By Paul Gardner
So the USA got beaten, quite badly, by Honduras. Does it matter? Imagewise, maybe - it can't be good for the USA to lose to little Honduras, can it?
But does the defeat tell us anything about the USA's World Cup prospects, considering that Bob Bradley used 17 players, only two of whom -- Benny Feilhaber and Jonathan Bornstein, the two best
performers on the night -- you might reasonably expect to be part of the USA's squad in South Africa?
Anyway, winning the game was not the point of this match-up, we have Bradley's words
for that -- "The starting point for the game in January is always assessing players."
Looked at from that point of view, one player stands out as having spectacularly failed his test:
Jimmy Conrad, who managed to collect two yellow cards in the first 18 minutes, and thus get himself ejected.
So the USA had to play with 10 men for over 72 minutes. The same question: did
that matter? When you're assessing players in a tough
game (that was Bradley's description), maybe you learn a bit more about the 10 players who stayed on the field than you would have
But it took only 18 minutes for Bradley to learn -- well, no, confirm should be the word surely, for Bradley ought to have already known this -- that Conrad is an
inveterate fouler. A sly fouler. One has seen this over and again in MLS games -- the shirt-pulling, the elbowing, followed, of course, by the protests of innocence should the referee blow his
Yet here was Conrad, wearing the captain's armband. The fouls are bad enough -- but that they are almost unthinking makes Conrad a huge risk. His first foul on Saturday, where he
got himself "accidentally" entangled with an opponent as Honduras was starting a breakaway is one that is specifically identified in the rule book as calling for a mandatory yellow. Referee
Benito Archundia got it right and duly cautioned the wily Conrad. That, only 12 minutes later, Conrad would blatantly foul Jerry Palacios in the penalty area is simply beyond understanding. An off the
ball foul, but Conrad's slyness must be failing him, for Archundia was well placed to see this one.
So a huge minus sign for Conrad, and one not much smaller for Marvell Wynne, who showed
-- confirmed -- that he is a great athlete, but not that great a soccer player.
Whatever impressions Bradley may have gathered, most of them must have been of the negative variety. Sacha
Kljestan again failed to live up to his billing, Jeff Cunningham was barely noticeable, and Chad Marshall looked anything but comfortable. If working hard without accomplishing very much is a
worthy trait, then Kyle Beckerman, Robbie Rogers and Robbie Findley will all have impressed Bradley.
And amid the mediocrity, spare a thought for poor Benny Feilhaber, who can make a
soccer game look like a soccer game, but who needs a minimum of consistently intelligent support. He didn't get it here.
Of the second-half subs, Brad Davis and Alejandro Bedoya looked
lively and, more important, inventive; but by then the game, at 0-3, was already well and truly lost, and the Hondurans were hardly playing at full pressure.
There are legitimate excuses
here -- particularly that the American players are out of season. But the most worrying part of the USA's performance was not a matter if fitness. It was, as usual, a matter of style.
Here was confirmation, for the umpteenth time, that when the subs, the second-rank players, get on the field, the USA looks like nothing so much as a college team. Athletic and reasonably competent,
predictable and mostly banal, guileless and not infrequently clueless.
No doubt Bradley saw things a bit differently -- but it would not be possible to find too many positive angles here.
Or would it? Is it possible that maybe one -- or possibly, two -- of these players, removed from this dysfunctional outfit and dumped in the middle of the real U.S. team, would be transformed into
much better players?
Yes, of course it is. In the short-term -- i.e. as far as South Africa 2010 is concerned -- this game seems to me to be of little consequence for the national team.
Bradley will select a couple of players from this mess for things they did or didn't do that he likes, and their presence will make little difference to the World Cup squad. That team, we know,
is a lot better than what we saw on Saturday.
Nor, for that matter, does this game herald that much for the long-term prospects of American soccer. What we witnessed here were the fading
embers of a generation of players who have given us decades of standard, straightforward soccer. There are newer players coming through, a different type of player, who can give us a much more
sophisticated game. I mentioned Davis and Bedoya; I could also have mentioned Roger Espinoza of the Kansas City Wizards, who had a pretty good game.
But Espinoza, despite having spent the
last 11 years of his life in the USA, plays for Honduras. Maybe he could have been on the U.S. team. Evidently the necessary attitudes and procedures to ensure that the USA at least evaluates talent
like Espinoza's are still not fully effective.
But they will be, and then the national team coach -- it will not be Bob Bradley -- will be able to field B teams and reserve teams that do
not reproduce the cliches of the college game.