Day 2: USA finally gets some luck

Well, USA-England is in the books, and the Americans have got to be feeling pretty good after getting a 1-1 tie and a point out of their opening match.

The game got off to a disastrous start for the Americans when Emile Heskey and Steven Gerrard played doctor, slicing through that central defense like it was Heidi Montag’s face. I’m glad I wasn’t tweeting or posting any sort of live updates, because I have to admit anything I said at that point would’ve been pretty pessimistic. Of course, I was somewhat comforted by the fact that the Americans were, at least, in a familiar position, since they are notorious for giving up early goals, especially in World Cups. I remember something very similar occurring in the first match of the ’06 Cup, but thankfully the Americans managed to shore up the defense this time after the early mistake.

The goal can be blamed almost equally on Onyewu and Clark. The ESPN axis cam, which is normally a pretty big waste of space, money, and time, actually did a pretty good job at halftime of exposing Onyewu’s poor positioning on the goal and Ricard Clark’s ball-watching.

(Speaking of cameras, the World Cup-High Def. Combo is an ESPN camerman’s wet dream. They’re absolutely in love with showing slow-mo close-ups of grass blades floating around after a slide tackle or David Beckham raising his left eyebrow. Honestly, I love the high-def and think it’s really awesome for soccer, but I think they’re getting a little overzealous with the slowed down zoom-in on the coaches’ and players’ faces. I’m fairly sure at this point that I could give a fair estimate of how many eyebrow hairs Fabio Capello has. Was I the only one who found it humorous that the camermen kept trying to show shots of Bradley and Capello reacting to a play, but they never did anything that could even remotely be construed as interesting? I think they must’ve gotten used to watching Maradona hopping around on the sidelines in the Argentina-Nigeria game earlier. Let’s just say that neither Bob Bradley or Fabio Capello is exactly must-see television)

Anyway, Onyewu got caught between stepping to the ball and hanging back, while Clark just didn’t react fast enough to Gerrard, who got a step on him and took advantage of the space to slip the ball past the keeper Tim Howard. I’m not sure whether it was a bit of rustiness on Onyewu’s part or just a simple mistake, but, fortunately, he played pretty well after that.
This type of goal is a theme for the Americans who always look most vulnerable to runs through the center of their backline. As for Clark, it was a fairly typical mistake from him, in my opinion. He’s a pretty good tackler, but he often gets caught ball watching, and he’s not a great marker overall. He also has a tendency to overcommit when defending his man, as displayed several times when an English attacker easily beat him on the dribble.
I’ll try to hold off on the Clark bashing a little bit, though, so I can get to some other stuff. Speaking more generally about the game, I thought the Americans actually possessed the ball pretty well at times throughout the 1st half, but looked completely out of ideas when it came to the final third of the field. Thus, they resorted to firing shots from 25-30 yards out anytime they got any space at all. Fortunately, one of those shots resulted in quite possibly the luckiest American goal in World Cup history. Of course, for those who’ve already forgotten, it’ll have to complete with this one against Italy in 2006.

Anyway, a huge, somewhat incomprehensible mistake from Robert Greene, whose hands beneath those gloves looked to have been made of stone, considering the way the ball just bounced right of them and into the goal. The only explanation I could get, after watching roughly 50 replays, was that the ball got there a little quicker than Greene expected, and he couldn’t completely get his body behind it. It glanced off his hands and skimmed over the line for an American goal.
The goal allowed the U.S. to fall back into more of a defensive shell for the rest of the game, content to keep at least 9 or 10 men behind the ball at times. The Americans have to be pretty thankful for the lucky goal, because, other than one or two occasions, the Americans never even looked close to threatening for most of the game. England pressured the Americans on the ball a lot, and the US just isn’t capable of spraying the ball around and finding space in an international-caliber defense. Thus, the only real chances the Americans had were on set pieces, crosses from their outside backs that are effectively the same as set pieces, and moments of individual skill like Jozy’s run that resulted in a deflected shot off the post.

I was a little surprised that Bob Bradley waited as long as he did to make any substitutions, particularly the Buddle for Findley sub. However, I guess he must’ve liked what the Americans were doing defensively, at least, and not wanted to risk a change until he had to. I was glad to see Holden on the field, though.
As for performances by the Americans, I’ll break it down section by section.

Defense: After the early mistake, I thought Onyewu and Demerit seemed to settle down and return to their Confederations Cup form for the most part. Both were solid in the air, and though the English definitely had some chances, we always knew the U.S. would need a bit of luck and some nice goalkeeping to escape with any sort of result. I thought Cherundolo played a very nice game at outside back, managing to keep his man in check for the most part, and still making some runs forward. Bocanegra was exposed by Lennon several times, but that was simply unavoidable, because of the huge gap in speed between the two. Overall, I thought the captain did about what I would expect out of him, and he usually seemed to recover when beaten in order to at least get himself back in the play.

Midfield: I liked what I saw from Dempsey earlier, who showed from the get-go that he would put his stamp on the game. Whatever you want to say about the goal (and the English press, fans, analysts, players, and even Robert Greene’s grandmother will all probably have a lot to say), the bottom line is that Dempsey was the only American player to score in the last World Cup and, so far, he’s the only American player to score in this World Cup. I was less impressed with Donovan, who struggled to find the space he wanted to make some runs. He played a couple of nice balls in, (including the one that skimmed right across Alitdore’s face in the 1st half). Honestly, I just think Ashley Cole had the pace to stick with him, and the English back repeatedly stymied Donovan down the right side. Donovan also looked somewhat lackadaisical near the end, failing to track back on defense several times in the last ten or fifteen minutes. I’ve already complained about Clark, and I’ll keep doing so until Bradley sits him on the bench. I’m still not a fan. I don’t think he’s especially good defensively and often gets caught out of position. He’s not that great on the ball and never looks likely to create anything with his passing. I also think he makes Michael Bradley a worse player when they partner together, and Bradley didn’t look especially great today, either. He settled down defensively in the 2nd half, but he also turned the ball over a lot and didn’t show much composure when he had it.

Forwards: Altidore had a typical game, fading in an out a bit and struggling to hold up the ball at times, but also displaying his pace-power combo by almost giving the Americans the lead with a nice run up the left side. Despite all the talk of Findley stretching the English defense and keeping them deep, I’m not sure that any of the English backline was ever particularly worried about the speedy Real Salt Lake striker. I was impressed with the soft touch he showed several times with his back to the goal, but I still think he has a tendency to put his head down too much when has the ball. He just seems to struggle to connect with Altidore and the midfield at times. Still, not a bad performance overall, and he and Altidore both did well to pressure the English backline. I might like to see a few more minutes of the Altidore-Buddle combo, but I’m not opposed to Findley getting another start.

As I’ve said before, the Americans will be very glad to get a tie out of this game, but they need to beat the other two teams in their group much more than they needed to beat England. Whatever the American press or fans might think, the most important group match for the Americans is against whoever wins tomorrow’s match between Slovenia and Algeria. That’s the match more likely to determine if the Americans go through.

Overall, the Americans played a fairly typical game, but they can be pleased with the results. They won the balls they had to win and made a fair amount of goal-saving tackles in the box. Howard played well, and it also appears that he wore his patented ball-magnet underoos, because the English looked absolutely incapable (apart from Gerrard’s early goal) of shooting the ball anywhere besides right at the American keeper. I’d still like to see the Americans look a little more willing and capable of finding gaps in their opponents back line and finding some passing combos between their midfielders and forwards. However, I understand this might not have been the game for such shenanigans, and I’m sure nobody on the American team will be complaining too forcefully about their play today. Plus, you have to be feeling good that Onyewu went a full 90 minutes and looked pretty good for the most part.

Quick recap of the other games today: Argentina showed its full capabilities in scoring a very early goal against Nigeria but were unable to extend the lead (partly thanks to the Nigerian keeper) and walked away with the 1-0 win.

South Korea looked very classy in a 2-0 win versus Greece. The Greeks looked pretty poor to be honest, and their only really chances came from set-pieces and long balls into the box. That’s not necessarily a horrible thing, since it’s their style of play, but they need to get a little more creative with their runs up top in order to spread the field some. I like this South Korean team a lot (plus they all have three names, which is great) and I’m looking forward to watching their other games. The big match in this group is still the South Korea-Nigeria clash.

I’ll talk more about what I’d like to see the Americans do in their next match next week.

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