Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
It didn’t start out pretty, and for the first 30 minutes of Wednesday’s friendly against Russia, the U.S. Men’s National Team looked like they might get run off the field in Krasnodar. The Americans eventually shook off that slow and disappointing start, and thanks the heroics of Tim Howard and Michael Bradley, they were able to eventually do enough to get back in the game and eventually leave Russia with a hard-fought draw.
Every time the Americans are outplayed in matches, and outclassed for stretches, it sets off alarm bells. The fear of seeing the U.S. in a mismatch, being exposed against top competition, is nothing new, but neither is seeing a U.S. team fight and claw and ride standout goalkeeping and opportunistic finishing to earn results that probably seemed unlikely in some matches.
Wednesday’s match was one of these matches. Russia was the better team, and played the better soccer for significant stretches, but the U.S. kept the match within arms reach, close enough to snatch a draw. On a day when there were certainly causes for concern, the over-riding sentiment from Wednesday’s 2-2 draw should be a positive one.
Why? The team went on the road and tied one of the most in-form teams in Europe, a team that hasn’t surrendered a goal, much less dropped points, in World Cup qualifying. Yes, Fabio Capello left a few starters out of his regular side, but there were still enough starters on the field for Russia to call this a tough test, and an admirable result.
No, friendly results don’t really matter, but the exercise of fighting for wins and draws and succeeding in earning such results against elite competition is far from futile. It is an exercise being undertaken with the World Cup in mind, and as much as it would be far more appealing to see a U.S. team dominating a European powerhouse on the road, come 2014 what is going to matter is results, and this U.S. team has shown repeatedly in 2012 that it has the fortitude to earn results against good opponents.
Are there things that need to improve in the next year and a half? Without question. The search for centerbacks continues, as does the quest to unlock the right combination in midfield. These are issues that U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann will be spending the better part of the next 20 months trying to figure out, but the good news is that there is still time and opportunity.
On Wednesday, the successful comeback was an uplifting reward, but the greater value drawn from the match was the questions it raised, the answers it delivered, and the chance it gave some new faces to show they are worthy of the big stage.
Here are some more observations from Wednesday’s match:
Bradley is ready for the armband
When Carlos Bocanegra limped off the field in the first half, the armband was passed to goalkeeper Tim Howard. For most of the rest of the match, Michael Bradley showed us why he is without question the next in line to become the U.S. captain on a regular basis.
Bradley is a player who leads by example, but who can also be a vocal leader. On Wednesday, with the U.S. team struggling, he took over and began imposing his will on the match. He helped the team keep possession and eventually find a rhythm to pose a real threat to the Russians. It seemed only fitting that Bradley capped his tide-turning effort with a brilliant volley goal that tied things up and gave the Americans reason to believe they could earn a result.
While Bocanegra has served as the captain well, there is no guarantee he will remain a starter for all of 2013, let alone at the World Cup. Bradley, on the other hand, is one of the team’s pillars along with Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey. Howard has the personality and respect to wear the armband, but teams are generally better served when a field player is the captain, a player who can move around the field and motivate teammates and address match officials.
It has always seemed sort of inevitable that Bradley would one day be the U.S. captain, but it is becoming more and more clear that the day is almost here.
Altidore didn’t score, but he still impressed
If you came away from Wednesday’s match feeling as though Jozy Altidore didn’t do enough to merit remaining a starter, and at the very least a member of the national team, then you might have been too busy waiting for a goal to notice a change in attitude from the AZ striker.
Yes, he showed some tentativeness at times, particularly in the second half, but what he showed throughout was a willingness to battle and do the dirty work that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. He provided a solid target up top, laying passes off to teammates while also showing a desire to do defensive work when Russia had the ball. He also floated wide to deliver a dangerous pass worthy of an assist, only to have Jermaine Jones scuff the chance.
What mattered most about Altidore’s performance was that it showed Klinsmann he got the message the U.S. coach was trying to send when he snubbed Altidore in October. He showed hustle, hunger and the kind of attitude that says he never wants to be snubbed again. On a night when the midfield wasn’t really providing much service, Altidore still did enough to make a difference, and did enough to impress Klinsmann.
“I think you saw Jozy Altidore today was a handful,” Klinsmann said after the match. “He gets a big, big compliment for his performance.”
A night to forget for Williams, a night to remind us Edu is still an option
Danny Williams convinced plenty of people that the defensive midfield role on the U.S. team was all his after some strong showings to wrap up World Cup qualifying. On Wednesday, he managed to erase that confidence with one truly shaky performance.
His bad day went well beyond the bad turnover that led to Russia’s first goal, a play that appeared to be more a fluke accident than anything else (Jozy Altidore accidentally clipped Williams’ kicking foot as went to send a quick kick to Clarence Goodson, which resulted in the turnover). Even before that play, and certainly after it, Williams looked flat-out shaky. His positioning, inability to deliver good passes and overall confused look helped lead to a terrible first 45 minutes for the U.S., and a forgettable night for him.
Does this means Williams isn’t still a quality option in midfield? One game shouldn’t drop him off the map, but it certainly raises some questions as we stand less than three months from World Cup qualifying. The U.S. can’t afford mistakes in qualifying, even less so on the road, so while Williams remains an option after Wednesday, his status as someone you pencil into the starting lineup without a second though is gone.
Whether he saw a chance to seize an opportunity amid Williams’ struggles, or perhaps he was just happy to actually be on a soccer field playing, Maurice Edu came on and impressed. His long-range laser pass to Juan Agudelo helped set up Bradley’s goal, and he showed some real poise in a defensive midfield role. It was a bit surprising, but more because of the fact he hasn’t been getting minutes for Stoke rather than because he hasn’t shown quality before.
If anything, it reminded us that Edu can thrive when allowed to play in a defensive midfield role as opposed to a more advanced central midfield spot, where he has struggled for the national team. It also probably put the breaks on Klinsmann considering a permanent national team move to centerback for Edu, who most certainly would prefer to stay a midfielder.
Centerback depth needs to be addressed
While Edu may not be seeing time at centerback soon, Klinsmann needs to start looking at new options ASAP. Bocanegra’s injury reminded us that having a defender on the wrong side of 30 has its risks, while Clarence Goodson’s appearance reminded us that he isn’t quite good enough to be a regular national team starter (though in fairness to him, having to jump into a match like Wednesday’s, without a warm-up, is difficult).
Geoff Cameron turned in a strong night, which was good to see because he really hadn’t ended the last round of World Cup qualifying on the best of notes. There is a growing consensus that Cameron is the best centerback in the pool, and against Russia he helped strengthen that case.
Goodson didn’t quite do that. He looked shaky at times, and clumsy at other times. You can see he has qualities that can make him an effective centerback against lesser competition, but he hasn’t really shown the kind of quality that gives you confidence he could be a strong option against elite-level attacks.
Klinsmann may want to consider a January national team camp if only to take a closer look at the many centerback options currently residing in MLS, like Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. Whether he does or not, one of the top priorities in 2013 is to find some new options at the position, and the Gold Cup should be a key factor in that process.
A good day for the youngsters
Josh Gatt made his national team debut on Wednesday, and while he didn’t set the world alight, Gatt did turn in a serviceable debut. He looked timid and hesitant, and lacked the aggressiveness that is the trademark of his game, but that isn’t a big surprise considering he was a 21-year-old making his very first national team appearance as a starter against Russia. Gatt did show some good signs though, and has to come away from Wednesday feeling good about taking a positive first step.
The night was a special one for Juan Agudelo and Mix Diskerud. For Agudelo, he marked his return to the national team mix with a very impressive showing. He was active, mobile and intelligent providing exactly the kind of energy Klinsmann wants to find off the bench for the attack. Diskerud had less time to shine, but when he pounced on the loose ball to bury the last-minute equalizer, he served notice that he can make an impact on the senior team level.
“It was important for us to introduce some younger players to the senior level,” Klinsmann said. “I think they all did great. There is nothing to lose for them in a game like that. They can only win.
“For us, it’s important that we have these youngsters grow step-by-step,” Klinsmann added. “Our team over the last 6-12 months grew a lot. We developed a lot more personality and confidence to compete with the best teams out there. We still have a long way to go, but I think we have a very good path and these younger players are a very important part of this path.
“Hopefully, we get more opportunities to give them playing time.”
At the very least, Gatt, Agudelo and Diskerud did enough to merit consideration for qualifying in 2013, but with players like Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Graham Zusi expected back in the mix in February, Diskerud and Gatt may have to wait a while longer for that chance (the Gold Cup could definitely be that next big chance).
What were your impressions of the USA-Russia match? Which players impressed you and/or surprised you? What areas are you most concerned about heading into 2013?
Share your thoughts below.