Confederations Cup: What We Learned

Sorry–this is a little late, but I think it’s an important discussion to have…

We’ve all read plenty of articles praising the Nats for their improbably run to the Cup finals, so we’ll spare you the discussion of their “grit” and “heart.”  (Funny–I was always led to believe that  Frankie Hejduk was our sole source of these invaluable commodities.)  This is not to diminish the accomplishments of our team, but the Confederations Cup is ultimately a learning experience and we are going to treat it as such.  Here is a look at the lessons learned from South Africa:

POSITIVES

-Landon Donovan seems more comfortable in his role as playmaker than ever before.  He looked fantastic throughout the tournament, even in the games where the rest of the team didn’t.

-Tim Howard is looking better than ever.  His back-up Brad Guzan looked good against Egypt.  The steadiest position in American soccer looks to stay just that going into 2010.

-The defense is really beginning to take shape.  Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, and Jonathan Spector all had fantastic tournaments.  Our worries about left back have been eased since Bradley has finally given Bocanegra a shot at his natural position.  With a healthy Cherundolo, the US will also have the option to move Spector to the left and Bocanegra to the center.  Hopefully this means the end of Hejduk for the national team–even his strongest supporters have to admit he’s no higher than third-best at right back at the moment.

-Central midfield is looking good.  Michael Bradley enjoyed a good tournament.  Ricardo Clark looked good defensively and more comfortable on the ball than in past appearances.  Benny Feilhaber is starting to look like his old self.  With a healthy Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones in the mix, this might be our deepest position.

-Clint Dempsey recovered from a slow start to bag three goals and Bronze Ball honors.  Fantastic turnaround.

-We’ve found a formation that allows us to score goals from the run of play.  In our first seven halves using this formation, we beat Egypt, Spain, and Brazil by a total of 7-0.  Yes, we gave up three in the eighth half, but we looked far more productive and dangerous than we ever did in the 4-5-1 (in which we were outscored 1-6, by the way).

-Altidore looked a little rusty and Davies has a ways to go, but our forwards actually looked dangerous when paired together.  Give these two another year to develop and we could have a very good striking tandem going into the World Cup.

NEGATIVES

-Bob Bradley should be credited for turning this team around.  But the man still manages the game as if it were Football Manager 2009.  Is no one else disturbed that he tends to make similar subs at the same time every game, regardless of what’s happening?  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  But if we just surrendered a 2-goal lead to Brazil, why are we bringing on an out-of-form Kljestan and Bornstein for Altidore and Feilhaber?  His in-game management and negative style continue to frustrate me.

-Three red cards.  As much as we love to claim the ref is out to get us, we can only blame ourselves for getting into these situations.  When it comes down to it, as a team, we tackle too hard and too late.  We’re going to continue to have discipline problems if we don’t address this soon.

-Michael Bradley is too aggressive for his own good.  Not only is he a yellow-card machine, destined to receive at least one ban per tournament, but he’s starting to carry it off the pitch.  He went on an angry rant about USMNT critics.  He confronted the referee who issued his red card against Spain after the game.  In the end, he left the tournament with an additional four-game ban.

-The 4-5-1 continues to be a nightmare and, even with the success of our two-striker formation, I worry that it will still be Bradley’s go-to formation for important matches against top competition (especially when we have a healthy Brian Ching back).  I hope I’m wrong.

-When our players are in front of goal, too often they are looking to lay it off for a teammate instead of taking their chance.  There are times for that, and there are times to take the shot.  A lot of golden opportunities we blown because of this timid play.

-Bornstein is not the answer at left back.  He’s just not good enough defensively.

-Kljestan looks horrible.  He has become a liability.  He can’t pass.  He can’t hold.  He shouldn’t play again until he gets things in order.

-Beasley.  This one is just depressing.

-How the two previously mentioned players have found the field as much as they have while Torres and Adu sat on the bench is a little frustrating.  Yes, they’re young.  No, they don’t have much experience.  But age and experience weren’t helping DaMarcus and Sacha–you have to draw the line at some point.  Let the youngsters have their opportunities.

-Vuvuzelas.  My proposal: let South African fans bring the monotone horns to their team’s matches, but ban them from all others.  I’d hate to have to watch next summer’s tournament on mute.

OVERALL

A good showing for our boys.  We played our best soccer in the end.  Even though we finished 2-0-3, if you break that down into halves, we were 6-0-4–not bad considering who we played.  There are a lot of lessons to take away–both positive and negative–and if our coach and team are willing to learn from this experience, we could set ourselves up for a successful campaign in next summer’s World Cup.

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Man of the Match [6.28.09 vs. Brazil]: Landon Donovan

Another quick post to get the Man of the Match illustration project up to date..

Landon Donovan gets our man of the match honor for the Confederations Cup final vs. Brazil. In the final, he did what he did all tournament–he controlled the offense, scored goals, ran at the opposition, and showed us all that he is, indeed, capable of playing at the top level.

Match Preview [6.28.09 vs. Brazil]

MATCH_PREVIEWLast game was amazing.  While Spain were clearly a better, more skilled team than the USA, everyone wearing the red, white, and blue put in a good performance.  And believe it or not, we were better on the day.  Even our old foe Bob Bradley deserves credit.  Ever since he changed to a proper 4-4-2, the team has scored 5 goals and all were from the run of play!  He even fulfilled our wish of a Bocanegra-DeMerit-Onyewu-Spector back line.  This team is really clicking right now, and as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke…”  Unfortunately, a questionable red card for Michael Bradley will force us to make at least one change.  (By the way, are we the only ones who have a hard time feeling bad for this kid?  He’s a great player, but he seems to average about .5 unnecessary yellow cards per game.  It was definitely harsh, but Michael needs to work on this bad habit.)  Benny Feilhaber seems like the best choice to start.  If he looks anything like he did at the end of the Spain game, he should fit in nicely.  Then again, Benny does have the ability to disappear in big matches.  Here’s hoping for the best.

This is the lineup we hope to see, and for once, we are confident that we’ll actually see it:

————–Altidore——–Davies—————–

Donovan———————————–Dempsey

————–Feilhaber———-Clark—————-

Bocanegra—-DeMerit—–Onyewu——-Spector

————————Howard————————-

Let’s bring home the trophy, boys.  (And if we’re really lucky, Liverpudlian band the Trophy Boyz might honor us with a commemorative song of this calibre.)

Confederations Cup: Group Stage Recap

After 135 minutes of some of the most uninspiring soccer we’ve seen from the USA since…well, I guess Costa Rica…the Nats were able to turn things around with a 3-0 victory over Egypt.  And just like that, after losing two and accumulating a -5 goal differential, we’re out of the group stage.  Wow!  I think it’s appropriate that we take a minute to appreciate the unlikelihood of our advancement:

-We needed a minimum of a 3-0 victory over Egypt.

-We needed Italy to lose by 6 minus the goals we won by against Egypt (i.e., if we win by three, we needed them to lose by 6-3 (3 goals)).

-Egypt had to miss a wide-open header with very little time left for the US to respond.

-Brazil had to keep Italy from scoring one of their many second-half chances.

-A referee wrongly had to use video replay to award Brazil a PK versus Egypt in game one, taking a crucial point away from the African champions.

-We were fortunate enough to face Egypt without their best player.

-And we’re pretty sure this had to happen, too: Niño con Helado.

Amazingly, with the odds stacked overwhelmingly against us, the Nats prevailed!  Just what did this victory earn us?  How about the right to call ourselves Confederations Cup semi-finalists (and perhaps better), an opportunity for redemption against the best team in the world, and the pleasure of sending Rossi back “home”.  It was certainly a great day for American soccer.

That said, I don’t think the 3-0 victory against a depleted Egyptian side completely forgives our previous two results.  We didn’t expect the US to win these games–they were, after all, going up against two of the four best teams in the world–but we expected a little more effort from our boys and a few more offensive risks from Bob Bradley.  I know it’s kind of ridiculous to criticize a coach about a 3-0 result, but even in victory, I found some of Bradley’s decisions to be confusing.  The man plays a stubborn, negative game.  We needed a minimum of a 3-0 victory, and he rolled out yet another two-defensive-mid formation.  He started Dempsey despite his string of poor performanes.  Yes, Deuce scored the game winner, but he’s obviously worn out.  Why not bring him in as a late game sub and give a creative, offensive-minded player an opportunity (Torres?  Adu?)?  And Guzan.  Guzan had a great game and made some key saves, but this was the biggest head-scratcher of all.  Why wouldn’t you start your best player unless you assume you’re not going to advance and you want to give someone else an opportunity to gain some experience?

Don’t get me wrong–I’m happy that we made it through.  (I am, after all, a USMNT fan first and a Bradley hater second.)  But let me ask this question:  If before the tournament someone said to you, the USA’s three results will be 1-3 to Italy, 0-3 to Brazil, and a 3-0 victory over Egypt, would you get excited?  You would probably be shocked to find that 3 points and a -2 goal differential was enough to get us out of our group.  Making the semi-finals is an exciting accomplishment, but I don’t think that in itself excused the previous poor play.

All that said, let’s take a look at the important lessons we learned from this year’s Confederations Cup thus far:

-DaMarcus Beasley is done until he can regain his form.  He was given more opportunities than he should have been and he put in an absolute shocker against Brazil.  If he can sort out his club career, he will have a shot at WC2010–but that’s a big “if”.

-Sacha Kljestan is in the same boat.  He’s got talent, but he’s struggled with Chivas USA this year and hasn’t ever shown much in meaningful games for the USMNT.

-Dempsey is off his game.  The problem is less severe than Beasley and Kljestan, but we need to give this guy a break.

-Dare I say Spector could challenge a healthy Cherundolo for the starting right back spot?  He’s performed so well over the past four games, it seems like a real possibility.

-Landon Donovan showed why he’s widely regarded as the best player this country has produced that decided to play for our national team.  I’d like to see him take more shots, though.  (Is it just me, or are all of our players looking to lay it off 1-v-1?  I’m pretty sure it only worked 1/6 times.)  Regular starters Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, and Oguchi Onyewu also looked good.

-Jay DeMerit is a very good center back.  I am now convinced that our first-choice back line should include him and have Bocanegra at left back.

-Jozy Altidore works much, much better when paired with another striker up top.

-The 4-5-1 does not stop top-level teams from scoring goals on us.

In the end, this tournament is a learning experience.  Hopefully our players and our coach can learn the necessary lessons from the competition and emerge a better team.

Man of the Match [6.18.09 vs. Brazil]: Tim Howard

You know it’s was a bad game when your goalkeeper allows three goals and is still the best player on the field. Tim Howard may have been a bit questionable on the first goal, but he made some great saves later in the match and kept the scoreline from getting too ugly. Maybe we just didn’t want to give the man of the match to a field player after such an ugly game, but we do think Timmy is deserving. Michael Bradley gets our vote for runner up for at least giving the impression that he cared about the game for the full 90 minutes.

Goat of the Game: Bob Bradley. Too many questionable player selections. Yet another match where the US seems to take the field without the proper motivation or gameplan, allowing their customary early goal. Yes, Beasley was atrocious, and yes, Kljestian wasn’t much better, but really, neither of these players should have ever even been on the field.

Grant Wahl on next move for US Soccer

Project 2010’s love affair with Grant Wahl continues:

“Here’s what I want to see [at the Gold Cup]: Freddy Adu being handed the keys to the U.S. midfield, told that he’ll play in every game and given the freedom to show what he can do. I can understand why Adu hasn’t been starting for the U.S. (he hasn’t played enough at club level; not that Jozy Altidore or Benny Feilhaber have, either), but the Gold Cup is the perfect setting to put him on the field and give him a chance. It would be good to see José Francisco Torres out there, too. It’s hard for me to fathom why it was Sacha Kljestan (red card, ineffectual) instead of Torres who started against Brazil.”

We could not agree more. Read the whole article here.

Lessons learned from the Confederations Cup (so far)

So we’re two matches into our Confederations Cup campaign and we’ve already been eliminated.  Now it’s time to start asking the all-important question–what did we learn?

1. Horns absolutely need to be banned from all World Cup matches.

2. We are awesome at getting players sent off.

3. We still have a hard time scoring from the run of play and the 4-5-1 simply isn’t creating enough offensive opportunities (#2 isn’t helping matters, either).

Check back later for more post-game thoughts and our Man of the Match.

EDIT: In fact, the USA are not yet eliminated from the Confederations Cup.  After Egypt’s inspiring 1-0 victory over Italy, the table sits as follows:  Brazil, 6 pts. (+4 goals); Italy, 3 pts. (+1 goal); Egypt, 3 pts. (0 goals); USA, 0 pts. (-5 goals).  In the event of a 1-goal loss to Brazil on Sunday, the USA could sneak into the semi-finals with a 5-goal victory over Egypt.  Everyone start holding your breath…NOW!