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Saturday, March 26, 2011
Grading the U.S.'s performance

By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com

If games against Argentina are anything to go by, not much has changed in three years since the U.S. national team last faced Lionel Messi & Co. Once again, the U.S. secured a result that it barely deserved, one that will only serve to paper over the team's weaknesses.

To be sure, getting any kind of result against a team as talented as the Argentines has its benefits. And credit must be given to the Americans' cast-iron mentality in the face of a relentless Argentina attack. But it must be said that the stellar play of goalkeeper Tim Howard was about the only thing that kept the game from being a runaway, especially in the first half.

Certainly the halftime introduction of forward Juan Agudelo and right back Timothy Chandler made a huge impact in the second half, with Agudelo grabbing a somewhat fortuitous equalizer after goalkeeper Mariano Andujar left Carlos Bocanegra's header on the doorstep. But great goalkeeping and unquenchable desire, while admirable traits, will not be enough to carry the U.S. program forward.

The biggest concern again centers on the U.S. midfield, which was badly outplayed from the outset. While things improved in the second half, the U.S. still needs more composure on the ball, highlighting just how big the loss of injured midfielder Stuart Holden is. This observation is not made with the expectation that the U.S. will have the possession edge against a team like Argentina, but it at least needs to possess the ball long enough to take the pressure off the backline, especially as veterans like Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit are replaced by younger players during this World Cup cycle.

It will also be interesting to see how much longer manager Bob Bradley will trot out a 4-2-3-1 formation. For the second time this cycle, the central trio of Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones looked out of sync. Once Jones was pulled at halftime in favor of Agudelo, the U.S. looked much more cohesive.

Are there reasons for optimism? Without question, and most of those center on the impressive performances that Agudelo continues to deliver. It now seems almost certain that his promotion from the U-20 national team will become permanent. But without more composed possession play out of the U.S. midfield, it won't matter how well Agudelo plays. That is what Bob Bradley will be looking from his team Tuesday against Paraguay.

In the meantime, here's how the U.S. players performed:

Player ratings: (1-10)

Tim Howard, 8 -- He seemed to be one of the few U.S. players who was up for the match from the beginning. Denied Messi several times, as well as Angel Di Maria, and had absolutely no chance on Esteban Cambiasso's goal.

Carlos Bocanegra, 5 -- Did plenty to keep the U.S. defense from breaking, but getting nutmegged by Messi's pass in the run-up to the Argentine goal was not one of his better moments. His header helped set the stage for Agudelo's equalizer.

Oguchi Onyewu, 5 -- Seemed to struggle to keep up with the play and his passing out of the back consisted mostly of hit and hope. But he was perfectly positioned to help snuff out a chance for Di Maria in the 71st minute after a giveaway by DeMerit.

Jay DeMerit, 6 -- Coped well with the endless onslaught, and aside from one poor pass out of the back, he was the backline's most solid performer.

Jonathan Spector, 4 -- Struggled to cope with the pace of Ezequiel Lavezzi, Di Maria and Messi. He did manage to come up with some crucial blocks, but rarely ventured forward.

Jermaine Jones, 3.5 -- Had one bright moment when he kept a counterattack alive. Otherwise, he was ineffective. His passing was overambitious, and he was among those caught ball-watching on Cambiasso's opener. He also spent way too much time jawing with the ref.

Michael Bradley, 4.5 -- At least Bradley has the excuse of not getting much playing time at his club, Aston Villa. While he put himself about defensively, his passing was off the mark. He was badly exposed by Messi more than once. Then again, who hasn't been? Came into the match more in the second half.

Maurice Edu, 4 -- Seemed much more comfortable playing alongside Bradley in the second half as opposed to the advanced role in front of Bradley and Jones in the first. His distribution was still too inconsistent.

Clint Dempsey, 4.5 -- Seemed to let his frustrations get the better of him by trying to do too much. On one hand, you can't blame him. On the other, attempting a backheel while double-teamed was among his poorer decisions. Had a chance in the latter stages of the match to snag the game-winner, but his touch let him down.

Landon Donovan, 5.5 -- Wasn't overawed, and did well to spark a few counters. But with the central midfield unable to string passes together, his opportunities were scarce. Looked much more active in the second half.

Jozy Altidore, 4 -- Hopefully, this is the last time Altidore is played as a lone striker. To be fair, he was starved of service for much of the first half, but on the few occasions he did get the ball, his decision making, which usually consisted of trying to take on at least two opponents, was terrible. Looked much better alongside Agudelo, which allowed Altidore to drift into wider positions.

Subs:

Timothy Chandler, 6 -- Not only did the debutante defend better than Spector, but his runs forward gave the U.S. a critical option in attack, with his crosses causing the Argentine defense all kinds of problems.

Juan Agudelo, 6.5 -- For all of the reluctance to crown Agudelo the Next Big Thing in U.S. Soccer, he keeps ticking off all the boxes. He'll no doubt have more impressive finishes than he did Saturday night, but he was in the right place at the right time. His decision-making on the ball was also impressive.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.