Wow, what a morning for Team USA and American soccer fans. Whatever might be said about the U.S. they do seem to have a thing for drama. Today’s match (and I promise I’m not just saying this because I’m American) was easily the most exciting of the tournament so far. It certainly wasn’t the best played, nor did it involved the most stunning goals, but in terms of drama and the plot of the game, it was definitely the best. It had a two stomach-punch moments in the first half, then a huge comeback, and, finally, a piece of controversy at the end.
Plenty to talk about with this game, including the play of both teams as well as the performance of the referee. In honor of Lizzie Mcguire appearing on the Twitter trending topics earlier today (and because I love gimmicky stuff like this), I’m going to give the top 5 trending topics on the U.S. team, both in terms of this game and heading into their next match against Algeria.
5. Inconsistency

The Americans problems on defense were on display again today. The spectrum of quality that the U.S. defense seems to traverse every day is amazing. At moments they look solid, stubborn, and organized while at other times they look slow, sloppy, and in complete disarray. After playing a pretty decent 80 or so minutes against England last weekend, the U.S. were back at their worst today. I thought Onyewu was particularly poor in the first half. Although the blame for the first goal might be placed more squarely on the shoulders on Michael Bradley and Jose Torres, Onyewu, who wasn’t marking anyone at the time, was also slow to close out on Valter Birsa. Similarly, on the second goal, Onyewu again found himself marking empty space and held Zlatan Ljubijankic onsides to allow him the break on Tim Howard. Of course, Onyewu’s mistake was only the last of several on both goals, but he still didn’t look anywhere near his form from last year’s Confederations Cup or even last Saturday’s tie.

Apart from the defensive inconsistency, it’s also the fact that all of the American team’s best offensive players have an amazing propensity for fading in and out of games. Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore were all completely invisible at various times throughout the first half. Donovan’s especially frustrating, because we see at times how he’s capable of taking over a game. Altidore did what he does best for the U.S. in the second half, finding space to bring down long balls, drawing fouls in dangerous positions, and nodding down the header on Bradley’s goal.

Lastly, we also saw the best and worst of Michael Bradley, who played a couple of nice through balls early in the game but also made some key defensive errors. However, Bradley showed his full capabilities, scoring a typical, opportunistic Bradley-type goal.

4. Fringe Starters

On a day when four different U.S. players made their first appearances in South Africa, I think it’s safe to say that none of them impressed. I’m calling Jose Francisco Torres, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, and Herculez Gomez fringe starters, because they have variously been discussed as starting options or substitutes by the U.S. faithful. Today was an important match to see whether some guys besides Bradley, Dempsey, Donovan, and Altidore are capable of stepping up in big moments.

I was one who lobbied to see Torres starting today, but I’ll readily admit he looked weak in the first half. He showed little of the composure and cleverness with the ball that had led people like me to call for his play in the first place. I have to wonder if the magnitude of the moment got to him a little bit. I don’t just mean the fact that he’s young and playing in his first World Cup. It’s more the fact that he hasn’t really played in any big games with this specific team, and I think he was more worried about letting down his teammates than all the people watching in the stadium and on TV. It’s tough to play at your full level when worried about letting down guys when you haven’t had a chance to really earn their respect yet.

I think Maurice Edu looked poor as well. Despite the experience he’s gained playing with Rangers, he still shows the same old propensity to turn the ball over. He’ll be bailed out a bit by his nice run on the disallowed goal, but when Bob Bradley watches film of this game he’ll find it hard to say much else positive about Edu.

Feilhaber was a little better, but I still don’t think he’s made any sort of case for himself to start. I think he’s still viewed as a defensive liability, and, though he showed a little more skill in picking out passes and making runs forward, he has to show that he can be a complete player. More than just improving defensively, Feilhaber needs to prove that he can stay involved consistently in a game and not disappear for long stretches as he has before.

Gomez only got a brief appearance, but the conversation about him takes on increased urgency with Robbie Findley missing the next match due to suspension.

The bottom line is that Bob Bradley is left with more questions than answers about his lineup selctions today. Both Torres and Edu had a chance to seize the other center-mid spot and neither did.

3. Same old American attack

Despite how upset I was over the play of the Americans in the first half, I have to admit that in the back of my mind I was excited to see what an American side would look like that was actually forced to play extremely aggressively from behind. The Americans certainly showed more inclination to go forward, as they had to, but in terms of the method of attacking it was really the same old, same old.

The problem is that when the Americans try to press, they just end up stacking players at the top of the box and launching balls into the box. Granted, that was what led to the Americans’ second goal when Altidore knocked the ball down, but at times the U.S. just sends hopeful balls into no man’s land for little reason other than that they don’t know what else to do.

Of course, when the Americans try to play patiently, they just knock the ball between the back four and the two center mids. The other team eventually decides to pressure the ball and somebody kicks a long ball up top, as usual. The Americans still show no ability to link their buildup in the back and midfield with their wingers and strikers. It’s not that they’re physically incapable of doing so due to lack of skill. It’s more a lack of ideas or savvy, since players often run away from the ball instead of showing or fail to pick out the right pass when players are making those runs. This isn’t new, but the Americans have to figure out what their offensive identity is. Until they do that, these problems will always be there.

2. The Referee

Anybody who watched this match, unless you were Slovenian, was probably pretty disappointed in the refereeing of Koman Coulibaly. He wasn’t terrible for most of the game, and I think he actually did a good job of quickly pulling out the yellow cards in the second half when the Slovenian defenders were trying to slow down the game with fouls. However, the decision on the disallowed goal was absolutely awful and cancels out anything else he’d done thus far. Nobody, including any of the players or coaches, had any idea what the call was, and it actually appeared there were several possible fouls on the Slovenians, rather than the Americans, during the play.

Donovan stated after the game that the referee ignored all queries from the Americans as to who the call was on, and stated, in all seriousness, that he wasn’t sure the referee entirely understood English. This kind of gets at the root of the problem here, which was his failure to communicate. I don’t want to be some sort of xenophobic Anglo-supremacist, but it would be somewhat puzzling if an international referee presiding over a World Cup match didn’t speak the language (along with Spanish) most widely spoken among players at the tournament. I don’t know how strategic FIFA is with this sort of thing, but I find it hard to believe they would have someone refereeing a match who is completely incapable of communicating with either team (Coulibaly is from Mali). Judging from body language and facial expressions, the referee in this match appeared obstinate about not even trying to express what had happened. I understand not wanting to get into arguments with players, but, as someone who has refereed plenty of soccer games, I know that it’s often better to communicate cordially and be clear with the players than just allow frustration and confusion to build up. The U.S. should’ve won this game, and they knew it. That frustration combined with a lack of communication could’ve easily led to an ugly scene at the end of this game (which almost happened).

His other bizarre decision has been somewhat forgotten but also has lasting repercussions. The Coulibaly gave Robbie Findley a yellow card in the first half (which will cause him to miss the next match due to yellow card accumulation) essentially gor tetting hit in the face with the ball. The referee made the rather strage claim that Findley had handled the ball, but I’m not sure how a handball (which the ref imagined in the first place) in that spot would even warrant a yellow card.

1. Now what?

Whatever happened in the game today, it’s time to move forward, beginning with this afternoon’s match between England and Algeria.

Currently (before England and Algeria play) U.S. has 2 points, Slovenia has 4, England has 1, and Algeria has 0.

If Algeria manages to tie or defeat England, the U.S. will control its own destiny in their final group match against the Desert Foxes of Algeria. If England wins (which is much more likely), the Americans will have to win next week and hope that England defeats or ties Slovenia. I could go into much more detail, but it’s rather pointless. As you can see, the Americans absolutely have to win next week no matter what. Technically, a tie next week could see them through if England ties Algeria and then ties or loses to Slovenia. However, there’s really no point in hoping for this rather unlikely scenario, so we’ll just go ahead and call next week a must-win.

The thing that’s interesting to me is that so many people are talking about this group as if Slovenia is a much better or tougher team than Algeria. I actually think the exact opposite to be true. Algeria controlled nearly all of their game last week against Slovenia and wos rather unfortunate not to get 3 points, let alone 1 point, out of the match. Specifically, the Algerians looked much better on the attack, and we all saw how easily the Slovenians managed to score today against the U.S..

In the end, today provided plenty of drama and a range of emotions, but we’re actually left in a very similar position to where we were before. The U.S. has to win next week against a team that they probably should beat, and we still don’t know who will start up top with Altidore or in the center with Bradley. Should be fun talking about it again for another week.