LESSONS FROM SOUTH AFRICA
The crowds have returned home, the lights in the stadiums have been shut off and the vuvuzelas have been packed away, at least for now. The curtain has been brought down on another FIFA Confederations Cup. Despite the lack of full stadiums for some of the matches, there was a high degree of excitement at every game and a lot of teams did not disappoint. From the look of things the 2010 World Cup could be one of the best tournaments ever.
The Brazilians showing of their Samba brand of soccer to the masses as they breezed through group play in the first week. The Egyptians showed their grit and determination as they narrowly missed getting a result against Brazil and earning the upset victory over Italy. The host, South Africa, came into the World Cup prequel with the task of trying to prove to their supporters that they can be a competitive team that no one should overlook.
The US National Team also came into this tournament with a point to prove. After several lackluster performances in World Cup qualifying, Bob Bradley's men had to have been hoping to turn their luck around in the land of Mandela.
After heavy losses to world champions Italy and defending champions Brazil, it looked as though it would be in and out for the boys. Then out of no where victories over African champions Egypt and European champions Spain miraculously put them into the finals for the first time in any FIFA competition.
Although the run ended with a heartbreaking loss to Brazil, the US can still walk away with their heads held high in the fact that they seem to have gotten out of their little funk and righted the ship.
There are several things they can take from their excursion to the south of the equator.
Lesson 1: Carlos Bocanegra could hold down the left back spot for the remainder of World Cup qualifying.
The backline of the US National Team has always been a topic of discussion amongst fans and experts alike. The left back spot has received the most attention as it is the weakest link to what could be the strongest backline in CONCACAF. The likes of free agent Heath Pearce, CD Chivas' Jonathan Bornstein and even Rangers midfielder DaMarcus Beasley have been used to alleviate the problem. However, all of the experiments ended in mixed results.
Enter the Rennes defender to save the day and spearhead the team to the final. Having played in the position all season in France it was pretty much a given that coach Bradley would use the former MLS Defender of the Year on the left as central defenders Oguchi Oneywu and Jay DeMerit worked out fairly well. Los may not be the fastest or the flashiest player on the left, but he gets the job done.
Although he may not be the permanent answer to the Nats problems on the left, don't be surprised if Bradley uses him there for rest of the World Cup qualifiers.
Lesson 2: If you want to have a competitive team in 2010, you've got to be playing for your club
One of Bob Bradley's concerns during World Cup qualifying and the Confederations Cup has been some his European-based players lack of playing time with their clubs. A lot of this has been evident in recent matches.
While the wonderkid Altidore scored a goal against Spain in the semifinal and showed great strength in holding off defenders, he would have to admit that he wishes he could have been sharper with the shots he did have at the goal. Lack of playing time at his parent club and La Liga newcomers Xerez may not have slowed his development, but it certainly made less fit for matches.
If reports are true that he wants to leave the Yellow Submarine before the start of the European season then it's going to take an offer close to $10 million dollars as the Europa League participants will want to recoup most of what they spent on the former New York Red Bull.
DaMarcus Beasley saw little time at the World Cup warm up and for good reason. The speedy attacker saw more time on the pine and in the doctor's office than on the field for the Scottish Premier League champions. While the play of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey was exceptional it would have been great to see DMB play more. He's not out of Bradley's plans yet, but if he can't find a suitor this summer then he had better start making his summer plans away from South Africa.
This upcoming European season is going to be critical to the US's performance in the World Cup and players getting onto the field and playing critical minutes could be a telling sign as to how the team performs at next summer's grand show.
Lesson 3: A European team had better sign Landon Donovan
Normally most of us would be saying that the LA Galaxy star needs to go to Europe and play on that stage. Now, I think it's time to put the pressure on the European clubs. At 27 years old he is at that point where players reach their peak performance and who knows how many chances he has left to get over there and make a name for himself.
This Confederations Cup was the best Donovan has played in a long time for the US. His quickness on counter attacks and excellent passing to set up goals for others were the highlights of his experience in South Africa. It's just a pity he didn't get to capture one of those shiny awards at the end of the final.
Will his performances result in a return to Europe this summer? Only the LA Galaxy, Donovan and his agent know what will happen in the coming weeks. His preferred destination is Spain, which could be a good fit for the former Bayern Munich loanee.
Let's wait and see what happens in July.
Lesson 4: Tim Howard is the best goalkeeper in the world
Say what you want about Czech international Petr Cech, Italian international Gianluigi Buffon or Spanish international Iker Casillas. Right now, the Evertonian is the world's best keeper. His saves were a vital part of keeping the Spanish at bay in their 2-0 victory. He was the catalyst in keeping the Brazilians from scoring in the first half in the final.
Many people early on were ready to write him off after a few slip ups in the early part of his European career and after the signing of another world class keeper in Edwin Van der Sar, he knew it was time to move on and prove his critics wrong. Now, Everton manager David Moyes has got to consider his purchase of the New Jersey native as money well spent.
Granted, the US did allow a lot of goals in during the tournament, but can you blame the former Manchester United man for them? I think not.
Lesson 5: The vuvuzelas are here to stay
There colorful, long and obnoxiously loud, but I think FIFA will not ban the ever so popular vuvuzelas. This "instrument" has been apart of South African soccer for ages and to take it away would definitely be an insult to many South Africans.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter has mentioned that the organization doesn't want to "Europeanize" the game in Africa, so this maybe the last time we hear anything about the horns being chucked out of the stadiums.
Lesson 6: Finishing second isn't bad at all.
That's what the Red, White and Blue would have probably said several years ago if they made it to a final. The attitude of this national team is one that has high expectations of itself. One could sense the disappointment and frustration of losing a game that they could have won. It also would be no surprise if any of them were itching to have another go at the Brazilians.
The era of shocking the world with upset victories against top caliber teams is over. Now the US expects to win these games and that is the attitude that is carry this team a long way in the future.
So what lies in the future of Bradley and his men is the Gold Cup. Although it will almost entirely consist of players that didn't go to South Africa their performance in the upcoming matches can give fans a sign as to how they will react to coming so close capturing their first ever FIFA trophy.
The World Cup maybe less than a year away, but with their almost certain qualification the boys will go back to South Africa next summer with a greater hunger and determination to not only knock off the giants of world soccer, but also to progress as far as they can.