BRENT LATHAM - Monday, June 15, 2009
Less than ten hours to match time, and it is an absolutely perfect day for soccer in South Africa's capital. The sky is blue, the weather is crisp like a northeastern day in early fall, and the stadium is ready to go. I'll arrive at Loftus Versfeld with plenty of time to spare so as not to be bothered by the unusual traffic patterns of the capital, especially on the first match day here. FIFA has pulled out all the stops at the media centers, and it is quite easy to just lounge around here all day and communicate, which is, in fact, the job at hand.
That said, a few final thoughts on US-Italy before the match gets underway this evening.
Questions to be answered
I've already mentioned a number of times that I don't agree with those who are so down on the USA. The US hasn't done anything differently in the last few matches - either for better or worse - than they had at any point in the tenure of Coach Bob Bradley, and I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. The revelation would have been if this team had gone to Costa Rica on short rest and manhandled the Ticos in their home stadium.
I'm anxious to for the match to get underway tonight because I think there are many questions to be answered. Can the US step up to the level of its world class opponents, as it has done many times before, even after mediocre performances in CONCACAF? With the pressure off, relatively indifferent opponents, and a neutral crowd (not like Chicago), this may be just the time for the US to assert itself on a large international stage.
Some final observations about the probable lineup
That said, indications from training are that coach Bradley might be ready to part with his overwhelmingly defensive approach, perhaps having been convinced that the defense is simply not solid enough to continuously resist pressure for ninety minutes and hope to counterattack or score on a set piece.
As I wrote in the preview, Bradley, ever the experimenter of late, may be inclined to use the 4-4-1-1 formation Bruce Arena used to love, with either Benny Feilhaber or Sasha Klejstan as the attacking midfielder playing under Jozy Altidore up top. But the formation is not really the familiar one, but rather a hybrid built around a triangle in the center of midfield, with two defensive mids and a more offensively oriented one flanked by Donovan and Dempsey.
It's an interesting plan, and just may work against Italy - but here's the rub: the flanks, already vulnerable as we know, will need to be covered by serious, ninety minute efforts both ways from both Donovan and Dempsey. I'm not sure they're up to it. At any rate this plan has more chance of success against a more direct Italy team than it will against the speed on the flanks of Brazil. We'll have to wait to see if Bradley will alter his tactics for that game.
I went to the wrong game
I spent Sunday afternoon at Ellis Park in Johannesburg watching a drab affair in which host South Africa played to a scoreless tie with Iraq. Sufficed to say neither of these teams belongs in a competition of this magnitude, but one is the host country and the other a continental champion. Nevertheless the atmosphere was unforgettable and well worth the trip down to the capital.
Iraq played rather cynically under coach Bora, who laughed away the ire of the South African media over his tactics at the press conference. South Africa should have won the match in the late going, when one of their forward sent a sharp header on goal and beat the Iraqi keeper, but the ball bounced off one of his teammates, who in trying to emphatically slam it into the open net ended up knocking it out. Bora admitted he had never seen such a play, but said, as always - that's football.
The match to be at was 100 miles away in Rustenburg, where Spain pounced on New Zealand early - Fernando Torres had a hat trick after seventeen minutes - and cruised to a 5-0 victory. I'm not sure who will stop Spain at this point, especially after three warm up matches in the first round against the likes of the Kiwis, Iraq, and South Africa.
With two more victories Spain will set themselves up to pass Brazil in the semifinals for the longest unbeaten streak in soccer history - 36 if they make through the semis. It would be nice if that matchup were with the US - might have stopped the streak in Spain last year if Eddie Johnson had put away his open header. Failing that, a Brazil matchup in which the Selecao would have a chance to defend their streak would be interesting.
Just a reminder that I'll be checking in from the Stadium all day, and twittering on @yanksabroad running up to game time, so check in. If you have any special requests for interviews or questions, post them here and I'll see what I can do after the game or in the next few days.