USA steps out of Wonderland, back into real time

By Paul Gardner

Trying to extract meaning from this past weekend's clash between the USA and Spain seems to me an endeavor both hopeless and fruitless.

For this was an unreal occasion, a game that came straight from the pages of “Alice in Wonderland.” A sort of caucus race like the one set up by the Dodo -- an event of which no one was certain of the rules, which ended arbitrarily, and which failed to produce a winner -- an unsatisfactory state of affairs that the Dodo resolved by declaring “Everybody has won.” Continuing with his own brand of Dodoid logic, the Dodo then added “... and all must have prizes.”

Which is one way of making everyone happy. We did get a clear winner on Saturday, of course -- Spain. Meaning that the USA was the loser, but that was not so clear.

Bob Bradley’s post-game press conferences -- I mean the ones after his team has lost -- are already famous for their surreal atmosphere, as Bradley conjures up tales of a game that never was, a defeat that was really, if only we could look at it correctly, really some sort of victory.

But this time ... well, Bradley was fully justified in adopting that approach. What the hell else was the guy supposed to do? Just three days before an absolutely key game against Canada in the Gold Cup, he finds himself called on to put a competitive team on the field ... against the world champions!

OK, you can make the argument that Bradley played this game backward, that he used in the second half the lineup that he should have used in the first half, but I’m not convinced that would have greatly altered how things played out. Playing games backward, anyway, is a pretty Alice-in-Wonderlandish sort of approach which, in retrospect, seems appropriate for the occasion.

The end result for the USA was a mighty drubbing. Or was it?

With Bradley more or less obliged to field a below-strength, hastily prepared team, a romp for Spain was always the most likely result. The USA, it’s true, did not do themselves any favors in the first half with a performance that at times bordered on the chaotic.

Well, so what? How could it have been otherwise? For once, Bradley’s post-game comments -- his usual comments -- about learning from “these games” seemed to me appropriate, as good a way as any of looking at a game that defied both soccer sense and common sense.

For instance: “We know there are things that we can take from this game that will not only help us during the next three weeks [i.e. during the Gold Cup] but help us as we keep trying to move forward.” That’s the sort of remark that, after a tournament-ending defeat, is merely a feeble attempt to create a rainbow where nothing but storm clouds are to be seen. But here, in Wonderland, it was totally reasonable. Even a clunking platitude like “It’s never easy when you’re behind 3-0 at halftime” comes over as a helpful explanatory comment.

In short, however strange, even bizarre, Bradley’s team selection and tactics may have appeared, they were totally justified by the unreality of a game to which the normal logic of soccer (I’m assuming there is such a thing -- at least, I’m pretty sure there is in coaching terms) could not be applied.

At the end of a lovely sunny afternoon, some 64,000 fans had seen a splendid caucus-race of a game in which everyone had won, and everyone should get a prize. Blaming Bradley and his players for an embarrassing show makes no sense in the world of Wonderland, where the fantasy of today’s virtual exhibition game had to be weighed against the looming reality of tomorrow’s Gold Cup.

To add to the perversity of the happenings, on Saturday the great absentee for the U.S. was its greatest fantasist, its only fantasist, Landon Donovan. But that, too, was right -- there is no place for a fantasist in a fantasy world, which merely reduces him to a commonplace. Donovan’s magic sparkles only against a background of reality, and the USA is always a different team when Donovan plays.

Today, the USA steps out of Wonderland, back into real time. What happened against Spain -- really, what Spain did to the USA -- is hardly relevant here, just as analyzing the performances of the U.S. players in Saturday’s game gets us nowhere. What happened then will have little impact on how the U.S. -- with a full team -- plays a real game against Canada.

I am not saying that the USA will automatically become a much better team, and that they will therefore handily beat Canada -- which is assuredly a much less formidable opponent than Spain. But the Canada game will put everyone’s feet back on the ground, when the positives and the negatives of the U.S. performance can be sensibly assessed.

Even so, I think it is fair to take a swipe at one American player, goalkeeper Tim Howard, because goalkeepers spend most of their time in their own particular Wonderland, no matter what sort of game is being played.

Wearing the captain’s armband, Howard needed a mere three minutes to shatter the make-believe atmosphere -- the only one that was ever going to make sense of this occasion -- when he raced some 25 yards out of his goal to lambast left back Eric Lichaj for not doing whatever it was that Howard wanted done.

How goalkeepers love playing this role of schoolyard bully. The myth that goalkeepers always know best, that they see everything, that they are therefore entitled to tell everyone else how to play (in short, that they can pretend they know how to play soccer, when in fact they don’t, are not required to) has reached absurd -- well, Wonderlandish -- proportions.

Howard’s obnoxious grand-standing antics are unlikely to have done much for Lichaj’s confidence. Of course, that was not their purpose, which had much more to do with making it clear that whatever was going wrong, it wasn’t Howard’s fault.

Equal time should have demanded a blast of criticism from his defenders after Howard had watched Alvaro Negredo’s chip shot sail over his head and hit the bar, and then scrambled ineffectively for the rebound, until he was bailed out by ... yes, Lichaj. But goalkeepers always escape criticism.

That’s probably the way it should be. Provided the goalkeepers, in turn, cut out their purple-faced fuming and raging. We’ve seen more than enough of berserk goalkeepers to nurse the strongest of suspicions that they ham it up for the television cameras.

And so to the Gold Cup, in which Howard’s goalkeeping, the part of his act that he does really well, is likely to prove a key factor -- as superior goalkeeping always has been in the USA’s Concacaf games.

13 comments about "USA steps out of Wonderland, back into real time".
  1. Walt Pericciuoli, June 7, 2011 at 9:15 a.m.

    What about the 64,000 people who paid the admission price? Should it have been made clear that the USA was not going to field their best team? Again, I say, what was the point of this match?

  2. Kent James, June 7, 2011 at 9:39 a.m.

    Right about the strangeness of the match. It's great to see Spain play the US, but a shame that the timing meant the US could not field its most competitive team. PG is also right in his criticism of Tim Howard; great keeper, but his tendency to emotionally berate his defenders when they allow the opponents a shot on goal is not particularly helpful (especially to a young player like Lichaj). Would keepers who engage in such behavior appreciate it if their defenders came back and vehemently berated them whenever they let in a goal? Howard should learn from Casey Keller, whose cool professionalism helped those in front of him play better.

  3. Paul Lorinczi, June 7, 2011 at 9:47 a.m.

    Love the sarcasm in this article. The question from Saturday: "Is our program moving forward?" Several players on the field were veterans. If we want to use the Gold Cup as the excuse for poor performance, how does it explain what has happened since the World Cup last year? The program is stagnating. The only bright spot was Clint Dempsey. His performance has very little to do with BB influence and far more to do with his perseverance in the EPL. I don't think BB will have much influence on these players, ultimately, they will figure out themselves. Most likely on the back of Dempsey.

  4. Tito Messi, June 7, 2011 at 10:07 a.m.

    PG is absolutely correct on this one, 64,000 paying fans, great soccer atmosphere and what does BB put on the field? some inexperience players and some terrible players...why? because he knew he was going to lose no matter what, and he knew Spain came to the US to play and not for vacation (maybe Ramos had a night, but the rest of the team came to show the US how superior they are. BB team will probably be on top of the "WEAK CONCACAF" tournament, as we almost always are, unfortunately the rest of the world knows this. Bob Bradley has no idea of coaching, for god's sake he was the Princeton university coach for many years, and as a player he was terrible!!!! now he is guiding the US for another 4 freaking years!!!! not his fault, blame the US soccer federation for this one...they are out of touch with reality and they are in Wonderland as PG mentioned above...very sad to see a country of 300 plus million people and see what we saw last Sunday....bunch of Dodos running around!!!!

  5. Rick Figueiredo, June 7, 2011 at 10:50 a.m.

    Yes, it was peculiar how Bradley played this game backwards. The strongest line-up should have been in the first half. That to me is common sense. And I liked Bradley to that point. This was an opprotunity to measure up against a great team, though Spain did not have it's best team on the field. The Gold Cup is not as important as playing Spain. Really.

    So the USA is left with a performance that both spectators and coaches who understand this game, around the world, will look at as PATHETIC. It really was. The USA pretty much looked like Man U against Barcelona. A deer caught in the headlights. One step forward for America and one step back.

    But I recently watched the USA 0-2 game against England in Wembley in 1994. The players have vastly improved in the past 17 years. It's just that their tactical and futebol intelligence has advanced very little. I thought about this for a while and I feel that the USA needs to stop trying to play like Emgland. AND STOP SAYING NIL FOR ZERO!Good God when you take away the foreign players from the English club teams you get England v Switzerland last week. A sorry team with a very good Capello. THE USA NEEDS TO PLAY TO THEIR OWN CULTURE, NOT TO ANYONE ELSE'S! SIMPLE STARTING POINT. So maybe in the next 20 years someone will realize that and start heading in the right direction.

  6. Carl Walther, June 7, 2011 at 11:36 a.m.

    Paul, great article. I especially agree with your comments on 'bullish behavior' by goalkeepers. This "it's never my fault, so I'll yell at you" behavior is very boorish, and doesn't help the team. Keepers with outsized egos shouldn't be on the team.

  7. Andres Yturralde, June 7, 2011 at 12:15 p.m.

    It was great to watch Spain playing beautiful soccer and having fun. It was sad to watch the USA do nothing and fall apart. Which leads to the most popular question: If you're going to play against the World Cup champs, why not start with best squad— even if it’s only for the first 45 minutes? I’ll tell you why: because there's no respect— neither for yourself nor for your fans. Do you think an Argentina or a Brazil, a Germany or an Italy would show up like this? Of course they wouldn’t. Because they respect themselves just a little bit more. If the USA ever wants to go big, it better start behaving big. Saving it all for a Gold Cup game three days later? Please. How many times have we seen a team save itself for the next game, only to get burned twice? I’ll bet you 33 cents the USA loses to Canada today. You watch.

  8. James Froehlich, June 7, 2011 at 12:56 p.m.

    Sorry Paul, but this wasn't one of your better articles -- very disjointed. However, I do agree with two of your more obvious points: BB's starting lineup and Tim Howard's over-acting. Regarding the starting line-up ---- I believe BB's thinking went like this: "Spain will kick our butts no matter who starts! But....,if I start rookies and they get creamed, I can bring in my starters and Spain will be in a relaxed mode and we won't look like bumblers with our best team on the field!" If you think about it, that's exactly how US Soccer and its press lackeys interpreted the game!! Far too little is being written about the state of BB's US player pool. Bradley continues to roll out the same old players -- for god's sake, Marvel Wynne is still listed in the player pool!!! Regarding Tim Howard -- C'mon Timmy, you are much too good a keeper to be acting like a fool. Like Kent J said, try emulating Kasey Keller. Rick F--great point on the woeful state of English soccer and that the EPL is totally unrepresentative of English football.

  9. Colin Reese, June 7, 2011 at 1:31 p.m.

    Great article, Paul. I'm not sure if you ever watch Pablo Ramirez on Univision, but he always complains about Howard yelling at his teammates constantly. He always makes comments about Howard being obnoxious with his arm gestures and screaming. Could you write an article about Clint Dempsey being better than Donovan?

  10. Brian Something, June 7, 2011 at 1:55 p.m.

    Paul: have YOU ever played goalkeeper? If not, then perhaps you should shut your yap about them. The truth is that goalkeepers DO see far more than any other player on the field: the shape, the spacing, the runs. This is not an indictment of field players; their primary job is to be focused on what’s right in front or near them. The keeper’s job is, quite literally, to see the big picture. I know you refuse to admit that but it is a simple fact. The great goalkeepers, those who command their box and organize their defense, make fewer spectacular saves than the merely good ones who don’t do those things as well (witness Keller vs Meola). If a defender doesn’t close down a guy with the ball, the keeper is the one who looks stupid for letting in an “easy” shot that he couldn’t see. If a mid doesn’t track a runner, it’s the keeper who’s exposed on a 1 v 1 or to a rocket from 10 yards out. It’s his JOB to tell people what to do. If you’d ever played the position, you’d know that.

  11. Bill Anderson, June 7, 2011 at 3:38 p.m.

    Tim doesn't poop gold bars, but he has certainly earned his stripes with the team. He will be a fixture for years to come. Lichaj will have to have a thick skin to keep advancing with the team. Of course, Tim was upset about getting pounded and was lashing out, Lichaj just happened to be in the way when Tim vented. I hope there is a leader on the team who can help smooth over all the problems that are about to besiege the team.

  12. beautiful game, June 7, 2011 at 6:49 p.m.

    ...'learning process'...sad excuse, one thing for sure is that there is no sound team tactic, players lack technical skills, comfort on the ball to repell pressure, ability to read the game, making timely runs on and off the ball and making something happen. If we're still learning, it's a sad case for American soccer. Bradley needs to drop Rogers and Sacha K, these type of players bring nothing to the table.

  13. Oz LatinAmerican, June 8, 2011 at 10:36 p.m.

    You have to feel sorry for the USA,after watching play against Spain and then against Canada. The players just don't have any good ideas or some creativity to play good soccer...they try...but the talent isn't there! I believe that in USA must be more players like Donovan! or we just don't have it? The sad part is that the USA probably will end up winning the Gold Cup or close to win it and they will believe in this style of playing: discipline, good work rate, and excellent physical conditioning to get them results and they will keep playing this way who knows for how long. Everything is about style and the USA don't have one yet or better yet they already have one but is not what we would like to see for us the fans that appreciate a good entertaining soccer game.

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