Just a few thoughts this Tuesday on my end:
1. U.S.-Netherlands. This is a matchup (Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360) that is extremely attractive for U.S. fans, mainly just to see how the U.S. fares against high-caliber opposition like the Dutch. In World Cup terms though, in some respects it's not hugely helpful for coach Bob Bradley's strategic planning since the Dutch play nothing like any of the U.S. team's group opponents, two of whom will basically park the bus and rely on counterattacking (Algeria and Slovenia). Having said that, what will be interesting is to see is if the U.S. fullbacks can handle the Dutch wingers, especially if the Dutch opt to start both Eljero Elia and Arjen Robben.
2. U.S. roster selection. Looking at Bradley's roster selection, the glaring omission would appear to be Freddy Adu, especially since his club teammate Eddie Johnson was given a call-up. There are two ways of looking at this. One could argue that Adu was left out due to the fact that he has a sore hamstring. Or you could argue that since he was named to Aris' game-day squad on Sunday (he did not play), that it's just further evidence that Bradley doesn't hold him in high regard. I'd argue it's the latter. The other strange decision was to select Frankie Simek. Once upon a time and pre-injury, Simek looked like a fine right back prospect. However, Simek's never been the same since his ankle injury. He'd lost his starting spot to Lewis Buxton (who can be best described as awful), and when Buxton was recently injured, and Simek failed to impress in his stead, Sheffield Wednesday signed Eddie Nolan on loan to fill the spot. I'll also add that I hope that Robbie Findley gets a start for several reasons. It's important to see him in action with a stronger U.S. lineup, and it's important to see how he fares against top-class opposition. Granted he did not impress at all against El Salvador, but until he gets to play with the first-team lineup, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
3. A Maurice Edu sighting. Some dramatic highs and lows this past weekend in Europe. First was Maurice Edu's late winner for Rangers in the heated Rangers-Celtic clash, a goal that will no doubt endear him eternally in the hearts of Rangers fans everywhere. As Edu continues to garner more playing time in the run-in, I expect him to make a real push for a starting spot on the U.S. national team. In my opinion, he's a more complete midfielder than Ricardo Clark.
4. Landon Donovan's miss: On the flip side, Donovan had his first real blip for Everton against Spurs, with a crucial miss which could have salvaged a tie for the Toffees. Donovan's miss of an open goal from 2 yards out, which has been described in some quarters of the English media as the "miss of the season," was indeed horrendous and frankly, there's no excusing it. To his credit, Donovan has been stand-up about it. However, let's keep things in perspective. A lot of players have had brutal misses during the course of their career, and one bad miss doesn't undo the impact Donovan's had during his time in England.
Everton is undeniably a far better team when he's in the lineup -- he gives it speed, creativity and directness on the right flank, which prevents opponents focusing on shutting down Everton's potent left flank of Steven Pienaar and Leighton Baines. What's more important for Donovan is to erase the mistake from his mind and ensure it doesn't affect his confidence. For now, he's still highly regarded by Everton management and fans, but of course, that goodwill won't last forever if he continues to make errors like that.
On that note, I also wanted to let you all know that this will be my final blog for ESPN.com as I'm leaving for a new opportunity. It's been a great six years for me here and ESPN has been a fantastic place to be, and tremendous to me throughout. I also wanted to thank my readers for all your support (and criticism) over the years, it's been fun debating with you.
Lots of American players in action around Europe this past weekend, but before I get into that I wanted to focus on the announcement that Guus Hiddink will be ending his tenure as Russia's coach on June 30.
Why's this significant? Well, with all due respect to current U.S. coach Bob Bradley, I've always been of the firm belief that the U.S. needs to hire one of the world's elite coaches to reach the next level of its development. If that coach happens to be an American, then fine. As we all know, right now, there isn't an American coach that is close to being on the level of a Jose Mourinho, a Fabio Capello, a Rafa Benitez or a Hiddink. With Hiddink in play, the USSF should push hard to secure him as coach for the 2014 World Cup cycle.
That's not intended as a knock against Bradley, who has some significant strengths to offer, such as his man-management skills and his knowledge of the U.S. domestic scene. Tactically, though, he just can't compare to the world's top coaches. This isn't something that's limited to Bradley or American coaches, even other top European coaches often suffer in contrast to the elite of their profession. Case in point, Liverpool's Glen Johnson remarked earlier this season that he had learned more about tactics in three weeks under Benitez than he had in his entire previous tenure at Portsmouth (three years) under Harry Redknapp.
The temptation, of course, will be for the USSF to stick with Bradley, especially if the U.S. gets out of its first-round group and advances in the elimination phase. Barring progress to the semifinals, this would be a mistake, in my opinion, the same mistake the USSF made when it stuck with Bruce Arena for the '06 World Cup following the unforgettable '02 World Cup run. The U.S. isn't a team that can overwhelm its opposition (outside of CONCACAF) by sheer talent, so it needs to compensate for that shortfall by utilizing superior X's and O's.
Hiddink's body of work is well known. In addition to tremendous club success, he led Australia and South Korea to unprecedented heights in the World Cup. Reports have linked him with club teams Juventus and Liverpool, but I suspect that, at this point of his career, he prefers coaching at the international level as opposed to the daily grind of club management.
He's going to be a hot commodity on the open market, but the USSF has the cash to make it happen. Whether it would accede to roster control that Hiddink presumably would demand (and are rumored to have ended any possibility of Juergen Klinsmann taking the job pre-Bradley) are a different story. If the USSF doesn't make a run at Hiddink, I'd like to see him take the reigns with Turkey, a perennial underachiever and dark horse brimming with flair players. A coach like Hiddink could lead Turkey to the Euro 2012 title.
Americans in Europe
Things of note this weekend included Chris Rolfe's goal for Aalborg in an exhibition game. Rolfe was always something of a poor man's Landon Donovan with MLS's Chicago. He never really seemed to get as much of an opportunity with the national team as he deserved, or even at times at club level, where he was forced to play second fiddle in midfield while average talents like Calen Carr or Patrick Nyarko got playing time up top. It'll certainly be interesting to see if he can raise his profile by playing in Denmark. Outside of Robbie Findley, there really doesn't seem to be many potential replacements for Charlie Davies available to Bradley.
This, of course, could all change if Eddie Johnson and Freddy Adu continue their resurgence in Greece with Aris. On the heels of Johnson scoring a couple of weeks ago, Adu notched his first league goal for Aris in its 2-1 comeback win -- his first since the 2007-08 season with Benfica. Now, before some fans start going overboard, let's put things in perspective. Neither goal was particularly impressive (Johnson's was basically a goalkeeping error, while Adu's was a simple tap in from six yards out into an open net). However, the fact that they are now both receiving extensive playing time is promising (I'll be honest, I didn't think either would make much of an impact, even in Greece). If they can keep this up, and if they get called up for the March 3 friendly against the Netherlands and have an impact, then they might both still make a late push for World Cup roster consideration. Those are some big ifs though.
The X factor for England
Outside of Wayne Rooney, the single biggest factor for England against the U.S. in the World Cup will be right winger Aaron Lennon, who on his day is one of the most unplayable wingers in the world. Lennon's weakness was always his lack of end product. Describing his crossing in seasons past as woeful would be an understatement. However, it's an area that he has greatly improved over the past season and a half.
Tottenham's recent stumbles in the Premier League are largely due to the loss of Lennon, who provides the speed and creativity to break down any defense (Spurs averages two goals a game with Lennon in the lineup, 0.6 goals a game without him). There's a degree of confusion about the seriousness of Lennon's groin injury, with some media outlets reporting that if it doesn't improve in the next two weeks, he might face surgery that could rule him out for the rest of the season and possibly the World Cup. If that's the case, U.S. fans should breathe a sigh of relief, because the Lennon versus Jonathan Bornstein/Jonathan Spector/Edgar Castillo/last U.S. man standing scenario is a huge mismatch waiting to happen.
It's been nothing but good news for the U.S. team lately (meaningless loss to Honduras aside). The injury updates on key players like Oguchi Onyewu and Clint Dempsey appear rosy for the World Cup, and in Charlie Davies' case, there's a possibility that he could return as well.
On the field, U.S. players are continuing to make their mark in the EPL. Dempsey was arguably Fulham's best player before being hurt, Jonathan Spector has filled in well for the injured Herita Ilunga at West Ham and although Jozy Altidore has yet to score his first EPL goal, he's starting to contribute (he had an assist for Hull against Wolves over the weekend). Speaking of Altidore, he also managed to draw the penalty for Hull's second, although it was a soft challenge. If there's one thing you can clearly point to in Altidore's development, it's that since he's been in Europe, he's definitely learned how to embellish the effects of contact from defenders and win more free kicks. Of course, the biggest news was Landon Donovan's first goal for Everton (against Sunderland) and how he has played in general. Here's what I'm thinking:
1. Donovan finds the perfect fit overseas at last. There's no doubt that Donovan has proved he belongs and has the ability to play at a very effective level in the Premiership. He's had a couple of very good outings mixed with some average outings, but that's to be expected of someone who's still adjusting to the English game (I'm admittedly surprised/impressed, though, by just how quickly he has gotten up to full speed). The key here is that he has greatly endeared himself to Everton coach David Moyes and fans alike with his work rate, his set-piece work on corners and his intelligent use of the ball in general. He has even won over the hardcore skeptics in the Everton fan base who had wondered if the move was partially due to the marketing uplift it would give the club in America (a certain element of Manchester United fans also once wondered the same thing about Park Ji-Sung).
With Donovan recently stating more or less that he's having one of the best moments of his career, it's safe to say that he'll want to stay in England. The bigger question is whether or not Everton can come up with the $11 million or so that it'll take to prise him away from the Galaxy and MLS. (There's no question Everton wants him back, but its finances are shot.) If Everton can't find the money this summer, it's likely Donovan will draw interest from some other Premiership teams, but there's no doubt that Everton is the best fit for him.
For a start, Everton mirrors the U.S. national team in the sense that it likes to put men behind the ball and defense and relies on counter-attacking and set pieces offensively. Also, Everton is one of the closest-knit squads in the Premiership, a welcome respite for Donovan from places like Bayern (or some other top-tier teams) where squad camaraderie doesn't exist on the same level. Finally, and most importantly, Donovan isn't the best player on Everton (he's the fifth- or sixth-best) and isn't expected to carry the load, which allows him to play within himself and in the flow of the game without having to force things. If he went to another team -- say, Hull, Burnley or Wigan -- there'd be a lot more pressure on him to shoulder the offensive burden.
As for his next game, it comes in the traditionally heated Merseyside derby against hated rival Liverpool (Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET, ESPN2). If as expected, the Reds line up with defensive liability Emiliano Insua at left back, it's a matchup that Donovan could expose due to Insua's propensity to get caught out of position and lack of foot speed.
2. John Terry's days as England captain are numbered. After the latest scandal/revelation in John Terry's turbulent off-the-field life/soap opera, you have to think that England coach Fabio Capello is ready to pull the plug on Terry as captain of the English team. It was revealed in the English tabloids this past week that Terry had an affair with former best friend Wayne Bridge's girlfriend (the only question appears to be whether said girlfriend was Bridge's ex at the time, as Terry claims, or whether she was in the midst of reconciliation with Bridge, as others have claimed).
Either way, all this tabloid-speak about his personal life could be disregarded if not for Terry's litany of scandals. Who can forget his drunken taunting of American tourists in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Or how about recent allegations that he accepted significant sums of cash to conduct behind-the-scenes tours of Chelsea's stadium? Or how about accusations that he was seeking to profit from his England World Cup captaincy after revelations that his agents had circulated e-mails touting for commercial endorsements?
In terms of Terry's character, it's not as if the apple has fallen far from the tree either (his mother and mother-in-law were arrested for shoplifting last year). The question in footballing terms is what should Capello do about all of this, and make no mistake, Capello will do something (he already met previously with Terry about the e-mails to remind him of his "proper" duty as England captain).
Given his status as one of England's finest defenders, there's little to no chance that Terry is dropped from the lineup or squad (and nor should he be). However, I don't see how he can remain the English captain. Aside from the image aspect and conduct unbefitting what the captain of any national team should represent, the simple fact is that he has more than likely lost the respect of many (if not all) of his England teammates (Bridge is likely to be a member of the World Cup squad as well). A similar thing occurred in Australian Rules Football in 2002, when North Melbourne's Wayne Carey (considered one of the greatest Aussie Rules players of all time) was caught philandering with the wife of then-best friend and North Melbourne vice captain Anthony Stevens. The result? With the entire team strongly united against him and facing national condemnation, Carey resigned from the club and went on hiatus from the league for 12 months.
So now that we're in a new year, most of the focus is on the January transfer window in Europe that not only promises to have a huge impact on the way some teams will retool their squads, but also possibly will see various U.S. players heading to and from the States (Stuart Holden to Burnely?).
1. Landon Donovan in England. Donovan arrived on Merseyside on Saturday and was able to watch Everton beat Carlisle 3-1 in the FA Cup. He'll be in training all week and is expected to be available when Everton takes on Arsenal in its next league match. I'm not sure manager David Moyes will throw Donovan in action that early -- there'll be a natural adjustment period he'll need to adapt to the pace of English soccer, and the fact that Donovan isn't in game shape after a five- to six-week layoff. Bear in mind that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger used Andrei Arshavin sparingly in the first four weeks after acquiring him in the '09 January transfer window, citing his layoff in the Russian winter break as the main reason. When Donovan does see the field, what are his prospects for playing time? Well, the good news is, it's not Bayern, which means there aren't a bevy of well-established world-class stars ahead of him in the pecking order.
I see Moyes using Donovan primarily on either the left or right wing to rotate with current incumbents Steven Pienaar and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. The other possibility is using Donovan in the hole behind the main striker as the primary AM option (Leon Osman has been used there recently). Having said that, since both Pienaar and Bilyaletdinov are comparable talents to Donovan, it's unlikely he'll be able to displace either as the starter from the get-go and will have to earn his minutes as a sub initially. There's also the unlikely option that Moyes could use Donovan as a striker, but I doubt we'll see that unless both Louis Saha and Yakubu are felled by injuries again (always a possibility with that pair). One player Donovan won't be competing with for playing time is Brazilian striker Jo, who, as I said in March '09, is a horrendously overrated player who combines inept finishing with a horrendous attitude, and whose Premier League career looks to be all but over with just six goals to his name. Everton's schedule during Donovan's loan will see the team face virtually all the English powerhouses, so this promises to be an interesting 10 weeks or so. It'll also be funny to see him running around with my name on his shirt
2. U.S. training camp in Carson, Calif. The U.S. team's annual get-together at the Home Depot Center kicks off today. Looking at the list of players that coach Bob Bradley has called up, there are several names that are intriguing. First is New England's Kevin Alston, who has the look of a future national team right back, and along with Marvell Wynne (assuming Wynne continues his technical development) will push hard for a starting berth in the next few years. Should either Alston or Wynne emerge, one would then have the option of developing Jonathan Spector at center back (still his best position in my opinion) or seeing if he can play left back at the international level to fill the void there. Other camp prospects I'd be keen to take a look at would be Alejandro Bedoya and Houston's Geoff Cameron, who I think could play in Europe as a center back and is easily the winner of the No One Thought He'd Ever Be Quite This Good award, if such an award existed.
3. The Next Prodigy. I'm also of the opinion that sometime in the next eight years, Belgium will reemerge as a powerhouse on the international scene and recapture the glory of the Enzo Scifo years (what a player). For this to happen, it'll need the right coach who can conquer the divisive cliques and prima-donna attitudes that currently poison the national team setup, but in terms of superb young talent Belgium is literally overflowing. With players of the ilk of Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembele, Steven DeFour, Thomas Vermaelen, Axel Witsel and Sebastien Pocognoli, it's astonishing that the Belgium national team continues to flounder.
You can also add Anderlecht's 16-year-old Romelu Lukaku to the list. When I see Lukaku play, I'm reminded of a conversation I had in Houston at the Free Kick Masters back in 2008. I was standing on the sidelines with Robert Pires, Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho and the subject of conversation at the time was Jozy Altidore (who also was present). We were all talking about Jozy's age and trying to convince Ronaldinho and Messi that Jozy was in fact just 18 years old. Ronaldinho kept looking at Altidore's physique up and down, and then laughing in disbelief at the notion. Well, that description applies to Lukaku, except threefold. Lukaku, who already checks in at close to 6-foot-4 with impressive bulk and speed, is a sheer stud of a specimen who is already scoring with abandon in the Belgian league, and has drawn the interest of Chelsea (rumored to have already had a $18 million bid rejected). He's unlikely to move anywhere until he's at least 18, though since he's still attending high school during the week at his parents' insistence (school kid by day, striker by weekend, it seems).
4. The Former Prodigy. With Freddy Adu's club career once again in limbo (he's now back with Benfica) after failing to impress at Belenses, it's all but certain that Adu'll miss out on South Africa. There's next to no chance he'll get any playing time at Benfica, where Argentine winger Angel Di Maria is approaching serious stardom and attracting $35 million bids. The irony, of course, is that Di Maria was signed at the same time as Adu and flourished while Adu has barely gotten on the field. The rumor mill has Greek club Aris interested (there have also been dubious rumors of Hull, but the English Premiership would be a terrible move for Adu) and even some MLS clubs thinking of bringing him back to the States. (Considering the way he failed to light up the league last time, I doubt there's a lot of interest in him from MLS either.) Of course, Adu is still young and he can still turn it around if he gets in the right situation with the right coach, but in terms of his 2010 World Cup hopes, I think we can assume those are just a pipe dream at this point.
Also, don't forget to check out goalkeeper Brad Guzan in the Carling Cup semifinal first leg on Tuesday when Aston Villa takes on Blackburn. You can watch the game live (not to mention for free) on ESPN360.com at 3 p.m. ET.
On a last note, I've gotten various e-mails asking about the status of the U.S. Soccer podcast show that we put out on Fridays. As it stands, it's temporarily on hiatus until the 2010 MLS season kicks off, though we might do the occasional one prior to that where warranted.
With a weekend full of heavyweight domestic clashes (Barca-Real, Arsenal-Chelsea, Liverpool-Everton, etc.) over in Europe, I'd normally be tempted to weigh in on it, but since this is officially World Cup draw week, I'm going to talk strictly World Cup.
The draw takes place Friday, and not only can you see it live on our air (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com), but we'll be having a CoverItLive panel for ESPN.com analyzing the draw step-by-step. The panel will comprise everyone's favorite wizard not named Harry Potter in Jimmy Conrad, along with Jeff Carlisle, Leander Schaerlaeckens and myself (Ives Galarcep will also be doing a drive-by panel appearance).
As for the likely group scenarios for the U.S. -- the pots/seeds haven't been officially announced yet, but since FIFA rarely does anything innovative, you can pretty much count on a reprisal of the usual formula for pots.
The first pot will be the eight seeds, while the rest of the draw is divided by confederation, with UEFA teams in their own pot; Africa (CAF) and the remaining South American teams (CONMEBOL) grouped together; and the final and fourth set of teams made up of qualifiers from Oceania, Asia (AFC) and North and Central America (CONCACAF).
The result will be a set that looks as follows:
Pot 1: South Africa, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England, France
Pot 2: Netherlands, Portugal, Slovenia, Switzerland, Greece, Serbia, Denmark, Slovakia
Pot 3: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria, Paraguay, Chile, Uruguay
Pot 4: Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Australia, New Zealand, United States, Mexico, Honduras
Looking at that list, the ideal draw for the U.S. would probably be France (I'll exclude South Africa, since South Africa is pretty much the dream seed for every team to draw), Slovenia and Algeria. Chances for that to happen and the U.S. to get something like England, Greece and the Ivory Coast instead? Probably pretty high considering the Americans' luck or lack of it when it comes to FIFA draws in general.
As for the actual tournament, 2010 will be the ninth World Cup I've followed -- since the 1978 World Cup, I've seen every match, so I thought I'd share with you what my three favorite matches from that period were:
1. France 3, West Germany 3, 1982 -- Not only my favorite World Cup game ever, but my favorite international match of all time. Two superb teams that played beautiful possession soccer with great skill and technique (the West Germans had underrated flair) and a game that had my two favorite players of all time (France's Jean Tigana and Germany's Pierre Littbarski). The French team of the early to mid-'80s with its dynamic midfield (Platini, Alain Giresse, Tigana and later on Luis Fernandez) routinely carved up opponents with precision and was extremely unlucky to lose this one. Tied at one apiece after regulation, the French looked like sure winners when they went up 3-1 in extra time on two glorious goals. However, the Germans brought on a half-fit Karl Heinz Rummenigge, who would inspire a two-goal comeback and eventual penalty shootout win.
2. Scotland 3, Holland 2, 1978 -- Along with the rest of the U.K. (well, the objective ones anyway), I was one of those who thought that the Scots were a dark horse in '78. Forget the Scottish sides you've seen in the past two decades; back then the Scots were laden with world-class talent like Kenny Dalglish, Willie Johnston, Graeme Souness and Archie Gemmill and entertained genuine hopes of going deep in the tournament. However, it all unraveled horribly with a loss to Peru (led by the genius of Teofilo Cubillas) and Johnston's subsequent suspension for failing a drug test (he took the wrong hay fever remedy). Things didn't get any better when the Scots could only tie Iran 1-1 and relied on an Andranik Eskandarian own goal at that (if the name sounds familiar, it's because he's the father of the Galaxy's Alecko Eskandarian). Heading into its final game, Scotland was given next to no chance against a superb Dutch team, but turned in an epic and unforgettable performance.
3. Denmark 6, Uruguay 1, 1986 -- A master class of attacking football from the maverick Danish side of the mid-'80s, which was one of the greatest offensive sides I've ever seen. That team, containing electric talents such as Michael Laudrup, Soren Lerby and Preben Elkjaer, failed to win anything of note, but on style points alone blew everyone's mind.
Brazil 2, Russia 1, 1982 -- If you ever want to watch an example of what it takes to beat the world's best goalkeeper, then watch Brazil versus Rinat Dasaev in 1982. Trailing 1-0 to the Soviets for much of the game, Brazil pulled the fat out of the fire with two late wonder goals from Socrates and Eder (the latter's goal being one of my favorites of all time).
Germany 1, U.S. 0, 2002 -- This game was notable for a multitude of reasons, and not just the drama. It was where I first saw that the U.S. had truly become a legit footballing nation, and where I was surrounded by European soccer cognoscenti who were similarly gobsmacked. Aside from (mostly) outplaying the Germans and being robbed by that handball call, the game was memorable for the fearlessness and the direct running of then-youthful U.S. speedster Landon Donovan. I remember watching the game from a bar in Hong Kong and being asked by several startled French journalists, "Who are those guys?"
As an aside, I still think the U.S. starting lineup in '02 was superior to the '06 lineup and the likely lineup the U.S. will field in South Africa next year (although obviously there's far greater depth across the board now).
Anyway, I'd be interested to know what all your favorite (not best) games were, so feel free to post in the comments section below.
Busy, busy weekend, what with the U.S. team playing, World Cup qualifiers and of course MLS Cup playoffs. Here's what I'm thinking about Monday morning:
1. U.S. versus Slovakia. Of course the disclaimer here is that the U.S. was missing Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu, Landon Donovan and Charlie Davies from what would be its ideal lineup. However, the bulk core of the starting lineup was present, and the 1-0 loss to Slovakia highlighted the weaknesses in the U.S. offense, which have long been its lack of creativity and inability to break down solid defenses. Granted, Slovakia won its European qualifying group for the World Cup, but this team has only two high-caliber international players (Martin Skrtel and Marek Hamsik).
As a result, Slovakia typically plays the way we saw it play on Saturday: It defends deep with discipline, cedes possession and looks to attack predominantly on the counter. In short, Slovakia almost always sets up the way the U.S. often does against superior opposition. The result? The U.S. was stifled for virtually the entire game after the Slovaks scored and offered next-to-nothing going forward. And herein lies the problem: The U.S. relies on two things to score most of its goals: set pieces and counterattacking. With both Davies and Donovan in the lineup, the extreme pace the U.S. offers on the counterattack is enough to scare virtually every team. With Davies gone, that breakaway threat is markedly reduced, and defenses can key on Donovan.
Likewise, the U.S. has made a living beating up on the comedic defenses and undersized goalkeepers in the CONCACAF region via set pieces and high balls. That's far more difficult to do against European defenses. My point is the U.S. still needs to prove it can score against a quality foe when it trails and when it needs to bring the game to the opposition. We all know the current U.S. recipe for success against top-tier sides. It basically involves defending deep and hoping to snatch a goal on a set piece or counterattack. If the U.S. takes the lead, it defends even deeper and continues to look to score on the counter. However, to progress in the World Cup next year, the U.S. can't continue to rely on front-running against top teams. It needs to develop a more effective plan of attack if it does go down a goal and do so, without comprising its ability to keep its shape and defend at the back.
On the bright side, Brad Guzan looked very good as Howard's replacement (his save on Stanislav Sestak to prevent a second Slovakia goal was exceptional), and Jonathan Spector looked very polished at center back (other than playing Sestak onside for the aforementioned shot). I've said for years that Spector seems far more suited to center back than fullback. After watching him impress against Slovakia, I'd argue that until Onyewu returns, the U.S. should start Spector with Jay DeMerit (once he returns from his eye injury) at center back and move Carlos Bocanegra back to left back (unless Edgar Castillo can make that spot his own) to replace Jonathan Bornstein, who remains far short of being international-caliber. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Bocanegra is the ideal left back either, far from it in fact. However, at this point, he's certainly the lesser of two evils there compared to Bornstein.
2. MLS Cup playoffs. Well MLS almost got its ideal scenario of a Galaxy versus Fire matchup in the MLS Cup final (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com), which would have been a marketer's dream with David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Brian McBride. Two out of four isn't bad. The Galaxy, of course, overcame Houston 2-0 in a strange game in which the momentum kept shifting dramatically -- the two power outages certainly played their part. The Galaxy started well, then lost their way as the second half was all Houston, then comprehensively outplayed the Dynamo in OT. However, Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts got a little lucky when he pushed Brian Ching's header onto the post, and frankly, it was a strange decision by the ref to disallow Andrew Hainault's goal from the subsequent corner.
As for OT, it's a bit harsh to single out Ricardo Clark, especially since he'd played well to that point, but he basically cost Houston the game with a couple of clumsy (and completely needless) challenges on the Galaxy's Alan Gordon. In the first instance, which resulted in Beckham's free kick and Gregg Berhalter's goal -- I'm not sure what Clark was thinking. Aside from the fact that you need to limit the amount of free kicks you give Beckham and the Galaxy, Clark decided to hack down Gordon about 35 yards out from goal, while Gordon was surrounded by two or three Houston players. That's right, Alan Gordon. I guess I must have missed all the numerous instances in his career when Gordon picked up the ball 35 yards from goal, beat two or three guys off the dribble and either slammed the ball into the net or carved open a defense with an incisive pass. Why would you even think about fouling Gordon in that instance? And don't get me started on the second foul, when Gordon had lost control of the ball in the penalty area and was dribbling away from goal before Clark brought him down.
One last note on the Dynamo -- it's safe to say that heralded DP signing Luis Landin brought nothing to the table against the Galaxy. It's probably also safe to assume that the primary reason for that is he looks severely out of shape (and that's probably an understatement).
As for the Eastern Conference final, Real Salt Lake deserved the win against the Fire. RSL largely outplayed Chicago, and if not for a couple of point-blank missed sitters by Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan, they would have won comfortably. Although the Fire have the bigger offensive names, the reality is that the well-paced RSL forwards could provide the Galaxy's back line with a far greater test because of their speed.
As we head into the Halloween weekend and everyone's trying to decide what their costume is going to be for whatever hell-raising parties they plan on attending, here's my random thoughts for the week this Friday:
1. The U.S. U-17s aren't the same team I saw last year. Based on the poor performances for the first two games of the U-17 World Cup, it's clear that the U.S. team isn't operating at anything close to peak level, and that's mostly a result of the absence from the starting lineup of Charles Renken, Joseph Gyau, and to a lesser extent Sebastian Lletget and Carlos Martinez. Gyau and Renken in particular gave the team a rare (for the U.S.) level of creativity and ability to break defenders down off the dribble, while Martinez is surprisingly on the bench as the far more limited Alex Shinsky starts.
Having said all that, I want this particular squad to do well so that it justifies the decision of the USSF to go with Wilmer Cabrera as the coach. Cabrera should be lauded for the changes in attacking style and philosophy that he's tried to bring to the U-17s. As for Jack McInerney, this is the first time I'm seeing him up close, and I'm wondering what all the fuss is about. Unless McInerney experiences a significant growth spurt, he's basically doomed to be a tweener at the pro level since he plays like a target man striker but without the power or physical presence required. He also appears to lack the technical skill or dribbling ability to compensate for that or work effectively as a link-up player or second forward.
2. When a handball supposedly isn't a handball. If there's one thing that continues to irk me, it's the illogical interpretation of the handball rule by referees, particularly as it pertains to penalties. Wednesday's Carling Cup game between Arsenal and Liverpool highlighted this perfectly. Referee Alan Wiley denied Liverpool a clear penalty late in the game when Alberto Aquilani's overhead kick was blocked by Arsenal's Philippe Senderos with both hands. The argument here is that Aquilani's shot was considered ball to hand and hence not a penalty. However, while that certainly should apply for crosses or wayward shots, when a defender's hand prevents a goalbound shot from scoring, then in my opinion it should be a penalty whether intentional or not. As an aside, I have no doubt that Aquilani, provided he stays healthy, will make Liverpool fans forget all about Xabi Alonso.
3. Strange uniform designs. OK, so as we all know, soccer teams continually change their uniforms to line their own pockets and to force fans to keep buying new merchandise. I get that, not saying it's right, but it's understandable from a business perspective. However, who gets to approve these uniform choices? Last week Arsenal lined up against West Ham in an away kit that had a shocking resemblance to archrival Spurs' traditional home kit. And each year, Manchester United's top looks closer and closer to something you'd find at a Star Trek convention
4. Real farce. One of the most highly amusing results I have witnessed in perhaps the last 15 years occurred Tuesday when the new age Galacticos of Real Madrid lost 4-0 to Spanish third-tier side Alcorcon in the Copa Del Rey. Now usually in the early stages of the Copa Del Rey most Spanish La Liga teams field youngsters or fringe players. However, while Real rested the likes of Iker Casillas, Kaka and Xabi Alonso, the lineup was composed solely of first-team players, including Karim Benzema, Rafael Van der Vaart, Raul and Esteban Granero. In fact, the starting lineup Real put on the field was worth 110 million euros.
Compare that to Alcorcon's team, made of mostly part-timers and checking in at an entire cost of 2 million euros, and yet Real lost, and lost badly -- the final scoreline was actually flattering to Real. What's even more interesting about Alcorcon is that its average salary on the team is a mere 36,000 euros a year -- practically MLS-like, which means two things: First, MLS might want to look into signing up some of Alcorcon's players, and second, Manuel Pelligrini is sure to be an ex-Real coach soon.
5. Houston vs. Seattle. Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal between these two teams ended in a 0-0 draw, although with a bit more luck, former Dynamo Patrick Ianni could easily have scored twice for the Sounders. I think the winner of this matchup has a very good shot at going all the way, although with Seattle's team speed on offense, I suspect the Galaxy (assuming they beat Chivas USA) would rather face Houston in the Conference final. As for Seattle, I've got a soft spot for Sigi Schmid's men because the Sounders are undoubtedly the most aesthetically pleasing team to watch in MLS. (Let's face it: There's some truth in what D.C. president Kevin Payne said the other day about MLS games in general, not any teams in particular.)
Well, suffice to say, that was a heck of a game in San Pedro Sula, where the U.S. pulled out all the stops in its monumental 3-2 win against Honduras. It was quite simply one of the most entertaining games you'll ever see in CONCACAF -- the type of game that either team could have won and in which, to some degree, you just throw all the analysis out of the window and simply enjoy the action. Here's what I'm thinking in the aftermath:
1. Weathering the storm. For U.S. fans able to watch the first half, it was somewhat akin to a horror show, as the Hondurans completely dominated. The U.S. central midfield pairing of Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark was overrun by their Honduran counterparts Wilson Palacios and Hendry Thomas, and were an absolute non-factor. Yet, of the half's three best chances, the U.S. had two of them -- both point-blank chances that should have been buried by Charlie Davies and Carlos Bocanegra -- and it was obvious that the U.S. would always threaten on the counterattack. At this juncture, it was easy to conclude that the U.S. would be best served withdrawing one of its two forwards and bringing on an extra midfielder such as Benny Feilhaber or Jose Torres at the start of the second to help stem Honduras' possession. And yet, to his credit, coach Bob Bradley stuck to his guns and his initial game plan, which brings me to
2. Conor Casey vindicates Bradley's decision. I'm pretty sure that all across America there were really only two reactions when one first saw Casey's name in the starting lineup: either shock at Casey's inclusion or dismay at Jozy Altidore's exclusion. I'll be the first to admit that I don't see Casey as an international-caliber forward, but he did open my eyes somewhat with his display against Everton for the MLS All-Stars back in July, when he proved he could provide a powerful physical presence against Premiership-caliber defenders.
After his two-goal display at Estadio Olimpico, I might have to revise my thinking somewhat -- he's certainly got the edge over Brian Ching as a target man if he keeps playing like this. At the same time, let's not get too carried away. Casey's first goal was more a result of a goalkeeping error than anything else, and unlikely against most countries with a quality player in that position. However, given the U.S. team's style of play, we could see Casey being used more in tandem with Davies or Altidore, with the loser of the Davies/Altidore duel being used in an off-the-bench role.
3. The U.S. team's shakiness when holding leads. For a team that prides itself on defensive solidity, the U.S. team certainly has a lot of trouble holding onto leads. It's one thing to throw away a two-goal lead in a half against the likes of Brazil, but the U.S. almost managed to throw away a two-goal lead with just 21 minutes remaining in the game. This could very easily have been an epic capitulation by the U.S. that would have gone down in Honduran folklore.
Considering that in addition to the second goal it conceded, the U.S. allowed a goal that was narrowly ruled offside; a late penalty that was horribly missed by the unfortunate Carlos Pavon; and, to cap it all off, an almost equally glaring miss by Pavon with minutes left when he was inexplicably left all alone for a free header just five yards out.
A large part of the problem continues to be the U.S. midfield's inability to control tempo or possession and the continued poor play by the U.S. fullbacks. However, you also have to wonder why coach Bradley didn't bring on an extra midfielder after the U.S.' third goal, or at least right after Honduras scored its second in the 78th minute. It might be quibbling on my part, but I still think Bradley's management of his subs needs improvement.
4. Kudos to Bob Bradley. One only has to look at the difference that Fabio Capello has made with England to see the impact that a great coach can have, even when he's working with exactly the same set of players as his predecessor.
Is there any question in my mind that a coach like Capello or Guus Hiddink could get more out of this U.S. team than Bob Bradley? Of course he could -- that's not even debatable. Would I love to see what an iconic coach could do working with the U.S. player pool? Absolutely.
However, as I said at the time of Bradley's hiring, if the USSF failed in its attempts to land an elite coach, then you could also do far worse than Bradley (as Mexico subsequently showed when it hired Sven-Goran Ericksson, someone I thought wasn't worth considering).
That being the case, Bradley does deserve recognition for what he's achieved this year, and U.S. fans should savor reaching South Africa -- especially when you consider a team like Croatia, loaded with stars such as Luka Modric, Eduardo and Darijo Srna, likely will not be there. At the same time, we still have to remember that qualifying for the World Cup out of CONCACAF is the minimum criterion for any U.S. coach these days.
After watching the U.S. U-20s get thrashed by Korea 3-0 last Friday in the U-20 World Cup, I was asked if I had been surprised that the U.S. could lose in such fashion to Korea. The answer to which of course is a resounding no, not only because of the paucity of this particular pool of U-20s (more on that later), but because this is just the latest evidence that South Korea is just as accomplished a footballing nation as the U.S. is, on all levels from junior to senior.
Lest people forget, the 2007 U.S. U-20 national team, considered the gold standard for U.S. performance in U-20 World Cups, struggled badly against South Korea that year as well, and barely escaped with a 1-1 draw. As an aside, U.S. fans might also remember winger Lee Chong-Yong from that Korean squad. Lee moved to Bolton in the English Prem this summer and has made quite a splash, landing a starting job in the process.
Anyway, here's what I'm thinking post-tournament:
1. This should be the last U-20 World Cup that Thomas Rongen oversees. As I stated before the tournament began, I had very low expectations for this group of U-20s. As far as I'm concerned, any roster that's "headlined" by Brek Shea is one that doesn't really have the goods to compete at the international level. Having said that, failing to even qualify as one of the four best third-place finishers in the group stage is the latest indictment of Rongen's coaching, whom I firmly believe should be replaced for the next cycle.
After the previous U-20 World Cup, I wrote about how poor Rongen had been (the U.S. was carried only by standout individual performances from the likes of Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu). Many of the issues I pointed out back then resurfaced again this time in Egypt. Once more, Rongen continued to make strange lineup choices (for example, choosing the inexperienced and overmatched duo of Brian Ownby and Dillon Powers to start in midfield against Germany). The team also lacked fluidity in its play or any real cohesive tactics outside of relying on the counterattack. Its inability to develop any semblance of build-up play or alternative plan of attack was reflected in the second half against Korea, where the only game plan seemed to be to a case of punting the ball high and far into the Korea penalty area at every given opportunity.
Granted, the 2007 U-20s were far more talented than this group, but the whole point of coaching is to maximize the talent of the squad, however limited it is. This group lacked discipline (a charge that could be leveled at the '07 group, too) and frankly appeared to give up against Korea at 2-0, even resorting to embarrassing systematic fouling.
As for Shea, perhaps I'm being a bit harsh given his age, but he still appears to be little more than a size-speed-strength prospect, the NFL draft prospect equivalent of a combine workout warrior with no instincts -- which is pretty much what he appeared to be when I first saw him at Bradenton back in 2006. The fact that U.S. coaches are still trying to develop him as some kind of attacking midfield/winger/forward and seem oblivious to his lack of technical skill or composure in the final third is mind-boggling to me. In my opinion, Shea's best (perhaps only) shot at any semblance of an effective pro career is to move to center back, or perhaps even left back. Then again, we're talking about Rongen here, who somehow deemed Neven Subotic not good enough to make the '07 U.S. U-20 squad and built the U.S. attack around Shea for this tournament, so perhaps nothing should surprise me at this point.
2. Keeping it in perspective. Having said all that, let's keep this U-20 World Cup in perspective. It's important to remember the primary, if not sole, purpose of this tournament should be to produce players for the senior national team. If even one player from this group emerges as a mainstay at the senior level, the U-20 program will have done its job. Unfortunately, this is where coaching comes into play, and why I think it's critical the USSF needs to appoint a more progressive coach for the next cycle.
3. So who could emerge with the full national team? If I were a betting man, I'd say only three or four players had any kind of shot with the senior squad, and I doubt any of them will become mainstays, or even regulars. Offensively, only Dilly Duka, Mikkel Diskerud and Bryan Arguez impressed me, and only in limited spurts at that. Ike Opara could develop into a standout MLS central defender and possibly a national team defender, but only if he refines his technique and positioning. However, I think he's still a bit overrated at this point, and largely gathering plaudits based on his size/speed and physical attributes that continue to overly enamor many of those responsible for player evaluation in this country.
1. Michael Bradley in limbo. It hasn't been the best patch in the Bundesliga for midfielder Michael Bradley. Bradley remains firmly rooted to the Borussia M'Gladbach bench, having fallen out of coach Michael Frontzeck's good graces. The team suffered a complete meltdown against Hoffenheim on Saturday (leading 2-1 late in the game only to give up three goals in the last four minutes and lose 4-2). Gladbach's next league game will be a key indicator of just how deep in Frontzeck's doghouse Bradley is. You'd have to think that after being a key performer last season, Bradley should find himself back in the starting lineup after the Hoffenheim debacle. If that's indeed the case, then this temporary benching is probably the reality check and attitude adjustment that Bradley needed. However, if he's not back in the lineup, then you have to wonder if this is the beginning of the end of his stint with Gladbach, in much the same manner that Clint Mathis' career with Hannover ended when he had the temerity to question his then-coach (who can forget the image of a feisty Mathis scoring as a sub and then running to the sideline to tap his watch at Ewald Lienen?).
2. Oguchi Onyewu rides the pine. Equally disturbing has to be the fact that Onyewu hasn't even officially seen the field for Milan yet since preseason ended. Obviously, I hadn't expected Onyewu to start over Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva (Thiago is considered to be one of the most gifted Brazilian center backs in years). However, when even comedy defender Kakha Kaladze is preferred over Onyewu in the starting lineup, as was the case in Sunday's 1-0 win over Bologna, U.S. fans have to be concerned about how much game time Onyewu will see if Nesta and Silva stay fit (in Nesta's case, that's a big if).
3. Jozy Altidore has a rough outing. On the flip side, Altidore is garnering minutes for Hull and started on Saturday against Birmingham. However, he was replaced in the 64th minute by Kamel Ghilas, and postgame reviews of Altidore's performance weren't the most flattering. In all honesty, Altidore did look fairly sluggish for most of the game and struggled at times (although he did have his moments), but to be fair to him, Hull didn't exactly provide the type of service that suits him. Right now, Altidore's weak spot continues to be his inability to effectively hold up play. However, Altidore certainly has the size and physical power to become an effective target man, and it's definitely something that can be worked on and improved (one only has to look at the massive strides in this respect that West Ham's Carlton Cole has made the last season and a half under Gianfranco Zola).
4. Are you serious? Speaking of West Ham, new Italian import Alessandro Diamanti made a lively start against Liverpool on Saturday and looked like he has the potential to add the flair the West Ham attack has been missing ever since Joe Cole and Paolo Di Canio departed Upton Park (does anyone seriously refer to it as Boleyn Ground?). He'll have to do some intensive work on his fitness levels, though -- if anyone doubted the difference in intensity and game speed between Serie A and the EPL, one only had to see Diamanti gasping for air by the 60th minute and begging to be taken out through sheer fatigue as opposed to injury. Diamanti also made the headlines when it was revealed that during the Hammers' trip to Wigan the week before, he'd been so dismayed by the hair dryers available to him in his hotel, he persuaded the club to courier a suitable hair dryer from London as a replacement.
5. Tottenham fails to earn its spurs. After beating Liverpool in its opening game, and racing to four straight wins out of the gate, it seemed that Harry Redknapp's men were finally ready to make their long-awaited push and challenge for the top four. However, after back-to-back thrashings by Man United and Chelsea, all that early-season optimism has faded and the club is probably looking at a struggle to finish in the top seven. Playmaker Luka Modric's injury has severely unbalanced the side (with Redknapp strangely opting to deploy a three-forward line and then Jermaine Jenas in his stead for the past two games) and his absence was notable in both losses. Compounding the problem for Redknapp is the loss of both center backs (Ledley King and Sebastien Bassong) in the game against Chelsea. An extended absence for either will see a return to Tottenham's famed defensive frailty and a continued tumble down the table.