Monday, June 28, 2010

The Blame Game

The United States lost to Ghana in extra time on Saturday afternoon. In so doing, we lost a good chance to make a deep run in this World Cup. However, the primary reason why the US lost demonstrates that if the Nats would have made the semifinal, it would have represented a level of achievement that exceeds our talent. To put it bluntly, our centerbacks are not very good, so we can have no complaints that we are not going to finish this tournament as one of the four (or eight) best teams in the world.

The US conceded five goals in four games. Every one of the goals came right down the middle:

1 - England come through the middle, Gooch is sucked too far forward, Clark and Cherundolo are unable to cover, and Steven Gerrard scores.

2 - Valter Brisa ghosts in from the right into the space between the midfield and back line. The center backs don't step out, and Birsa knocks home a screamer.

3 - Slovenia come forward on the counter, one or both of Demerit and Gooch butcher their assignments, and Zlatan Ljubijankic scores.

4 - Ricardo Clark turns the ball over in the midfield to Kevin Prince-Boateng. KPB then turns Demerit inside-out before beating Tim Howard at the near post.

5 - Asamoah Gyan simply splits the US centerbacks, latches onto the most hopeful of long balls, and smashes a shot past Howard.

In every instance, the centerbacks were at least partially at fault. On some occasions, they were too slow. On others, they compensated for their lack of speed by playing off of faster attackers, which gave those attackers space to unleash lethal shots. There were also positional issues, mainly when the pairing was Gooch and Demerit. In the end, it is just about impossible for a team to survive on the top international level with suspect centerbacks. Our three options at centerback were a player who has missed the entire club season with a major knee injury, a starter for a club side in the second tier of English football who was discovered playing amateur games, and a left back for a team in Ligue Un. The U.S. has top class goalies, midfielders, and attackers; the current generation lacks top class defenders and that's why our World Cup ended in the Round of 16.

I say that as an opening before I start complaining about Bob Bradley. Bradley got the Nats to a result commensurate with our talent. In that sense, he cannot be criticized too harshly. The combination of his conditioning regime and the belief/chemistry that he fostered with the team was the major reason why the Nats kept fighting back from deficits. Bradley was able to diagnose problems in the lineup and make appropriate changes. Unfortunately, those problems were usually the result of Bradley's selection issues. By the fourth game of the tournament, the gaffer should know his best XI, but Bradley did not.

One doesn't have to be Jonathan Wilson to figure out that: (1) Maurice Edu is a better option in defensive midfield than Ricardo Clark; and (2) Robbie Findley is a poor man's Theo Walcott: a fast attacker with little ability to pass or shoot. Bradley should have learned after the Slovenia game that the best lineup for the US was Edu anchoring the midfield, allowing Bradley and Feilhaber or Torres to get forward, and then sticking Donovan and/or Dempsey higher up the pitch. He had to relearn that lesson when Clark played poorly and had to be hauled off 30 minutes into the Ghana match. Not surprisingly, the Nats looked much better when Bradley deployed the lineup from the second half of the Slovenia match. The fact that he didn't learn what appeared to be an obvious lesson is the major black mark against him in the aftermath of South Africa '10.

Other thoughts:
  • In 2006, I watched the Ghana match with Spencer Hall at a bar off of Moreland. I wore my '96 USMNT jersey. We conceded early, Dempsey forged an equalizer, and then we lost. In 2010, I watched the Ghana match with Spencer Hall at a bar off of Moreland. I wore my '96 USMNT jersey. We conceded early, Dempsey forged an equalizer, and then we lost. Bob Bradley isn't the only person who doesn't learn from experience.

  • After the game, I was commiserating with another fan about the fact that the Nats don't have any major tournaments other than the World Cup. The atmosphere at the Midway was electric. It sucks that we are going to have to wait four years for the Nats to play in a match that approaches the stakes of the World Cup (and no, the Gold Cup isn't the same). My solution: convince CONMEBOL to expand Copa America. Make the tournament 16 teams: the ten powers in CONMEBOL, the US, Mexico, and then four qualifiers from the remaining countries in North and Central America. Let the U.S. and Mexico host the tournament once in a while. CONMEBOL has already invited Mexican club teams to the Copa Libertadores because of the market potential in Mexico; imagine what they can do with Copa America if they can get the US and Mexico as regular participants (as opposed to being the occasional invitee). Wouldn't everybody win with a true American championship?

  • If you asked me right now to choose between the US producing a world class centerback and Jozy Altidore developing a first touch and ability to finish, I'd be hard pressed to come up with an answer. Jozy does a lot of good set-up work, but it's not good for a striker to play four games at the World Cup without scoring. One way of looking at Saturday's result is that Ghana won because their striker was able to create and finish a chance, whereas ours was not. Jozy is young and there's time for him to develop skills, but he needs to be playing regularly with a club that has a track record of developing talent. In retrospect, a year with Phil Brown was a wasted year.

  • I was a little let down by Tim Howard on Saturday, especially by his positioning on the first goal. I was reminded that Howard is a very good goalie, but he does have a reputation in the EPL for giving up goals on long range shots. He gave up two at this World Cup.

  • I made a joke about the Red Army crushing the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 at some point in the first half after a bad call, but I can't for the life of me remember what the call was.

  • I would have liked to have had a healthy Gooch and Charlie Davies on Saturday, but I'm sure that Ghana would have liked a healthy Michael Essien. If Ghana beat Uruguay, they will become the first African team to make the World Cup semifinals and they will have done it without their biggest star. There has to be some meaning in that possibility, but I'm not sure what it is. Something about the importance of having a bunch of good players playing together as opposed to a team that revolves around a superstar?


Anonymous said...

Good read.

"Something about the importance of having a bunch of good players playing together as opposed to a team that revolves around a superstar?"

That's marketing slogan for our2010-11 Atlanta Hawks, minus JJ.

Michael said...

Unfortunately, that was also the Hawks' approach last year, since JJ is more a very good player than a true superstar. Thus, the Hawks are going to be a team of good players, only with one fewer good player. Good times!

Kevin said...

The problem with American soccer in a nutshell. I'd love to hear your comments on this.

Interesting quote...

"Americans like to put together teams, even at the Pee Wee level, that are meant to win. The best soccer-playing nations build individual players, ones with superior technical skills who later come together on teams the U.S. struggles to beat. In a way, it is a reversal of type. Americans tend to think of Europeans as collectivists and themselves as individualists. But in sports, it is the opposite. The Europeans build up the assets of individual players. Americans underdevelop the individual, although most of the volunteers who coach at the youngest level would not be cognizant of that."

Michael said...

I've been meaning to read that article. I am going to read it and Soccernomics this summer and then try to come up with a synthesis of ideas.

Kevin said...

I'm reading Soccernomics right now (first book on my iPad!). Its got a great section on penalty kicks and some insight on the ManU Cheslea Champions League final from 08.

Good read. The opening section on the England national team and the English middle class is interesting.

Anonymous said...

Booby Pentagonz says:

Grits - I have to disagree with you placing so much blame on the centerbacks for goals 1, 2, 3 and 4. Go back and watch frame by frame, and look at the positioning of the so called 'defensive midfielders'. Bradley insists on starting out in a relatively flat midfield in a 442, and it kills us. Its the worst possible way to set up when your centerbacks lack pace. I personally feel our defense could have been much better had they actually had decent midfield protection in front of them.

Goal 1 - Gooch, if anything, was a bit late stepping to Heskey. It was Clark or Bocas responsibility to track the Gerrard run.

Goal 2 - Squarely on Dempsey. He was tracking Bilsa, then drifted off of him when Bilsa went wide. He then let Bilsa track back inside and underneath him in acres of space (space also made because neither of our center mids dropped into the huge hole they were creating). You blame the first goal on Gooch for getting sucked up to far, well on that one Heskey was only 20 yards from goal. Bilsa was thirty, and now you want to crucify Gooch for not stepping? C'mon now, you can't have your cake...

Goal 3 - One hundred percent on Bradley. Watch it again, and pay attention to Bradley. He was in a good position, about fifteen yards behind the play, but then decided he was going to suddenly press high and try and win the ball back immediately after dempsey lost it. Well, he totally misread the play and shot past fifteen yards out of position. He basically opened up the center of the midfield and let an odd numbered counter have waaaaaay too much space. Gooch and Demerit got cought out, sure, but that's what happens when the guy that's supposed to be breaking up the counter suddenly fucks off to god knows where and leaves them with their asses our forty yards from goal. Face it, watch that play, and tell me of another central mid that you can think of in the tournament that would have made that run and whiff. It was a bad bad play for the guy that's supposed to be protecting the back four.

I'd hear arguments that that should not be Bradley's responsibility. Hell, I would agree with you. But when he's paired up with Torres, it HAS to be his responsibility. If that was made clear, then the fault rests squarely on his father. Hell, I'd like to see torres and bradley together, just as long as Edu is behind them.

Seriously, watch that goal again (Slovenia's second) and watch Bradley. It's embarrassing.

Goal 4 - as you pointed out, the fault is largely on Clark. He reminded me of some of the central mids I play behind week in week out. Get caught in possession trying to dribble their way out of trouble against a player bigger, faster, and stronger than them. Terrible. And again, on Bradley senior for even putting him out there.

Goal 5 - I agree. All on Demerit and Boca. Terrible defending.

It must be said though - no shame in going out to Ghana. They are the current African power, no doubt. u21 world cup champions, a number of which players were on that squad. Young, fast, and by far the most tactically sound of the African teams.

Should we be able to beat them? No doubt. But still, no shame in losing to them.