Wednesday, August 13, 2008

U.S. Men's Soccer Olympic Reactions

Now that the U.S. Men's Olympic campaign is over and a little distance has been found (ok--not much), I think it is time to take a little stock in the good and bad of the tournament.

I want to start with the bad, because it is easier to look at the good going forward. First, our leading players need to look a little less impetuous. Freddy Adu and Michael Bradley got stupid yellow cards against the Netherlands as the U.S. started to fall apart. Orozco's red card. This is a symptom of a larger problem, that silly challenges (see Stuart Holden) get the U.S. into more trouble than they should get. I know it it easy to say that these are U-23's, but each and every player on the U.S. squad, just like every other squad at the Olympics is made up of professional players. It is their job to act better and not get dumb when the game gets into the final minutes. When the U-23 team was mostly college players, it was a different story.

Second on the bad list is the finishing we saw, or rather didn't see. Football is a simple game, the team that scores the most goals wins. We didn't see enough chances taken and enough coverted. Sure, you are going to get unlucky and hit the woodwork, or run into a keeper capable of tremendous saves, but against Japan and Nigeria, the U.S. players didn't go for the jugular and didn't make the chances they had count. I don't know if this is a U.S. thing in general or not, but I simply haven't seen the emphasis on getting goals no matter what.

Third on the bad list is the overage players. Guzan and Parkhurst were solid selections, but as much as it pains me to say, I don't think McBride was the right choice. That is hard for me to say since I really like McBride as a man and as a player. But his lack of familiarity with these players seemed obvious at times. It is not that McBride can't read a game or provide leadership, that is unquestioned, but having not played with these players regularly for years (as some have) it was obvious that McBride wasn't on teh same page as the rest of the team. I wished it was different and I am not saying McBride played poorly, but there is a familiarity that develops when players are regularly together in camps or league play. McBride hasn't been in a national team camp in years and had only a few days to get to know this team. I don't think the striker corps needed an overage player. Given teh weakness of our back line, I think Frankie Hejduk would have been a good addition. Hejduk can play in the back line and the midfield. He can run for days without getting tired. But that again is hindsight.

But I think there is a lot more good in this team than bad. Tactically and technically, this team showed the the U.S. can play possession ball, can dictate the pace of the game and don't have to play just for the counterattack. Sure, I questioned the wisdom of Novak selecting more midfielders and sacrificing defenders, but I think it worked for the U.S. The first 40 minutes of the second half of the Netherlands match was some of the best play I have seen the U.S. produce, at any level. These young players showed that they can play the game the way the rest of the world plays and compete. I just hope that Bob Bradley saw this and takes it to heart. There is a lot of promise on this team and World Cup 2010 will give this squad a chance to put its stamp on world football, if only Bradley will open his eyes.

Peter Novak has proven himself a pretty capable coach. I would disagree with some of his tactical choices, but you make the best decisions you can with the information you have available. While I wouldn't have made the same decisions (speaking fron hindsight) I can't say that any were just flat our wrong. I do think Novak picked 18 quality footballers and maybe not the absolute best in America, many of these guys have played together before and are familiar with each others playing styles. Tournament football is different than week-in, week-out league play and you have to have 18 players who play well together (see the comments on McBride above).

I think that some commentators think that the MLS has not contributed to the success of the U.S. on the international scene, and I have to disagree. These players are seeing regular training, regular playing time, and competition each week. College players don't have the ability. The MLS is not a top tier league, I have no illusions about that at all. But without it, I think our U-23 and U-21 program would be amatuerish at best. MLS, despite its pay problems, puts professionals out there and that makes a difference. The MLS players acquitted themselves well. Guzan (I know he has signed with Aston Villa, but he just finished with Chivas before coming to the squad) Parkhurst, Edu, Wynne, Klejstan, yes, even Holden, are clearly better players having played in the Olympics and will be able (I hope) to go back to the MLS and help raise the level of the game.

A couple of players really impressed me this tournament, Sacha Klejstan and Maurice Edu. I have a special place for Mo Edu, having been a Maryland Terp, much love for the Turtle, but he played very well for a guy who was playing out of position. Yes, he is normally a defensive midfielder and one of the better American holding midfielders around, but playing holding midfield and playing central defense are very different roles tactically. A holding midfielder can move around, working to stop attacking plays as the develop. A central defender needs to be more organized, more cerbral and help the defense maintain its shape in the face of an attack. Edu showed great discipline, smarts and the meaning of a total footballer who puts team before ego.

Sacha Klejstan also seemed to make strides as a player. I think he is anticipating the game better, making sharper passes and creating chances more. His goal against the Netherlands was quality stuff and he clearly demonstrated that he can play a possession game. Here is the big caveat, he needs to move to Europe soon. His development as a player and a leader is either going to hit a wall soon. A move to even second division in Europe with say the Coca Cola Championship or Bundesliga 2 will help improve his game. I would hope such a move would come in January as it time. I also hope Bob Bradley calls him in for the next round of World Cup qualifying. Klejstan has earned it.

Overall, I think the U.S. can hold their head high. Playing in what was widely regarded as a tough group, they played well. The U.S. played a possession style game that could have won the group but for some dumb mistakes. My thinking is that these players, for the most part, won't make those same mistakes again on the international stage.

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