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Confederations Cup Coda

Posted on 29 June 2009 by arozsa

That hurts.

Come on now. Wouldn’t have it been easier for the United States to bow out of the Confederations Cup like good little boys, and let every expert on a message board call for Bob Bradley’s head? Wouldn’t things have gone smoother if Bob Bradley would have emptied his bench against Egypt and gone home humbled while the sharp-shooting American media pined for the days of the vaunted 1994 squad?

But to come this close, only to lose it at the bitter end? That’s pain. That’s agony. That, my friends, is international soccer.

Nothing could come closer to bottling the international soccer experience than the U.S.A.’s 2009 Confederation Cup run, which came to a bitter end Sunday in a 3-2 loss to world power Brazil. There were unbelievable turns of fortune. Untimely red-cards that turned games on their heads. An unmitigated butt-kicking from a far superior team. A clever and inspired win over a far superior team.

The U.S. grasped its first chance and took a one goal lead early. They then mounted a superb counter-attack, quite poetically off a Brazil corner kick, for a shock two-goal lead at the half. Eventually, however, the superior Brazil side wore the U.S. down, and their strike less than a minute into the second half cut the heart out of the Americans, leaving them to contemplate their latest moral victory.

That is of course, if you can call the U.S.A.’s best ever performance in an international tournament a moral victory. Your decision.

Victories and moral victories aside, there are clear observations and lessons to be taken from this tournament.

#1 – Bob Bradley can get it done.

You might not like his substitutions. You might not like the players he picks or the lineups he puts out. You might not like his tactics. But, if for some reason you still find yourself calling for the removal of a coach who just coached a team to a runner-up finish at a FIFA tournament, I’d like you to have a look at this list:

Real Madrid (3), Barcelona (5), Liverpool (6), Arsenal (1), Inter Milan (5), Bayern Munich (2), Roma (3), AC Milan (5), Juventus (5).

Those are the names of the biggest clubs in the world. Those clubs have oodles of money to scout, evaluate and purchase the best talent playing the game. Those numbers beside them represent the number of players in this tournament who play for those team (there are 35 in total).

Guess how many of those players were on the U.S. roster? Get the point?

The American team that you watched come back from the dead to destroy Egypt, stun Spain and call Brazil to its final throw was made of players of middling talent that struggle to make an impact outside of the relative soccer backwaters of the world. This American team you watched this past week, is far, far greater than the sum of its parts.

That, oh blogospheriods, is the tell-tale sign of a damn good coach. This team can compete with the best on any given day with far less talent. What more can you ask for?

#2 – Someone is Going to be Left Home

There were 12 field players that saw significant time during the Confederations Cup run. (Altidore, Davies, Dempsey, Donovan, Clark, Bradley, Bocanegra, Spector, Onyewu DeMerit, Bornstein, Feilhaber). Three more players saw minor minutes (Casey, Beasley, Klejstan). Five players did not play (Wynne, Pearce, Torres, Adu, Califf).

In addition to these players, add Brian Ching, Frankie Hejduk, Steve Cherundolo, Maruice Edu, Pablo Mastroeni and possibly Jermaine Jones to the mix. Now do some quick math. Of all these players mentioned, at least six of them will not be part of next summer’s World Cup squad, assuming the US qualify.

The days of a player like John O’Brien being included on a roster after a handful of club games (2006) are finally gone. The boys had better stay sharp, or they’ll be watching from the couch like the rest of us next summer. And that is fantastic news for the U.S. program.

#3 – The Missing Pieces are Clear

The Confederations Cup demonstrated clearly the type of soccer that Bob Bradley intends to play when challenged by the best, and more importantly, the type of players he’s looking for at each position. He likes central midfielders that look to aggressively ball win and spring counter attacks. A pair of menacing, physically imposing strikers is a must. The attacking midfielders should stay narrow, cover a ton of ground and look to attack quickly and directly. The width should come from the fullbacks, but only when the opportunity presents itself.

So what are the missing links to putting together a roster that’s key for this kind of game?

It’s clear the U.S. needs another striking option in the mold of Charlie Davies. Charlie was a revelation during this tournament, giving the US a lethal counterattacking running mate for Landon Donovan that had sorely been lacking. But when Charlie is tired, or out of form, or twists a knee, who will Bob turn to for this style of play?

Donovan and Dempsey ran their tails off this tournament from their midfield positions, both surging forward and tracking back to defend when the situation called for it. Dempsey, in particular, ran out of steam by the end, and it would be wise for Bob to find another player he can count on in this important position. This is where the loss of form of a guy like Beasley is quite critical, and while there are a host of young attacking options who might become prominent over the next year, one wonders if any of those players will offer the two-way commitment of Donovan and Dempsey that flat out made this team tick.

#4 – The World, and Maybe Even the Country is Watching

Heads were turned. Hearts were won. The mainstream media (gasp) paid attention. Expectations, perhaps unfairly, were raised. Next summer we play for keeps. But in the meantime, Estadio Azteca beckons.

The test begins now.

USMNT Player Ratings (scale of 1-10 with 10 being best):

Howard – 8
Thoroughly deserved hardware for Tim. A big time keeper who’s every bit the equal of the net-minders that appear deep in the Champions League year after year.

Onyewu – 8
Massive in the air once again and repeatedly cut out attack after attack. Probably made himself a much richer man over the last few weeks.

Demerit – 7
Will probably cede his starting spot to the skipper Bocanegra, but U.S. fans will breathe easier knowing that a capable replacement is at hand. Couldn’t have done more on 1st goal.

Bocanegra – 6
Never looked entirely comfortable at left back, but that could be more due to his hamstring injury. Should have done better with a first half header, and perhaps a 100% Bocanegra would have been the lethal set piece threat that has stung Brazil in the past.

Spector – 7
Skinned by Kaka on the equalizer, but utterly silenced the prancing brat Robinho the entire night. Provided another assist from a deep position. West Ham fans, take note.

Clark – 7
Sorely missed his partner Bradley today, as did the rest of the team. Fought hard and while he wasn’t perfect with the ball, a few years in a tough European league fighting for his place would be just the ticket to tighten his game up. Alertly played Donovan into space to spring the counter attack.

Feilhaber – 5
Although he made a few nice tackles out there, he was often lunging and out of position. To be fair, this role was not made for Benny, and a player like Pablo Mastroeni or Maurice Edu would have been far better suited for the task at hand. He was the best option available, and he gamely tried his best to fill the ever growing shoes of the younger Bradley.

Dempsey – 7
Terrific opening goal, but never should have been asked to mark the colossal Lucio on a set piece when his legs were clearly gone. Ran until he nearly collapsed the past 5 games and thoroughly deserved his hardware as the third best player in the tournament. Is long overdue for a two-week nap.

Donovan – 7
The clinical counterattack finish is what US fans have been waiting for since 2002. This guy can flat out bring it with the best of them, and one has to wonder if his time at Bayern Munich left him with some genuine self-belief. Might very well be amongst the fittest players in the world.

Davies – 7
The revelation of the tournament. He’s the menacing counterattacking threat the US is going to need to play against the big boys, and is going to have an enjoyable autumn of absolutely terrorizing CONCACAF opposition. He was the only thing keeping Brazil from sending their entire backline into the attacking fray.

Altidore – 5
Clearly fatigued, and his sharpness had faded before the half. Hard to believe he’s only a teenager though, and when this kid starts to play regularly, the goals are going to pile up quickly.

Subs
Klejstan – 5 –
Looks off the pace. Needs to settle his club situation and regroup, especially with competition from Edu and Jermaine Jones looming.

Bornstein – 5 –
Did what he was asked. A move to Europe is a must if he has a mind of claiming the left back spot outright.

Casey – NR –
Not enough time for the big man. He’s going to need a bucketload of MLS goals to stay in consideration when Brian Ching returns, though.

Coach Bob Bradley – Incomplete
How do you turn this tournament success into World Cup success? Or even shorter term, how do you turn it into success at the ever looming Estadio Azteca? Time will tell.

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