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U.S. shows poise, grit in improbable advance to Confederations Cup semis

Posted on 22 June 2009 by arozsa

See if this sounds familiar: The U.S. Men’s National Team, playing in an intercontinental tournament, is in serious trouble. It has struggled to make an impact in the first two games, and now faces a strong African side flush with confidence after taking a top European scalp. First and foremost the U.S. needs a win, but also requires other results to go its way to advance.

While comparing this situation to the 2006 World Cup may be an exercise in semantics, it’s certainly noteworthy that this time the U.S. stepped up and thoroughly trounced two-time defending African Cup of Nations champions Egypt 3-0, and, albeit with some help, booked their ticket to the semi-finals of the 2009 Confederations Cup.

Now, perhaps you might have the sneaking suspicion that some serious gloating is about to commence. I can understand why. However, as it was not advisable to panic after Thursday’s game, it is equally important not to get too high after Sunday. At least not about the skill, ability and potential of this U.S. team and their chances to make serious noise next summer.

Let’s be clear: This U.S. team is not in the class of Brazil, Italy or Spain. They are not in the peer group with Portugal, Germany or Argentina. Saying this is not an insult.

The U.S. firmly falls in what a college basketball fan might call a “mid-major” category. Teams like the U.S., Egypt, South Korea, Mexico, Sweden, Ukraine or Japan are all capable of troubling the giants when things go their way.

Things did not go their way against Italy. Brazil played as if they had a point to prove. Such is life.

While Egypt was a team firmly in the sights of the US from the start, nobody with knowledge of the international game wrote it off as an easy victory. This was a team that won the African Championship both at home and in West Africa. Their relative obscurity to most Americans is due to their absence in the World Cup, having not appeared since 1990 due to the maddeningly difficult CAF qualifying procedures. They showed their potential to surprise the big-boys against Brazil, and confirmed it was no fluke by defeating Italy 1-0.

However, if the U.S. was ever going to advance from this group, they were going to need 3 points from somebody. And when Brazil and Italy are the other options, this was the game that was circled on the calendar. When the test came, the US did the job, and they did it with a fighting spirit, lung-busting fitness, timely finishing and a superior tactical approach.

Fighting spirit you say? Others were questioning this after Thursday. Here is a take from Grahame Jones of the Los Angeles Times

“…the Americans taking the field these days under Coach Bob Bradley are a pale shadow of the teams that once represented the U.S. internationally. They lack fight, they lack spirit, they lack cohesion, they lack leadership and they lack discipline.”

And he goes on to cite this as an example:

“In 1994, the U.S., with the likes of Marcelo Balboa, Alexi Lalas, Tab Ramos, Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart in the lineup at Palo Alto, was able to hold eventual champion Brazil to a 1-0 win at the World Cup.”

Now, if you want to knock the Americans for getting trounced 3-0 against Brazil, by all means go ahead; you had no way of knowing that they would hand the same result to Italy just a few days later. If you feel as though they should have showed more spirit than say, striking the post twice in the second half despite being down three goals against a powerhouse like the Bullies from Brazil, go right ahead.

But to use that 1994 squad as an example? That team that could barely advance the ball beyond its halfway line with a man advantage? It seems John Harkes has been passing around whatever he has been smoking and forgotten to send it my way. Perhaps if we had a more recent reminder of what the tactics of your garden-variety Bora Milutinovic team looked liked, my point would be more clear? Hmmm….

Now maybe there was a tinge of hyperbole in Mr. Jones’s grumpy rant. And if not, it certainly had the sound of a writer who desperately wants the US to succeed. I can empathize. Which leads us to the next juicy, vindictive, hindsight-driven morsel (ok, so I guess I’m gloating a little).

“But truth is, the Americans are no further along than they were twenty years ago when it comes to playing world-class teams. The USA cannot win big games away from the comforts of home. They pretend that they can ‘step up to the next level.’ That’s magical thinking at its most delusional.”

That quote comes courtesy of Jamie Trecker of Foxsports.com, whose magic thinking apparently includes believing the 1990 US team, in all their short-shorts and mulleted glory, were anything more than a sideshow and joke at the World Cup. Perhaps he has forgotten the victory over Portugal in 2002 or the draw with Italy in 2006. Compare today’s decisive victory over the African champions in 2009 with the gutting 1998 loss against Iran, and its clear that the U.S. have “stepped up to the next level.” Only in the mind of the delusional does that level mean consistently beating teams like Italy or Brazil.

But of course, Trecker remembers the 1998 fiasco quite well. At least when it comes to gathering ammo for his latest gleeful, sensationalist bashing (Soviet Union? Really?). Perhaps he’ll identify this inconsistency on his own. But I digress.

Now, lung-busting fitness is not much of a debate, really. It’s easy to point out that Egypt, after suffering a demoralizing last minute loss of a point off the Brazilians and fresh off what must have been a physically draining 1-0 win over Italy, was exhausted and perhaps out of gas for this group finale. However, the U.S. had the same schedule with the same rest as the Egyptians. And they played those games down a man for nearly half the time. As far as running goes, the statistics don’t lie: check them out yourself. Fitness has, and will always be, a strength of the US team. In a tournament format with quick turnarounds this is a big deal, especially for teams like the USA or Egypt who aren’t brimming with multiple stars at every position.

Timely finishing is key at the big tournaments. Egypt had their chances just the US did, but the US put them away. Ask any Mexican fan, and they’ll tell you that the US, while not possessing a single player that’s going to pose and strut beside Tiger Woods in a razor commercial, has vastly improved its ability to take what few chances it gets in a tightly contested game. Now, while I’m a dear fan of MLS and look forward to watching its continued growth in this country, this particular trait is, in my mind, due to the slowly increasing ranks of Americans moving to Europe and honing their skills in leagues that are usually better and always more pressure-packed than the American top flight.

Clint Dempsey scored some great goals for the New England Revolution, but he became a force in front of the net last Boxing Day against Chelsea. Michael Bradley scored more goals abroad in a season than any US player in Holland, and has further honed his bursting penalty area runs in the perils of a Bundesliga relegation fight. Nobody will mistake either of these players for superstars, but for the US team, their steely nerve and fearlessness in front of the goal will certainly make the top teams take notice.

Now comes the fun part. Listen: The U.S. was a better side tactically than Egypt. Yes, since most of the soccer junkies on the series of tubes is convinced that Bob Bradley, the stoic, Ivy League-educated man in charge for America is a slobbering, blithering idiot, (seriously, who screens those guys?) this may seem hard to believe.

I’m not going to tell you that Bob had some brilliant, earth-shattering tactical approach that he developed with Gus Hiddink and Jose Mourinho in a bunker thirty floors below sea level.

What I am going to tell you that he certainly prepared his side better than Egypt, who while admittedly had a less clear objective coming in, looked utterly listless and disjointed as to whether to press forward or sit deep against the US. Bradley’s boys, however, looked equally comfortable both taking the attack to Egypt and striking on the counter when it presented itself. He moved Dempsey in front of goal and it immediately paid off. He brought on Conor Casey and he latched on to numerous clearances, turning 20 second breathers for the US defense into 60 second breaks. He elected to keep his side cohesive instead of bringing on a third sub and the lead was held.

In short: Bob is perfectly able to pick, prepare, motivate and manage a team to win against a quality opponent in a tournament setting. No amount of coaching brilliance is going to change the fact that in order to beat Brazil or Spain at this stage you’re going to need every bounce to go your way. But rest assured, the US will have a fighting shot.

And until you see American faces smiling back at you in their post-game Champions League interviews, it’s hard to ask for much more than that.

USMNT Player Ratings (1-10 with 10 being highest)

Guzan – 6
Flapped at a couple of crosses, but acquitted himself well on numerous dangerous balls in his area. Wasn’t asked to do all that much, and best save of the night came on a play already whistled dead. When this guy starts playing every week, look out!

Onyewu – 8
My man of the match. Has improved immensely in his footwork and reading of the game since 2006, and as always, was massive in the air. Cut out numerous counterattacks with excellent positioning.

Demerit – 7
Another quality outing from Jay, who has used this tournament to leapfrog Danny Califf as the #3 center-back. He’s better suited to deal with dangerous crosses than to slow down speedy attackers 1 v 1. This game met his strengths, and he was up for it.

Spector – 7
More myth than man was the oft-injured West Ham defender, but has impressed during this Cup. Shows impeccable intelligence when picking his times to get forward, and delivered the lethal cross for Dempsey’s winner. Already staking a strong claim to right back his ability to play left back will ensure his place in the lineup when Cherundolo or Hejduk return.

Bornstein – 6
Bent but never broken, Bornstein has seemingly been the focus of his opponents attacking thrusts for three straight games now and has acquitted himself well. A move to Europe would do more for him than perhaps any player on the roster to force him to solidify his positioning and his crossing.

Bradley – 8
His thrusting runs from midfield are fast becoming his signature, and unlike against the Italians, he finished off his best chance today. Has literally run more than anyone in the whole tournament. Adding Maruice Edu and Jermaine Jones the US midfield mix promises that no encounter with the Stars and Stripes will be a simple one.

Clark – 6
Not as influential as Bradley, but covered a lot of ground when he stopped stepping on Michael’s toes. Not as comfortable with the ball under pressure as you’d like, but showed his typically adeptness at timely switches of play from the pivot.

Dempsey – 7
Those questioning Dempsey’s effort need only look at the stats. This guy bleeds for the shirt, and his intensity, while often surfacing in the form of a surly attitude, has led to nothing but a history of big goals in big games for the US. At times he seemed not to recognize the situation when Spector got forward, leaving his midfield and backline rather exposed. If he can’t be reined in, a move closer to the goal, which paid dividends in this match, might be in order against Spain.

Donovan – 8
Showed his worth and versatility in the midfield today, giving the committed two-way effort and blistering runs his old buddy DaMarcus used to provide for the US before his injury and form issues. You get the sense that the killer instinct that got Landon to 40 international goals is coming closer to the surface. If he can finish on a run like his first half beauty he might just rekindle it. In the meantime, he covers a ton of ground, plays provider and is an invaluable part of the US team.

Altidore – 6
Looked very much like a tired player, and that’s to be expected with his lack of match fitness. But he still frustrated the Egyptians with his raw power and smooth movements in the box, turning his mark nicely to help set up the first goal.

Davies – 7
A breath of fresh air for the US. He looked menacing on the counterattack, even when he was on his own. Frequently pulled wide to stretch the Egyptians and offer a target to his midfield. He’s terrific with his back to goal and he’s certainly forcing his way into the conversation for the starting XI with the different attributes he can offer compared to the rest of the striker pool.

Subs:
Feilhaber – 6 – Tackled hard, got into the attack and generally worked his but off when asked. He’ll offer more than just running when he’s back in form. Cross your fingers that he gets there.

Casey – 7 – Came on and did his job. Offer and outlet for clearances, hold up the ball and make Egypt work to get it back. Can’t ask for more.

Coach Bob Bradley – Incomplete
– Just like after the Brazil loss, it’s important to remember that Bradley’s real task is qualifying for and showing well at the World Cup. He’s now got a couple more games in South Africa and the Gold Cup to help him continue to shape and assemble the team for next summer. Win or lose, he needs to make the most of these games, and only time will tell if he does.

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