Pentagram: Two Tourneys, Many Lessons

There’s nothing like a 5-0 ass-whipping by your greatest rival in a tournament final to provide a little perspective on where you stand.  The American Soccer community has had two basic reactions to the Gold Cup loss to Mexico:  the initial righteous outrage and then rationalization combined with eager roster projections

While it’s true the U.S Team that took the field against Mexico in New York (facing a 90% pro-Mexico crowd) included exactly one first-team choice in Brian Ching, with Mexico fielding probably four first-choice players, and it’s also true the penalty call that opened the floodgates was a bad, bad decision by the ref, no one can deny the U.S. crumbled and capitulated over the final 35 minutes.  After nearly a decade of domination on home soil (despite often facing pro-Mex crowds) the U.S. conceded the psychological high ground.  And you could tell it on the faces of players like Torrado and Dos Santos, to say nothing of their coach, Javier Aguirre.  You could see their relief and exhiliration.  They did not care that it was a U.S. B-team, the only thing that mattered was beating the gringos and lifting the trophy.  Maybe we didn’t care that much about winning the Gold Cup (and judging by the team selection and mass exodus of players from the initial roster), but to concede anything prior to the August 12 showdown at the Azteca, especially in terms of confidence is troubling.

Team America is 7-5-1 over this busy summer stretch, with two more World Cup Qualifiers looming in the coming weeks.  The Confederations Cup and Gold Cup showed us a lot about this team and about Bob Bradley’s coaching and roster management.  So let’s try to sum it up, pentagram-style…

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.  Let’s start with injury luck.  When Carlos Bocanegra, Brian Ching, and Frankie Hejduk all pulled up lame prior to the Confed Cup, it opened the doors for players to step up.  Some would argue the point, and Coach Stoneface may yet revert to past preferences, but we saw that Jay DeMerit (for Bocanegera at center back), Jonathan Spector (for Hejduk at right back), and Charlie Davies (for Ching at forward) are better options at those positions.  And given Bradley’s penchant for sticking with the same guys, we probably wouldn’t have learned that otherwise.  More injury luck: Honduras and Egypt were both missing some of their best players in those matches.  How about some in-game luck?  Yeah, the game against Spain was an awesome performance of grit and character, but we caught the Spaniards at the perfect time and were fortunate one of those many blistering shots wasn’t a bit more accurate.  Also some luck in the Gold Cup when Panama lost it and hacked down Cooper in the box, or for that matter against Haiti when Stuart Holden caught that volley just right in the 90th minute (OK, some great skill there also).  And luckiest of all, that Brazil played Italy off the field to run up the score, thus allowing  the opportunity to advance and beat Spain.  This bit of fortune may have actually helped Bradley keep his job (though some would argue that as well; and for that matter, whether this development is truly fortunate for Team America in the grand scheme)    

Roster selections could have been better.  Most of us realize Bradley faced real issues when calling up players for two consecutive tournaments.  You can’t have guys being gone from their MLS teams for two months, and you also want guys who are fighting for playing time to join their European teams for pre-season.  That said…  We now learn that Freddy Adu had an agreement with Benefica to leave the team after the 2nd Gold Cup match, but instead of flying to Portugal, the team told him to stay put.  So instead of playing the rest of the tournament (and no one needs more games than Freddy), we learn he was training in Bradenton instead.  Baffling.  Or you have Marvell Wynne, who sat the bench the entire Confed Cup before heading back to Toronto, and should have played in the Gold Cup.  If you needed cover at right back for the Confed Cup, and you were only going to play him the first few games anyway, why wasn’t this Steve Cherundolo’s spot?  Then you have the strange decision to bring Conor Casey to the Confed Cup and leave Kenny Cooper for Gold Cup scrap duty.  Maybe Cooper doesn’t have enough, but it would be nice to see him with the A-team – just once – and see how he responds.  I guess Jose Francisco Torres has been officially blamed for that first goal at Costa Rica, which is truly a shame, because he needed to get some games as well.

-Bob needs to expand his circle of trust.  Coach Stoneface has his guys, there’s no doubt, which is why guys like Beasley and Kljestan get repeated opportunities.  It almost seems like rampant stubbornness, the way Bob sticks with some players.  And whether you agree with the personnel choices or not, there’s little doubt that this tendency to keep with the same players contributed to the late game collapses in both the cup finals.  This static lineup, game after game, in the short time frame of a tournament meant many of the players were completely gassed and had nothing left.  Whether it was Dempsey and Rico Clark against Brazil or Heath Pearce, Jay Heaps, and Kyle Beckerman against Mexico, they could no longer chase the game in key positions, leading to an avalanche of goals.  Part of this is our tactical approach (see below), and part of it is Bob’s seeming inability to substitute before minute 70.  One reason the U.S. was able to beat Mexico and outplay Germany in 2002 was Bruce Arena’s willingness to use the entire roster (except Regis) throughout the Cup.

-Strategic/tactical improvements to avoid collapse.  According to Jamie Trecker on a recent podcast, “the fact of the matter is, the U.S. doesn’t have a defined style”.  Well, no, we do have a style – but maybe he means strategic and tactical variation.  Our style is to play two deep lying midfielders and attempt to pressure the ball and create turnovers.  We try to get the fullbacks forward, overlap and flood the area.  It’s a style that involves a lot of running and leaves the defense open to quick counters, as we saw against Brazil and Mexico.  It would be nice if we could play more of a flat 4-4-2 once in awhile, allowing both center mids to move up and keeping the fullbacks at home.  Maybe this would allow a more consistent defensive shape for those times you want to slow the game down.  How about trying to play with twin strikers instead of the too predictable target man/ center forward combo?  How about a diamond midfield?  Even more important – the ability to adjust to the other team’s adjustments.   Bradley has shown little skill in doing this, often subbing too late or pressing forward too blindly when in need of goal.   As we have seen, a style of play reliant on pressure and hustle that doesn’t include a deep rotation spells trouble.

-Three Key Players.  Right now the U.S. team seems heavily reliant on three guys, without whom the likelihood of making any noise next summer is very remote.  Landon Donovan is the team MVP by a mile.  He’s doing it all and he should be the captain.  The way he’s been playing, he’s among the best in the world.  Likewise, Tim Howard – and unlike past World Cups, the backup keeper isn’t really close.  Oguchi Onyewu has shown an ability to dominate on the backline, and the move to Milan could elevate him to elite status (of course it could also turn poorly).  With Team America’s propensity for leaking goals, Gooch will need to regulate in a big way in South Africa.

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