The Ship Be Sinking

Mouth Almighty

Forever on the cusp

Swagger is a funny thing – the aura of invincibility that can surround a person or a team can make them fearsome to oppose…it can take a person or group of modest means and transform them into a force of nature. Unfortunately for the USMNT, they discovered that those auras can be remarkably fragile when contested by a determined and fearless opponent…of course, it also helps if said opponent fields a team worth more than the GDP of most mid-sized countries.

I watched the Confederations Cup final in my usual watering hole during the Premier League season, a fine place called Nevada Smith’s. I got there an hour before kickoff – any later, and I likely would not have gotten in the door. It was almost an entirely pro-USA crowd, much of whom were the usual lot that support the New York Red Bulls (I went to one NYRB game at Nevada’s at a friend’s insistence – it was this season’s opener, and it was the only time anything serious has ever kicked off at Nevada’s in my presence…suffice to say that they have an element among them that I don’t care for…let’s just agree to blame it on New Jersey and move on), and they were as boisterous as always. The “Yes We Can” chant was probably inevitable, in retrospect.

In the end, yesterday’s game had striking parallels to the 2002 World Cup as a whole, and the opener against Portugal in particular. You may remember that in that match, the USA blitzkrieged Portugal for three quick goals before clinging on to dear life for the 3-2 win. Unlike in that game though, the Yanks made it to the halftime interval with the 2-0 lead (it’s too bad it wasn’t three – none of the reports mention this, but we did have some chances to make it so in the first half). In 2002, the Portuguese pulled one back almost immediately after going down 3-1, but the States held and held until the 71st, and then held some more until the final whistle. Let’s face it, though…as good as Portugal are, they are not Brazil.

More tellingly, though, the US in 2002 played Portugal, South Korea, Poland and Mexic0 to get to the quarterfinals. Portugal was a win, Korea a draw, and Poland an absolutely hideous 3-0 loss. They of course beat Mexico in the round of 16, only to valiantly lose to Germany in a match they could and likely should have won. Hmm…a valiant loss to a soccer superpower in a match they should have won…why, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

When the nuclear winter comes and the only matches to be played are between teams of mutant cockroaches, the epitaph of our national soccer program will be “Forever on the cusp of greatness, but never to grasp it.” Admittedly, it’s a damn sight better than being aggressively awful (read as: 1950-1989). It’s certainly an improvement on barely qualifying for Italia 90 and then getting steamrollered in three straight punchless losses in the first round. But, in another sense, it’s almost worse to have a glimpse of Eden and not be allowed in. If you support Malta for example, even scoring a goal against a bigger soccer nation (read as: everyone) counts as a glorious triumph…the Maltese supporter will never know a feeling like yesterday’s galling conclusion.

To be fair, though, that supporter will also never know a feeling like the first half. It was like the Portugal game, only better. Looking at the teamsheets before the game, this was on paper a potential embarrassment (you know, like the one the same opponents inflicted on us in the group stage). However, while I will never be confused with Landon Donovan’s Biggest Fan, you have to tip your cap to him – his workrate in this tournament has been immense, his heart and desire beyond reproach. As for Clint Dempsey (of whom I may indeed be the Biggest Fan), he’s ghosted through long stretches of almost every game, only to come up aces when an opportunity comes along. There was always at least a small chance with them out there, and the US counter-attacked brilliantly on two occasions to make those chances happen.

Jonathan Spector (who also had a great tournament before being overwhelmed by an ocean of yellow shirts in the second half of the final) sent a raking ball into the area, and Dempsey’s volley was nothing short of majestic.

Seriously, if a space alien came down to Earth for the first time and you asked it to point out the player in white who plays in the world’s top league, it wouldn’t have a hard time doing so. I (heart) Clint Dempsey.

Anyway, Donovan’s goal may have been even better – an imperious and opportunistic bit of smash-and-grab forward play culminating in a wonderful finish against the grain of Julio Cesar’s net.

I’d be lying if I said I remember large stretches of the match…but I do know that both goals resulted in a crazed hysteria of spilled beer, pogoing up and down like lunatics, and throat-rending screams. The singing was filled with bravado, the air already that of a celebration rather than a job half-finished. I was of two minds, even in the boozy haze – most of me felt that the Yanks would hold on, but the nagging voice in my head told me that the Brazilians would likely make tactical changes at halftime (say what you will about their manager, Dunga…but you can’t say that he is a stupid man) and that Bob Bradley would have to make the right counter-moves.

Dunga vs. Bob Bradley is a mismatch on the level of…well…Brazil vs. the United States.

Anyway, as mentioned, I will have to leave it up to other commentators to break down the X’s and O’s of what Brazil did differently. I’ve read some who claim that they used the wings more and that our guys didn’t close down their fullbacks effectively enough. The only trouble with that is that we didn’t close down the wide players in the first half, either…or against Spain for that matter. Bradley ended up specifically telling the press that they deliberately conceded the wide areas to Spain and let them hit in as many crosses as they wanted (in the belief that Oguchi Onyweu and Jay DeMerit would clear them out). That worked against Spain, and it worked in the first half of this game…I don’t think that was the issue.

The truth is that the backline started getting beat with more regularity on attacks that they quelled earlier on. I believe it to be some combination of fatigue and lack of experience in playing this many high-profile games back to back. Besides that, the Brazilians passed and moved more intelligently – they surely took our guys lightly in the first half (and after the abortion of a game in the group stage, why wouldn’t they?).

The other problem, of course, was momentum. If the Yanks had gone 10 minutes of the second half without conceding, I don’t believe the 2-0 scoreline would have ever changed. It was obvious that Brazil’s plan was to storm out of the gates, get a quick one, and then use that momentum to carry them on to the 2nd and 3rd goals. Sure enough, DeMerit was just a tad too slow to close down Luis Fabiano, and his brilliant turn-and-shoot was perfectly placed in the corner. Tim Howard had no chance…and after that, neither did our boys. The game was over, and we were a dead team walking.

I wasn’t the only one to know it, too. It’d be too far to say Nevada’s was a morgue, but the noise level plummeted after the goal. There were some defiant attempts later to keep it going, but not for a good 5 minutes after the goal at least. It was the ultimate in sucker punches, and the team never recovered.

From there, it was one-way traffic on Howard’s goal. As good as Brad Friedel is, as good as Kasey Keller was, neither of them are in Howard’s league. Bruce Arena’s decision to play the ancient Keller instead of Howard in the 2006 World Cup is one that causes a homicidal rage in me to this day. IT WAS SO FUCKING OBVIOUS, BRUCE. *sigh* Anyway, he proved his stature as a world-class goalkeeper with that performance. There will be those who will disagree because Alex Ferguson gave up on him way too soon, and others because he had the gall to be born American. Whatever. Howard is one of the top 5-10 goalkeepers in the world today, and you can’t tell me otherwise. He was magnificent, and it was sad that his efforts didn’t get the reward they deserved.

Of course, we all know what happened from there. It’s still too soon, and I really don’t feel like talking about the game itself any longer.

That said, the most heartening thing to me was the interviews that Donovan gave after the game. Instead of playing it off as a wonderful effort and “anyone could have won on the day”, he made it clear that no one on our side felt that this was good enough, and he stated that these are the games that they have to win if they are to make it to the next level. He’s right. The other thing that has to happen is Bob Bradley has to be fired. Right now.

Actually, that’s one of the worst things to come out of the Yanks’ strong showing in this tournament – it probably saved his job. He is a fine coach at the MLS level, but he is far out of his depth here. On the face of it, a casual observer would look at his results and think he was doing a good job. In reality, the 0-0 with Argentina, the win over Spain and many of the qualifying wins of our region have more to do with heroic individual displays from Howard, Donovan and Dempsey more than anything else.

Right now, the USA has the deepest talent pool in its history (and would be even deeper if the clowns at the US Soccer Federation hadn’t chased away Neven Subotic, who now plays for Serbia, and blown it with Jersey-born Guiseppe Rossi, who plays for Italy). The ability is there, but someone has to be able to teach this team how to play together, how to pass and move and actually keep possession of the ball when up against top-level sides. Bradley is a nice guy, but he’s not that guy. If this defeat has taught us anything, it’s that we will never grasp that promise of greatness without someone who’s done it all before leading the way. For the love of god, PLEASE HIRE JURGEN KLINSMANN. I don’t care how much money it takes, the guy lives in California and is currently unemployed…MAKE IT HAPPEN.

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June 29, 2009 - Posted by | Other Soccer

4 Comments »

  1. So–no mention of the goal that was/wasn’t? I’m curious what you thought of that–the one that Howard swatted out from the inside of the goal…

    And I completely agree that Howard is a brilliant keeper–I saw his first game with Man U and was blown away, glad to see he’s back to that level (I rarely follow any league anymore, I’m sure he’s been back on game for quite a while, forgive me!)

    Comment by Caty | June 29, 2009 | Reply

    • Hi Caty!

      1. It was an absolute nailed-on goal. No question. I have to defend the linesman though…it all happened so fast, at 2-2 in a final you have to be 100% sure it’s in. In real time, from his angle, it must have been difficult. It probably doesn’t help that Howard is a big dude and was probably blocking out his line of sight! Anyway, I didn’t mention it because it made no difference in the end. Once they scored so soon in the second half, it was over…3-2, 4-2, 9-2…didn’t matter. They didn’t get that call, but they barely complained about it at all…they knew that the third was coming eventually. In retrospect, even if we had made it to extra time, it just would have meant the final would have been 4-2 or worse…another 30 minutes, who knows how many more they would score?

      2. He had one season in the wilderness on the ManYoo bench, but they loaned him out to Everton after that…he played well, and David Moyes signed him to a permanent deal.

      Thanks for reading!

      Comment by primetimeswift | June 29, 2009 | Reply

  2. Not to be confused with Bradley’s biggest fan but I think the tactics he used against Spain prove he can hack it on the big stage. I was always unsure if Klinsmann is the type of coach to take a midlevel talent team (more on this in a second) and make them world-beaters. Germany isn’t exactly a dry bed of soccer genius, after all. Turning them around is like getting a good recruiting class at a top basketball school — yeah, it takes talent, but it’s not a major upset. You seem to think we’re ready to make that jump, and I guess I’m less sure.

    Anyway, on player talent: We’ve never had a great striker or a brilliant midfielder. The pool is deeper, yes, but I feel like one great player would change the game for the U.S. (It coulda been Rossi, too.) It’s telling that Donovan was our best player for most of the Brazil game; he’s a hard working midfielder who’s not overly quick, not overly strong, not overly elusive, not overly good in a tackle — in short, he’s well-rounded and talented, but he doesn’t exactly stand out. Whereas, every time Kaka touched the ball in the second half, I was in a cold sweat.

    I don’t know what it is about our system, but we produce a lot of well-rounded, fit players, but we don’t produce transcendent stars. I’m sure part of it is the other sports (imagine Allen Iverson in his prime as an attacking midfielder!) but at some point, you have to wonder why nobody who’s come through the U.S. program has ever been a world-beater.

    Comment by TK | June 29, 2009 | Reply

    • Hey Todd!

      1. As great as the Spain match was, it was one game. For me, the Brazil match showed why Bradley isn’t capable…let’s say that someone like Mourinho was our manager. It’d never happen, but work with me here. Do you think for one second he’d have let them lose their concentration so early in the second? Do you think he’d have made defensive substitutions at 2-2 against a team with all the momentum? Would he pick Bornstein over Spector for as long as he did? Would he have kept DeMerit on the bench in favor of playing DAMARCUS FUCKING BEASLEY at left back? Would he sit Freddy Adu for the whole tournament?

      As for the talent pool, I think it’s actually heading in the right direction. In the Brazil game, we lined up with: Howard – Bocanegra, Onyewu, DeMerit, Spector – Donovan, Clark, Feilhaber, Dempsey – Altidore, Davies. By way of comparison, look at this lot…the lineup from the 3-2 win over Portugal: Friedel, Mastroeni, Sanneh, Pope (Llamosa 80), Agoos, O’Brien, Hejduk, Beasley, McBride, Donovan (Moore 75), Stewart (Jones 45).

      Tony Sanneh! Carlos Llamosa! JEFF FUCKING AGOOS! Playing in a World Cup game! With the exception of McBride, the lineup in yesterday’s game is better than their 2002 counterparts…miles better in some cases (even with Donovan vs. Donovan – he’s a much more complete player now).

      As for the great striker, don’t sleep on Jozy quite yet. He’s still 19, and he made Joan Capdevila look like a tool for our first against Spain. You can also make a solid argument that Claudio Reyna was, albeit briefly, close to a world-class midfielder. You can make a slightly-less solid argument for Tab Ramos, but here is where Deuce is underrated. Dempsey may be better than all of them.

      We’re not going to develop a Kaka while our universities are still the main breeding ground of talent. The jackasses coaching those teams only care about physical prowess and conditioning…seriously, it’s like a poor man’s England setup. But, it wasn’t all that long ago when the idea of a Yank playing in the Premier League would have brought chortles from the peanut gallery…more recently than that was the unthinkable notion of an American POSITION player making a serious impact – first came McBride, then Deuce. It isn’t the players on the field (well, once the right 11 were actually fucking picked) that is the problem.

      As for Klinsmann, that German team was not highly-regarded at all before the 2006 tournament started. They were absolutely roasted by their own fans and press for some admittedly-shitty results in pre-tournament friendlies, and no one had them doing much once the knockout rounds started. I’ll grant you that they had a cake opening group and they were at home…but their performance in the knockout rounds more than made up for it (only losing to an Italian team that honestly was lucky to be there…were it not for Grosso’s outrageous dive that the idiot of a ref bought, they were going to penalties against the Aussies…at that point, who knows? It’s not like the Italians have done well in shootouts before…BAGGIO’D!!!).

      Jesus, this was almost as many words as the blog itself. 🙂

      Comment by primetimeswift | June 29, 2009 | Reply


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