Stars and Gripes

Occasionally interesting insight (and gripes) about the USMNT

Archive for June 2010

Snap Judgment! – Dempsey, Altidore to Napoli?

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Introducing a new feature, which may or not be repeated at any time in the future: Snap Judgment.  With today’s juicy little rumor that Napoli are eying American stars Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, here’s a quick look at why it may–or may not–make sense.

First, some quick background.  Napoli finished sixth on the Serie A table last season–above historic powers Juventus–and qualified for the Europa League.  Unfortunately for Napoli, the success of Slovakia starlet Marek Hamsik (12 league goals) and Italian quasi-journeyman Fabio Quagliarella attracted wandering eyes from the rest of the continent.  Hamsik has been alternatively linked with Manchester United, Manchester City and Inter, while Quagliarella is the subject of rumors involving a possible 25M-Euro bid from Russian champions Rubin Kazan.

Napoli endured and interesting 2009-2010 campaign, taking just four points from its first five matches before Roberto Donadoni was relieved of his managerial duties.  New skipper Walter Mazzarri abandoned the 3-5-2 formation Napoli had opened the season with, opting for a modified 4-3-2-1/3-4-2-1, with Hamsik moving up into one of the attacking midfield spots.  Quagliarella lined up as opposite attacking midfielder, or as the lone forward.  The two combined with Ezequiel Lavezzi to form the main attacking thrust, and the loss of one–or both–would leave Napoli painfully short of offensive talent, reliant on Lavezzi and German Denis, the 28 year-old striker.

The move may well make sense for Dempsey.  Despite the heights reached by Fulham over the last year, the sad truth is that the club is limited by its size.  Without a significant influx of outside cash, it will be difficult to compete year after year for a spot in Europe.  With an aging team and Roy Hodgson heading north to Liverpool, Fulham is more likely to find itself in a relegation battle than in a Europa League Final.  Dempsey is in the prime of his career–he should be looking to play in Europe consistently over the next two-three years, and if Hamsik leaves, Napoli’s set-up seems tailor-made for his skills.

Altidore’s decision is more difficult.  His most significant consideration must be to play for a team–and more specifically, a manager–who wants to help him learn.  He needs consistent playing time, whether that means in Serie A or in the English Championship.  He needs to be pushed in training, day in and day out, and have a backroom staff that understand his potential–and are willing to put up with his mild immaturity when it comes to practice regimens.  If Altidore can get games for Napoli, a move could make sense.

Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 29, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Should Bob Bradley Stay or Go?

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As another World Cup cycle ends for the United States, new opportunities already beckon.  Along the path to what could be a seventh-consecutive World Cup Finals appearance in Brazil, veteran players will fade out of the national team picture, while new talents will be given the chance to emerge.

Yet before the next journey begins, a few questions must be answered, none more significant than who will hold the managerial reigns for the next four years.  While Bob Bradley’s contract runs through December, the decision by the United States Soccer Federation to extend the relationship or go in another direction will be made in the coming weeks.

By way of putting Bradley’s tenure into context, it’s helpful to note that these are rough days for international managers.  Fabio Capello, whose record of success includes league titles with all four clubs he’s managed, is being derided in England as an over-priced scam artist.  Marcello Lippi–he of a World Cup title, a UEFA Cup championship, and five Serie A titles in Italy–is being called out by Italian cabinet ministers.  Diego Maradona is still viewed as a lunatic, even as he sits on a 4-0-0 managerial record in the World Cup, while Brazil’s Dunga is being accused in his homeland of killing “beautiful football.”  Raymond Domenech, the now-former France manager, occupies a league all his own, and would be well-advised to simply stay away from his home nation for the near future.

And yet, all Bob Bradley has done is preside over perhaps the most successful quadrennial period in the history of the United States national team.  Boasting a record of 38 wins, 20 losses, and 7 draws since the team crashed out of the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the Americans preceded their modest run into the knockout stages of the current tournament by reaching the final of the 2009 Confederations Cup and placing first in CONCACAF qualifying.

Bradley challenged his evolving team with a series of difficult friendlies and international tournaments, including matches with England, Spain, Brazil and Argentina.  This was all accomplished against the backdrop of significant generational change, with the likes of Claudio Reyna, Eddie Pope, Brad Friedel, Pablo Mastroeni, Eddie Lewis and Brian McBride making way for a new crop of talent.

I realize that claiming an individual is “underappreciated” or “overrated” puts one on a slippery slope, so instead, I’ll simply submit that Bradley did an admirable job during his time as national manager, and deserves praise.  While his loyalty to individual players served to frustrate some fans, his personnel choices succeeded more often than they failed.  Seemingly curious lineup decisions–such as giving Conor Casey the start in a critical qualifier away to Honduras, or Jonathan Bornstein’s insertion into the lineup for the final two matches of the World Cup–highlight his penchant for moves that were unpopular at kick-off, but richly rewarded by full time.  Bradley also proved his value as a game planner, with the famous victory over Spain a year ago providing a template that was later used by none other than Ottmar Hitzfeld to produce Switzerland’s surprising opening match victory over the same Spain side two weeks ago in South Africa.

Yet like an manager, there were also low points.  While Bradley lost only three matches during the course of qualifying, early 1-0 wins versus Barbados, Guatemala and Cuba did little to inspire confidence in the new regime.  And while calling the manager “tactically inflexible” would be as unfair as it is untrue, his seeming unwillingness to deviate from a rigid 4-4-2 formation with two “true” forwards in South Africa—except when circumstances forced him to—may be held against him, particularly given the inability to find a suitable second striker from the crop of Robbie Findley, Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez.  Furthermore, his team’s inability to put together a full 90-minute match resulted in the loss of a golden opportunity to advance soccer in this country.

So, with all of that being said, why do I (a random guy with a blog and absolutely no inside information whatsoever) believe Bob Bradley and the national team will go their separate ways?  Three main reasons:

1. It’s simply difficult to coach a country for eight consecutive years.  Bruce Arena is the only American to attempt the feat in the last thirty years, and his reign ended with disappointment in Germany four years ago.  Even managers predisposed to the international game, such as Guus Hiddink and Carlos Parreira,  usually opt for a new challenge over staying for the long-term with one nation.  Bradley saw all too well how Arena faired, and it’s difficult to imagine him relishing the prospect of going through a similar period–or Sunil Gulati giving him the opportunity to do so.

2. Sunil Gulati wants to leave his mark with a “big name” manager.  The negotiations with Jurgen Klinsmann four years ago were a poorly-kept secret, but they showed the lengths to which Gulati was willing to go to landing a coach with international pedigree—a “name,” if we want to simplify matters.  Gulati’s legacy will rest on two pillars: his selection of the next national team manager, and the success of the American bid for the 2022 World Cup.  Another ho-hum hiring (which Bob Bradley was) would be disappointing for Gulati, and with the game’s popularity continuing to grow in the United States, the money should be available to attract the established professional he desires.

3. For the benefit of future American coaches at all levels, Bradley needs to manage in Europe.  The United States must avoid the mistakes made by England over the last thirty years, which have resulted in a lack of homegrown managerial talent.  Of the seven Premier League teams that qualified for European play next season, only Tottenham is managed by an Englishman, and The Three Lions were the only “contending” side in the World Cup to be skippered by a foreigner.

American coaches need international exposure, just as American players must be challenged in the top leagues around the globe.  For that to happen, an American manager must break the glass ceiling that currently exists, and Bradley seems the obvious candidate for the task.  If he can achieve modest success in Europe, the door will open for others to follow him, and the long-term growth of American soccer will benefit.

The American job is, in many ways, unique.  Unlike positions in Europe, Africa or South America, the sole focus is on qualifying for the World Cup, which frankly should no longer be difficult.  Preparation for the CONCACAF Gold Cup is negligible, and the tournament itself is used more as a lab to evaluate promising youngsters and domestic-based talent.  Yet the next United States manager will inherit an environment different from those presented to his predecessors.  Expectations continue to grow, and merely qualifying for the World Cup is no longer sufficient.  The new thresholds must be to qualify with some style, while the rounds of 16 and 8 should be the squad’s target destination in the World Cup.

It seems likely that Gulati and co. will look to a foreign coach, with an eye on bringing in a manager who can harness the emerging technical skill in the American talent pool, epitomized by Jose Torres and Benny Feilhaber, to name just two.  Based on nothing other than my own tuition, here are some candidates that are likely to pop up on the radar going forward, should the national team find itself in need of a manager:

Jurgen Klinsmann – Klinsmann was—rather infamously—Gulati’s top choice in 2006, turning down the job following a prolonged set of negotiations.  His shepherding of an un-fancied Germany squad into the semifinals—albeit on home soil—in the ’06 Word Cup made him one of the rising stars in international coaching circles.  To an extent, his work with Germany and Bayern Munich look less convincing by the day, with Louis Van Gaal and Joachim Loew having found success as his replacements for club and country, respectively.  That said, Klinsmann lives in Los Angeles, he is intimately familiar with the American talent system, and he would still bring the cache that Gulati desires.

Carlos Alberto Parreira – The Brazilian is one of two managers in history to take five different nations to the World Cup (Kuwait in ’82, the United Arab Emirates in ’90, Brazil in ’94 and ’06, Saudi Arabia in ’02, South Africa in ’10), winning with Brazil on American soil in 1994.  Parreira has some familiarity with the American system, having coached the then-New York/New Jersey MetroStars in 1997.  His pedigree is unquestioned, and following his admirable job preparing South Africa for their home tournament, a return to the United States shouldn’t be ruled out.

Frankly, the job seems to be a nice fit for someone like Parreira, who has reached the stage in his career at which he has very little to prove.  The United States has an easy route back to the World Cup, doesn’t have to bother with qualifying for its continental championship, and is still far enough off the mainstream radar that pressure remains a foreign concept.

Carlos Queiroz – If Queiroz becomes available, he’d be an intriguing option.  He has experience managing both Portugal and South Africa, and while some have been critical about his stint with the former, his record (12 W – 5 D – 2 L) is impressive.   Queiroz’s handling of Portugal’s “Golden Generation” two decades ago was widely praised, as he led a group including Luis Figo and Rui Costa—ultimately disappointing on the senior level—to consecutive World Youth Championships, along with a Euro U-17 title.  His two spells as Sir Alex Ferguson’s top assistant at Manchester United make his tactical nous nearly unimpeachable.

Furthermore, Queiroz is intimately familiar with American soccer, having authored the influential “Q-Report” in 1998 for the USSF.  It was that report that helped lay the groundwork for the evolving national player development structure, including Generation adidas and the U-17 residency program in Bradenton, FL.  Queiroz would seemingly check all of the necessary boxes—if he is available and interested.

Dom Kinnear – If Gulati is serious about giving an MLS coach a hard look at the job, surely Kinnear will be one of the first to be approached.  The Scotland-born defender played three years for the United States national team in the early ‘90s, following an extended club career in leagues throughout the country that preceded MLS.  He’s achieved success as the coach of the San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo, winning back-to-back MLS championships in 2007 and 2008, while being widely praised for keeping the Dynamo competitive in recent years despite a steady loss of talent to Europe (including Stu Holden, Kenny Cooper, and Ricardo Clark).  If Gulati brings in someone who lacks a familiarity with MLS/the American system, Kinnear could also be an astute choice as a top assistant or technical director in a role similar to the one held by Franco Baldini with England.

Steve Nicol – Another Scotland-born candidate, Nicol is a Liverpool legend, having played over 460 matches for the club from 1981-1995.  Though he remains devoid of an MLS Championship, he has led the Revolution to the Cup final on four different occasions since 2002, and was rumored as a possible successor to Bruce Arena four years ago.  More than any other candidate, Nicol blends significant experience overseas with a successful record working in the United States.  He won’t top list, but if the stars align, he could be in the conversation.

Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 29, 2010 at 9:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

USA v. Ghana – Thoughts.

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Well, that was quite a run.  An excruciating, enjoyable, perplexing, rewarding, and ultimately disappointing run.  And that’s the World Cup, and I thank my lucky stars that it is here for another two weeks, and that it will dawn again a mere 1,500 days from now.  The last few years watching the boys was a joy, from the blowouts against Barbados and Grenada to Rico’s laser in Trinidad, Dempsey’s header in Sandy, and Bornstein’s equalizer at RFK.  I welled up today for the first time in years, and right now, at 7:22 PM EST, there’s a sole thought occupying my mind: I cannot–cannot–wait for the next match.

Like most fans, I’m a bit caught up in it all, and don’t have many coherent points to make.  I’ll leave with some straight-forward thoughts on today’s game only.

Before that, a quick note.  Thanks to all of you for reading.  This thing is only four weeks young, and was initiated with the sole purpose of airing some thoughts.  Instead, for some reason, a healthy number of people started reading.  So, we’re not going to shut it down, as was the initial plan.  I’ll continue through the WC and beyond, with a focus on the international game, and the United States in particular.  As the World Cup goes on, there will be a special focus on England (hopefully past tomorrow), for a plethora of reasons that can wait for another time.

Anyhow, check back at your leisure, and thanks.

1. I’m really, really not sure what Bob Bradley was thinking.  I’ve already worn down a new keyboard with rants about how and why Robbie Findley was not ready for this level.  I’ve lost my own internal breath screaming about why Maurice Edu needed to be on the field in place of Rico Clark.  And yet, that’s what we saw.  It spoke for itself.

2. I want to give a big, big round of applause to Jonathan Bornstein and Steve Cherundolo.  If you had told me six weeks ago that they would be our starting backs, I would’ve accepted a point in the group stage.  Cherundolo was fantastic–quite possibly the United States’ best player.  And Bornstein?  I really can’t put into words how impressed I am.  Like every other fan, I was taken a bit aback on Wednesday morning when he appeared on the team sheet, with memories of Honduras and the Netherlands helping to resurface old pains.  Instead, he was fantastic.  There were no nerves, no jitters, no deadly mistakes.  There was a guy utilizing his speed, closing down attackers, and positioning himself well.  I’m shocked, and I hope he keeps this up.

3. Dempsey was immense today.  He needed to be in that forward role from the beginning, but we’ll save that for another column.  There were a lot of OK efforts today–his did not fall into the category of abject mediocrity.

Finally, one more thing.  We’ll be in Rio in a shade under four years.  Michael Bradley and Jose Torres will be 26, still a few years short of their primes.  Maurice Edu and Charlie Davies will be 27, just hitting their stride.  Jozy Altidore will be a ripe old 24.  Benny Feilhaber will be 29.  Donovan will be a late-peaking 32, and Dempsey 31.  They’ll be complimented–or supplanted–by a wealth of new talent.

The last four years were fun.  The next four?  Well, get on board–it’s gonna be a helluva ride, and I couldn’t be more excited.

Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 26, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

USA v. Ghana: Redemption in Rustenburg?

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As always, I hope you enjoy, and that this adds value when watching the match unfold.  Enjoy, and go USA.

Ghana

Ghana is a young, physical team, who made up for their inability to find the net in the group stage by playing steady defense, particularly in their clogged midfield.  Throughout the first three games, Ghana showed tactical flexibility, though the personnel remained static.  Ten of the eleven players have started all three matches, the lone exceptions being Lee Addy and Jonathan Mensah (not to be confused with John Mensah, the captain and other starting center back), who each got nods at center back for the injured Isaac Vorsah.

Lining up in a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 that tends to morph throughout the match, the Black Stars look to overwhelm in the middle of the pitch, regularly clogging the center with four of their five midfielders.  Their only true width comes courtesy of Prince Tagoe, the converted striker who is moved outside, where he becomes something approximating a winger.  His counterpart on the left, Andrew Ayew, looks to cut inside, often forming a compact triangle with Kwadwo Asamoah and Kevin Prince Boateng.  Anthony Annan, a 5’7” pit bull provides a one-man defensive shield in the midfield, often dropping to cover for John Pantsil, the right back who always enjoys a good push forward.

To give you a sense of the shapes they take, below are graphs showing the average position on the field of the Ghanaian players over the first three matches.  As you can see, the defense stays relatively true, with Patsil (2), the right back, moving forward and generally playing a far higher line than his counterpart on the left.  Annan, the defensive midfielder, stays in a line with the outside backs, in a position to cover for Pantsil.

Ghana’s shape against Serbia and Australia was similar, with Tagoe playing as a modified winger/outside striker, almost as if it’s a 4-1-2-3, only with the left wing dropped off.  You can see the clear triangle formed between Boateng (23), Asamoah (21), and Ayew (13), playing just behind Gyan (3) up top.

Against Germany, the tactics changed ever so slightly.  No doubt worried about the precocious and deadly Mesut Ozil, Boateng played deeper, offering additional cover for Annan and the defense.  Tagoe also moved further inside, playing more as a second striker than as a modified winger.

Yet while Ghana created plenty of offensive chances in the group stage, their finishing was brutal.  Shockingly, they are second in the tournament with 55 total shots (the United States sits third at 49), though a rather pathetic 14 have been on target.  The Black Stars have yet to score a goal from the run of play, with both strikes in the group stage having originated from the penalty spot.  Instead of relying on possession (as a team with five midfielders might presumably do), they tend to sit back and absorb the pressure centrally, relying on quick passing in the center of midfield when they regain the ball.

The United States will find it a challenge to crack the Ghanaian defense, though their astute use of wing play thus far could prove fruitful.  For all their physicality, the Ghanaian defenders are not big by international standards, particularly in the absence of the 6’4” Vorsah.  In fact, all four defenders will be 5’10” or shorter, forming by far the most diminutive back line the United States has faced (on average, a full 3-4 inches shorter, according to my admittedly rudimentary calculations).  While intuition would indicate that set pieces could provide a real opportunity for the United States, Ghana has given little away in the air thus far.

The United States

For the United States, Bob Bradley has a host of choices to make before kickoff on Saturday.  He must decide the makeup of his backline, which he threw for an unexpected twist on Wednesday.  Up top, he has the now-familiar choice of who—if anyone—should partner with Jozy Altidore.  Should he move Clint Dempsey forward, he then must fill a hole on the wing, choosing from one of Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, DaMarcus Beasley or, perhaps, Jose Torres.

Defense

If there was only circumspect evidence offered that Oguchi Onyewu was not fully fit, his cement-footed performance against Slovenia seemed to remove any doubts.  After playing relatively well against Wayne Rooney and Emile Heskey, he labored versus the Green Dragons.  Bradley’s decision on Friday to slide Carlos Bocanegra inside and replace him with Jonathan Bornstein at left back paid off.  Though doubts will remain about Bornstein’s ability to play on the international level, he made it through 90 solid minutes without committing the types of mistakes that dogged him in qualifying.

With Bornstein moving patrolling the flank, Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit formed a solid partnership at the heart of defense.  Aside from the third-minute lapse that nearly resulted in an Algerian goal (and another US hole), they managed to avoid falling victim to the miscommunications that have plagued the DeMerit-Onyewu pairing since Gooch’s return from knee surgery.  Runs into the box were picked out and marked; crosses were authoritatively cleared; and space was closed down quickly and effectively.  Bocanegra in particular thrived, relishing his license to play a central zone, and relieved to be freed from marking the speedy wingers that tend to trouble him.

So, will Bradley really revert back to Onyewu to start against Ghana?  There are two cases to be made.  First, DeMerit formed a much more coherent partnership with Bocanegra than he had with Onyewu—critical against a team like Ghana, who prefer to build through the middle.  The central defenders will need to be mobile and alert, two qualities that have eluded Onyewu since his return.

However, to the extent that Ghana does have width, it comes down the right side, primarily through Prince Tagoe and Jonathan Pantsil.  Tagoe is a physical force, standing at 6’2”, 180 lbs.—not exactly Bornstein’s cup of tea.  That said, I’d still expect to see Bornstein out left.  With Ghana playing a lone striker in Gyan (who DeMerit will mark), Bocanegra will be free to help on the left, allowing Bornstein to use his pace to get forward and join the attack, as well as press John Pantsil, the Ghanaian right back who spends as much time on the opponents’ side of the field as he does on his own.  If Onyewu is healthy, however, he may well step back in.

Forwards

To his credit, Bradley was tactically and strategically flexible throughout the group stage.  His adjustments versus Slovenia—removing Findley and Torres for Edu and Feilhaber, later adding Buddle for Onyewu to form a 3-5-2—turned the match on its head, while the insertion of Feilhaber for Gomez helped pace the American attack on Wednesday.

Yet his success with substitutions conversely serves to highlight some of his ineffective starting selections, particularly on the forward line.  Over the last three matches, the striker starting alongside Altidore has been rather anonymous.  Robbie Findley had little to show for against England, and was awful against Slovenia.  His core strength—blistering pace—can be neutralized rather easily on this level, where sound defending and positioning are the norm, not the exception.  He has prematurely ended more attacks than he’s started, and its telling that his stat line reads two yellow cards (one admittedly awful), zero shots, and one foul taken.  His pace can make him a factor off the bench, but he’s yet to make a defined impact on a match.

Herculez Gomez provides a nice spark off the bench, but he had his share of trouble in the first half against the muscular Algerians, failing to put away his only real chance to score.  Likewise, Edson Buddle also provides an option, but he and Altidore are too similar to effectively coexist for 70 minutes, and he didn’t look particularly sharp against Algeria, either.

The fact is, the United States attack has been most fluid (the second halves against Slovenia and Algeria) when a fifth midfielder has been inserted, allowing Dempsey to play as a theoretical second striker.  Dempsey is more effective coming off the wing, but that’s not reason enough to preclude a position next to Altidore.  Playing Dempsey up top effectively gives you a five-man midfield, since he’ll tend to drop back (almost like a false nine) to help with the build-up and link play.  Furthermore, it allows Bradley to play one of the other talented midfielders, who can add to the attack and help ensure Ghana doesn’t dominate the middle third of the pitch.

Conclusion

Frankly, I don’t know what Bradley will do.  I expect to see Maurice Edu playing alongside Michael Bradley, providing a necessary physical presence and a slick touch.  Beyond that, I’m really not sure which direction he’ll turn.  I believe the best bet is to play Dempsey as the second forward, inserting one of the four remaining attacking midfielders on the left, and keeping Donovan on the right.  The Americans have become adept at running the attack down the right side, so there’s no reason to change that by moving Donovan (which would seen to rule Stuart Holden out of a starting spot, given his penchant for the right side).  Either way, we’re in for a heckuva match.

Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 24, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Grading the Group Stage for the USA

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Tim Howard – 6 – For a team that has left its fans on the edge of their seats for 270+ minutes, the goalkeeper has been relatively quiet.  Howard made some fine saves to keep the United States in their match against England, and his distribution from the back against Algeria was exemplary, with his quick release to Donovan setting up the eventual winning goal.  At times, though, I get the feeling that his reactions are just a split-second off.  There’s little doubt he’ll be called upon for a massive game shortly.

Steve Cherundolo – 8 – While I’m hesitant to give out an 8, its difficult to recall Cherundolo making more than two or three (relatively minor) errors thus far in the tournament.  He has stymied every attack sent down the left side, while partnering wonderfully with Landon Donovan going forward.  It’s amazing to think that Cherundolo went into the warm-up match against Turkey as the second-choice starter on the right.  He has been duly rewarded with a contract extension from Hannover, who many had believed would let him walk.

Jay DeMerit – 6.5 – DeMerit had a massive game against Algeria, and did well to marshal the line versus England.  Yet he was caught out of position on multiple occasions through the first two games, and badly misplayed a ball early against Algeria, nearly resulting in the United States staring at yet another early hole.  That said, DeMerit been great in the air, has done well tracking forwards out into the middle third of the pitch.  He has also taken on added responsibilities in covering for Cherundolo on his increasingly frequent attacking forays.  Could easily have earned a 7.

Bocanegra – 6.5 – A solid, workmanlike performance from the captain thus far.  His partnership with DeMerit against Algeria was far more cohesive than the efforts put in by Oguchi Onyewu.  By now, the book on Bocanegra is well read—he has difficulty containing speed (see Lennon, Aaron), but makes very few mistakes and is solid closing down on attackers.  His thwarting of two menacing runs forward on either side of the 18-yard box on Wednesday—causing both attackers to move back outside the box—epitomized his solid display.

Onyewu – 4 – Not much to say on Gooch, except that it’s been an up-and-down two weeks.  He did well at times versus England, but was seemingly set in concrete versus the Slovenians.  There are real doubts about his fitness, and judging by the cohesive display from DeMerit and Bocanegra against Algeria, his place in the starting XI must be in question going forward.

Jonathan Bornstein – 6 – Let’s give Bornstein the credit he deserves.  Bob Bradley clearly trusts him, despite the reservations held by many American fans.  Thrust into the cauldron on Wednesday, he responded with a solid performance.  While his positioning left something to be desired early on, he was solid on marking and refrained from any critical mistakes.

Michael Bradley – 7.5 – Arguably the best performer for the United States thus far, dominating large stretches of the first three matches.  His evolution with the national team has been fascinating.  He established himself in the side based on his ball-winning skills, flying around the pitch to thwart attacks with crunching tackles.  He continued to involve over the past two years, with his well-timed runs into the box becoming an increasing source of offensive potential.  Now, he is an established member of the attack, his vision and ball distribution having reached the point where he has established himself as one of the best midfielders in South Africa over the last two weeks.

If anything, Bradley must improve his ability to close down attackers—a weakness he seems to acknowledge, having recently played a bit too far off opposing midfielders for Tim Howard’s liking.  Still, Bradley has had an exceptional tournament thus far, and his services will soon be in great demand by more than a few prominent English outfits.

Ricardo Clark – 6 – Ho, hum.  Clark has only seen the pitch in the England match, and gave a steady, if not electrifying performance.  He was better positioned than he was during the matches leading up to South Africa.  Yet attacks too often seem to die at his feet, with unforced turnovers or simply shoddy passing that takes a forward out of his run.  A nice option of the bench if a lead needs to be preserved, but he seems to have lost his starting place to…

Maurice Edu – 6.5 – Edu played a significant, if understated role in leading the resurgence against Slovenia, and followed that with a competent performance in the group stage finale.  He adds a viable physical presence alongside Michael Bradley, who seems far more comfortable playing with Edu than he does with Ricardo Clark.  Edu’s ball skills and his penchant to get forward at the right times give him the edge over Clark.  American fans can be heartened by the young pairing at the center of midfield, which should be around for a few World Cups to come.

Jose Torres – 5 – Following impressive cameos in the warm-up matches versus the Czech Republic and Turkey, there were growing calls for Torres to be inserted into the lineup against England.  Torres brings a different element to the American side, providing perhaps the first true holding midfielder since Claudio Reyna retired.  His slick passing and vision can be eye-popping in a lineup that remains founded more on athleticism and cohesiveness than technical skill.  Yet he seemed a bit out of sorts against Slovenia.  His defensive abilities still need work, and the role may have been too much, too soon.  Torres will fight for time off the bench with Feilhaber, Holden, and Beasley, but could still see time in the later stages.

Landon Donovan – 7.5 – What more is there to say?  His last-gasp goal to send the United States through to the knockout stages was a splendid reward for a stellar performance over the last two weeks.  The offense runs through him, and his sublime passing has unlocked a plethora of opportunities for the United States.  He must continue to assert himself in the attack, but up to this point, he is establishing himself as one of the finest players in the tournament.

Clint Dempsey – 6.5 – In a parallel universe, as Ian Darke might say, Dempsey would be sitting on three goals in the group stage.  Back in reality, he was robbed of a first-half strike against Algeria due to a bogus offsides call, and proceeded to later curl an open shot from 12 yards onto the inside of the post.  Regardless, Dempsey has played his role for the United States, creating scoring chances in the box, providing a steady presence on the ball, and making the unpredictable happen (his first half goal versus England).  While it may not be wise for him to continue blasting 30-yard free kicks well over the crossbar, you get the suspicion he has another goal or two in him before he goes home.

Jozy Altidore – 7.5 – Altidore really has been exceptional through three matches, and a lack of goals should not be counted against him (that “open miss” against Algeria became a good deal more difficult when he and Donovan hit it simultaneously).  Still just 20, Altidore has made vast strides in learning how to catalyze his prodigious speed and strength.  His vision and awareness of space—and how to use it—have grown from weaknesses to assets in a remarkably quick period of time.  There are precious few forwards in the world strong enough to hold up play with their back to goal, while quick enough to take a defender on from the wing.  Altidore is starting to establish himself in that elite company.

Robbie Findley – 4 – If you had asked Robbie Findley after the Netherlands match in March whether he thought he’d start the first two games of the World Cup, his expression would have belied a combination of disbelief and joy.  Findley has a place on this roster as a change-of-pace sub.  Through two weeks, however, it’s become far too obvious that he doesn’t have the technical skill or vision to compete on this level—yet.  Speed only gets you so far against world-class defenders, and Findley prematurely ended a number of promising attacks by running into a crowd and losing the ball.  I was rather shocked he made the starting XI twice, and I believe that feeling has been vindicated.

Edson Buddle/Herculez Gomez – 5 – Both Buddle and Gomez have been marginally effective, Buddle as a sub, and Gomez getting the first half call against Algeria.  Frankly, they both make nice options off the bench—Buddle providing the ability to hold up the ball and slow down the game, while Gomez simply has a nose for the net.  Yet Buddle has struggled to deal with the pace of the game, and Gomez has difficulty dealing with larger, physical defenders (not to mention his desire to shoot every time he touches the ball, which needs to be tempered).  This isn’t a criticism of either—they’ve both effectively filled the roles that won them a roster spot, and for that, Bradley must be grateful.

Benny Feilhaber – 6.5 – Feilhaber has been an interesting player to watch over the last year.  Throughout the Confederations Cup he was competing for a starting job in midfield, and was the first-choice substitute.  In the intervening months, he seemed to have lost that role to Stuart Holden, and later, Jose Torres.  Yet Feilhaber has reemerged as Bradley’s go-to man off the bench, particularly better touch and possession is required.  He was decent, if perhaps a bit anonymous, against Slovenia, but was a constant threat after coming in at the half against Algeria.  The ball is played beautifully off his foot, and he’s done well to put himself in dangerous spots.  He seems perfectly matched for a low to mid-level La Liga team.

Bob Bradley – 7 – The United States has looked well prepared and organized throughout the group stage, with the exception of a few brain farts in central defense.  I don’t agree with his insistence at playing with two forwards, particularly as he is without a natural (or acceptable) partner for Altidore.  That said, his in-game management has really been superb, particularly the changes made against Slovenia and Algeria.  Coming in with a reputation of being conservative (fairly or not), Bradley has been flexible and decisive—two traits you always want to see in a manager.

TEAM – 7 – Truly bigger and better than the sum of its parts.  There were certainly problems during the group stage, but the United States ended it with what in my opinion was the most complete 90 minutes of football they’ve played in a year.  It’s easy to say they needed a last-gasp winner to quality through, but in reality, they should have gone into the Algeria game having already qualified (Edu’s disallowed goal preventing that), and could well have finished with 7 points.  Presented with a favorable bracket, this squad could go far yet.

Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 24, 2010 at 1:46 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Brief Post-Game Thoughts

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Four quick post-match thoughts:

1. This was Landon Donovan’s signature match. We said throughout the pre-match coverage that Donovan needed to be involved early and often (not that it was a particularly insightful view), and he responded with a superb effort that rightfully earned the Man of the Match distinction.  He was all over the field, covering 11.28km in the match, admirably helping to track back on defense.  He was also sharp, completing 72% of his passes—by far, his best performance of the tournament (he was down to 50% versus Slovenia).

Donovan has definitively shed the label of being a “good American player,” and has placed himself firmly in the discussion of the top performers in South Africa.  When he returns to California, there will be English and Spanish suitors waiting on his doorstep.

2. Under the brightest lights, the United States shined. It’s no secret that the United States has been sub-par in matches they’re expected to win, while at times thriving as underdogs.  In may ways, this match was the first step towards changing that image.  This was no fluke win–the Americans dominated play.  They held possession (52%), led in shots on goal (10-4), and took 20 fouls (to the 11 they committed).  If the Americans can repeat this kind of performance, albeit with some better finishing from Clint Dempsey, they could extend their stay in South Africa well past next Saturday.

3. Bob Bradley pushed the right buttons. While Herculez Gomez struggled against the physical Algerians (although he should have picked up an assist on Dempsey’s dubiously-disallowed goal), the decision to replace Onyewu with Bornstein was enlightened.  Bornstein wasn’t perfect—he was out of position on a few occasions in the first half—but he was solid on his marking, and allowed precious few Algerian threats to emerge from the right flank.  He avoided any big mistakes, and allowed Bocanegra and DeMerit to form an effective partnership in the middle.

I don’t think Bradley will get anywhere near the credit he deserves for sitting Onyewu.  Leaving your most accomplished defender on the bench, regardless of fitness, is a bold move, and one that many managers would have avoided.  Yet DeMerit and Bocanegra responded, closing down the space in the middle and marking runs into the box, helping to cure what had been the United States’ twin Achilles heels over the first two matches.

The addition of Maurice Edu ahead of Ricardo Clark was also positive, as he and Michael Bradley looked very comfortable playing together.  Edu provided solid defensive coverage, and is far more effective than Clark when the ball at his feet.  Finally, the insertion of Feilhaber at the half—as opposed to waiting 10-15 minutes—helped to settle the attack, and he looked truly dangerous for the first time in the last six weeks.

Bradley hasn’t been perfect—his starting XI has been suspect in all three matches—but his in-game management has been superb.  There’s a growing sense internationally that the United States is in very competent hands, and the feeling is well founded.

4. Jozy Altidore has arrived. Altidore’s performances in this tournament, and particularly over the last 120 minutes, have been immense.  Jozy’s talent and physical tools have rarely been called into question.  Instead, concerns have been aired about his work rate and commitment to doing the dirty work.  Those doubts are quickly evaporating, and you’re witnessing the maturation of a very talented forward who can clearly hold his own on the highest level.

Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

USA v. Algeria – Pre-Game Post

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OK, one more post before the game.  If you haven’t yet seen the lineups:

————–Altidore——-Gomez

Donovan—–Edu—-Bradley—–Dempsey

Bornstein—Boca—-DeMerit—-Cherundolo

Four quick thoughts before we kick off:

1. Bob Bradley has some cojones.  Many managers would simply have stuck an unfit Onyewu out there and hoped for the best.  Bornstein isn’t the greatest option, but it makes sense.  Key question: part of the problem in central defense has been communication–can Boca and DeMerit solve that?

2. Donovan moving to the left wing seems like a defensive move, to give cover to Bornstein.  While Lando will need to get back well, let’s hope (for some reasons listed in the previous post) that he pushes forward early.  The US needs to be aggressive.

3. I’m anxious to see Gomez get a full run out, though I’m still curious–if it’s Borstein, who needs cover, why not go with Dempsey up top, keep Landon on the right, and insert Beasley at LW?

4. Karim Ziani looks to be lined up on the left side of a five-man Algerian midfield (it’s listed as 4-5-1), though Belhadj is listed as the LB, when really he’ll slide up onto the wing, leaving Algeria with a three-man back line.  My point is, even though Ziani is the left wing, look for him to switch to the right and play quite far up the pitch, and early.  Watch that Algeria shape–it will move from a 4-5-1 at the whistle to something resembling more of a 3-5-2, and if they need a goal, a 3-4-3.

Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 23, 2010 at 9:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized