Sobering reality check for U.S. team
So much for the post-World Cup celebration.
OK, so the operative word following Brazil's 2-0 win over the U.S. on Tuesday was "friendly." There was nothing at stake. Over half of the U.S. starting lineup was comprised of overseas players who looked like they hadn't recovered from their preseason fitness regimens. And on a team that lacks creative guile in the best of times, the absence of a player like Clint Dempsey was always going to be keenly felt.
Yet no matter how often that particular f-word is repeated, it won't wash away the sobering reality of the Americans' meek capitulation to a young, inexperienced, yet talented Brazil team. Aside from a frenetic opening 25 minutes, the U.S. was dominated in all phases. The penchant of the American midfield to drop too deep played right into the Selecao's hands, allowing the likes of Ganso to dictate the tempo and thread passes at will. With Neymar and Alexandre Pato staking Brazil to a comfortable, 2-0 halftime lead, the second half was nothing more than damage control; a disappointing development after the drama of South Africa.
Here are some other points to take away from Tuesday's encounter.
1. Was this coach Bob Bradley's last game?
Bradley has given little if anything away about his future. USSF president Sunil Gulati has been just as tight-lipped. Talks are set to resume in the next couple of weeks, and count me among those who think Bradley has done enough to deserve a contract extension. But if pressed to predict what will happen, I'd have to lean toward Bradley not coming back. Gulati's language at a post-World Cup round table with reporters -- both spoken and unspoken -- screamed "disappointment" rather than praise for Bradley's performance.
Whether those words were more indicative of the raw emotion at the Americans' elimination is up for debate. But what can't be denied is that if Gulati really wanted Bradley back, he'd have made his move by now. And Gulati's hemming and hawing over the decision would seem to indicate that he is intent on making the big-name hire he has long desired. One can only hope that in taking this approach, Gulati's prime candidate isn't snapped up by someone else.
2. The next coach, whoever he is, has some serious work to do.
This is not to imply that the U.S. team has ever been close to being the finished product. But Tuesday's result provided ample evidence that the American side is in need of some serious retooling. The outside back positions remain stubbornly problematic, especially since Steve Cherundolo's advancing age means his days in a national team uniform are numbered. The U.S. side seems no closer to finding a partner for Michael Bradley than it did three years ago. While Jermaine Jones may yet prove to be that player, let's see him get through a few weeks of the Bundesliga season unscathed before any more hopes are pinned on the Schalke man. Equally troublesome is that the U.S. remains overreliant on midfield stars Landon Donovan and Dempsey for offense. Given how the team's forwards are going through a major scoring drought, the thought of how the attack would be compromised if Donovan or Dempsey got injured borders on the nightmarish.
3. Credit Bradley for trying some young talent.
The U.S. coach has been historically cautious in picking the right time to give young players their international baptism. Bradley deserves full marks, then, for giving defender Omar Gonzalez his first cap and for providing Alejandro Bedoya with some additional international experience.
Understandably, the duo took their share of lumps Tuesday night. Bedoya showed that his defensive concentration needs work, as he seemed to be forever trailing his man. Gonzalez had his moments of struggle against the dynamic Pato. Yet, better to learn some harsh lessons now than later when it really matters.
4. Speed kills.
In this case, it wasn't slow legs that did the Americans in, but slow brains. Granted, the way Brazil hunts the ball can make even the best teams look like a junior varsity side. But too often the Americans' decision-making played right into the visitors' hands. Whether it was poor movement off the ball, slow recognition of passing options, or an odd desire to try to run the ball out of trouble, the Americans' choices made it nearly impossible for them to maintain possession.
There have been days when U.S. discipline and fitness have allowed the team to compensate for such weaknesses. Tuesday wasn't one of them. It leads you to wonder when the U.S. will be able to consistently contest games on an equal technical footing.
5. At least the goalkeeping is in good hands.
Frankly, I've had doubts that Brad Guzan was of sufficient quality to succeed Tim Howard, or at least fill in effectively for him when needed. I don't recall him looking all that convincing when called upon during the last qualifying cycle. But the string of fine saves that Guzan delivered in the second half -- with this diving stop of a Carlos Eduardo shot the best of the lot -- have me more convinced that the goalkeeping position remains well-stocked. The only worrying aspect to Guzan's game right now is his inability to get first-team action at Aston Villa given the continued brilliance of Brad Friedel.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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