Problem areas exposed by Olympic stumble

[USA CONFIDENTIAL] To shore up deficiencies exposed at the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament, the proper selection of over-age players would have been a goalie (maybe Brad Guzan), defender (Michael Parkhurst?), and midfielder (Michael Bradley), all veterans of the 2008 competition.

Overage players? Why bother? When the plane leaves for London, the Americans won’t be on it.

This isn’t a moot point, though for practical purposes discussions of over-age players ended Monday night when Jaime Alas’ shot caromed of Sean Johnson’s mitt and into the net. As slipshod as the U.S. U-23s performed against Canada and El Salvador in Nashville, they were one good save away from reaching the semifinals and a somewhat favorable – compared to Mexico, certainly – matchup with Honduras.

And that save might have come from starter Bill Hamid, who soldiered on with a bad ankle long enough to concede two goals in the final minutes of the first half. He hadn’t played well against Canada, and Coach Caleb Porter can be admired for sticking with his No. 1 in the belief he could get the job done in the group finale.

Maybe a healthy Hamid gets it done, yet when he hobbled for a ball shortly after the collision in which he was injured, sufficient evidence had been presented that he needed to be substituted. His desire to stay in the game is admirable, and if necessary a trainer could have let him test his ankle for a minute or two just to be sure, but if all head coaches elected not to overrule their players, injured or not, subs would be an endangered species. By putting a player ahead of the team, Porter shirked his responsibility, even if he did so for the “right” reasons.

In any case, either the selection of Hamid or Johnson for the Olympic Games would have been risky. Both are athletic, courageous, promising goalies plagued in their MLS performances by errors not uncommon for young players in their position. Over a long season, hiccups here and there are expected and can be tolerated; it’s part of the process. In a three-game season -- also known as the group phase, be it qualifying or the tournament proper -- such errors are onerous.

In this theoretical exercise, then, we can debate if player development or results takes top priority at the Olympic tournament. If the primary focus is to groom top young goalkeeping talent, come what may, the young guys go. But if neither can honestly be deemed up for the task, it would be irresponsible not to take a Brad Guzan, for example, who despite his struggles for playing time in England has more MLS experience, along with a few U.S. caps, than Hamid or Johnson.

Guzan played as an overage player in Bejing four years ago, so maybe someone else would deserve a shot. Tim Howard, Nick Rimando, Tally Hall, there are plenty of candidates. The point remains; the Americans’ goalkeeping is the primary reason they are not going to London, as in both the Canada and El Salvador games the performances were subpar. There were major gaffes in many facets of play, but one essential of goalkeeping is to plug the leaks that may spring.

The addition of overage players for the Olympic Games is both seductive and dangerous. Great Britain, for example, could deploy Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, not only for playing ability as players but their leadership, experience, and star power as well. There’s a tendency to believe that the right three players can turn just about any qualifier into a medal contender; more practical is the idea that those three players can strengthen spots deemed to be weak or at least mediocre.

A rickety U.S. back line didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. There were some mitigating circumstances; one centerback, Perry Kitchen, probably was miscast, and partner Ike Opara, an incredibly gifted athlete, has missed most of his first two pro seasons because of injuries. That inexperience impaired his decision-making and positioning at critical moments.

The back four looked out of sync far too often, so a Michael Parkhurst could have brought the confident, vocal presence crucial for success in high-pressure environments. Plus, his skill on the ball – which both Porter and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann have established as a requirement for defenders – would fit snugly with their philosophies of possession.

Parkhurst also played in Beijing as an overage player (by a year). In his MLS career, before departing for Denmark after the 2008 season, he displayed the poise and savvy at the centerback position that was sorely missed last week in Nashville.

Much criticism has fallen upon the 4-3-3 formation chosen by Porter, who used both Jared Jeffrey and Amobi Okugo in the holding midfield spot and started Joe Corona and Freddy Adu in all three games as attackers. That Canada overran the Americans in the second group game was not a flaw of formation, though this one does demand a lot of those three players in the middle. Whether caused by fatigue or overconfidence, a shocking inability to hold the ball set up the fresher, hungrier Canadians to dictate play. The goals conceded came on set pieces, which perhaps confirms the impression of tired, unfocused players, who tend to react too late.

A courageous rally in the group finale against El Salvador wiped out a 2-1 deficit – the goals conceded by a gimpy Hamid -- yet with a 3-2 lead, again the Americans proved to be much better offensively than defensively. This is an admirable trend, and hopefully brighter attacking play will be a staple for U.S. teams going forward, yet locking up a game in the late stages is essential.

Adu, who played brilliantly and set up two goals, couldn’t handle the grunt work of killing time by holding the ball, and a few of his teammates faltered, too. Michael Bradley, who played in the Beijing Games a week after his 21st birthday, would have brought the steel and bite to win balls along with the vision to distribute them. So, too, could another 2008 veteran, Maurice Edu. They have their faults but in tough situations they man up.

Had the team qualified for London, players like Jozy Altidore, Tim Chandler, Danny Williams and Alfredo Morales would have been age-eligible. (Editor's note: FIFA announced Friday that clubs are now obligated to release their under-23 players for the Olympic Games tournament.)

So the under-23 player pool is richer and deeper than what events in Nashville may indicate. Yet compared to the 2008 pool, which in the age group also included Sacha Kljestan, Stuart Holden, Marvell Wynne, Robbie Rogers, Benny Feilhaber, Eddie Gaven and Charlie Davies, it does seem to have slipped.

15 comments about "Problem areas exposed by Olympic stumble".
  1. Bill Anderson, March 30, 2012 at 1:05 p.m.


  2. Bill Dumler, March 30, 2012 at 2:11 p.m.

    Focus on possession play rather than the long ball game typical of most American teams. The Barcelona coach said it best regarding the power of possession, “For us, we are a horrible team, a disaster team, when we don’t have the ball…We need the ball”. Last time I watch my son's team play, it was really tough for them to score and to stop the other team when they didn't have the ball.

  3. Dave Kantor, March 30, 2012 at 2:17 p.m.

    I preferred Steve Sampson's 3-6-1 formation, with Wynalda as the lone striker. Oh wait, that was 1998, just had a flashback.... The point is that the importance of formation is so overblown. 4-3-3, 3-5-2, 4-4-2, who cares? As Bill D and the Barcelona coach said, possession is the name of the game. Watch "high-level" youth club soccer, and there is so much kick-and-run and out-muscling, and very little skillful possession, it's no wonder the USA can't get it done - the players are being chosen for being big, strong, and fast, and not for being great skilled soccer players. Oy...

  4. David Sirias, March 30, 2012 at 2:39 p.m.

    "Adu, who played brilliantly and set up two goals, couldn’t handle the grunt work of killing time by holding the ball, and a few of his teammates faltered, too."

    Dude, Adu and Corona, the ones best capable of holding possession in the dying minutes were subbed off. Shae and Mix were the ones who were gassed, minds and legs literally gone. The minute I saw the lineup for Canada I knew something was wrong. 48 hour later it was the same attackers except Bunbury and not Boyd called to replace Agudelo. Bumbury the handsome young forward fleet of foot and bereft of any soccer brains. Porter gambled and lost. Hamid had a Howler and what does Porter do, reward him, with the start against ES. As soon as I saw that I knew we were in even bigger trouble. Yet even with all of Porter's mistakes, Freddy was there to save him. Playing with the same skill and brains as always but heart and hardness like we have never seen. But then Porter leaves in the exhausted midfield taking out the one guy could kill of the game with guile alone--Freddy. For such a smart attacking minded coach, Porter was exposed as incredibly naive in the non use and non-rotation of his roster plus total lack of comprehending the weaknesses of his defense. The Johnson howler at the end was simply a funtion of Porter setting up the team to fail.

  5. Raveen Rama, March 30, 2012 at 2:44 p.m.

    Why talk about what could have been? This article does not do any good!

  6. Mike Gaynes, March 30, 2012 at 2:47 p.m.

    I actually agree with much of what Ridge says here -- which is pretty shocking for me -- but he's off-base on one crucial point. Porter cannot be blamed for not taking off Hamid (keepers "shake it off" all the time), and neither of the two goals that followed can be blamed on Hamid's injury. Neither the driven corner kick on the first goal or the rolling ball on the second, which was the result of catatonic defending, was Hamid's play. You can certainly blame Porter for the keepers he chose, but not for that particular decision.

  7. John Miller, March 30, 2012 at 2:51 p.m.

    Watch the 2nd goal again. Hamid should have done better on that one for sure.

  8. david caldwell, March 30, 2012 at 3:51 p.m.

    Good article in many ways. The attacking in this game was good. A really tough loss, very unlucky considering the strange happenings in goal throughout. But not the total disaster some have described it as. Adu, Shea and Boyd were very good - sr team quality. Corona has a nose for the goal. Mix was shaky, as were the young defenders. I think some of those guys can play. Hopefully this is a big learning experience.

  9. Erik E, March 30, 2012 at 4:47 p.m.

    Hers's a problem also why people have no respect for us:The addition of overage players for the Olympic Games is both seductive and dangerous. Great Britain, for example, could deploy Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, not only for playing ability as players but their leadership, experience, and star power as well. Ryan Giggs is WELSH ie: He played for Wales NOT Great Britian. This guy writes for a soccer magazine. We should have used an overage Goalie. One position the USA is respected in is GoalKeeping. Lets not tarnish that!

  10. Jerry Saleeby, March 30, 2012 at 5:20 p.m.

    If Shea clears the ball the game is over. Instead he gives it away easily and the next thing that happens is bad goalkeeping. A simple clearance would have ended the game.

  11. Brian O'Connell, March 30, 2012 at 5:24 p.m.

    @Erik E,
    England doesn't compete as a stand-alone country in the Olympics - it competes as Great Britain (which includes WALES). Thus, Giggs and Becks can play together for GB in the Olympics. And you call yourself a soccer fan.

  12. Luis Arreola, March 30, 2012 at 5:48 p.m.

    Overage, goalkeeping, whatever? Who cares. The biggest issue is and will get even bigger with a few more of these performances is the talent selection of this country. Every other country in Concacaf has the same excuse for overage players, so why are we talking about that? Goalkeeping? Not great but it does not take away from the alarming fact that Usa was uotplayed by 2 supposedly soccer inferior countries, player by player. El Salvador did not attack Usa for most of the game in trying to defend for 2 goals but when it had to it was extremely effective. Usa could not stop them in the first 30 minutes or in the last 10. Had El Salvador played this way the entire game they would have killed Usa. We are getting too used to Howard gringing out 1 goal wins, ties or 1 goal losses.

  13. beautiful game, March 31, 2012 at 12:33 a.m.

    Same old story, lack of possession, comfort on the ball, simplicity of play and working with purpose; it's still missing.

  14. Luis Arreola, April 1, 2012 at 4:11 p.m.

    Ridge, biggest problem area exposed. Player Selection System!!

  15. Luis Arreola, April 3, 2012 at 8:30 a.m.

    Problem areas exposee in U17, U20, Olympic Quaifying and Gopd Cup stumbles. Stay tuned fr more

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