From doom and gloom to lauding character and heart: I am, of course, talking about the U.S. national team's recent qualifiers (a 3-1 loss to Costa Rica and a 2-1 win over Honduras) that inspired a wide range of emotion from U.S. fans. While I caution people not to go overboard reading into these results -- while the U.S. was struggling, powerhouse Portugal was eking out a last-gasp win against mighty Albania -- I confess that, aside from the three points gained and the character shown against Honduras, I didn't see too many bright spots for the U.S. Here's what I'm thinking as we head into the build-up for the Confederations Cup:
1. The U.S. team's offensive woes. This has been an ongoing problem for the U.S. for as long as I can remember. Aside from the counterattacking heroics of the 2002 World Cup squad, the U.S. has habitually struggled going forward whenever faced with an opponent that is fairly organized on defense and (unlike the rest of CONCACAF) well-prepared to deal with set pieces. Outside of corners and set pieces, the U.S. rarely seems able to score or create chances -- even against CONCACAF defenses that aren't exactly bastions of defensive fortitude. We saw it again in the Costa Rica and Honduras games as the U.S. resorted to launching long ball after long ball forward. You can only get so far in international tournaments with this type of one-dimensional play.
Until the U.S. develops a more technical philosophy on offense and brings more imagination to its build-up play, it'll continue to struggle to score against top teams. I'm curious to know how much time the U.S. coaching staff spends on this. One national teamer I spoke with last year (off the record) told me he thought the U.S. spent far too much time working on set pieces and defensive positioning, and not enough time on offensive aspects.
2. The midfield puzzle. Of course, part of the offensive problem lies in the fact that the U.S. has not historically had any truly dangerous forwards or attacking players. With the potential of young players such as Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies, there's at least some hope that one of them will develop into a capable finisher at the international level. However, the bigger problem is the lack of a technical and gifted creator in midfield. In 2002, the U.S. had a classy central midfield duo in John O'Brien and Claudio Reyna, which not only played the holding role adequately but also provided a link between the defense, the midfield and the offense. This is what the current team lacks, and it's a problem that has been compounded by coach Bob Bradley's preference at various times to field two holding/defensive midfielders -- as he did against Honduras, with the poorly conceived duo of Ricardo Clark and Pablo Mastroeni. It's no coincidence that the U.S. team's performance improved immeasurably once Mastroeni left the field and was replaced by Benny Feilhaber, who was able to provide a measure of the calm passing in the final third that was needed.
While Michael Bradley has started to mature into a very capable two-way box-to-box midfielder, I still think he's far better suited to a holding role with the U.S. It's the wrong move to pair him with a defensive midfielder such as Mastroeni, Clark or Maurice Edu, because the club then becomes reliant on his ability to create -- and that's not really his strength. It's imperative for the U.S. that Feilhaber, Freddy Adu, Jose Torres or Sacha Kljestan develops and plays alongside Bradley. Unfortunately, all of them come with various warts: Feilhaber has the most well-rounded ability of all four, but has a history of inury and attitude issues; Torres and Adu aren't trusted by Bradley for their lack of defensive discipline; and Kljestan has been far too inconsistent and turnover-prone.
3. What is Landon Donovan's best position? Is he a striker? Is he a withdrawn forward? I'm amazed this still is an issue. At this point, it should be fairly obvious to all that his best position at the international level is as a pseudo attacking midfield/winger out wide. It's no coincidence that virtually all of his best moments against top opponents in international football have come on the flanks, where he's able to run at people before cutting in and crossing or shooting. The only question is whether he should be used on the left or right side in this role, and that really just boils down to the quality of his partner on the opposite flank and the defensive matchup Donovan faces.
4. His time is done … for now. It's also apparent that certain players, either because of a lack of form or declining ability, aren't deserving of their call-ups and, in some cases, starting roles. In this category I place DaMarcus Beasley, Heath Pearce and Mastroeni, none of whom should be on the U.S. team at present. In Beasley's case, I advocated trying him at left back, partly due to his lack of impact going forward at the left midfield spot and partly due to the lack of U.S. options at full back. Having said that, the last two games have shown that he lacks the defensive aptitude and positioning instincts to succeed at left back in the short term and shouldn't be risked playing there in the meantime.
5. Form versus playing time. Another problem the U.S. faces is that so many of its key players and best prospects have made the move to Europe and struggled to earn playing time there. This leads one to wonder, for example, whether to start a gifted forward who's riding the bench in Europe or a forward who's scoring freely in MLS. Not to disrespect the American league, but it's ridiculous to place too much weight on MLS performance and penalize players for heading overseas to higher-level leagues. There's a difference between a player who lacks form and one who lacks playing time -- the two can be mutually exclusive. Take Altidore and Beasley. Altidore was playing little at the club level before being used against T&T, whereupon he promptly bagged a hat trick. Then there's Beasley, who has barely played at club level in the past year. Whenever he has played -- at either club level or for the U.S. team -- Beasley has looked totally out of form and off the pace.
There are plenty of examples proving the flaws in favoring an MLS player who scores with abandon and appears "in form" over a player who hasn't seen much action in Europe. Goal scoring is a totally different proposition overseas. Look no further than Eddie Johnson. Or how about Conor Casey? Called up to the U.S. team after an eight-game scoring hot streak in MLS, Casey appeared less than sharp against Honduras and contributed nothing more than a lot of hustle and huffing and puffing.
It's this simple: The most talented players should be selected. Some fans seem to forget that the U.S. isn't like Spain or Argentina, clubs that can select from a multitude of world-class options on the basis of form or playing time. Sure, if either Xavi or Xabi Alonso is struggling in midfield, Spain can bring in Cesc. The U.S. and other lesser soccer powers don't have this luxury. Does anyone really think Egypt is going to bench Mohammed Zidan and Amr Zaki on the basis that both forwards have spent a vast amount of time this past year sitting on the bench for their club teams?
Various readers have asked for my predictions about how the U.S. will fare, so here they are:
I believe the U.S. will struggle to get a win and I've felt this ever since the draw was first announced. Against Italy (June 15, 2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360), I think the U.S. will try to play straight-up, but will fail to match the Italians in possession and lose. Against Brazil (June 18, 9:55 a.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360), I believe Bradley will revert to a hyper-defensive mentality, bunker and try to sneak in a set-piece goal. I could see the U.S. earning a draw here if it can keep a clean sheet. In the final game, against Egypt (June 21, 2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360), I think the U.S. will try to take the game to the Egyptians for a win, but ultimately will fall prey on the counter to Mohamed Aboutrika and Co.