Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Aftermath

photo by John Althouse Cohenvia PhotoRee

As you'll no doubt notice after reading this piece by Coach Mark, there's some internal dissent here at the corporate office regarding our level of satisfaction with Coach Bob Bradley.  But before you get to that, here's Mark's final thoughts on the US National Team  after its painful loss to Mexico in Saturday night's Gold Cup final:

We'll call it a wrap at 4-2. Loss aside, it was one of the more entertaining soccer games you'll ever see. Who was it that said there's no scoring in soccer?

The game Saturday night against the best Mexican team I've ever seen provided a nice final exam for the US in the Gold Cup. Here are my final Gold Cup remarks on the first post-World-Cup version of the U.S. National team:

Starting from the rear, Steve Cherundolo showed why he should be considered an American legend. At 31 he's still going strong. The main question surrounding Cherundolo is whether he can he hang on for one more Cup.

In the middle, the same can be said for Carlos Bocanegra. His days at left back may be numbered. At 31 he doesn't have the speed to chase the world's best right wings around, but in the middle he's still the US team's best central defender. The question again revolves around if he has another Cup in him.

Unfortunately, Bocanegra's partners in central defense didn't fare as well. Tim Ream got KO'd from the Cup early due to a lack of athleticism; I'm not sure he'll be back anytime soon. Clarence Goodson looks plenty good against big slow forwards, but completely lost against anyone with speed. He was a thrill a minute against Mexico on every through ball, and Mexico wasn't the first team to expose him. He's an nice addition at the other end of the pitch on set pieces, but that isn't going to be enough to help him hold onto his spot. The US has to find a more athletic central defender to pair up with Bocanegra.

On the left side, Eric Lichaj was an eye opener. He struggled on a clearance that cost the US a goal, but for the most part played a solid tournament. Most importantly, he's young and has the athletic ability to take play wide defense.  In a system that gets good left backs every couple of decades, Lichaj has the potential to be a mainstay on that side for the next two World Cups.

Behind him, it gets just plain ugly. Steve Cherundolo's injury brought on Jonathon Bornstein, who has had a national career that's already been three years too long. He doesn't have the speed or anticipation to play against the best teams. Going forward, Timothy Chandler will likely fill the depth chart out and provide the US with an attacking option from the right back spot. In addition to obvious holes and lack of depth in the US back line, Bob Bradley's ability to coordinate a defense against top teams has to come into question. You have to love the fight in Bob Bradley's teams, and they show some offensive creativity, but defensively they have slipped a notch since the days of Bruce Arena.

In the midfield, the picture for US soccer is looking much brighter. The US has both depth and talent. The Gold Cup showed the US has no shortage of options. At defensive mid Jermaine Jones showed he's a top notch ball winner who covers huge swaths of turf, and can do it all game long. Michael Bradley continues to progress. He's tough as nails on defense and a work in progress on offense. There is a question how far the US can go with the two defensive mid lineup, but it wouldn't be easy to take either of those two out of the lineup.

Behind them Maurice Edu provides another quality option. Landon Donovan gave an uneven performance this Gold Cup and may have been passed as the US's top player by Clint Dempsey, but he's still the coolest finisher in US history and he saved his best game for last against Mexico. He's going to get challenged by the up and comers over the next several years, but he's still a great option. Clint Dempsey has certainly arrived, and is as dangerous as any player in US history. Bradley had him on the left side for most of the tournament, and it worked against weaker teams because he cheated forward and played as a third forward in the middle of the field. But against Mexico his defensive shortcomings were apparent. He was late tracking back in the first half on numerous occasions, and got exposed by Mexico's speedy midfielders in transition. Eventually you have to hope the Bradley can find a home for Dempsey as the second forward, a position he switched in and out of throughout the tournament.

Alejandro Bedoya had a coming out party at the Gold Cup. He's the team's new energizer bunny and his runs, pressure and energy are going to make him a hard player to keep off the field. Oh, and he's 22 by the way.

Speaking of coming out party's, Freddy Adu was probably the best US player on the field against Mexico. I counted one bad touch the entire game, and he demonstrated an ability to possess the ball and take on defenders that you just don't see on a US team. He showed that 22 is too early to be writing players off, and he's firmly in the mix of the US team's plans going forward. He's the kind of creative ball, possession-attacking midfielder that the US desperately needs. I've been plenty critical of him in the past for his defense and willingness to make runs off the ball, but he was vastly improved in these areas, at least in the 90 minutes he played in this tournament. Hopefully he'll find a European team where he can continue to develop. The US national team needs him for the next Cup, and at 25 he'll just be hitting his peak.

Sacha Klejesten's best soccer is still ahead of him, and he showed enough to suggest he belongs. And lastly, don't forget Stuart Holden. The US team's best midfielder may not have hit the pitch for them yet in this cycle. There will be a logjam when he gets back, but the US needs a logjam if it's going to compete with the Mexico's of the world.

Lastly, there is work to be done upfront. Jose Altidore is still as much about potential as performance. He has the best combination of strength and footwork in the US system, but he's an inch shorter or a step slower than the world's elite forwards. The US is still searching for Brian McBride's replacement.

His side kick Juan Agudelo is unfortunately his twin. Having gotten a good taste of Agudelo I am impressed with his skills. For 19, they are just plain refreshing. But my enthusiasm is tempered by his lack of athletic ability. Agudelo's a strong kid, but lacks the burst that all of Mexico's front line players demonstrated. And he's not big enough to dominate in the air.

I have to think that Bob Bradley settles on moving one or even two of his midfield options back to forward. He did it against Mexico with Donovan and Adu upfront. It was a Liliputian lineup that couldn't win a head ball against a middle school team, but it created a slew of offensive chances against a top ten team, and Donovan streaking past his defender toward goal from the forward position is something I'll never get tired of seeing. If the US can't find quality size upfront, then it should go fast and put Donovan back up top with either Dempsey or Adu.

The lineup I'd like to see is Dempsey and Donovan up top, Bedoya on the right side, and Freddy Adu on the left with Stuart Holden at central mid giving a more creative offensive option while not forgoing a strong defensive player. Michael Bradley needs to slide back into the other defensive mid. And I don't know if he's ever played the positon, but I'd take my chances with Jermaine Jones at central defender over Clarence Goodson. He's athletically superior, has a world of experience about him, and is just plain a nasty defender. He looked like he wanted to fight Mexico more than he wanted to play soccer against them. The US back line needs that kind of attitude.

With all the out-of-position players that Bob Bradley has experimented in the past trying to get his best 11 on the field, it's worth a try. On the right side I think Timothy Chandler will surpass Steve Cherundolo by next Cup, which is saying a lot. And I'm hopeful that Eric Lichaj will become a stopper at left defender. I think Carlos Bocanegra, even at 34, has one more Cup in him, but whether it's as a starter is yet to be seen. There's certainly nobody threatening on the horizon.

All in all it wasn't a bad Cup for the US. It's a little alarming that Mexico has clearly distanced itself from the US and may be a legitimate World Cup contender, but there is enough good things happening in the US midfield that the future remains fairly bright. It should quell any talk of Bob Bradley's job and let the skipper focus on making the pieces fit as he puts together the next cup team.

This is farlieonfootie for June 28.

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