USA (Group C)
1-1 vs England
2-2 vs Slovenia
1-0 vs Algeria
1-2 vs Ghana [aet]
Final Results: Played 4, win 1, drawn 2, lost 1, 5 goals scored, 5 goals allowed. First place in Group C, eliminated in Round of 16.
As Zonal Marking said in its World Cup preview of the USA, most American fans believe that their national team is underrated by the rest of the world during these international tournaments. There is a lot of truth to that statement, but this was the first World Cup in which many foreign and domestic pundits expected the USA to pass to the knockout rounds. The matches tell the story of a US team that showed their positive attributes and shortcomings -- a hardworking and resilient team undone by poor starting lineups and lack of tactical sophistication. In short, it was a mildly successful World Cup with feelings of satisfaction but also missed opportunities.
Much attention was paid to the opening match against England for reasons of marketing and ratings but also because a good start would set up the USA well for their remaining group matches. The match did not start the right way when the USA broke down defensively and conceded a goal through Steven Gerrard in the fourth minute. That opening would foreshadow a frustrating refrain for the US national team during this World Cup. To their credit, the Americans recovered and fought their way back to near-parity by the middle of the first half, and then grabbed the equalizer thanks to an exceptional piece of good fortune. I thought that the wide play of the US players was excellent, and there were opportunities to score a winning goal in the second half. A draw was a fair result given the effort given by both teams and the number of opportunities that they produced. A point off a European team is never a bad result for the USA, and it would set them up well for the Slovenia match.
The USA were favorites in their match against Slovenia, but it was never going to be an easy match. American teams have struggled historically against the more technical Central and Eastern European sides, and a team that knocked off Russia in the qualification playoffs is not a side to be taken lightly. Once again the USA started slow as the midfield and defensive lines left too much space for the Slovenian players, and Valter Birsa scored an opportunistic goal from long distance. This match brought to the fore one of Bob Bradley's strongest traits, which was his ability to make in-match adjustments. José Torres was initially placed in defensive midfield as a replacement for Ricardo Clark -- a move that was defensible after Clark's performance in the first match, but just didn't work. Torres was replaced by Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber came on for the ineffectual Robbie Findley. The substitutes and the resulting change in formation turned the game around for the USA in perhaps the Americans' best half of soccer in the World Cup. Their goals came from perhaps their best two players over the balance of the tournament -- Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley. Only a wrongly disallowed goal denied the Americans a deserved three points, but the 2-2 scoreline still put them in position for the knockout stage.
The third match against Algeria featured Edu in the starting XI, but not Feilhaber. Once again Altidore was deployed up front with his third partner of the World Cup (Hérculez Gómez), and Gómez turned out to be just as ineffectual as the others. Once again the Americans suffered a defensive lapse, and only the crossbar saved them from being a goal down. Once again the inclusion of Feilhaber made the US a more dynamic and dangerous side, but the failure of Altidore and Dempsey to take full advantage of their chances put more pressure on the American side. In the dying minutes of the match, on perhaps their next to last rush downfield, the USA scored the group-clinching goal through Landon Donovan. It was fitting that Donovan would score that goal, after the underachievement of 2006 and after his form for club and country over the last two years.
The group matches should have given Bob Bradley an idea of his best starting XI. A back-line four with DeMerit, Cherundolo, Bocanegra, and either Onyewu or Bornstein; Edu and Feilhaber as the two defensive midfielders with Bradley more forward; Donovan and Dempsey playing on the wings; Altidore up front. Perhaps a 4-2-1-2-1 which could become 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 depending on possession. Because of what Bradley had to have seen from the first three matches, his starting lineup against Ghana was so perplexing. The Round of 16 match revealed Bradley's most serious failing -- his inability to learn from forced adjustments in previous games to subsequent matches. Such a fault proves fatal in a tournament like the World Cup. Clark was the wrong choice from the start, and his positioning and dribbling error led directly to Boateng's goal. A selection that was just as bad was the inclusion of Robbie Findley. He started every match for which he was eligible (suspended for the Algeria game), and he was consistently ineffective and inefficient in all of them. Two substitutes were used before the 50-minute mark (five of the USA's 11 substitutions occurred by this time), which were wasted subs because of errors with the initial lineup. Once again the USA were a much better side with Edu and Feilhaber on the field, and Dempsey had more freedom to make forward runs, one of which won his side a penalty. But the initial mistakes in the lineup meant that the Americans had few options to freshen up the side, and the Ghanaian changes near the end of the 90' made the difference in extra time.
The USA continued to show signs of improvement from previous World Cups, and they earned respect for the collective attributes of the squad and the individual performance of key players such as Donovan, Bradley, and Dempsey. Bradley showed himself to be the indispensable player on the US team, more so than Donovan. (I must also give Bradley a huge round of applause for not picking up a yellow card during the World Cup, a feat I did not think was possible. ) Altidore showed glimpses of his promise with his physical presence and his positioning, but he was not clinical enough in front of goal and his ball control needs some refinement. (I am starting to understand Axel Torres' comments about Altidore needing to improve his technical skills to make more of an impact in Spain.) Edu and Feilhaber had standout performances not only by their work on the field, but by demonstrating the difference in the USA's play when they were not on it. Bornstein needs more seasoning on the international stage, but his performances weren't bad. I don't recall any goals being scored due to any breakdowns on his part. Onyewu was not fully fit, and the USA's play in central defense suffered as a result.
I thought that the MLS-based players were a mixed bag. Findley and Buddle were in varying degrees of form before the World Cup, but they struggled to make the transition from MLS to international play. Bornstein was a little better. Donovan was the best of all, but that was always going to be true. Donovan aside, the other three MLS-based players need more international experience, or at least more high-level matches that replicate that experience. MLS simply does not provide that.After the 2006 World Cup, Bruce Arena described the US team as a collection of support players for mid-table European teams. That is still true for the most part, but a number of players on the current squad are becoming important players for clubs challenging for European competitions and league titles. There are some attractive parts to the current US team, and perhaps the Round of 16 is an accurate reflection of their current talent level. Now the work needs to be done to graft skillful and creative midfielders and more clinical strikers into the base of determination and physical fitness.