Sunday 21 June ~

It’s been a torrid week for the USA at the Confederations Cup, but it’s been even worse for their fans back home. It’s rare for US supporters to catch a glimpse of their team against tough opposition outside of the actual World Cup finals, and this week’s games were eagerly anticipated as a measure of the USA’s current quality. Following their usual success in Concacaf qualifying, the team had risen to number 14 in this month’s FIFA rankings. But the conclusive defeats to Italy and Brazil have only confirmed what we all already knew about the world governing body’s stat-generated table – it doesn’t mean a thing when you’re faced with Robinho running at you.

As long as the US is chugging away with victories over Honduras and Jamaica, no one takes much notice of them. So doing well at the Confed Cup this week was not just important from a results point of view. Only when the team performs well against major football nations can the US fan silence the condescending European who still insists the Yanks are second rate, and at the same time make the sceptical majority at home take note of the team’s slow but steady ascendancy on the world stage. That worked well when beating Portugal and Mexico at the 2002 World Cup. The problem now is that the team seems to have taken several steps back. They weren’t just beaten by Italy and Brazil, they were outclassed in every respect, all over the field. What was supposed to be a dry run to warm up for the big occasion next year has instead brutally exposed an outfit that barely looks fit to compete in terms of pace, desire, aggression, flair and basic technical ability.

There are already calls for the sacking of coach Bob Bradley, a cautious man who has stuck to the same formations with the same players and same dour but effective tactics for the past two years. All his work has been blown out of the water by this week’s maulings. And to think we could have been spared those tedious games we sat through, telling ourselves that grinding out 1-0 away wins in Cuba and Guatemala was all for the greater good. A new coach would now have only a year to rebuild confidence, while instilling new ideas and faces before next summer’s World Cup. As a warning shot, the Confed Cup may at least have saved the US from humiliation in a year’s time, but the lack of attacking imagination suggests they will have their work cut out to score more goals than they’ve done here so far (one penalty) and at Germany 2006 (one own goal and one goal from open play).
It’s telling that Ricardo Clark and one-time Celtic target Sacha Kljestan, the two US midfielders red-carded this week for late and reckless challenges, as well as Pablo Mastroeni against Italy in 2006, all play in Major League Soccer. It’s not a bad league, but it certainly doesn’t prepare players for opponents like Italy and Brazil. Their ill-judged tackles not only handicapped the team, they reflected the significant leap needed for MLS players to perform well at international level. But goalkeepers aside, this generation of US players has found it hard to impress while playing abroad. Their best player this week, Landon Donovan, has been unable to establish himself in the Bundesliga and returned to MLS after all three attempts. Young hopes such as Jozy Altidore (Villarreal, then loaned out to Spanish second division team Xerez) and Freddy Adu (Benfica, then Monaco) haven’t been able to get off the bench. But then Fulham regular Clint Dempsey has been awful in South Africa too. Perhaps he’s just plain tired. He certainly looked it.
You might be asking, why should we care? It’s because the US should be much better than this by now. There is a massive footballing infrastructure, albeit one in need of serious reform as long as it’s hampered by the obsolete college system. It boasts a wealthy federation, an emerging and expanding league, and the potential to produce a team that ought to feature regularly in the latter stages of the World Cup. In short, a team that could justify that high FIFA ranking. With the right leadership, the evolution of the US into a major football nation is not merely possible, it’s inevitable. However, this week has proven that news of its progress has been much exaggerated. Just like a decade ago, the USA still merely merits being graded as one of the best two teams in Concacaf. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (13)
Comment by jason voorhees 2009-06-21 17:32:28

Great article. Put Steve Sampson's attacking with Bob Bradley's defense and we might have the prototype American coach. Until then, we get some 4-1s and 3-nils and 4-nil defeats.

The question is where to go from here. Not taking the Gold cup-winning team to Copa America 07 was a horrific mistake, but one forgiveable if it paid off. It obviously did not.

So do you go with Thomas Rongen's Dutch-style 4-3-3 that worked quite well for Adu and Altidore in the U-21 World Cup, or some other free agent ?

All I know is that I have very little faith in Sunil Gulati, especially after the stunt he pulled with Greg Ryan and the US women (when he wouldn't get the coach that the women wanted to show that he had the power.)

Comment by Nurse Duckett 2009-06-21 21:32:36

Would this be the same USA that has just qualified for the Confederations Cup semi-final ahead of world champions Italy?

I wish England had that kind of success... :o)

(The benefits of hindsight)

Comment by TheFourMarys 2009-06-21 21:39:52

...(The benefits of hindsight)...

Well quite, Nurse Duckett.

Perfectly fair article. Question is who comes in for Bradley (not that that's an issue now unless Spain put 10 past us)? MLS coaching stocks are poor and I can't see any international A-List coaches being attracted to the post.

So who does that leave? Bora? Ugh.

Comment by Humus B. Chittenbee 2009-06-21 23:10:13

Receiving the red cards in the first two games did not help the scoreline (don't think the second was more than a yellow.) However, in both those games, the defense appeared to have no cohesion, there was no imagination in attack, the general passing in the mid-field was painful to watch. There were a few bright spots - but as a team, they appeared to be consistently slower than their opponents and have no desire.

And I am an American who wants them to do well. Sigh...

Comment by danielmak 2009-06-22 00:26:13

This is a thoughtful article, and I have been thinking the same thing for a few years now. That is, the US is arguably the top side in CONCACAF (or neck and neck with Mexico if we want to go by recent WC results) but at the end of the day, that means very little. In head to head competition with UEFA and CONMEBOL teams we are atrocious. And head to head with CAF and ACF sides does not look much better. I don't see this as a problem with MLS. The reality is that since MLS was formed, US players can now play week in and week out and the NT has become much stronger.

Of course, MLS, like the NT, suffers from a lack of quality play in the final 3rd. Crosses are poor at best and the finishing is poor. So, I would have to respectively disagree with Jason's comments about blending Sampson and Bradley. I don't have statistics in front of me but my best recollection is that WC 94 we probably scored 5-6 goals in 4 games, in WC 98 we finished dead last, in 2002 we did well and should have beat Germany if we were willing to go forward a bit more, in 2006 we were horrible again. The reality is that we win against CONCACAF sides and that's about it (until today). We can usually defend well and have excellent keepers, but we can not create chances in the final third. Moreover, we seem to play not to lose when we play UEFA and CONMEBOL sides, hoping that we can, as we just did today, squeak by with one win against the CAF, ACF, or OCEANA opponent (not exactly a strategy one would expect from a side ranked as high as we are).

I do wonder if Bradley has the vision to lead this side against quality opposition. He continues to misuse Donovan (who should be playing as a creative midfielder who can float around the field), he misuses Dempsey (who has succeeded at Fulham playing behind the main striker), and he can't seem to find a partner to play with Michael Bradley.

I think Altador will be very good. Remember that he is only 19. Altador's mistake was to go to a side like Villarreal when he should have gone somewhere like Mallorca and then worked his way up (follow Sinema-Fongolle's [sp?] Spanish model). Michael Bradley is very good as well. And we have world class keepers. But that's not enough, unfortunately.

Comment by jason voorhees 2009-06-22 00:49:22

Here's what I mean: When Sampson took over in 95, he let the players go ballistic after the strict joyless defensive discipline of Bora's team.

That 1995 had perhaps the greatest run in USMNT history: Victories over Ireland, Nigeria, and the 3-0 over Argentina and semifinal appearance in Copa America 95.

In the end, he out-thought himself with the notorious 3-6-1 for WC 98, and like any undisciplined coach, lost the respect of the players.

In many ways, Arena was the most balanced coach we ever had, and had teams that were capable in scoring and defending. I'm just saying we need a little bit of the free-for-all of '95, with Bradley's dour defense.

Comment by nsieling 2009-06-22 02:18:53

A snotty article that could have had the benefit of waiting until the Confederations Cup was over before issuing an obituary. The US was better than Italy for the first half and the poor red card decision was the key reason for the US going down that day. The US has also had very poor draws in the 2000 and 2008 World Cups and even in the Confederations Cup. Their play could be better, but they are a team in transition and made it to the semis. So how about some fair reportage and analysis?

Comment by Workingstiff 2009-06-22 10:04:49

Despite last night's turnaround, this is still a fair article (except for it's description of Clint Dempsey, who redeemed himself against Egypt from what I could tell.) Based on population and infrastructure, the USA should be competing with European sides, even taking into account the problems with domestic leagues there over the years. In some ways the Italy/Brazil result should worry USA fans more - they got mullered in the second half by what is pretty clearly a transitional, fairly poor Italian team.

I really don't think that the USA were better than Italy for the first half, they just huffed and puffed a lot more. They looked solid, but poor going forward.

danielmak, agree with you about most of what you've written, except that Dempsey has actually operated as a left winger for pretty much the whole season, in an orthodox 4-4-2. He's been excellent, and I wouldn't be suprised if he was knackered after that season.

Comment by CJW1968 2009-06-24 21:23:26

"It’s been a torrid week for the USA at the Confederations Cup"
"Despite last night's turnaround, this is still a fair article"

So ... er ... how bad were Spain then?

Comment by fbrazolin 2009-06-24 22:55:48

Nothing changes. Despite having a great squad, Spain were Spain as usual. Yellow would suit best in their uniform.

The same for the US. Despite playing lousy football, they still give a hard time for the opponents. I bet Brazil has already started to remember their match in the 94 World Cup finals...

Comment by Max Payne 2009-06-25 02:38:29

ROTFL at this article in hindsight. Can we have a piece on how England are shit and that it is a cast iron certainty that they can not, will not ever until the end of time win a second World Cup please Ian?

Comment by Max Payne 2009-06-25 02:40:17

...and also that "Max Payne will never win OZ Lotto"

I'll go halves ;-) if you can sort that out this week it's a $90m rollover jackpot

Comment by danielmak 2009-06-25 05:07:40

I don't understand why people are so upset by this piece. I say this as someone living in the US and who wants the US to do well: The team was crap in the first two games (and weren't much better in the past few WC qualifiers). We weren't as bad as we were playing obviously but the reality is that most times (80%? 90%?) we will lose to clubs like Spain, Italy, and Brazil because we don't have the quality, we don't play intelligent football, and we get a bit overwhelmed by the pressure. But today Howard was amazing, the back line was strong, and we took our chances. The first 5-10 minutes showed the kind of football we are capable of playing (and we tend to see in qualifying) but the defensive shell that existed for the most part of the final 45 minutes was also the kind of football we tend to play once we are into the WC, and that is the problem.

And just to finish where I started, I don't see why the criticism directed at the team needs to be met with such concern. Own up to it when our team plays poorly and be proud when they play well.

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