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Posts by Jon
Any fashionista will tell you never to forget your roots. US Soccer has a new jersey that celebrates 100 years of the federation (although we fans only like to count the last 20 or so) with a crisp, simple design that looks anything but old fashioned to me.
The blue sleeves and collar give the look a sturdy frame. The bright white is a clean base; and the eye is drawn to the new badge immediately. Let’s talk about the badge, eh? Not many people love the current USA crest. The flying soccer ball is more little league anything else and the stars (which are meant to represent men’s, women’s, and youth programs) seem to others like we’re claiming championships we’ve never won.
The US was able to secure three points out of two back to back games against Jamaica to exit the international break atop their semifinal round World Cup Qualifying group. Assuming the rest of the qualifying cycle goes according to plan, no one will think again of the week where ostensibly rational, functioning adult US fans forgot all of their history, lost track of reality, and started to internalize the proposition that we were bound to watch Brazil 2014 without a team to root for.
The Yanks went down to Kingston with a point on their mind. They planned to sit back and break up Jamaica’s forward thrusts with a narrow, destructive midfield. But Dempsey’s early goal gave them an excuse to get passive; and while they defended very well (Jamaica didn’t really create a legitimate scoring opportunity beyond their set pieces), they simply couldn’t get anything going forward with such a defensive lineup. A couple of fouls around the area resulted in direct free kick goals from Jamaica, and the US left without a point to show for their poor effort, despite having taken an early lead.
The US fanbase and media took this in stride, understanding that playing a decent team at home with two of our best players (Bradley, Donovan) out injured and the third (Dempsey) well out of form following a transfer dispute with his club is not always going to result in a quality performance.
I’ve said before that qualifying out of our CONCACAF region is full of tense moments. This upcoming set of games, back to back vs. Jamaica (at their place on 9/7, and at home in Columbus on 9/11), is an early example of how a few breaks can lead to sticky situations in what should have been a straightforward path out of our semifinal group.
Klinsmann has had to test his depth with this roster, and there are a few things worth pondering as the team prepares for the most crucial two games of his tenure.
Muscle Strains Depth
Two of our best three players are missing due to leg strains. Landon Donovan tweaked his hammy in the win down in Mexico and hasn’t played since in MLS, while Bradley’s been sidelined with a bum thigh for AS Roma since a so-so first start in their season opener. Donovan’s leadership, decision-making, workrate and ability to make that one perfect play that wins the game will obviously be missed. But Bradley’s absence is arguably more painful. The team counts on his two-way ability and he provides punch on both sides of the ball as well as a knack for coming up with big goals. With his backup options, you either lose passing and possession, or defensive bite. It is difficult to overstate the void left by the absence of these two and the experience they would have brought.
In addition, Josh Gatt, the Norway-based speed merchant looking for his first cap, had to turn down Klinsmann’s call due to….a strained hamstring.
It’s never pretty when we go down there. Never. Mexico is a better possession team than we are and at that altitude, the chasing we would have to do to try and negate that would quickly deplete our team’s energy. To conserve legs for late in the match, we had to pack it in and let them have a lot of the ball. It’s nerve-racking to watch, but you can count on one hand the real legitimate scoring opportunities the Mexicans created against this makeshift defense.
It is difficult to stay disciplined in this kind of game and to be patient enough to let your chance or two come. Congrats to our guys for sticking to a plan for 90 minutes…
It Ain’t Pretty, But It’s All We Needed
The US had a predictably disjointed first set of qualifiers, beating an organized Antigua & Barbuda side at home, and surviving a typically sketchy road trip to Guatemala.
We said all along that the only thing that matters here is getting results. Style points don’t count in qualifying – which is a good thing because they typically are nowhere to be found. People who think we should waltz into Central America and dominate haven’t been watching CONCACAF soccer for long. A draw does just fine, thank you very much. And it sets us up nicely for a home and home set against Jamaica in early September, which will go a long way towards determining if we can book our ticket to the Hex early or if we’ll have to sweat out the final couple of matches.
So what about the performances?
Well – it’s here. World Cup Qualifying. Read Grant Wahl’s excellent primer here to get you in the mood.
We are coming off a game against Brazil which showcased some excellent attacking play from the US, which had me optimistic despite a poor result (1-4 loss); and against Canada (0-0 tie) which simultaneously put me to sleep and woke me out of my complacency in thinking this team had figured things out on the offensive side of the ball. That performance was so static and lifeless that I can only hope they were tired and testing out their “how you grind out a 0-0 result” strategy. We were lucky to leave with that result.
Now the team is in Tampa, waiting to face tiny Antigua and Barbuda in a game that will only be remembered if it goes horribly wrong. And then it’s on to Guatemala City to play a game that is much more difficult than it looks on paper. That’s the thing about qualifying. People only notice it when it goes awry. But if you ask me, this is my favorite sporting ‘event’. I’ve talked about why in prior posts, but qualifying is where you earn your stripes as a fan. It’s about paying $30 to watch a grainy feed from Guatemala in the first round. It’s about hugging a stranger at Cuatros (our local American Outlaws bar) when our boys clinch their ticket to the finals in some Central American hell hole stadium with hardly anyone back home noticing how hard it really was. The World Cup finals in Brazil (fingers crossed, no jinxies) are the fun part, and the casual fans will start paying attention then. But the two years ahead of that are where you earn the right to call this team yours.
Well that was gratifying! A 5-1 pasting and it easily could have been more. Watch the highlights, watch the touch-by-touch video of Bradley’s game. This was the best the US have looked since I started watching. And in those rad striped uniforms, you could have been forgiven for thinking you were watching a different country’s national team out there.
Donovan capped a week in which he’d questioned his own desire to continue playing with a perfect performance. A hat trick, an assist on Jones’ goal, and the key cross on the Bradley’s stunner – he had a hand in all 5 goals.
It is tempting to just gush on and on about the performance – but let’s get a little more analytical.
I watched this game in a non-soccer-ish sports bar in Vegas and was a little distracted – but in my second viewing when I got home, here’s what stood out.
It’s been awhile since the US Men’s National Team used an excellent performance (and a bit of luck) to knock off Italy on their home soil, and a lot has happened since that breakthrough win. The U-23′s failed to qualify for the Olympics in heartbreaking fashion, shifting more focus towards the start of World Cup Qualifying. And several key members of the squad finished good seasons abroad, highlighted by Clint Dempsey’s magnificent goal scoring record at Fulham. Finally, Tim Chandler has informed us that he’s not so sure he wants to play international football – which sounds to most US fans like the still untied player is just working both sides of the fence in case Germany ever comes calling.
A lot of soccer-savvy people say results don’t matter in friendlies. It’s all about the quality of the play and the individual performances – worry about results when something’s on the line. But for the US team, something’s always on the line – respect. The under-appreciated bunch has played pretty in plenty of losses under Klinsmann; but in finally putting together a string of positive results has perhaps found its foundation in a staunchly organized structure and a pragmatically opportunistic attacking mentality.
GOALKEEPERS (3) :Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (7) :Carlos Bocanegra (Rangers), Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), Timmy Chandler (Nürnberg), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland), Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City)
MIDFIELDERS (6) : Michael Bradley (Chievo Verona), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Jose Torres (Pachuca), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim)
FORWARDS (5) :Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund), Edson Buddle (LA Galaxy), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy)
My, the USA player pool is fascinating right now. We’ve got plenty of new faces alongside the familiar ones – and the emergence of the German-based talent is shaking up what used to seem a set of reliable assumptions about who will line up where.