I like many of our fellow American soccer fans needed to take a day to digest that quite frustrating lost opportunity and collect my thoughts.
There are plenty of talking points from the game; Bob Bradley's selections, the poor central defending, the lack of finishing, how quickly the team was able to recover from the Algerian win, how they performed as favorites, and how two very key injuries last fall changed the fabric of the team.
Ultimately I think Bob Bradley deserves a lot of praise for his decisions, his tactics, and his ability to adapt from qualification to the Confederations Cup through the friendlies earlier in the year on up to the World Cup. He gathered information, looked primarily at players abroad but also gave some players at home in the MLS a cup of coffee to inspire them for the future. He put together the best squad that he could field, including players that might not have had much experience at the national team level but had been in form i.e. Gomez and Buddle.
Judging the manager: I think Bradley had to give Oguchi Onyewu a shot in this World Cup because the big central defender had been such a key man for the past couple of years before tearing his patella knee tendon last October. But when Guch clearly wasn't at his best, as he was one of the most visible players at fault on all three of the first goals, Bradley moved on from him in the 80th minute of the second match vs. Slovenia and the big AC Milan defender never saw the pitch again.
However, for the life of me I won't understand why Bradley kept turning to Robbie Findley, whose speed was the only real positive he added to the team. Time and again Findley was easily muscled off the ball, he really had only two good scoring opportunities throughout the tournament -- including the one vs. Ghana in the 35th minute -- and he looked scared on both, and he had to be subbed early in the second half of each game. Benny Feilhaber was terrific with his movement off the ball and his passing when he was given the opportunity to freelance, but he never got a start and I don't understand why. Edson Buddle had been in rich form in the MLS and even looked terrific scoring a pair of goals in the last friendly before the World Cup vs. Australia. How about throwing Stuart Holden out wide and Dempsey up top in the free-lancing role? Most of those decisions were only made when the U.S. became desperate for goals either going down because they gave up the first goal or when they had to have the goal vs. Algeria.
Ricardo Clark was also a huge disappointment not looking recovered match-fit wise from the ankle injury that bugged him in the Bundesliga. He was a shell of the terrific defensive midfielder he was in the Confed Cup, and he was the main guilty party on two big goals - the goal vs. England where he did not pay attention to his mark Gerrard and secondly vs. Ghana where he too easily gave up the ball in his defensive third and did not track back defensively fast enough. It was a musical chairs act at that role throughout the tourney and that is an area where you need to have stability not rotation. Maurice Edu was pretty good when he entered vs. Slovenia, solid vs. Algeria in 64 minutes of work, and very good against Ghana when he came on for Clark in the 34th minute. Again why the fluctuation?
The Fatal Flaw: I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time on the central defending of the U.S. because this is something we've been focusing for months now. The fact of the matter is that it has been a major problem for some time without any one real solution. They tried several different looks, Clarence Goodson and Jay DeMerit, DeMerit and Onyewu, DeMerit and Bocanegra, and I think even at one time Edu and Goodson, but none of those looks really worked. The U.S. was burned in three of four matches inside the first 15 minutes, and realistically it should have been four of four because Algeria crushed the crossbar in the 5th minute of that game. When it came down to it was a fatal flaw that could not be overcome.
The Missing Piece: One issue that I mentioned briefly before with my critique of Findley, but really has not been mentioned much as one of the big issues, was the the poor finishing the MNT displayed throughout the tournament. Like Wayne Rooney of England, the forwards for the U.S. did not deliver a single goal, inexcusable really.
As much as I praised Jozy Altidore the other day after the Algerian match for his work rate, he was very disappointing against Ghana. He looked tired for a lot of the game and had two brilliant chances to provide the go-ahead and potential game-winning goal, but did not come through on either. In the 67th minute he was unleashed with a great ball into the box, but a poor touch allowed the Ghana keeper to come nick it away. In the 80th minute he had an even better chance as he looked like he was getting ready to muscle off a Ghana defender to score much in the similar fashion he did vs. Spain last summer, but when the defender went down Altidore tried to dive to earn the PK while also shooting off-balance. He missed the net and did not earn the PK.
Altidore is only 20, and I think this World Cup will have done him a world of good to get this type of experience at such a young age, but he needs to be more composed around the box and get himself into better space more often if he is to become the great forward everyone thought he would be when he was sold for a cool $10 mill to Villareal. Too often Altidore looked to take players one-v-one or one-v-two or even one-v-three instead of playing the easy ball to a teammate - it's a case of he needs to let the game come to him more instead of forcing the issue. You look at the great footballing nations, the dominant powers right now - Germany, Brazil, Argentina, the Netherlands, Spain - and they all have world class forwards that finish the easy opportunities because they put themselves in the right spots, the moments of brilliance are really few and far between. Look at a guy like Klose of Germany, he has 12 World Cup goals, which puts in the top seven all-time, but he gets most of his goals off head balls where he has made the right run. I think this will come in time for Jozy, who realistically should have definitely two if not three more World Cups in his powerful young legs.
Insights of a former coach: My boy Jurgen Klinsmann made an excellent point today after the Germany match about the U.S. and their performance in the Ghana match. Klinsmann (my all-time favorite player), who was a world class player for Germany winning the 1990 World Cup as well as the 1996 Euro Cup and also coached the Germans to the semis in 2006, was renowned for his beliefs as a coach for taking care of all the little factors that could become problems or issues for his team off the pitch. He very much believed in creating an environment where his players could thrive the best because they were solely focused on the task at hand.
What Klinsmann noticed from the Ghana match was that the U.S. looked to be playing perhaps in the past off their recent exhilarating win over Algeria instead of playing in the present. In his opinion, Klinsmann thought the U.S. looked as if they had not been properly prepared for Ghana, thinking the match would come easy for them, which is perhaps a huge reason they had another sluggish start.
I think it is a great observation by Klinsi. Yes the Americans had World Cup veterans in Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan, but that's only four of the starting 11 and only Donovan of that group played on the team that advanced to the quarterfinals in 2002. Again there's a reason the big countries always advance, they know what it takes to get through these grueling tests of fortitude later in the tournament. We are new to this level of expectations, and I think in the World Cups to come will respond.
A new role: How many times in big tournaments have the U.S. been favorites in big matches? The answer is really none.
Realistically the red, white and blue were favorites every time they didn't play England in this tournament and had a tough time playing in that capacity. They were nearly shell-shocked by the smallest team in South Africa when Slovenia struck for two first-half goals. The Americans fought back for a deserved tie that would have been a win if not for the phantom foul on the Edu goal, but again they should have won that game comfortably. Truth be told they dominated Algeria, but they lacked classy finishing in front of the net before Donovan's incredible winner. And we saw what happened when they had the responsibility of facing the lone remaining African team - realistically they fell to a team that was not as good as the MNT, just a hungrier team.
It's very frustrating because although they did not always play up to top form in the group stages they still managed to win their group for the first time in 80 years to set up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get to the semifinals. I have stated this over and over again, but it bears repeating - the U.S. will never face an easier draw to the semifinals. Ghana was obviously a dangerous and worthy opponent as they showed, but they are not a giant in the world of football. The same can be said for the team they would have faced in the quarterfinals in Uruguay, whose two World Cup trophies came back in 1930 (the first tournament) and 1950. Any team in this tournament would have fancied its chances had they been given that path to the semifinals.
The outside factors: Rich Slate and myself wrote extensively before the tournament about the injury concerns that had plagued the team in the lead up to the World Cup, most notably Onyewu and Charlie Davies - a player that suffered a near-fatal car accident (broken femur, lacerated bladder, bleeding of the brain, broken elbow, more facial fractures) just days after Onyewu had torn up his knee.
Onyewu was able to come back just in time for the World Cup training camp, and showed enough to Bradley that he earned a spot on the team and even played 170 minutes in the tournament, though he was never at his pre-injury level. Onyewu was never the fastest of players, so that was never going to be a problem, but he seemed to lack match preparation and by that I mean the subtleties of the game - reading the play, and communicating and organizing the defense. The absence of the old Onyewu left a gaping hole in the center of defense that was the U.S.'s biggest flaw.
Davies was almost the comeback story of the World Cup, getting healthy enough from the injuries in the accident that had threatened his career after several major surgeries to be able to train lightly with his team Sochaux in France in late March. For those that don't know, Davies - an All-American at Boston College - burst onto the national team scene with an incredible performance at the Confederations Cup, and would undoubtedly have been Altidore's striking partner in South Africa.
But his issue was he was not able to regain an ability to maintain endurance, something that actually concerns me for his future. Sochaux wrote a letter to Bob Bradley explaining this and did not clear him to go to the U.S. camp, and Bradley adhered to the French club's wishes not inviting Davies to camp. It must also be said though that Bradley had an assistant coach in France monitoring Davies progress, taking notes, and advising Bradley as well and so his decision was not solely based on Sochaux's wishes.
The U.S. never found a suitable replacement for Davies, Bradley elected to go first with Findley, a player with similar qualities physically but not in ability. However, Buddle, Gomez, and even Dempsey when he was slotted into the position never showed enough to earn the spot on a regular basis, and as I mentioned before not a single U.S. forward scored a single goal in the World Cup.