I just finished my second viewing of Sunday's US win over Ecuador and there's a lot to talk about, good and bad.
I must say I somehow felt the overall show put on by Bob Bradley's men in Tampa improved as a repeat. Truly blending MLS-based players and Euros (aka those not yet in shape and those a bit exhausted) for the first time, the coach wisely abandoned the tactics from the first two games to give the team more of an attacking lean.
Bradley, however, doesn't get as high of a mark as Man of the Match Landon Donovan. The Galaxy star made the boss look good with a trio of slick finishes, but I almost got the feeling the coach was too "operating for a good result" and not enough "take a good look at as many neophytes as possible".
The newbies we did see considerable minutes from - Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber - did proud with their play. Each showed not only that they belonged with the US regulars, but actually made those guys better.
Being without Jay DeMerit and Heath Pearce due to knocks didn't help, but I'm pretty sure Bradley doesn't need 83 and 90+ minutes respectively to evaluate DaMarcus Beasley and Donovan. Anyway, we'll get that in time... so much to cover, so much to cover.
Simply put, Landon Donovan gave his best US performance in a loooong time on Sunday. After the game, he chalked his fine display up to a self-inflicted maturation process in the aftermath of World Cup 2006 - I, for one, hope Sunday was a sign of things to expect in the future.
Aside from three classy finishes, Donovan darted through sieves in the Ecuador defense, led wide players forward in stride and generally caused trouble all over the field. Besides that, he proved that he shouldn't be considered a forward on his third strike of the day.
Donovan arrived just when he should, as the fourth man into the area, to blister an unstoppable shot into the top shelf. Call him a forward all day, just treat him like an attacking midfielder. At his best, Donovan should approximate for the US what Frank Lampard provides for Chelsea - and Lampard is no striker.
One thing has been bugging me a while, though: must he take so many corner kicks? Not only are his deliveries a 50/50 proposition, but it would be nice to have his poaching skills used for far post runs on occasion.
Next to Donovan, Hamburg rookie Benny Feilhaber was the star of the show for me. As with the entire unit, the former UCLA walk-on looked better the second time around.
Easily our most inventive passer on the day, the 23-year old debutant shined despite being miscast as a defensive midfielder. He was an emergency option there for HSV in the Champions League, but really seems to have learned how to use his body to win balls in Germany.
Some fans have barked that he made terrible giveaways, but Feilhaber's only potentially hazardous turnover came with 20 minutes left. He was far too busy spinning away from Ecuadorians, lofting pinpoint diagonal long balls, winning free kicks and forcing teammates into scoring lanes with insistent through passing to cough up much.
Feilhaber was (for shameful lack of a better term) "the new JOB" in Tampa, but a few incidents stood out.
[bullet]13th minute - he tries a toe poke quarter moon lead pass for Brian Ching, who is a little slow to react to the possibilities. It was a fleeting moment, but assurance that Feilhaber still has a little Brazilian in him.
[bullet]31st minute - he clears a Ulises de la Cruz bullet header from Tim Howard's line straight out to Donovan, who starts the ball the other way.
[bullet]58th minute - Feilhaber makes a physical steal after Beasley clumsily sends Ecuador running at the area with a bad pass.
[bullet]70th minute - he executes a textbook slide tackle to halt Edison Mendez from steaming down the right flank with three front running targets at his disposal.
No, he didn't score, but Benny boy sure did keep the team headed in the right direction by spraying passes all over the field. It may have taken a short while for Feilhaber to earn his first cap, but he left stateside audiences with a strong first impression.
Before we begin: anyone still claiming nepotism, leave the room. The adults are going to talk now, mmmmkay?
Mikey entered at halftime and gave his pop 45 minutes of capable midfield traffic direction. I have long endorsed Bradley and Feilhaber as the next US central midfield dynamic duo of note, and neither disappointed.
The Heerenveen youngster looked as confident changing the flow of play as he did calm acting as a back-to-front conduit. Donovan coulda had the US back on top as early as the 59th minute, when Ching tapped an incisive Bradley pass into his path.
These kids are indeed alright, so get used to seeing them.
Yeah, Oguchi Onyewu looked confused during the first 30 minutes, but he's got a good excuse: his day job partner is Newcastle funnyman Titus Bramble. Once the big lug remembered he actually had a shrewd defender next to him on Sunday, the old Gooch showed himself.
Seriously... if Newcastle plan to keep you with Bramble, staying is not an option. After only a couple months of covering for the wandering Keystone Cop, Onyewu started the Ecuador game with a look of surprise on his face. By the second half, he had his usual grimace and his usual predatory instincts took over to positive effect.
Bottom line: he was quite poor in the early going and gutted out a passable overall grade. I doubt there's anything going on that more time away from Bramble the AWOL can't cure.
I've never been a big Ching fan, but he deserves credit for a gutsy supporting performance on Sunday. He provided some strong link play and cleared defenders with his running.
In the end, however, my longstanding opinion remains: he makes plays too slowly to have an effect deep into this World Cup cycle.
His best bet to excel would be at the top of a 4-3-3, where he could continue banging bodies with several buzzers running off of him from all angles, but even then he seems likely to be surpassed by a number of young American strikers over the next few years.
And here's one of those guys, but I know what you're probably thinking. He was terrible, he is terrible and so forth. I perused some fan ratings for Ecuador win and far too many US devotees had the simple gall to give him a "3" or "4" out of 10 for his 45 minutes of honest work.
I can't say this more clearly: utter nonsense.
Johnson again showed signs of becoming (or again becoming, depending on how you look at it) a dangerous US forward. The fan reaction to his display was so damning that I made a game of counting positive and negative Eddie Johnson actions on my second viewing of the game.
I did not give him a minus for the shot over from Feilhaber's 14th minute seeing eye pass because a)he was wildly offside & b)he didn't let the obvious nature of his offside position stop him from hurrying off a solid attempt towards goal just in case. I did, however, give a minus on two occasions when he received after a good run down the right, then played a poor ball across... just to give an idea of my scale's range.
After 45 minutes, I had counted eight "+" actions and four "-" actions, not too shabby considering that strikers will always have multiple negative actions - even games where they score twice.
More importantly, he used good touches to continue US builds, made numerous smarts runs off the ball and placed a shoulda-been sitter on Beasley's head. Now, if we can just get him a goal...
Speaking of shoulda-been sitters, Clint Dempsey has been criticized harshly for his showing, including a "how did he miss that?" gaffe on the doorstep. He definitely has to put that Carlos Bocanegra flick home, but as with Johnson, the more subtle parts of his performance seem to gone over a few heads.
Like EJ, Dempsey had a positive effect by stretching out the backline, even without end product. He wasn't terribly insistent on the dribble, but made several helpful passes when the US were applying pressure and hustled defensively
All defense aside, though, the shelf life of Chris Coleman's excuse that Deuce is not yet match fit has about elapsed. Considering Simon Davies has been utterly tragic lately, it's high time this Texas native gets what he needs: more playing time, plain and simple.
Both Dempsey and Johnson could also use a healthy dose of support from ever-doubting US fans, even more so when they are fighting earnestly to get back to their best.
Just as I was screaming myself hoarse for Bradley to bring on Mapp, da Bease remembered that he could play this game and gave more than a perfectly acceptable final 20 minutes of play.
Frankly, Beasley was stunningly inefficient... I mean, really, really bad... up until the hour mark, but his beautiful cut back pass for Donovan's hat trick maker reminded all that he is indeed more than just a kick-and-chase attacker.
Like Dempsey, Beasley probably just needs more consistent playing time to get right, so let's cut him a break.
Looking ahead to Guatemala
Friendly wins are nice, but it's time to check out more of these unknown variables, such as DeMerit, Pearce and Frank Simek, as well as Ecuador cameo players Justin Mapp and Jonathan Spector.
If Donovan plays 90 minutes on Wednesday, I will really start wondering whether Bradley is coaching for the program or his job status (Beasley getting 80, I can understand). I can forgive him for going all out if it was arch rival Mexico we were playing on Sunday, but any other opponent should have been seen merely as sparring partners.
It may not be fair to blame him either way - espn2 sideline reporter revealed the ridiculous tidbit that USSF chief Sunil Gulati has yet to hold a single conversation with Bradley pertaining to his interim status.
I suppose in the ultra-secretive US Soccer realm it is considered acceptable to leave a guy on the hook for months on end, but the coach can start convincing me he belongs by risking a lesser result to test unproven internationals.
The time to find out about everybody is now, coach, not when we roll into Copa America with less than our top unit. If the so-called squad outsiders can only get 10 minutes of garbage time, we won't build quality depth and we won't improve as quickly in the long run.
I'm not saying I want an inferior performance against Guatemala, I'm just saying there's more than one way to define success in friendlies. At the beginning of a four-year cycle, wins are far less important than learning.