Why the U.S. failed vs. El Salvador
With the corpse that is the U.S. U-23 national team still warm, one question that crosses the mind is: What's the difference between Bob Bradley in 2010 and Caleb Porter in 2012? Practically nothing. And everything.
At the 2010 World Cup, with time winding down in the final group-stage game against Algeria, the U.S. men's national team pulled a miracle out of its pocket. Landon Donovan cleaned up a rebound from Clint Dempsey's shot and the Americans went from having their World Cup obituary written to living on to fight in the second round.
That moment cemented the team's reputation as one that would fight to the bitter end, and it enhanced the standing of Bradley. Forgotten, at least for the moment, were the team's tepid starts and suspect defending. Instead the focus turned to Bradley's inspired substitutions and ability to lead his team under adverse conditions.
Now fast-forward to Monday's enthralling Olympic qualifying encounter in Nashville. It was a game the U.S. had to win to reach the semifinals. And with time winding down, it looked like the U.S. U-23s would take a page out of the senior team's book. Trailing 2-1 at halftime, the Americans stormed back to take a 3-2 lead through the excellent Terrence Boyd and a headed goal from Joe Corona. And then Jaime Alas hit what can only be described as a speculative shot from distance that somehow eluded substitute goalkeeper Sean Johnson, and the U.S. went from living to fight on in the semis to being eliminated.
Now it is Porter and the players who must live with the consequences. For Porter, the positive of coaxing the team into a 3-2 lead under nerve-racking circumstances will be forgotten. And in its place are a fistful of recriminations.
Without question, there should be. Forget the calls to fire Porter. That is a threat with no teeth, since the U-23 head-coaching job is a part-time gig anyway. Porter will return to his post at the University of Akron, running one of the premier college programs in the country.
That doesn't preclude questions from being asked, however. Rarely has as much time and money been invested in putting an Olympic qualifying side together, with monthly training camps being held since December. The U.S. couldn't blame its failure on the vagaries of CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying format, either, as the Americans failed to navigate far enough to even subject themselves to a winner-take-all semifinal. The fact that the tournament was taking place in the cozy comforts of the U.S., rather than more hostile environs such as Mexico, only adds to the embarrassment.
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So what happened? With the benefit of hindsight, it appears that Porter built his side based on the team he wanted to have, rather than the one he ended up having. Given that European club teams weren't required to release players, upwards of six U.S. performers weren't available to Porter. This resulted in a lack of defensive depth. Instead, he opted for a midfield triangle that was heavily reliant on a single holding midfielder. When that one player was Hertha Berlin midfielder Alfredo Morales, all was well, as evidenced by the way he repelled attacks in the 2-0 friendly win over Mexico, a pyrrhic victory if there ever was one.
When Porter didn't have that player with a solid mix of bite and skill, the dominoes started to fall. The team tried almost too hard to adhere to his mantra of winning the ball back in six seconds once possession was lost, and sell-out, all-or-nothing tackles became the norm rather than the exception. The defense became more exposed, especially when facing the kind of speedy attackers used by El Salvador. Set pieces were conceded, and the U.S.'s frailty in this area became more pronounced.
There were flaws in the plan as it related to the attack as well. In the latter part of the first half of Monday's match, the game opened up and the Americans got sucked into playing along, pouring too many numbers forward. What was needed was someone to dictate the tempo. Instead, the frenetic pace suited El Salvador, especially as the Cuscatlecos exposed the U.S. on the flanks. All of this points to the fact that a more conservative approach, especially given the personnel available, was needed.
Yet for all the criticism directed Porter's way -- including the not-so-veiled implication that it was a mistake to hire a college coach -- his approach very nearly worked.
Which leads to another truism: There are some things for which a coach can't legislate, no matter how much planning takes place. In this case, there were backbreaking individual errors on defense and highly suspect goalkeeping.
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There was also a rather shocking lack of game management, a trait that you would have expected more of, given that many of the players have been professionals for multiple seasons. For all of Brek Shea's heroics on the evening, including his assist on Boyd's opener in the first minute, he'll be remembered most for sloppily conceding possession in the run-up to Jaime Alas' game-tying goal. Shea wasn't alone, though. The decision of Mix Diskerud and Michael Stephens to both chase the ball during that buildup was equally fatal, as was the backline's collective failure to step to Alas.
Then there was the far-too-tepid performance against Canada, which is when this qualifying campaign really went off the rails. This was as much a failure of the players as it was the coaches, and hints further that much more needs to be done in terms of player development.
It will be difficult to determine just how damaging the failure to qualify is. The Olympics might not have the most prestigious soccer tournament on the planet, but they do provide the participants with a solid dose of international experience. Yet it has to be said that this generation of players has a history of international underachievement that is troubling. While only four players were on the U-20 roster that failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup, another nine were on the 2009 U-20 team that blew a golden opportunity to progress to the knockout rounds of that competition. Instead, they fell to South Korea 3-0 in the group finale and became one of just eight teams to be eliminated in the group stage. It's easy to write off each of these incidents in isolation, but taken together the trend is worrying. At minimum, some momentum has been lost.
Then again, the aforementioned players who were not made available hint at a positive. The fact that they weren't released is because they were getting playing time with their clubs. Perhaps that -- along with some hard lessons like Monday's heartbreaker -- will be the tonic to cure this latest failure at youth level, and keep the U.S. program on an upward trajectory.
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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