That’s On Point - USMNT vs. Antigua and Barbuda
Planting the Seed of Soccer Across America: Danny Beerseed
By Mike Cardillo, That's On Point / Senior National Team Correspondent
In the words of everybody's favorite turn-of-the-century, nü-metal band, Staind ... "It's been awhile."
Without melodramatics, it's been a long time since your humble narrator sat behind a computer screen and put some thought into the comings-and-goings of the U.S. National Team. Three matches in the past week and an upcoming pair of CONCACAF 2014 World Cup qualifiers will do that.
In a sense, the three friendlies pitting the U.S. against Scotland, Brazil and Canada in the span of nine days framed coach Jurgen Klinsmann as a would-be Goldilocks. The first game was too cold, the second game was too hat and the final match was just right. Add up all three matches and it's a fair indication of where the U.S. stands at the moment -- win vs. a hapless Scotland team; tough loss to a supremely skilled Brazil team and finally a flat performance on the road vs. Canada, which could've been a loss if not for a bad call by the linesman.
If you want to be cynical, since Klinsmann billed these five matches as a mini-tournament. Well ... four points from three group stage matches doesn't exactly cut it, does it?
Peel away a layer from the onion, however, and it's hard to get all that worked up about a couple of friendly results in May and June two years away from the World Cup. That's maybe the best and worst thing about the U.S. team these days: nothing it does, bar a failure to qualify, isn't going to amount to much until those three group games in Brazil.
Call is soccer's version of pass/fail.
Ultimately isn't that what all U.S. fans are going to judge the team by, the World Cup? We've seen the team dominate CONCACAF, until Mexico's recent resurgence, anyway. That's pretty much all the rank-and-file of the fanbase cares about, getting out of the Group Stage at a World Cup and winning a game or two in the knockouts, which isn't an unreasonable goal.
Beating Italy in Italy in a friendly -- nice result -- but in the end should the U.S. be beyond hanging its hat on hollow results like that?
Let's be frank, too, the U.S. can stomp Antigua and Barbuda 17-0 in Tampa Friday night and it's going to mean nothing short of three points towards gaining the final round of qualifying.
The road to Brazil, from CONCACAF, isn't a lot of fun, especially now the U.S. is all but expected to win every match, save for those against Mexico, and on the road in some of the trickier Central American locales. It's a grind. It's a process. ... It is what it is.
Get locked in. Try to get excited.
And above all, don't panic.
Unless the U.S. drops a point to Antigua and Barbuda. Then the Mayans might've been right about 2012.
Takeaways from the Friendlies:
* Michael Bradley is a midfield boss: This might have been written off the 2010 World Cup, but a two-way midfielder with a non-stop engine, rocket shot from outside the box and a maturing brain ... ? There are worse anchors to build a team around. If Klinsmann knows anything, he'll form the rest of the team around Bradley in the center of the field be it a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 formation. At 24, Bradley is one of the few proven players who've featured over a long spell in the U.S. shirt who are hitting their prime heading into the next World Cup.
As much as we talk about Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey -- and they'll still be quite useful in 2012, if not still the best American players -- the team should be built around the bald head of Bradley from here on out.
* The mystery back: It's not Fabian Johnson's fault, but as fans of the U.S. team we tend to love to jump on the hype backwagon over American players who flash even a brief glimpse of talent. In his games against Scotland and Brazil, Johnson looked like a real deal. You know the names I'm talking about. (cough, cough, Eddie Johnson.)
Let's not go overboard on Johnson, who likely won't play on Friday. (Nor will Edgar Castillo.)
For one, all the U.S. probably needs to get out of its left back position is a player who won't be an out-and-out defensive disaster or prone to mistakes, like our old pal Jonathan Bornstein. Is that setting the bar too low? Maybe, but as much as we fetish-ize the left back position as a black hole for the U.S., it's not the most important position in the world.
That said, a player like Johnson with pace who can offer overlapping runs and deliver a nice cross from time-to-time is only a bonus, especially if Klinsmann sticks to the 4-3-3.
* A lost chance: Off the friendlies there was a lot of rumblings about getting some younger players into the mix by Klinsmann. Names like Josh Gatt, Joe Gyau, etc. Problem is, those guys are still relatively green. It would've been a different story had the U.S. not failed to qualified for the 2012 London Olympics and the U-23 players could've had a taste of the international stage. I'm not in the camp these guys need to be rushed in, if anything a couple younger legs can be integrated on the fly depending on positional need and form as we get closer to the World Cup. With the first stage of qualifying for the U.S. particularly unforgiving, can't risk putting in guys on the fly who can't hack it when there isn't a safety net.
* An answer up top (maybe): Never thought I'd ever write this, but I actually kind of like Herculez Gomez up top as a striking option for the U.S. Long term option, no. Viable choice for the next two? Yes.
Although Gomez almost quit playing soccer about a decade ago and was nothing more than a journeyman in his time in MLS, there's something to be said for the grinder who's had to earn everything he's gotten. We as American fans might ignore it, but the Mexican League is a pretty good standard of soccer and Gomez has been excellent South of the Border.
Gomez isn't, and I hate the term immensely, a "sexy" choice and if it was Bob Bradley relying on him, we'd probably all mock it. Yet as a lone predatory option in a 4-3-3 he's not the worst option. He's got a nice eye for goal and excellent position inside the penalty area.
Better than Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore? No. Again he's an option. Better yet an option that isn't like some other American striking flavors of the month. He's not there simply for speed or strength, rather his ability as a pure soccer player.
* D'oh Defense: The biggest issue when we thought Bob Bradley was going to coach the U.S. through another World Cup cycle was finding a way to "quit" the central defensive partnership of Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra and set them adrift onto an iceberg.
This is a thorny issue since neither looked very competent against Brazil, but Brazil is, you know, kinda a good team.
Making it even more difficult to discern is that against most CONCACAF teams the U.S. isn't exactly going to get a fair physical test. The U.S. defenders have a head taller than their typical opponent, yet usually give up a step or two.
Realistically, nobody in the pool is pushing either of these two -- or Clarence Goodson as the third member of this version of soccer's non-fabulous Freebirds. That's why it was a shame Tim Ream's gradual insertion into the mix was a debacle, doubled by his relegation with Bolton in the Premier League.
Roll the dice. Take a shot and hold your breath whenever the U.S. has to take on a high-caliber opponent with the defense as it stands.
* Shoehorning: There are a lot of prominent American soccer journalists who want to make Jose Torres into this key player in the U.S. puzzle. For me? Just don't see it.
If Klinsmann is trying play a 4-3-3 with wing play, Torres doesn't have the pace for an attacking wide role. In the central midfield, he's not quite the defensive presence you'd like, although he brings something different than the high-flying, studs-up play of Jermaine Jones.
Torres certainly isn't a bad player, with a nice touch and ability to string together sideways passes, but trying to shoehorn into a spot in the starting XI seems like something Klinsmann shouldn't fixate upon. Nothing personal with Torres.
Lineup vs. Antigua and Barbuda Guess:
Thinking a attack-minded 4-3-3. The U.S. doesn't have complimentary, classic wingers, but they can make do on homesoil against a true world minnow.
DEF: Cherundolo -- Goodson -- Onyewu -- Bocanegra
MID -- Jones -- Bradley -- Edu
FOR -- Dempsey -- Gomez -- Donovan
Me, personally, I'm going to give Klinsmann a lot of rope.
There's going to be a lot of tinkering and lineup tweaking. It might not yield too many results for 2014, but if it plants the seeds for long-term future success for the U.S. I'll swallow my criticisms and give it a fair shake.
The question to ask: what do we want from the U.S., big picture, to dominant friendlies, stroll through qualifying ... and end up as an also-ran at the World Cup?
Or do we want a viable team who, beyond its blood-and-guts, never-say-die attitude, has the soccer brain and tactical acumen to make some noise at the World Cup?
I chose the latter.
So does, Klinsmann.
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