US SALVAGES DRAW WITH CHILE
In their first game of 2011, the United States national team battled to a draw with Chile on Saturday night at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California.
As is the tradition with the annually January friendly, US head coach Bob Bradley started many players who were earning their first international cap. In the starting lineup, Sean Franklin, Zach Lloyd, Jeff Larentowiz, and Chris Wondolowski were all making their international debuts.
Alejandro Bedoya, Dax McCarty, and goalkeeper Nick Rimando had been capped multiple times while Mix Diskerud, Tim Ream, Brek Shea, and Omar Gonazalez each had just one previous cap.
"We had seven guys get their first cap tonight," Bradley said of the fresh-faced roster. "That's always positive. When you have a young group of guys in camp, at the end of everything you want to put it to a test. It gives you a good picture of where a lot of these guys are. From that standpoint, it was excellent."
While Bradley was happy to look at the new players, the inexperience showed early.
It was the Chileans who saw the first dangerous opportunity of the game when Sean Franklin got turned on the outside by Chilean winger Edson Puch. He fouled him on the edge of the box which many thought was a penalty. The referee instead awarded a free kick. Francisco Silva took the free kick but Rimando came up with a big save.
In the 12th minute, the US would finally start to generate offense when McCarty unleashed a powerful shot from 30 yards out that Chilean keeper Paulo Garces tipped over the bar.
McCarty, who was last capped at the end of 2009, learned prior to the match that he would wear the captain's armband which he says was a huge honor.
"I found out in our pregame meeting right after our pregame meal," McCarty discussed of being named captain. "It's a feeling you can't really describe. It was definitely a little unexpected. When [Coach Bradley] said I was going to wear the armband, it was a feeling of extreme pride and I'll remember for the rest of my life."
Two minutes later, Wondolowski unleashed a shot from 25 that Garces saved with a diving stop to his right.
In both the Wondolowski and McCarty chances, Shea was involved in the play's build up. Shea appeared to look better in his second cap after dreadful debut in October against Colombia and Bradley noticed the difference.
"I keep talking about the speed of games," Bradley said of Shea. "Against Colombia, Brek just said at halftime that 'that's faster than anything I've ever been in.' That day it's almost like it's going so fast from the start that he couldn't really find a way in the game. Tonight for 25 minutes you could see his growth. It was a good sign to see the progress."
For the rest of the half, the US struggled to find solid passing sequences in the final third of the field.
Most of their creative spark came through 20 year old Mikkel Diskerud who enjoyed a strong game in his first start for the national team where he showed off an incredible work rate for the full 90 minutes.
"It's something the coaches wanted me to work on and I wanted to show I could do that as well," Diskerud said of his work rate. "So maybe it was a little more working than flair but that's no problem when we get the result - maybe not the result we were hoping for - but in the end it was okay."
The inexperience would continue to show on the defensive side of the ball as players committed fouls in dangerous areas, specifically Loyd and Franklin who struggled at the fullback positions.
In the 27th minute, Chile forced Rimando to make another free kick save after Bedoya committed a foul about 30 yards out. Then in the 30th minute, Franklin was exposed again by Puch who sent in a cross that the US eventually cleared after a dangerous series in the box.
"In the first half often times when we had a chance to start to give the game a little bit of a pause," Bradley assessed. "We would put two or three or four passes together but quite often now when we needed to find a certain guy in a certain spot, we couldn't do that. The final part wasn't always good enough."
At the half, Wynne replaced Gonzalez at central defense, a position he has been playing for Colorado after playing at right back for most of his career.
Sean Johnson also entered into the game for his first cap. The 21 year old keeper enjoyed a strong rookie season for the Chicago Fire.
In the 53rd minute, Chile would grab the lead after a defensive breakdown from Loyd and Wynne. Seymour dribbled past Loyd with ease and sent in a cross that found a wide open Estaban Paredes which Wynne failed to mark. Paredes collected it and fired it from close range past a helpless Johnson.
The game would change in the Americans' favor in the 59th minute when Bradley called on the young striker duo of Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury who were both coming off impressive debuts against South Africa in November.
In that game in Cape Town, Agudelo and Bunbury entered into the game as second half substitutes and provided a spark that lifted the US to a 1-0 win with Agudelo scoring the winner in the 85th. In this game they would once again change everything as the Americans' attack sprung to life.
"As you work with these young guys in camp you see the potential," Bradley said of Bunbury and Agudelo. "There are still little things that need a lot of work. A lot has happened quickly for both of them. But hopefully we can kind of keep moving them in the right direction. Certainly they had enough days [at camp] when they played together and they seemed to both be into the idea that when they came on the field they needed to make a difference."
Suddenly, the US was combining well and players such as McCarty and Bedoya who had been struggling were all of a sudden playing up to their potential.
"Today they both did come on the field and give us a good lift," Bradley described of how the young duo changed the game. "Prior to that, we played along the lines of a 4-2-3-1, with Mikkel Diskerud having a little bit of a free role. I think it was a good change at that point to give it a different look. They both seemed to find good spots both in terms of holding onto the balls but also coming underneath."
In the 75th minute, the US would equalize when Agudelo combined with Bedoya on a give and go. At the end of the play Agudelo used nice dribbling to beat his defender and was taken down in the box. Mexican referee Francisco Chacon Gutierrez pointed to the spot much to the chagrin of the Chileans.
"Since South Africa, we've become close friends," Agudelo pointed out. "We've gotten along very well and tonight it shows a lot on the [field]. We were down and we wanted to make something happen so I worked with Alejandro [Bedoya] and we earned the penalty"
Bunbury was quick to volunteer to take the kick and he did so with ease as he placed the ball into the lower right corner as Garces guessed the wrong direction.
"Juan took it well," Bunbury recalled of the play. "Juan and I were just going back and forth. He wanted to take it, I wanted to take it. I felt confident enough. I was fortunate and I placed it low and in the corner and it went in."
For Bunbury, it was his first goal for the national team. While his father was a hero to the Canadian national team and he himself was born in Ontario, Bunbury is happy to be a part of the next generation of US national team players and represent the country where he developed as a player.
"I'm kind of speechless," Bunbury described of his emotions. "I'm still trying to soak it in. Great result and I'm happy to just have gotten the goal. I felt like I was working hard and just trying to showcase what I could do."
As with every January friendly, it was an opportunity for Bradley to evaluate new players that he can use going forward as the team prepares for the Gold Cup. This game was no exception as it did serve as a valuable learning tool on which to build.
"The hope would be that there is still possibly some guys that now have done enough that we can move along," Bradley concluded. "We continue to see where they fit in and monitor them. Games like this, camps like this give you a snapshot as to where guys are. When you assess the whole game, we just need more games like this."
The US national team will next play on Wednesday, February 9th when they return to Africa again to play Egypt in Cairo for a friendly.