Don't let that score line fool you, the United States did not look that good on Sunday in their first of a two leg qualifying match up against Barbados at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles. Sure, Clint Dempsey got two goals as did Brian Ching (although his first "goal" should be credited to Pablo Mastroeni), Eddie Johnson, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan and a Barbados own goal completed the tallies.
Despite the the confidence building goals, the fact of the matter is that the U.S. did not look sharp. The movement of the players was lacksadasical, the passing was not crisp on a regular enough basis and many players' first touch was lacking. The only reason the U.S. "looked good" was that Barbados was laying so far off and putting so many people behind the ball that there were times when a U.S. midfielder would get the ball and have 15 yards of open space before meeting a defender.
Once again, Bob Bradley did not start Freddy Adu, who quite frankly did not have a great game when he came on for an mildly injured Mastroeni. Once again, Bradley played is "bucket" 4-4-2, although for a change he put Brian Ching up top with Clint Dempsey to start. Once again, I think Bradley squandered an opportunity to experiment in a relatively risk free game with a more offensive minded formation.
A couple of notes on the midfield play. I was surprised how pinched in DaMarcus Beasley played. Often Beasley was in the middle of the field rather than out on the wings. Beasley did play the full 90 minutes and although he was getting tired at th end, I think his fitness is pretty well back. When Adu came on, it looked like the U.S. shifted to more of a diamond midfield rather than the bucket, which put Adu into more of an attacking type role, which suits him. The funny thing is that it seemed to take a few minutes for Dempsey and Ching to settle into the mindset that they didn't have to check back as much to move the ball around.
Heath Pearce and Steve Cherundolo, playing at left and right back respectively, had the run of the sidelines. Pearce's touch on crosses was a little heavy at times, but clearly the experienced helped. Cherundolo looked like he was willing to go one on one with defenders, which opened the play up a little. Both men had assists in the match, which is something nice.
Oguchi Onyewu played okay, but his temper earned him a yellow card after exchaning heated words with Barbados' Norman Forde in the 18th minute. Mexican referee Marco Antonio Rodriguez was a little too quick with the card in this case, but not out of bounds for giving it. Getting a yellow for a hard tackle is one thing, getting a yellow for shooting your mouth off is another, particularly that early in the game (18th minute). Onyewu has a tendency to get into card trouble, which affects his game in that he backs off because he knows that he could get sent off for another infraction. Better to not get the first yellow for stupid stuff. Onyewu needs to control his temper and perhaps a game riding the pine will teach him that playing with intensity doesn't mean playing with unchecked emotion.
I don't want to say that the U.S. played poorly, but it seems that they did play only hard enough to win, which after Dempsey's first minute goal seemed hardly in doubt. The U.S. played only marginally faster than Barbados, but if they played with that speed against England, Spain or Argentina, the U.S. would have lost by 8 goals in any of those matches.
Next week, the U.S. will play the final leg of this series in Barbados. Barring a nine goal miracle for Barbados, the U.S. will advance to the next qualifying round. So all is well.
Now Bob Bradley needs to do some experimenting. He needs to take a roster of young, inexperienced players, laced with a couple of veterans, and really try to experiment in ways that he didn't in the friendlies. Last year, Bradley took a young, inexperienced squad to the Copa America and got blown out. Which, I think, scared Bradley. But lets face it, the young squad did not do terribly, but they were facing South America's A Teams for the most part and that matters. Bradley has a chance to get young players some playing time when it "counts" but at a time when thee is not as much on the line.
I have to say that I liked the diamond midfield with the wingers pinched in a little and the outside backs running free on the wings. But the fact is that I think Bob Bradley may not have taken the right lesson from this match. The lopsided score line, while inspiring confidence in our goal scorers is not going to lead Bradley to keep pushing an offensive mindset, which is wrong. Bradley is not going to let Pearce and Cherundolo keep running the sidelines against tougher opponents, despite the offensive flair it creates. Bradley is not going to start Freddy Adu and keep him in the match along with Landon Donovan to provide that offensive spark, to do so requires Bradley to play that diamond midfield and that runs counter to Bradley's defense first mentality.
The defense first mentality means that as a unit, Onyewu and Bocanegra, don't take the pressure as well of being the first and last line of defense. They have gotten used to, and as a result, soft and a little porous, having two defensive midfielders in front of them. A diamond midfield gives the defense one holding midfielder instead of two, but gives the U.S. transition game a fulcrum around which to move from the defensive third to the midfield to the attacking third with a great deal more effectiveness.
My hope is that next week, Bradley names a roster that will include just about everyone who has seen playing time since the player pool was announced.