Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Random thoughts - upon further review...

Well it has been six days since the US-Mexico match-up in Arizona which was won 2-0 by an under strength US squad over a full strength Mexico squad (woot!). Watching “big” games of the teams I follow, and US-Mexico is always big even if it is just a friendly, I always get this weird combination of intense focus, stress, anxiety, and excitement all in one. Last Wednesday was no exception as we continued our recent trend of beating Mexico everywhere but in the Azteca. The nervousness and stress I felt in game gave way to euphoria following Donovan’s extra time game clincher.

The next day when exchanging post game reviews with a fellow Yank I was fairly generous with my ratings and thoughts on the performance of the team overall (though not everyone, is there a right back out there that can step up and perform besides Cherundolo, anyone? Bueller?). I even was able to find praise for the guy I love to hate, Landon Donovan.

Once again, we had showed our regional dominance and left the Mexican team so frustrated that they left the field in a collective sulk. Everyone is happy, things are good, Bob Bradley is doing fine in his “interim” run as manager.

A few days later though the doubts have crept in and I find myself reflecting that the game, despite the score line, was an indicator of problems we will be facing as we prepare for 2010.

Several things occurred to me as I pondered the game and digested various print, internet, and TV media coverage of the game. There are several inescapable facts that emerge and several popular opinions that I find disagreement with.

Fact – the Mexican team outplayed us. They had more of the ball, created more chances, terrorized the right side of our defense, completely disrupted our flow through the midfield, the only thing lacking was the finish. Wynalda was practically having a conniption as they missed chance after chance, proclaiming we were going to get scored on if things did not get switched up.

Popular opinion seems to be that it is OK that we were outplayed because we still “found a way” to win the game. While I agree that it is a hallmark of good teams that they can still win games when not at their best (XL - Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10), it does not make it “OK” that you did not play well. Just because you suck out runner-runner to take down a pot does not mean you want to be in as a 4-1 dog the next time you get all your money in the middle. Not playing well will eventually catch up with you.

We won the game, however we have a lot of work to do to get better here. Fortunately, we have four years and a lot of player development before the big one in 2010.

Copa America this summer could be a different story though….

Fact – our two goals came on a set piece and a counterattack. We have generally excelled on these two methods for getting our goals in international competition for as long as I have been watching the national team play (1999 - US 1, Trinidad 0). Unfortunately, the world (with some exceptions) has figured that out.

During qualifying for 2006 there were numerous games where teams bunkered in against us forcing us to try to break them down through possession and creativity. This leads to less counterattacks and fewer set pieces earned (since many counters result in fouls or corners). There were games where we struggled mightily against some pretty average competition.

The Czech game in the WC was another level. A good team sits back on us, we cannot break them down, they catch us in transition and wallop us 3-0. Heck, even Morocco came to the states a month earlier and beat us 1-0 using the same formula. The only goal we did score ourselves in the tournament was on a counterattack following a turnover.

We surprised a lot of teams over the last 10 years who assumed we were a weak team that they could attack down the throat and destroy. Teams are adjusting and forcing us to find different ways to get goals. Against weaker teams, we are eventually breaking them down, against better teams we are still learning.

Our win this past week is a thing of the past. Sure, Mexico seems to persist in seeing us as a “weak” footballing nation that they can run over, giving us opportunities to counter them all day long, and that is great. Keep the blinders on, give us the advantage we will take it. Does not help against anyone else though who has their eyes open

As a national team, we have a lot of learning and growth to do in this department. It will not happen overnight, but we need to develop and give first team opportunities to players who can create and break teams down who are playing ten behind the ball.

Opinion – The US was fielding an under strength squad, while Mexico had a full strength team.

The second part was pretty close. They brought a full strength team, however Sanchez chose to leave many of his best players on the bench in favor of the more established “big” names who may be a few years past their prime. They did enter the game in the second half as substitutes, so pretty much full strength.

Under strength US team? Whom, exactly were we missing? It is not as if the guys on the pitch are all back-ups come Gold Cup and Copa America.

Onyewu, check. Arguably our best central defender, left in Newcastle to blend with his new team. Looking at the game though, Conrad was the man of the match, and Bocanegra had a solid game as well. It is not as if we had a huge drop off in that department.

Beasley, check. DeMarcus definitely had a rough WC, however he has recovered nicely and is getting regular play with City. I will grant this one in that a just back from injury, hardly fit Convey was a big drop off from Beasley.

Cherundolo, check, check, check, check, check. This is the big one for me, we appear to have absolutely no cover for Steve at the international level right now.

Anyone else? I know I am leaving someone out, maybe Eddie Lewis, but is there another automatic first team selection out there that was not on this team?

Opinion – Bradley did an outstanding job coaching this game and Gulati should remove his “interim” tag.

He did win the game.
He did use the same tactics that Arena used for years against the Mexican team.
He did leave Dempsey in the game way too long. Clint has a great future in front of him but after traveling halfway around the world to play, the guy was out of gas and it was killing us. Carroll was not brilliant, but he helped solidify the midfield a bit.
He did motivate the troops and keep the focused and concentrating for 90 minutes.
He did throw the young guys into the thick of things and let them get a taste of high pressure, big time international ball.

The last is the best thing he has done in his short tenure. Develop for the future.

The whole interim tag thing just bugs me. I realize that perception is reality in a lot of cases, but it is not like removing the tag makes him bulletproof. If Klinsmann comes along and wants the job next year, he gets it, regardless of the job Bradley has done, and regardless of his title.

Opinion, which I actually agree with – Donovan played well.

Landon easily played his best game for the national team in years. He was aggressive, taking people on with the ball, tracking back, his dead balls were well struck and accurate, and his goal was quality, especially the move he put on the defender which let him break free into all that space. Pretty much to opposite of his entire 2006 WC performance.

Truth - I am a huge Landon basher. I have never liked the guy very much. The hype surrounding him has bothered me to no end over the years. When looking at his performances, I search out every little fault and play down the good things he does.

Last Wednesday he gave us a glimpse of what all that hype is about with an outstanding game. It also brought home my frustration for him. He has the ability to impact a game in a huge way if he performs at 100%. The problem has always been he does not consistently perform there.

Here is hoping he keeps this level up this summer for the tournaments we are in.

Circling back for a second, Donovan’s game is best suited to spaces, which makes him very effective on counterattacks. He is not the creative, break them down, distribution guy that can hold a team together. Right now, no one is. He could be out there, Bradley, Feilhaber, Clark, and a few others have shown potential, maybe one of them develops into that guy.

Damn, I am long winded.

Topic # 2 – Badger hoops.

Watching the last few games, it seems like we are coasting a bit, relying on our depth and talent to wear people down over a full 40 minutes. It is working against the lower and middle tier teams of the Big 10 as we have dominated the last 8-10 minutes of games since the loss at Indiana. Not sure if it will fly against Michigan State on the road, and it definitely will not against Ohio State in Columbus. We need to step up like we did against, Pitt, Ohio State, and Marquette and lock down that # 1 seed.

Go Bucky!

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