US Soccer tasted what it might be like to try to qualify for the World Cup out of South America this past week. Some pundits and fans repeatedly suggest that we should combine North and South America for qualifying. Here’s the thing – it would really, really hard. The 1-1 tie with Argentina on Saturday flattered the US, and then last night, despite controlling possession and creating more scoring chances, the good guys fell to Paraguay 1-0. Now imagine trying to play these teams on their home soil.
Still, these friendlies were more about team preparation, evaluating certain players and combinations, and getting ready for this summer’s Gold Cup. In that respect they were at least moderately successful. Coach Bob Bradley was able to confirm a few things (hopefully): the three defensive midfielder combo doesn’t work, some veterans like Oguchi Onyewu and Jon Spector still aren’t sharp enough or fast enough to be automatic slections, and some of the new guys are pretty good (Juan Agudelo, Tim Ream, Tim Chandler, Eric Lichaj).
In Argentina, we could all enjoy the Lionel Messi show. The way that little guy can dance through defenders, keeping his head up, and how physical and honest he is for such a small player are really something. Now that Argentina have altered their gameplan to cater to Messi, looking more like Barcelona, makes you wonder just what Maradonna was thinking in how he set the team up on his watch. Paraguay, on the other hand, hunkered and bunkered, hoping to stop the bleeding, with a gameplan of stealing a goal on a breakdown or a set-piece. Their plan worked perfectly when they scored a fairly soft goal off a corner kick. I thought I was watching El Salvador or something the way Paraguay played behind the ball after that… But this is just what Team America will see in the Gold Cup and early rounds of World Cup Qualifying.
Five points in your new red shirt Pentagram…
- Coach Stoneface continues to rely heavily on the trusted few. This is why it’s dangerous to have the same coach for two WC cycles. Bruce Arena did the same thing. Against Argentina, Bradley trotted out a back line of Spector, Onyewu, DeMerit, and Bocanegra. The same four that started in the Confederations Cup two summers ago. But see, that’s four center backs who lacked the quickness to stay with Messi and company, and it nearly cost us. And Gooch still doesn’t look like his old self, while DeMerit and Boca are aging. Similarly, Jonathan Bornstein got the start against Paraguay – a guy who just doesn’t seem to cut it at this level despite repeated looks. Bob may call in a lot of different players, but when he feels the chips are down, he still gets very conservative.
- Agudelo is the real deal. Forget the garbage goal in the first game, the true promise of Juan Agudelo showed in how he played against two World Cup teams. He attacked when he could without getting stranded; he made runs into space off the ball to relieve pressure and spring teammates; he held up well when needed. He also appears fearless and confident, reminiscent of Charlie Davies circa 2010. No one wants to overhype this kid – we’ve done that too many times – but at 18 he appears to be rising to the top of the US striker fold. Yes, this is an indictment of our forwards as well, but Juan seems to have the physical gifts and the mentality to become a mainstay.
- Don’t give up on the 4-5-1 yet. Although the formation looked terrible the first 45 against Argentina, we should maybe attribute that more to player selection. The Edu-Jones-Bradley midfield just lacked the trigger man in the middle. It’s really a shame Stuart Holden got chopped down against Manchester United, because everyone wanted to see him in that role. Even guys like Jose Torres or Benny Feilhaber could fit the bill here. Again, the Coach has to be willing to trust some of the other players. We should also know by know that Jozy Altidore does not thrive as a lone striker.
- New guys looking good. Timothy Chandler, the German-born right wingback/midfielder immediately stepped into the depth chart with these two performances. To think that a year ago this young man was in the reserves in the Bundesliga, and it’s only since January that he started playing with the first team. His combination of athleticism and passing will diminish the void as Steve Cherundolo phases out. Eric Lichaj, the other right back looked promising also. Would like to see Chandler and Lichaj as the two outside backs instead of an out-of-position Bocanegra or an overmatched Bornstein. The other guy who looked very promising was Red Bulls center back Tim Ream. He’s smooth on the ball and already passes better than any other center back in the pool. He didn’t look completely overmatched on the speed/physicality front (though it was hard to tell because Paraguay so infrequently threatened). More of him, please.
- Of Possession and Set Pieces. Despite really bossing the game against Paraguay, the US couldn’t break through and score from the run of play – a continuing trend with the team. Donovan, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones all had good second-half chances but came up empty. It also looked like Agudelo drew a penalty that wasn’t called. But no goals. The US set pieces looked pretty bad too, other than the goal against Argentina. Still, the ability to dictate the match against a good team like Paraguay and to play even in the second half against Argentina show the US is on the right track. If we can get guys like Teal Bunbury and a returning Charlie Davies into the strike mix, if Bob gives some other midfielders a chance, and if he continues to give some of the young guys a look, we just might win the Gold Cup.