passing movements, wall-passes to move the ball through midfield -- you can forget all of that, because that is too fancy for Banality Bob Bradley. A pity -- for two reasons: Firstly, by ruling out all of that -- and there's more -- you're ruling out all of the stuff that elevates soccer from a mechanical board game into the realm that makes it the most wonderful combination of athleticism and artistry that man has yet come up with; quite a price to pay. And secondly: By turning his back on the Beautiful Game, Bradley has also, as a logical consequence, to turn his back on the players who could give him the artistry.

No surprise there -- anyone with as solid a college background as Bradley is not likely to be big on creative players. And, of course, there are exceptions -- or one, anyway. Freddy Adu. I nearly wrote Poor Freddy Adu. Bradley has certainly given Adu his chances, and I have the sinking feeling that this is the last go-round for Freddy. Once again, he just didn't do it. Once again, he started with a few promising flourishes, but soon faded into futility. After an hour he was gone, and no one could blame Bradley for removing him, he had become a non-presence.

Adu is still remarkably young (he's only 20), and he's had a tangled time of it with all the clubs and the coaching changes he's been through in his short career. But none of that should have mattered last night. He was starting for the USA and he must surely have realized that his time is running out. The response just wasn't there.

Not easy words to write, or thoughts to think. Because Adu promised to be the sort of player I want to see, the sort of player I believe the USA needs, I have wanted him to do well. The hot-house atmosphere in which he was forced to develop thanks to his early stardom probably has not helped matters. We'll never know for sure, there's no going back ... but for Freddy is there any going forward?

Of the "new" players on the field (none of them is really new in any sense of the word), Kyle Beckerman and Robbie Rogers caught the eye. Beckerman I first saw as a 17-year-old in the 1999 Under-17 World Cup. The team included both Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, but Beckerman started every game as the central midfielder. I thought he showed tremendous promise as a creative player. His subsequent blossoming as a pro has gone rather differently from what I hoped for. Beckerman is now much close to the standard all-action, never-say-die college-style midfielder. You could say that's odd, as Beckerman skipped college. But that's the way things go in this country, that athletic college style pervades the coaching at the youth level.

In that genre, Beckerman is better than most, but I'm wondering how he ended going in that direction. Coaches, I suppose.

About Robbie Rogers I know very little. His dribbling I like. It seems tailored to meet the Bradley requirements. Nothing fancy, not a great deal of subtlety about it, but lots of strength and speed. Very effective, and exciting too. But I have a vision -- a fantasy vision, if you like -- of a much looser and more explosive Rogers. Just as in Beckerman I see a promising player who strayed, or was led astray, from the path I think he should have taken, I find myself wondering whether Rogers might not be another. And inevitably the same thoughts encircle the ill-developed Adu that I now see.

15 comments about "A case of U.S. players lost or led astray".
  1. Anthony Calabrese, July 9, 2009 at 9:12 a.m.

    The first goal though was a thing of beauty I thought. How many US players touched the ball?

  2. Joshua Koritz, July 9, 2009 at 9:49 a.m.

    This is one of the best columns of yours that I've read Paul. Thank you. I agree (though i didn't get to catch all of the game last night). For a young talent like Adu, I remember his coaches at DC United dissecting his game and saying "this is what he needs to work on." What he needed was to be encouraged to take people on and cause problems for defenses. When you're 16 and good enough to play professionally as an attacking player, you have to be gently encouraged, the all around game will come, or it won't look at Ronaldo, Messi, and their ilk, they were mainly given confidence and put in situations where they could build their confidence....

  3. Abe Reiss, July 9, 2009 at 10:35 a.m.

    In a different country, a talented 14 year old would have been allowed to grow and develop as a soccer player. But here, he was told he will be the next Pele, and more or less put the brakes on Freddie's improvement as a soccer player. I know of another individual who was 17 when he scored 2 goals in his debut for his national team. Coming off the field, his coach started yelling at him for a variety of misdeeds on the field, all lies. But the youngster worked harder than ever before, and eventually became captain of his national team.

  4. David Hardt, July 9, 2009 at 11:08 a.m.

    I totally agree, and sadly this is why it will take decades to be able to consistently play with the elite in the world. Match ups and luck of the day will sometimes bring forth a Spain result. But for the most part, Brazil is the norm for our soccer. Will we ever change and "get" soccer or will the winning come when enough of the the 6'3' NBA NFL super athletes gravitate to soccer so we win with the same style as now but with enough super athletes to out do the world. That will be a sad day for soccer if it occurs.

  5. Henry Gankema, July 9, 2009 at 11:47 a.m.

    You may not always be right------But you are always certain!

  6. Kent James, July 9, 2009 at 11:52 a.m.

    I think you're being a bit hard on both the team and Bradley. Yes, I agree that I'd like to see more creative players, and I agree that US youth soccer does not do enough to promote creativity (though many are trying to change that). But creativity is not limited to individual play; one touch passing with creative runs and vision is also creative (the first US goal was a good example of this). That was good, entertaining soccer, and should not be dismissed. Teams that play this way (Arsenal) can be very entertaining. Not everyone can play like Messi. I think Bradley has done pretty well with what he has. I'd like to see more of Torres, since I agree that we need to have some players like that, but Feilhaber has those sorts of qualities, and Bradley has been using him more and more. Players like Rogers, Quaranta and Davies, though not as obviously creative as someone such as Adu or Ronaldo, are creative in their own way; deceptive body swerves, change of pace, etc. The US has justifiably been criticized for not having its own style, so when we seem to be developing one under Bradley (high pressure defensive, swift counterattacks with a crisp one touch passing game), I think you need to give him (and the team) some credit. Although I think you're too harsh on both Bradley and the players, as usual, your column is incisive and makes one think, so keep them coming.

  7. David Sirias, July 9, 2009 at 12:19 p.m.

    Bradley as part of the anti-beautiful soccer machine? Interesting topic. The more seminal issue is why Adu was being played as a forward. It's probably not the place where he will excel, if he ever does. Certain more flexible coaches will know how to use Adu. Bob is not one. No matter what Freddy does for his club this year, a meaningful opportuntity will not arrive for him until Bob is gone after 2010. Freddy is still young. He has time to reach his potential if things fall into place for him for once. As a side note, I've always liked Beckerman. Once people realize he is not a true destroyer type midfielder, his skills become more apparent. He is the exact type of guy who should have seen some of the minutes given to Bradley junior when junior was first given his unlimited minutes to prove himself. Write about that Paul. I dare you............

  8. Kurt Bienias, July 9, 2009 at 12:39 p.m.

    Has Paul Gardner ever coached a soccer team? I don't know his soccer longterm background but it just seems for every 1 thing he finds right about USA soccer, he finds 9+ things wrong. There is so much positive going on with USA soccer from the youth to the national team (men and women) ... let's mention more of it. But, at the same time, let's guard ourselves from this ongoing trend of joe-cool soccer--seems so often that once a kid is declared at the regional or national level, their whole persona changes and it quickly is reflected in their play. Teach and then let them play.

  9. Robert Mcculloch, July 9, 2009 at 12:59 p.m.

    It just might be time for me to find a new place to read about the state of soccer in America. I seems that you are no different that most of the media in the US when it comes to soccer. We’re not the best and we never will be. I don't know what these young men need to do to get the respect they deserve. If they win but didn't play like Brazil or Spain it was because of their "athleticism” or luck. If they lose it's because of coaching or it's a second class sport in the US and only second class Athletes are drawn to it.
    Soccer is still a very young sport in the US and we’ve made some huge strides in our level of play mostly due to the success of the MLS. And it’s only been around for a little over a decade. Sure MLS is not on the level of most of the leagues around the world but it’s given the youth players here exposure, generated interest and a place locally to get into the soccer culture. Soccer is a Culture and a sports event. Until we have the youth in the US getting together to play pick-up games or street soccer like they do in most places around the world US soccer will need to keep winning and IMPROVING their skills to keep the momentum going.
    The beautiful game will come but we can’t expect the guys to turn that switch on right now. It’s still 11 v 11 and sometimes the beautiful game wins and sometimes the teamwork, "athleticism”, and hard work with a little luck thrown in wins the day.

    Find something else to drone on about I’m tired of listing to your complaints about the MLS and the US Men’s National Team and the beautiful game. We all know and would like to see our guys play like Spain and Brazil (just like a lot of other countries would). It will happen and yes it will take some more time.
    We still want them to win!
    We will support them when they fall short!
    All of these guys (players and coaches) work very hard and play very hard for their country and club teams. Give them some credit for the commitment they’ve made.
    You need to find a way to be a part of the solution not a part of the problem like most of the sports media. Or… you could just go some place where they play your beautiful game be happy and write to you heart's content.

  10. Edward Degan, July 9, 2009 at 3:20 p.m.

    As I coach and drill, my two sons, who have aspirations of making and playing pro.
    I often make references to the Italian and English Leagues, never the American. Why, some may ask? The sole reason is that American soccer is in its infancy. It was dumb luck that they beat Spain and the coat tales of luck are ripped and tattered. American players need to learn to run, run, run! Endurance and skill is the name of this game and this is why we are not there yet. I read somewhere of a report done on a very famous coach, and I cannot remember his name, as luck would have it? Anyway he stated that American Soccer is the sleeping giant that has yet to awaken. Our youth need to live breath and eat soccer to get anywhere near the Europeans. They need to play at least 6 hours a day, when that is not possible watch what other players are doing, and most importantly RUN.
    I know that my opinion means very little, and my greatest accomplishment will be when my sons tell me they need to play someone else, because it is to easy to beat me "an ego blow" but well worth it.
    Anyway best of luck to the future of Soccer America, I will be watching, and waiting to see if advice is followed or has once again fallen on deaf ears.

  11. , July 9, 2009 at 3:31 p.m.

    I am tired of hearing how limited soccer in the United States is, I've been with great coach minds in this country and cannot believe how it is we still don't get it. Freddy Adu is a player US Soccer needs and no national team coach seems to be able to put the pieces together for this young talent. Think outside the box - let Adu enjoy the game and play with freedom. Don't skin him, disect him, or neglect him. As a professional coach you should be able to figure how Adu improves the US National team. My frustation lies in how limited coaches are when it comes to taking risks, especially when great coaching minds in the U.S. speak very avidly of how this beautiful game full of art is supposed to be play, which fits Adu artistic style. Too bad for Adu he never got to play for Brazil. When I see Robinho play I can stop thinking of Frddy Adu. Too bad in the U.S. we tend to be pragmatic rather than original.

  12. Daniel Eftimiu, July 9, 2009 at 8:41 p.m.

    I think USMNT played rather well lately, not sure why Paul is so harsh. I've been watching US soccer closely for some time now (more than 15 years) and I can say the game grew a lot in the last years, I’ve never seen an American soccer team playing as well like USMNT played against Spain & Brazil. I’m also quite pleased with their game in the Gold Cup; let’s not forget this is the 2nd unit. Indeed, Beckerman and Robbie Rogers caught the eye, and Freddy might be done for good… and not because anybody’s fault but his. Nobody stops him to be creative, to run at people, to dribble all the defense and score alone, the thing is, he’s just not able to do it… He looked slow, uninspired, too cautious, and tentative. He’s too small to protect the ball and too slow to pass his opponent before being tackled. Maradona was short as well, but he had a lot of muscle and an incredible speed. Freddy is not even smart enough to admit his deficiencies and work on them. In today’s game talent alone is not enough anymore. This was maybe true in the ‘60s or ‘70s and I think Paul dreams only at that type of soccer…

  13. , July 10, 2009 at 12:15 p.m.

    Freddy did not have an impressive go. But it does not diminish my respect for him as a player, nor lead me to believe that he needs a different coach or position, in order to excell. From what I could discern of his play in the Honduras match, he lacked the pace necessary to apply high pressure; and the touch necessary to beat determined ahtletic defenders. But he obviously has these traits in his quiver, or he wouldn't have been starting for the U.S. Everybody has an off-day once in a while, unfortunately for Freddy, he had one in a very visible and highly scrutinzed arena. I hope that he is encouraged to keep at it, and that he continues to get the type of minutes that will boost his confidence. It would be a waste to write him off at the age of 20.

  14. , July 10, 2009 at 1:28 p.m.

    The Beautiful Game. The Beautiful Game. The Beautiful Game... I love one-touch, back heels, quick flicks, and one on one dribbling exhibitions as much as the next person. But that's not all that makes the game beautiful. That's the highlight reel stuff... the you-tube video stuff. But it's not all there is to the game... not even for Spain or Brazil. What's wrong with athleticism? Being fit and fast enough to apply effective high pressure - totally disrupting the comfort level of sturdy defenders and forcing bad touches from teams who are renowned for posessing & controlling the ball... that's beautiful. Being both agile and strong enough to deny cagey determined attackers clear shots at the goal, winning balls in the air to destroy corner kicks & set pieces... that's beautiful.
    The US may never have the culture we long for, where kids play pick-up games & street soccer as soon as they can walk; and where we develop Ronaldinho's & Kaka's. Not as long as our teams toil in relative anonymity. And the only thing that's going to change that is winning on the international stage. Bradley seems to have found a way to win, employing tactics that fit the talents of the players we have now. Give him some credit. In the Honduras match, I saw him starting & giving meaningful minutes to players we need to develop to the same level as the squad that played so well against Spain & Brazil. And, at the same time, making the intelligent substitutions necessary to secure a result. I think he's maturing just as much as our players.

  15. Joseph Breault, July 11, 2009 at 12:36 p.m.

    Unfortunately, your article is accurate. US soccer development is simply not set up to produce the kind of player you want to see in large numbers. We get the one off player who can be creative, but when you are surrounded by players who have neither the technical or tactical skills necessary to anticpate your passes, or runs, then your have the Adu's of the world...looking bad because their vision is not shared and cannot be shared. Yes we will win the rare game against the big boys,but not consistently. Gritty American soccer is our "style" and we will have to be satisfied for now with that. If you want the "Beautiful" game you will have to watch the elite teams play in Europe.

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