Pentagram: USA October Matches

Ze German

The October international dates have passed, and the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team moves on with an eye towards next summer’s Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying beyond.  The Bob Bradley era continues, with a couple of new faces and formations thrown in.  The team drew with Poland 2-2 in Chicago, then followed up with a tepid 0-0 draw against Columbia in Philly.  Of course all the soccerati have chimed in with the “results don’t matter,” line – it’s all about trying new guys in new positions with different formations.  But this is America so, yes, results do matter.  And, having watch both matches, I guess I should be happy we didn’t lose one of them, because the team looked inferior in stretches of both contests.

We saw the long-anticipated debut of Jermaine Jones of Germany (his father is American), plus first caps for Eric Lichaj and Brek Shea.  We saw how dependent this team remains on Landon Donovan to generate offense.  We saw an attempt at a 4-5-1, the current ‘in’ formation.  We also saw a lot of the same guys from the previous cycle doing many of the same things.  Five points in your October friendlies’ pentagram:

  • Jermaine Jones is the truth.  This one is easy.  We’ve heard that JJ would be one of the best if not the best field player the moment he stepped on the field, and that certainly appeared to be the case.  He tackled with authority, saw runs (and potential runs that never materialized) in front of him and sprayed the ball forward with the kind of deep midfield accuracy not seen since John O’Brien.  He tracked back.  He set up Jozy’s goal against Poland, his sloppy clearance led to a later Polish goal, and he bossed the game against Columbia.  A very notable debut.  The only problems stemmed from a) U.S. frontline players failing to see the runs he was playing them into, and b) lack of understanding with his central midfield partners, Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu.  And this understanding will come.  All U.S. fans who saw these games are left wondering what might have been this summer had JJ been healthy and in South Africa.  Now we all have to hope that he can retain his current level over the next four years (he’s 28).
  • The U.S. didn’t look good with a lone striker. The periods of 4-5-1 against both teams left Jozy Altidore stranded and frustrated.  It didn’t help that Poland and Columbia played nine men behind the ball for long stretches (a sign of growing respect) and the outside midfielders couldn’t seem to get upfield.  The team looked better offensively when Stuart Holden pressed up towards the box in the 2nd half against Poland and when Eddie Johnson partnered with Jozy in the second half of the Columbia game.  A couple of factors here:  Jozy needs a strike partner to play off at this point, and we had to many guys wanting to pinch in.  Landon on the field might alleviate many of these troubles, but unless the U.S. is setting up to hold a lead or go for the draw, the 4-2-2 still seems like our best bet.
  • The question of club ball. Oguchi Onyewu and Jozy aren’t seeing time for their club teams.  Eric Lichaj has only played in cup games.  Meanwhile, Michael Parkhurst, Benny Feilhaber, Alejandro Bedoya, and Clarence Goodson all play regularly in Scandinavia – in leagues that probably aren’t as competitive as MLS.  It’s the old question that goes back to the days when Claudio Reyna and Jovan Kirovski and Frankie Hejduk were playing (or not playing) in Europe.  In some cases it’s about the money they can make abroad, in others it’s about trying to play with the best.  And obviously you’d like to see our guys play well enough to break into the rotation.  Gooch, at least, looks physically healthy again, while Jozy is probably an injury or suspension away from PT in Spain.  As the cycle of qualifying goes on, maybe these guys have to reconsider their situations, but it’s not a dealbreaker yet.  We certainly don’t have any answers.  I will say I’d rather see the above Scandinavian-based guys either make moves to bigger leagues or return to MLS soon.
  • Backline sloppiness. The defense had periods of strength, and it was good to see Gooch looking more like his old self and knocking guys out of the way like rag dolls, but Bocanegra playing wide left received a whipping against Poland, and Maurice Edu, while a great athlete and arguably one of the best 11 U.S. field players, is no center back.  Steve Cherundolo continues to be our best backline guy, but you have to wonder when his age will creep in.  Eric Lichaj looked good for a half – definitely one to keep an eye on, and Heath Pearce played pretty well, but left back continues to be a sore spot.  Parkhurst and Goodson both looked good.  Still the defense looked less than confident at times and clutch saves by Howard and Guzan were needed to preserve the two draws.  The real questions here concern who else Coach Bradley brings in for a shot and whether he can make the call to sit aging stalwarts like Cherundolo and Bocanegra when they start to fade.  MLS has a number of promising young defenders; it will be very interesting to see who steps up.
  • Looking forward. Next month the team will travel to South Africa for a friendly, the last of the year.  Bob Bradley has already said this will be a limited call-up.  That match is the week before MLS Cup, so it won’t include U.S.-based players involved in the final week of the playoffs, and presumably Euro-based regulars like Dempsey, Cherundolo, Howard, and Bocangera will sit this one out.  So a definite B-team.  The January training camp will include MLS-based players (hopefully without Landon, though) and a few Scandinavian-based guys on winter break.  While it will be interesting to see which young guys can get it done, those friendlies in late January/early Feburary will also feature the B-team.  So it will probably be March before we see all hands on deck, the chance to see Jermaine Jones and Landon together.  A lot can happen between now and then.  Guys will move to other clubs, injuries will happen, and maybe, just maybe another goal-scorer will drop out of the sky.  It will be interesting and a little frustrating to watch.  Such is life for the U.S. Soccer fan.
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