Not much to take away from Honduras game

January, 25, 2010

Clint Dempsey won't require surgery on his injured knee and will likely return to action in May. It remains to be seen what his fitness level will be after such an extended period of time on the sidelines, but early indications are that he should be healthy in time for the World Cup in June.

Now that we've got the good news out of the way, let's get to the not-so-great news.

What's that, you say? How is that the good news?

That the injury status of one of the U.S. national team's most important players has been upgraded from "sky-is-falling disastrous" to just plain "unfortunate and unnerving" has to be taken as positive news, especially after a truly troubling performance against Honduras on Saturday in the first international friendly of 2010.

In light of a growing list of injuries to essential players, you might have been hoping for a silver lining in the form of a deeper and more developed player pool, as Bob Bradley sent out what was basically a B squad. But you'd be disappointed. If you don't believe me, all you'd have to do is look at Bradley's facial expressions during the Americans' 3-1 loss in Carson, Calif. Even by his stoic and solemn standards, you could see he was not at all comforted by the display of his reserve squad.

And what exactly was he seeing? More importantly, what was he expecting? By definition, such games are meaningless. And with the exception of Benny Feilhaber, no player on display at the Home Depot Center is a shoe-in for South Africa. So the fact that the team lost was not altogether troubling. The expectation for a game like this is not in the result, but in the impression that players make. It's a tryout for the few remaining places on the final roster.

And that's what was so frustrating. The best you can say about most players was that their performance was underwhelming enough not to seriously damage their chance at getting another look in the near future. However, at the same time, no one player distinguished himself in any meaningful way.

Clearly, any criticism, observation or judgment has to be qualified with the fact that the game lost much of its impetus with the mind-numbingly bizarre decision to send off Jimmy Conrad and award a penalty before 20 minutes had ticked off the clock. But in a strange way, that's almost immaterial. While it may have left no doubt about the final result, it could have been used as an opportunity.

We've seen enough of these games to know that the result is not what's at stake. Again, it's about the impression made by players with something to prove. And playing a man down for well over an hour actually provides a unique, albeit unfortunate, scenario for players to do just that. The opportunities to get on the ball in pressure situations increases, while the pressure to actually win the game and get a result lessens.

Bradley pointed to the poor quality of his team's passing as something he was most disappointed in. The lack of rhythm and tempo, the absence of any quick passing combinations or short exchanges was clear to see. In my opinion, midfielders Feilhaber and Kyle Beckerman are most culpable on this count.

Even before Conrad was shown his second yellow and given his marching orders, it was largely the responsibility of Feilhaber and Beckerman to get on the ball and provide some balance in the passing game. The U.S. needed possession to create avenues in order to get other players, like Robbie Rogers and Sacha Kljestan, involved in the play more. Honduras wasn't overly aggressive providing pressure in the middle of the field, even with a man advantage. However, Feilhaber and Beckerman seemed overeager to dump the ball forward into the path of forwards Jeff Cunningham and Robbie Findley as a first option.

As for the Findley-Cunningham partnership, I'd have preferred to see Conor Casey get a start, but you can understand Bradley's thinking. They're players who offer similar qualities and who are somewhat unknown quantities at the international level. It's likely that it will come down to choosing one or the other (if either) for the final World Cup roster. Why not throw them out together and see who performs best? Unfortunately, the circumstances prevented them from really getting involved in the game, though you'd have to give the nod to Findley on the night for showing more initiative.

As for the defense, well, it was also downhill after Conrad's sending-off. But the fact that Jonathan Bornstein, who shifted to the center of the defense in place of Conrad, was more convincing than Chad Marshall says a lot about the Columbus man's display. Right back Marvell Wynne probably provided the most instructive lesson of the night in showing that he's not the answer at the international level, at least not yet. The physical tools are obviously there, but we can probably expect to see Kevin Alston from the New England Revolution get the nod the next time around.

And hopefully the next time around, against El Salvador in a month, we'll have something more positive than Clint Dempsey's not-so-injured knee to talk about.



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