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Red, White, and Bruised: How Will the U.S. Adjust to Altidore’s Absence?

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It wasn’t often pretty, but Team USA ended their World Cup losing streak against Ghana on Monday evening, thanks to substitute center back John Brooks’ unlikely 86th minute winning header goal off Graham Zusi’s corner kick. The U.S. limps away from the Ghana street fight battered and bloodied (literally), but with the vital three points that pundits have insisted for months is a prerequisite if the U.S. has a chance of advancing from Group G.

The U.S.’ dramatic win is tempered only by the slew of injuries they suffered: defender Matt Besler didn’t play the second half as a precaution because of a hamstring issue, Clint Dempsey likely broke his nose, Alejandro Bedoya left with a limp late in the second half, and most notably, Jozy Altidore’s hamstring strain which may sideline him for the rest of the tournament. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s on-the-fly adjustments worked out against Ghana, but additional changes to the starting 11 may be necessary for the U.S.’ clash against Portugal on Sunday.

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John Brooks worked in a pinch (sliding in at halftime for Matt Besler), and his winning goal certainly can’t be overlooked, but Brooks had some shaky moments trying to withstand the Ghanaian barrage. If Besler isn’t fit to start the match against Portugal, Omar Gonzalez may be the more conservative pick to partner with Geoff Cameron in central defense. Gonzalez has been dealing with his own knee issues however, so if he isn’t completely ready, Brooks will get the nod, as the U.S. has no other center back alternatives.

Alejandro Bedoya has been surprisingly dynamic for the U.S. in the run up to this World Cup and he put in a hard-working shift against Ghana, but if he is unable to start against Portugal, the U.S. has several capable midfield wing options in Graham Zusi, Mix Diskerud, or Brad Davis. If Bedoya’s unavailable, Zusi seems most likely to start with his crossing ability and defensive backtracking know-how.

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As for Dempsey’s apparent broken nose, he won’t get much sympathy from Klinsmann, who told reporters in his post-match press conference that he knows from breaking his own nose “three or four times” that Dempsey will be fine in a few days. Still, the injury seemed distracting to Dempsey who wasn’t the same threat post-injury that he demonstrated with his amazing first-minute goal against Ghana. A U.S. lineup without team captain Dempsey seems unthinkable; indeed, it will take more than a broken nose to keep Dempsey off the pitch.

Perhaps the biggest lineup conundrum for the U.S. then is how to move forward without striker Jozy Altidore. Aron Johansson is an exciting young player, who filled in capably when Altidore left the game, but Dempsey and Johansson were not tuned to the same frequency, and the U.S. doesn’t have another bench option at striker with physical strength comparable to Altidore’s. Certainly, Altidore’s injury makes the Landon Donovan omission all the more glaring. Chris Wondolowski may be a bit of a wildcard selection, but his superb movement and uncanny knack for being in the right spaces at the right time might prove a surprise foil for Portugal’s back line. While he is a very different striker than Altidore, Wondolowski is a pesky go-getter with a track record of scoring when Klinsmann calls on him.

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It was an exciting win for the U.S., but one that definitely came at a price as the match took much more out of the team than is ideal from a World Cup opener. Fans saw a lot of scrappy character in this U.S. side against Ghana, but with the injury setbacks, we’ll really find out what they’re made of when they face a chastised Portuguese team this Sunday.

On a side note, don’t forget to check out my brand new book Dallas ‘Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer which is now available on Amazon.com and on Amazon Europe sites!

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The Things We Do for Love

How I almost missed the dramatic U.S. victory over Jamaica

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I received an email from Stampede Sports, the name of the indoor soccer facility where I’ve played on a team the past couple years. It was an invitation to come watch the US v. Jamaica World Cup qualifier in Stampede’s bar area, creatively dubbed “The Corral”.  The email made the event sound very exciting, including that it would be the first gathering of the Southlake chapter of the mighty American Outlaws (the US men’s national team supporters group).  I’m certainly not in the habit of watching my soccer matches in pubs or bars, primarily because I don’t drink.  But in this case I perked up since all of the US’ away qualifiers are only televised on the be In Sports channel, which I don’t get on my cable package.

So, right after I read the kids a goodnight story I threw on my US jersey from World Cup 2010 (the one with the beauty pageant sash) and headed for Stampede Sports in Southlake (about a 20 minute drive).

I arrived at “The Corral” at 8:30, just in time for kickoff, but there was no soccer on the single big screen TV hanging above the bar.  The few patrons seemed oblivious to any imminent World Cup qualifier.  There were no American Outlaws in sight.

I found a flight of stairs.  Aha!  I wasn’t aware that Stampede had an upper bar area.  The gathering must be upstairs.  I jogged up the stairs, afraid that I’d miss an early surprise goal by Clint Dempsey or more likely a squandered chance by Jozy Altidore.  Alas, no one was upstairs and the sole TV was turned off.

I jogged back downstairs.  The bartender changed the channel… to a Texas Rangers game.  I nearly broke into a cold sweat.  Did I dream up this qualifier?  It was June 7th, right?  I checked my watch to verify.

I suddenly remembered there were a couple party rooms at the far end of the arena.  Duh!  Why hadn’t I thought of those in the first place?  Surely the big watch party was there.  I jogged down to the rooms only to find them completely empty, lights turned off, doors locked.  This was not cool.

Ten minutes of the match were already gone.  I jogged to the front desk and asked where the game was being shown.  The teenaged girl manning the desk barely looked up as she replied (as if it were no big deal), “Oh yeah, we’re not showing it.  We don’t have that channel.”

“We don’t have that channel”?  Don’t have that channel?  But what about the email invitation?  What about the American Outlaws?  Why was I the only one that seemed to care that there was a crucial World Cup qualifier in progress?  I could feel my pulse in my temples.  This was turning into one of those dreams I periodically have where I’m running all over trying to find something or someone and never succeed.

I jogged back to my car without a plan.  Where could I possibly watch this game?  If I were in Europe or South America I’d probably just have to drive a couple blocks and look for a crowd spilling out of a shop or café broadcasting the game.  But not in Southlake, Texas – the ultimate suburban oasis.  If I wanted a designer latte, fancy ice cream, to see a movie, or purchase an Apple product, I’d be in business.  But finding a place to watch US v. Jamaica here on short notice?  I might as well be in the Australian outback.

I thought about calling my friend Kristian, but I was pretty sure he didn’t get be In Sports either, plus he lived in Arlington which would be another 30 minute hike from Southlake.  I thought about my friend Jim (the former professional mascot) but it was getting late, he’s working on his doctoral thesis, and his wife is pregnant with their second child, so I didn’t really want to bother him.

I hopped in my car, started driving, and dialed up the only fake person I could think to turn to:  Siri.  I asked her for Buffalo Wild Wings locations in Bedford.  I hadn’t been to a BWW in probably a decade, but I remembered they have lots of TVs.  Surely one of them was tuned to US/Jamaica.  Siri zapped me a map in a flash.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the strip mall parking lot where I thought the Buffalo Wild Wings used to be.  It was gone.  Had Siri led me astray?  I checked her map again.  No.  I was wrong – the restaurant moved in the decade since I’d been there and was now on the other side of the freeway.  I checked the time, disheartened.  It was nearly halftime already.

As I drove to the Buffalo Wild Wings I refreshed the match score on my phone… the US had scored!  I whipped into the parking lot and could already see multiple TVs tuned to the game.  Yes!

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I asked to be seated outside on the patio because the night air was unusually pleasant for north Texas in June.  I got a table and a menu just as the players left the field for halftime.  As soon as I sat down, the only other groups using tables on the patio finished up and left and I was suddenly sitting outside, in the darkness, all alone, in my US jersey.

Though I’d already had dinner and wasn’t hungry, I felt obligated to order something.  But my wife Trevlyn had me on the caveman diet, so a soda was forbidden.  I gritted my teeth and ordered an unsweet tea.  I hoped Trevlyn would forgive me for the chips and salsa I also ordered (chips aren’t caveman diet approved either).

The waitress asked me if I’d like to have the sound turned on outside.  I certainly did.  Soon, I was kicked back with my own snack, two high-def TVs, with surround sound, and a cool breeze blowing.  Did it make up for missing the entire first half?  Probably not, but it wasn’t a bad consolation.

Still, it wasn’t quite the same without any fellow fans to cheer on the US with.  I called my brother Dan, who has started his extreme busy season as a summer camp director, in the off chance that he was actually getting to watch the game live.  He’d just started watching the recording so we couldn’t discuss the action or gripe about players in real time.  He said he couldn’t stay on the phone long because he didn’t want to read any spoilers in my tone, but we started talking about Star Trek Into Darkness and ended up on the phone ten more minutes anyway.

Into darkness is exactly where I and all other true US soccer fans plunged when a victory that seemed relatively in hand disappeared with a Jamaican equalizer in the 89th minute.  I blamed Graham Zusi.  The Sporting KC midfielder lazily mistimed his jump for a header against a Jamaican player who won the ball and might have raced past Zusi had Zusi not tripped him and earned a yellow card.  The match commentators commended Zusi for a “smart” foul, but I’m not convinced the play would’ve been much of a threat had he not fouled.  Jamaica lined up the resulting free kick within easy distance of the US box.  Sure enough, the ball floated in and Jamaica’s Jermaine Beckford easily waltzed through and headed the ball into the goal past a frozen Tim Howard.

All my effort scrambling around suburbia like an obsessed treasure hunter suddenly seemed madness.  Why did the US team constantly break my heart so?  Why can’t they finish out games when they have the lead?  Why did I have to be on this wretched caveman diet when I’m not even a caveman?

As I stewed and pouted into stoppage time, the US pushed the ball up field with semi-urgency.  They earned a corner kick.  Michael Bradley played it short to Zusi, who wisely returned it to Bradley.  Bradley turned sharply toward the end line trying to beat his Jamaican marker.  Bradley looked covered but he struck a pass anyway.  Brad Evans received Bradley’s pass with his back to goal, spun and ripped a desperate shot that zipped into the upper right corner past Jamaica’s Hulk of a keeper Donovan Ricketts.

I was dumbfounded.  This.  Never.  Happens.  To.  The.  US.

I suddenly wanted Brad Evans posters for my office.  I even contemplated not cheering against him next time Dallas plays Seattle.

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Sure, a draw wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but the away win provided the US with some welcome breathing room.

I paid my bill and walked to my car.  The restaurant seemed unusually empty for a Friday night.  What a match!  The whole spectrum of sports fan emotion, dejection to elation, in under five minutes.  America doesn’t know what it’s missing.

Jozy Out-the-Door

Why Jozy Altidore’s omission from the US National Team is a good thing…

As some of you know, I’ve had some articles published on EPL Talk and a couple of their related sites this year.  In anticipation of the U.S.’ World Cup qualifier against Antigua and Barbuda tonight, I have a new article (about Jozy Altidore being dropped from the latest U.S. roster) which is now live at MLS Talk.  I hope you’ll check it out!

 

 

Scorin’ in the Rain

U.S. defeats Antigua & Barbuda in so-so fashion

The fact that fans are so critical of the U.S. national team is a positive indicator that U.S. Soccer is on the right track.  The team has made so much progress over the past twenty years that fans now hold the team to a higher standard.  I recall the days when a 3-1 victory like last night’s win over Antigua & Barbuda was a celebrated rarity.  Now we grumble that Antigua & Barbuda actually scored.

 

The U.S. wasn’t awful last night, just not as smooth as they were against Scotland a couple weeks ago.  Primarily, there was the defensive leak caused by Onyewu in the second half that granted A&B their goal.  Unfortunately, Onyewu just doesn’t seem up to the task right now.  He has a very long way to go to recover his starting spot.  Other issues included too many second half giveaways by the U.S., and a general concentration lapse in the last fifteen minutes that allowed A&B to press the U.S. goal.

It wasn’t a close match.  Most of the action took place in A&B’s half of the field.  But the U.S. couldn’t finish precisely enough to run up the score (which is important since goal differential matters in qualifying).  Granted, the monsoon weather conditions didn’t help.  A&B also had the box well clogged for most of the game.  The U.S. needs to shoot from outside the box more to draw out defenses, which in turn will sometimes open up space for those darting runs into the box that Donovan, Dempsey, and Gomez (last night) do so well.  Dempsey and Bradley tried a couple distance shots that proved tricky for the A&B goalkeeper.  The U.S. needs to increase outside shooting because most of their CONCACAF opposition will employ the same defensive strategy of stuffing the box.

On a positive note, Herculez Gomez has been such a breath of fresh air at forward instead of Altidore.  He works much harder – on and off the ball – than Altidore and will actually hustle back to pitch in on defense.  His hard work paid off with a goal last night.  I’ve been saying for a long time that Altidore has received far too many chances to prove himself, so it’s great to see Klinsmann open to trying Gomez instead.

It was great to open World Cup qualifying with a win, but the real test will come Tuesday night in Guatemala.  If the U.S. can improve their concentration and tighten up on defense, they should be fine.

How did you think the U.S. looked against Antigua & Barbuda?

The Italian Job

Thoughts on U.S. Men’s 1 – 0 defeat of Italy…

Yes, it was “just a friendly”, but the U.S. win over Italy on Wednesday is a very big deal.  A little historical perspective helps in fully appreciating just how far U.S. soccer has come the past twenty years.  For those who don’t remember the deer-in-headlights U.S. team of Italia ’90, trust me, we’ve come a loooooong way.  So even though it was a friendly, it is a very significant win for the U.S. – in Italy no less – that should give Klinsmann and company plenty of confidence heading into World Cup qualifying this summer.

It was still primarily a defensive effort from the U.S., but the apparent game plan worked.  They made the most of their few chances, with one of them finally paying off in Dempsey’s grass-burner of a goal early in the second half.  It was the kind of goal Dempsey seems to score almost weekly now for Fulham.  Too bad the World Cup isn’t this year in order to catch this guy in his absolute prime.  Still, as long as he stays healthy, he should be a major contributor in 2014.

In midfield, Michael Bradley was mature and poised.  His stint in Serie A this season is obviously paying off.  He needs to start every U.S. qualifier.  Maurice Edu was also very effective and I hope we get to see more of him.  Brek Shea didn’t have one of his better games.  His decision-making needs honing as he too often tries to dribble guys he shouldn’t and sometimes passes to covered teammates.  But he’ll grow out of that.  He makes up for his mistakes by hustling back on defense.  I like his work ethic and speed.  I hope he continues to get U.S. team minutes because he could be a huge factor by 2014.

The defense was leaky in the first half, but fortunately the Italians were repeatedly offside.  The last ten minutes were nerve-wracking, but the defense got the job done and Howard came up with some quality saves.  It’s no small feat to keep Italy scoreless in Italy!  I hope Klinsmann can settle soon on a core back line so they have plenty of time to gel in qualifying.

My only real beef with the U.S. lineup was Altidore.  Has any American player been given so much opportunity with so little to show for it?  Commentators continue to heap praise, but I don’t see what the fuss is about.  Against Italy he received raves for assisting Dempsey’s goal.  Sure, it was good that he saw Dempsey’s run, but it was a very routine layoff that every player on the field could have made.  Altidore just isn’t enough of a scoring threat.  If he has speed, he rarely uses it.  He’s strong, but rarely uses his strength to force his way toward goal with the ball.  Most of the time he seems content to try to draw fouls.  Yawn.  For my money, if the U.S continues to do the lone striker thing, Dempsey’s the ticket.

It wasn’t always pretty, but it was a unified effort from the U.S. to get a memorable win.  It’s a very long road to Brazil 2014 but the first couple steps are looking good.

Which U.S. players were standouts against Italy?  Feel free to weigh in below…

Post-Gold Cup Debriefing

Changes needed before US can book 2014 trip to Brazil

Unfortunately, if the Gold Cup is any indication, US qualification for World Cup 2014 is not a forgone conclusion.  It should be.  I still expect them to make it, but we’ve got to tighten the belts and get to work to be certain.  Here is a handy to-do list:

1)  The US needs a defensive overhaul immediately if not sooner.  Fast counterattacks from the opposition should not be a surprise, yet fans hold their breath every time the US faces one because it’s inevitably a shaky moment.

Cherundolo’s the man, and Bocanegra has a lot of guts.  However, they’re not getting any younger and who knows where they’ll be in their careers three years from now.  Goodson and Lichaj have potential, but I’m not convinced they’re up to World Cup standards.  Maybe they will be by 2014, but in the mean time, we need to have a massive nationwide search for the best and the brightest.  Uncle Sam Wants You… to play some airtight D!

2)  The US needs someone to accelerate into space with the ball and attack the goal.  The best teams always seem to have a player or two who can move the ball solo when necessary, creating panic in the opposing defense and scoring opportunities (just look at Dos Santos and Hernandez in the Gold Cup final).  The US doesn’t have anyone like that right now.  Dempsey, currently the best all-around US player, is more confident and poised on the ball than he’s ever been.  But he doesn’t have the kind of open-field speed with the ball that the team needs.

Anyone who remembers the US teams of the 90s knows we’ve come a very long way in our possession game.  Now we just need to ratchet up the tempo multiple notches.

3)  Figure out our best roster and stick to it.  Teams need time to gel.  If we’re still tinkering by spring 2014, it will not be a good sign.  Give Maurice Edu some minutes (I don’t know why he spent most of the Gold Cup on the bench).  Kljestan surprised me in his limited appearances.  He’s worth another look.  Time-wise, the most proportionally impressive US player during the Gold Cup was actually Freddy Adu.  He needs to figure prominently in qualifying plans.

I’m not writing off Altidore yet because he’s young and could still develop into a great player, however, he’s had more than his fair share of chances the past few years and hasn’t produced nearly enough.  It’s time to look at some other striker options.  By the way, Agudelo and Wondolowski aren’t the answers.  I don’t like this strategy of cherry-picking whoever’s hot in MLS at tournament time.  Not that MLS can’t provide some excellent talent – it can – but the MLS picks for South Africa and the Gold Cup did not pan out.

4)  It’s time for a new coach.  I like Bob Bradley.  I didn’t at first.  After giving him a chance and reading more about him (Filip Bondy’s book Chasing the Game has a great section on Bradley), what I initially perceived to be arrogance I came to see more as dignity and wisdom.  He represented the country honorably and I admire that.  However, it’s time for a fresh start.  We need someone like Guus Hiddink or Jurgen Klinsmann.  Maybe someone with professional playing experience.  It seems counter-intuitive for Americans to pick a foreigner to coach our national team, but we could really benefit from the different perspective and experience a foreigner would provide.  Now is the best time to make a coaching change before World Cup qualifying gets fully under way.

What do you think – should Coach Bradley stay or go?  What else does the US need to address ahead of World Cup 2014?