Monday, June 23, 2008

Barbados 0: 1 USA

While the matter of the U.S. advancing to the next round of World Cup Qualifying was never in much doubt, the U.S. performance left a few questions in my head.

First, some credit is due. I believe Bob Bradley did the right thing by calling in young players who did not have a lot of international experience and putting them on the field. I would like to have seen some other players (Kenny Cooper and Michael Parkhurst-anyone), but that is the breaks. It was nice to see players like Danny Szetela called in, although is performance left something to be desired. I was glad that Bradley sat Onyewu and Bocanegra, giving Jay DeMerit and Danny Califf more of an opportunity to play.

I also should give credit to Barbados. They came out with the objective to play, and play hard, which they did. Yes, it is obvious looking at their team that they have a combination of professional and amatuer players, but they had two really good chances and if karma had been smiling on them, they could have stolen the game. I tip my hat to their "never-say-die" attitude.

Three players deserve a strong "atta-boy" to start, Freddy Adu, Eddie Lewis, Heath Pearce and Drew Moor. First is Adu. Everytime he plays, there is a certain creative spark that the U.S. needs. With every cap Adu earns, he is looking more and more like a player who is ready to put the U.S. on his shoulders and carry them, kicking and screaming if necessary, to the next level of world soccer. This was not his Spain performance level, but he should have put Bob Bradley and the manager at Benfica on notice that he is ready to play. If he can get regular minutes with Benfica, by the next round of qualifying, Freddy should be a monster for the U.S.

Eddie Lewis proved once again that even though a mid-30's veteran, he has much to contribute. He was all over the midfield and his clinical finish with the assist of Freddy Adu was classic. He earned the captain's armband and the opportunity to keep playing for the U.S.

Drew Moor yesterday made a solid case for consideration as the U.S. right back. He was solid in attack, made great defensive plays and his crossing is slightly better than Steve Cherundolo's. Will he be the regular U.S. right back, I don't know, but he has earned another long hard look. At the beginning of the year, I worried about our outside backs, but Pearce, Cherundolo and Moor have put those concerns to bed. I think that any combination of the three is going to serve the U.S. well.

But here are a few problems that yesterday not only revealed, but brought into start relief. First, we have holding midfield problems. Yes, Micheal Bradley had a better game than he has in the past. But his first touch is still not going to cut it against better CONCACAF teams, let alone top sides that the U.S. will likely face in South Africa. He is still sloppy with his distribution of the ball. Now, under most circumstances, this would not be a problem. But Bradley's dad (Coach Bob) has insisted upon playing Michael as a holding midfielder in a 4-4-2 bucket formation and that is not going to cut it. Can Michael Bradley make a contribution to the side, yes, but not as a holding midfielder--at least not yet.

Bob Bradley needs to find strikers other than Landon Donovan. Chris Rolfe had a good performance when he came on and earned another look. DaMarcus Beasley is not a striker, he doesn't have the strenght to compete against big defenders (and the Barbados' central defenders are big boys) and can't play with his back to goal. Yes he has the speed to go foward on the wing, but he was out of place. So Coach Bradley, call up Kenny Cooper, give Rolfe another look, think about Edson Buddle, but get some real strikers up top and stop trying to "convert" a midfielder.

Which leads me to another point, Freddy Adu is not a striker, unless you are content that he be a withdrawn striker. Freddy will score a goal here and there, and there really is no one more dangerous on a free kick for the U.S. right now (maybe Donovan). But Adu is a creator and should be playing in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2 midfield diamond formation. Adu needs the freedom to run at people, attack, create chances with his passing and keep goalkeepers honest with long range strikes. He is too short to play an up top striker and is a waste with his back to the goal.

Kartik talks about the weakness of the game and I think he is right.
Playing young kids in friendlies on US soil, or in a Copa America where the results do not matter is one thing, but playing them in qualifiers we learned tonight is downright cruel. Does Bob Bradley deserve the blame for tonight’s squad selection? No, that blame must be placed squarely on Major League Soccer and its clubs whose decision to play right through CONCACAF qualifiers and in the case of teams participating in Superliga accelerate their schedule.
However, I don't think it is cruel to play these young players in a World Cup Qualifying match, in fact I would argue that they needed to be played in this match, away from home in order to get a better feel for what all the hubbub is about.

But Kartik is right, the MLS needs to deal with FIFA International breaks and World Cup qualifying much better than it is. In reality, I don't think teams will mind playing two games a week for a couple of weeks, if it means there is a true international break. Bob Bradley in a number of interviews has lamented the difficulty of working with the MLS in getting those players into camp and onto friendly rosters, let alone in to camp for qualifiers and tournaments. I will admit that sometimes a delay of three or four days, even a week if it is an extended camp may be necessary, but Bradley cannot call on as deep a pool of talent for camp without the MLS players. This has led to an over reliance of foreign based players and that is a shame. Having MLS players in addition to Donovan make a name for themselves on the international level will make the MLS more exciting to American and even foreign fans alike. Aside from the aforementioned Cooper, Parkhurst and Buddle along with other potential strikers, that could be considered, there are younger players like Stuart Holden that could be called in, or veterans like Jimmy Conrad who are worthy of consideration. I would like to see Matt Reis on the roster as Tim Howard's back up. But with the MLS insisting on not honoring the FIFA breaks and traditions, we are stuck with a more limited pool.

I think the experimenting was worth it. I fully expect the U.S. to make it out of their next qualifying group. But unless the U.S. starts playing these young players and MLS gets its head out regarding international breaks, there is going to be problems in 2010 and beyond.

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