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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USA announce Gold Cup roster

GOALKEEPERS – Jon Busch (Chicago Fire), Troy Perkins (Valarenga), Luis Robles (Kaiserslautern)

DEFENDERS – Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), Jimmy Conrad (Kansas City Wizards), Clarence Goodson (IK Start), Jay Heaps (New England Revolution), Chad Marshall (Columbus Crew), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaellands), Heath Pearce (Hansa Rostock)

MIDFIELDERS – Davy Arnaud (Kansas City Wizards), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Colin Clark (Colorado Rapids), Sam Cronin (Toronto FC), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Stuart Holden (Houston Dynamo), Logan Pause (Chicago Fire), Robbie Rogers (Columbus Crew)

FORWARDS – Freddy Adu (Benfica), Brian Ching (Houston Dynamo), Kenny Cooper (FC Dallas), Charlie Davies (Hammarby), Santino Quaranta (D.C. United)

Hmmm…

I’ll spare you the extensive commentary, but am I the only one who thinks there are a few head-scratchers in there?  When Jay Heaps is your second-choice B-teamer, maybe it’s time to start looking to the future and give a younger prospect a look.  I simply can’t wrap my mind around the concept that we might ever rely on someone like that in a meaningful international match.  I’d take a out-of-position, beach-soccer fit John O’Brien over Jay Heaps (OK–I might be taking this a little too far…).

Match Preview [6.18.09 vs. Brazil]

MATCH_PREVIEWSince it’s the eve of our clash with Brazil, it only seems right to throw out our ideal line-up.  If for no other reason, it will give us the right to say “I told you so” in the event of a loss tomorrow.  If we win, on the other hand, we will obviously never speak of this again.  Ever.

————–Altidore——–Davies—————–

Donovan———————————–Dempsey

—————Torres———-Bradley—————

Bocanegra—-DeMerit—–Onyewu——-Spector

———————–Howard————————

Some thoughts on the lineup:

-Carlos Bocanegra enjoyed a successful season at Rennes as a left back.  Since we seem to have trouble finding a left back who can both attack and defend (then there’s Heath Pearce who can’t seem to do either particularly well), slotting in Bocanegra seems like an ideal solution.  Obviously we have to sacrifice our best center-back tandem, but Jay DeMerit’s recent performances against Italy and Honduras have shown that he’s a strong and capable defender.  The only other drawback is the loss of Bornstein’s pace.  While Bornstein is a bit better on the offensive side of the ball, Bocanegra is undoubtedly a stronger defender–something that will obviously be important against Brazil’s potent attack.  This would be the most defensively-sound back four we’ve fielded in recent memory, and hopefully it would allow us to take a slightly more offensive approach in the center of midfield.  This leads me to my next point…

-As I am not a fan of the 4-5-1 formation, the only real question I had about the midfield was “Torres or Feilhaber?”  While Benny’s solid defensive presence would be a plus in this game, he simply didn’t show enough against Italy.  Torres would offer better distribution and attacking presence, picking out the inevitable holes in this attack-happy team’s defense.

-While I’d probably rather start Ching/Altidore or Ching/Davies up top, this is obviously not an option.  Altidore and Davies have the speed and nose for goal that Ching lacks, but neither has Ching’s ability to win balls, hold, distribute, and draw fouls.  Altidore put in a solid performance against Italy, and while I still don’t think he’s an ideal target man, I have confidence he can fill the role effectively enough.  I’d be very happy to see this duo–even though there’s a chance they’d be ineffective for the aforementioned reasons, I think it’s more likely (if used properly) that they could burn Brazil’s defense pretty badly, especially if we get some good offensive play out of the central midfield (again, a reason for Torres).

Enjoy the game and be sure to check back tomorrow for post-game thoughts and our Man of the Match (with illustration!).  Until then…

U! S! A!    All! The! Way!