South Africa US Italy Confed Cup Soccer

Last night the US National team played reigning world champion Italy in the Confederations Cup in South Africa, host of the 2010 World Cup. Before I add my commentary about the game, I have to say the disparity in the draws for this tournament is absolutely ridiculous. In Group A you have: Italy, Brazil, United States and an underrated Egypt. In Group B you have: Spain, Iraq, South Africa, and New Zealand. Sure looks like the draw was set up to make sure South Africa advanced, doesn’t it?

The past several World Cup qualifiers the US has played have been far from impressive. They needed two late goals to draw with El Salvador 2-2, got absolutely smashed by Costa Rica 3-1 (and it wasn’t as close as the score indicates), and eeked out a win at home against a gutsy Honduran team 2-1.  Each time the US has been exploited by playing weak defense, giving up early goals, and lack of creativity on the ball in the attacking third of the field. Needless to say, I didn’t have very high expectations last night.

But overall, the US played very well last night. Here are my thoughts:

  • The red card against Ricardo Clark in the 34 min absolutely changed the game. It was obviously a foolish foul, which was Clark’s first of the match, and likely deserving of a caution. But even then, it’s hard to know if it merited even a caution given the fact that the decisions by referee Pablo Pozo throughout the game were curious at best. The bottom-line is that the foul didn’t deserve a red card. However, Ricardo Clark is known for his reckless play and he should know better. His outstanding play against Honduras helped keep the US in the match, but the reality is that he is more often than not more of a liability than anything else. Clark shouldn’t see the pitch for the US again anytime in the near future. The referee’s decision was atrocious, but Clark shouldn’t have put himself in that position in the first place.
  • Landon Donovan was outstanding in this match. His service on set pieces needs to become more consistent, but he was active, ran at the Italian defenders, and created some dangerous opportunities. The US needs this kind of effort from him in every match, which if you have followed his career, you know that his performances have been erratic.
  • Jose Altidore had a good match, especially in drawing the penalty that led to the US taking a 1-0 lead. But it is hard to evaluate him beyond that simply because playing a man down created too much of a gap between the midfield and Altidore’s attacking position, and once the game got into about the 50th min the Italians dominated that space.
  • Bob Bradley’s continued loyalty to DeMarcus Beasley is baffling. Yes, Beasley has experience and, in the past, was one of the US’s best players. But those days are gone. Beasley’s touch is awful and he brings very little to the table tactically for the US. Even if you  are assuming a defensive posture Beasley has proven to be a liability as his marking and clearing ability have been shown to be suspect over the past 6+ matches.
  • Jonathan Spector should remain as one of the outside defenders upon Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hejduk’s return. He is solid, smart and understands the game.
  • Jay DeMeritt was solid as a center back. He did get beat badly on the final goal, but he was gassed. It might be worth considering moving Bocanegra back to left back until Cherundalo returns.
  • Two of the US’s best playmakers continue to see very little action. Jose Francisco Torres and Freddy Adu need to play more. I hope that Bradley uses at least one of them against Brazil. The truth is that we don’t really know exactly what they might bring to the table because they are being under-utilized. Torres has, in my opinion, shown the kind of ability to possess and create that the US desperately needs in midfield. His defense needs to improve, but it won’ t improve without seeing the field more. Adu could be a nice spark off the bench (ala,Rossi from Italy last night). He isn’t a great defender either, but he is dangerous in the attack. We need to run at the defense more than we do (such as Donovan did at times last night).

The effort by the United States last night was there. It was a gutsy performance and it is unfortunate they conceded the late goal in stoppage time. They deserved a better result. However, as has been the case in recent years, they failed to step up and take advantage of an opportunity to knock off an international soccer giant on foreign soil. There were times in this match that the US could have seized control but failed to take full advantage of those opportunities. More often than not they showed hesitancy in taking shots on goal, and when they did get the opportunity, they usually failed to test Buffon. Had an American player had the same opportunity Giusseppi Rossi (Italy) did on the equalizer, I suspect they would have tried to take the ball all  the way into the box and then try to slot it to another player rather than utilize the space given up by the defense and take a blistering shot on frame like Rossi did. This is a significant difference between the US and the premier international teams. There isn’t just a talent gap. There’s a gap in understanding that the game is a game of risks and rewards. There is a lack of understanding that sometimes, in order to create opportunities,you have to step outside of the “system” if you want to attack the goal. Italy didn’t wait for the perfect opportunity, and as a result, they netted three goals. The US earned one goal, but other than being awarded a PK they did very little in terms of posing a significant risk to the Italian defense.

Coach Bob Bradley has done well to give a wider pool of players an opportunity at the international level, and this has been a positive step for the development of the US players. But Bradley has to show that he is capable of taking this team to the next level. It seems an almost certainty that the US will qualify for the World Cup. But the standards need to be higher than qualifying. Bradley needs to develop a consistent style of play that capitalizes on the ever growing talent pool within the US, and an attacking style of play that forces opponents to find it difficult to game plan a strategy for defending the US. I think part of the problem is that the US doesn’t really have a key play-maker. Bruce Arena tried for years to make that person Landon Donovan, and while Donovan can be dangerous and must be accounted for, he doesn’t have the vision or ability to dictate the game on his teams, such as Pirlo did last night for Italy. Almost anything good that happened to Italy offensively had Pirlo involved in some way.

It would be easier to commend that job that Bradley has done if he wasn’t so stubborn in his insistence to stick with certain players. DeMarcus Beasley (as has already been mentioned), Ricardo Clark, and Pablo Maestroeni (didn’t make the CC roster) should see their minutes with the US squad diminish immediately. Clint Dempsey is  a gifted player that just looks tired after a long, grueling EPL season with Fulham. Give him a rest – even if just for a game.

I’d like to think that the US is close to beating one of the soccer powers of the world. Respectable showing against England (2-0 loss), Spain (1-0 loss), Argentina (0-0 draw) and Italy (3-1 loss) have shown that the US is gaining ground. But to finish the job we must create an attack that forces teams to change what they do well. We must play in a way that forces them to account for what we are doing offensively, which has rarely been the case with US soccer. If we want to win the big game, and if we want to show the world that we are ready for the big stage in 2010, then we have to change the way we play the beautiful game sooner rather than later.