THE NATIONAL TEAM ROLLERCOASTER
Over the past three weeks, we have seen the usual rollercoaster ride that we've come to associate with the United States National Team. The result against Spain on June 4th was an abysmal first half performance against the best team in the world.
There is no shame in losing to a team like Spain, but there is a considerable amount of shame to be found in the manner of defeat; with arguably every goal but the glorious through-ball to Fernando Torres being preventable by a halfway competent defense, there was plenty of head scratching going around as the theoretically promising American defense was shredded. Their impromptu imitations of fence posts as they were caught ball watching and deciding not to follow their markers time and again left a foul taste in many mouths around the country.
While fault for specific goals can be laid at the feet of various individuals by watching replays, it speaks greater volumes about the defense as a whole for not correcting its mistakes after the first mistakenly disallowed goal. There is a lack of discipline that shows itself at the most inopportune times going all the way back to the 2010 World Cup Qualifier stages, where we first began noticing the tell-tale signs of a trend beginning.
Whether it's a lack of cohesion, a lack of leadership, or maybe both, it's a clear problem that holds the team hostage on way too many occasions. The series of friendly games against quality opponents during the lead up to the Gold Cup was supposed to fix the bugs and give a solid try out for several fringe players hoping to make it into the summer tournament, and there were impressive individual performances (most notably Timothy Chandler) but the story of defensive failures remained the same. The problems were not ironed out, and there even seems to be evidence of the situation worsening, looking at the second game loss against Panama.
After a mostly controlled win against Canada in the opening match, there was a sense that the U.S. had it's wheels in motion and were going to roll through to the knock-out stages. The Panama debacle was an historic setback that had collective hearts dropping across the country. A staggering defeat to Spain followed a week later by the first ever Gold Cup group play and Panama loss seemed ready to derail recent progress. Once again it was an easily avoidable first goal that closely resembled the lapses of defensive judgment put on display in prior games.
An unconvincing win against Guadalupe did little to allay the fears that the U.S. may suffer a defeat against Jamaica and bring to a premature end a calamitous summer, before it had a chance to really begin. Fortunately, as roller coasters go, the ride went straight up with a stellar performance against a strong Jamaican side, with the U.S. defense offering up a much better performance to shut down the potent Caribbean attack.
The most surprising aspect of the game though was not that the U.S. defense had regained it's footing against an unlikely opponent, but that Landon Donovan's absence from the starting lineup actually seemed to benefit the team's attack in many ways. At other times when he has not dressed for a game, the offensive machine has seemed sluggish and out of whack, but that wasn't the case for the first hour of the Jamaica game, when the American attack threatened to score on more occasions than any other game this tournament. Why it worked in this instance as opposed to others is not a mystery; The alternative personnel has been there but there's been a near meteoric rise in effeciency in Alejandro Bedoya and Sacha Kljestan over the past few games.
Kljestan is a perfect example of the American Soccer Roller Coaster, showing himself as a talented, promising young player who had the world in front of him, and then promptly putting on a display of forgettable performances that left him as an after-thought, similar to so many other past players. It's happened so much over the past several years that it's easy to lump those players together, and they don't reclaim their places often. Kljestan, if he continues being steady on the ball and efficient with his passing, could find his way back into midfield contention on a regular basis. His selection for the Gold Cup team raised a lot of eyebrows, but he was putting himself in the position to have the last laugh until an anonymous performance in the first half against Panama in the semi-final match.
Bedoya is a less extreme case of a player living up to prior expectations, as he hasn't been given the ample amount of opportunities that Kljestan has had over the years, but it's good to see that he's overcome some less than impressive performances in the unfamiliar environment of the national team and has made himself another contender for the midfield conundrum that Bob Bradley has the nightmarish responsibility of trying to figure out. Bedoya at this moment in time should be on Bradley's preliminary list of World Cup selections for Brazil, as he is amongst a great many National Team fans. The problem with the idea has been, up to recently, his consistent ability to play up to an international standard. Flashes of quality here and there have shown that he has the potential to be a quality lock, but getting the extra playing time and extended proximity to his teammates has been the key to get him to come out of his shell entirely, as was to be expected but yet to be seen.
All of this has allowed for an impressive offensive display that wasn't missing Donovan's presence; The attack was multi-pronged instead of being so often rammed through the gullet of the defense using Donovan as the spear head. It's become such a predictable tactic for the past eight years that most defenses worth their salt have been able to shut it down for long stretches of time, if not the entire game. They have understood that the key to rendering the Americans toothless is to take Donovan out of the game. The injuries to Stuart Holden over the past year have done nothing to alleviate the pressure from Donovan in big games, but he still finds ways to produce, although on a much less consistent basis than earlier in his career.
Coming off the bench suited him well against Jamaica, and the elder Bradley decided to keep him as a sub in the semi-final with Panama, bringing him on for the second half. His energy was boundless but overall ineffective until the long lost Freddy Adu was brought in for Juan Agudelo. Adu was able to use his creative spark to take some of the attacking weight onto his shoulders, allowing Donovan to be freed up for a pinpoint against-the-grain long ball which he was able to control in motion towards the box, then serve to Dempsey for the game winning goal. It was a beautiful attack of two passes that spanned 60 yards and resulted in a tally.
With Kljestan and Bedoya seeming to be able to show signs of attacking efficiency against certain defensive setups, there will hopefully be less of a demand for Donovan to be the linchpin for 9 out of 10 American attacks. The team will be harder to scout against, and harder to predict. Bradley's choice to bring Adu off the bench might have been the best tactical decision he's made since bringing on Agudelo against South Africa back in 2010.
It's impossible to see the future through one attacking sequence, but Adu's own rollercoaster ride shows that he might finally be on the rise again; He showed defensive spirit, chasing back on two lost possessions and halting the Panama counter-attack through hard tackling and fouls, something that he was oft criticized for not doing in the past. If he can turn himself back into a regular selection, then the double pronged attack led by himself and Donovan could be downright scary in the upcoming World Cup Qualifying campaign. No one has ever doubted Adu's talent, only his tenacity and work ethic. If his performance against Panama was any indication of a change in mindset, then he may have finally matured into the player so many people want him to be.
Donovan is way too much of a talisman to be permanently relegated to the role of Super Sub, but as we've now seen in two cases, he has shown to be highly effective in that role. It's unlikely that he will be started on the bench for the championship game, regardless of whether it's against Mexico or Honduras. He will surely be back in the starting lineup, but hopefully with a newly-productive tandem of attackers around him to spread out the offense.
The most unfortunate case of the rollercoaster blues has been Jozy Altidore, who was all but written off by many pundits as an effective international striker, before turning in solid performances in the Gold Cup resulting in two goals and an assist on the four U.S. goals scored prior to his tournament ending injury. He was showing an edge, a determination not seen out of him in an American uniform since 2009. Hopefully this bump in the road doesn't set him back on the downward slope, but spurs him forward through recovery.
Continuing the defensive rollercoaster, the shutout of Panama completed a string of three straight shutouts, the first time the feat has been managed since 2008. The U.S. defense showed considerable more poise and attentiveness to their surroundings, displaying a steady upward trend from the bottom of the track they were at three weeks ago. Heading into the final on Saturday, our fingers are crossed that the track is still going up, and there's not a drop off just ahead.