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.