USMNT friendlies: What did we learn?

by Paul O'Donnell

Most of the press about the USMNT at this stage still revolves around the "interim" tag still hanging around Bob Bradley’s neck. This needs to be said; Bradley knows the young American players better than any man walking the face of the earth today. He has worked with them at U20, U23 and younger too. He knows who they are and what they can contribute better than anyone and surely better than any ’big name’ international that you may have been reading about. However, the real meaningful news about the team is the lack of progress by some of those we have been told are the real keys to the future success of the squad.

Really? Progress? You’ve got to be kidding me. The World Cup ’06 performance was every bit as poor as what we saw at France ’98 and they showed us in these friendlies that they still have trouble creating quality chances when their opponent plays ten men behind the ball.

Sure, it was terrific to see Donovan actually show up, play well and lead the team by example. That’s what we’re supposed to get from him remember? He’s the poster boy for MLS and we’re told (repeatedly) he’s our best player ever. I’m really pleased to see him take his chances and lead the way. That is his role and it was great to see him fill it for a change in the Ecuador match with his hat trick, especially that third goal laser strike. Then again, he went back into his more accustomed disappearing act against Guatemala where the team lacked that leadership on the pitch and seemed totally out of ideas. The result? The team created few chances and when they did they were squandered badly.

Not to put that all on Donovan however. There was another huge disappointment at work in that match; Clint Dempsey. After all the press (typical media hype) about his move to Fulham Dempsey has disappointed there too. Making only six appearances for the Cottager’s he has failed to score and much of the time he is hard pressed to hold the ball and make anything positive happen. Sound familiar? It should. His performance against Guatemala was more of the same. He’s not good enough and he makes poor decisions mainly based on his tendency to keep the ball at his feet for far too long. When he does manage to hold onto the ball the resulting pass or cross is nearly always poorly executed. He’s just not getting it done for club or country. Word to Chris Coleman; loan him to a Championship side. He needs the work and the time on the pitch to prove his value. If he has what it takes at this level he needs to prove it. From what we’ve seen of him lately he’s been very disappointing for both club and country.

That said, the biggest disappointment was that this USMNT has not advanced at all, has not learned from their experiences of 2006. Tactically this team is short-handed, particularly in the final third and porous at the back. The very same faults that plagued them last year remain. Frankly, with the retirements it is far worse.

The team still cannot break down a bunker as shown in their poor outing against Guatemala. Recall that this was their real shortcoming in 2006 where we saw them lose their final warm-up to Morocco and score only one goal from the run of play in the World Cup itself. The very same game was played by Ghana in the must win match where we saw them break down and fail yet again as they were bounced out and failed to make the final 16. Because the team lacks a credible threat up front and has demonstrated time and time again that quality and creativity in the attack is not part of their game they will continue to sputter. Any team that doesn’t play the bunker (except maybe Brazil that simply doesn’t ever play that way) and counter against the USA simply hasn’t been watching.

Precisely what we saw from them in WC ’98. This team has not only failed to progress, but they’ve taken a giant step back in time. The retirements have made that gaping hole in this new edition of the USMNT even larger. The poor quality performances of some that we’re told are the key to any future success means any coach chosen for the top spot has a lot of work to do.

Ok, ok, so was there anything at all positive about what we saw? Sure, and the top was Jimmy Conrad. Along with Feilhaber in the holding role behind Donovan and Simek on the wing there is some hope. Mapp, while threatening, wasn’t sharp and Eddie Johnson seemed a little more interested in contributing which is about the most you could say for his effort, but that is an improvement. Ching made no impression at all and Twellman was sick, or so they say.

Jimmy Conrad was the biggest positive for the USA. No surprise there. Conrad is off the mark in a positive way in 2007 which is just where he ended 2006. The big problem for this team is that more of his mates are not on the same page with him.

Yes Virginia, there is some progress.

For Bradley, or whoever takes his place, there is a really big job ahead to rebuild this team. From what we’ve seen so far some of those ’studs’ that were supposed to be the foundation of the new USMNT look to be anything but that. Worse, some of them seemed to be in a daze and not interested enough to make much of an effort to clear their heads and make a positive contribution.

Unless that changes, and quickly, this team is destined to fail this summer whether Donovan shows up or not. And that includes whether Bradley keeps his job or not too.

Bob Bradley, since he knows these players better than anyone else, may still have "interim" behind his name, but he is likely to be the best man for the job at hand.

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