The United States Men's National Team went into Guatemala having not won on Guatemalan soil in 20 years. Of course, they hadn't lost either, but the U.S. was favored to pick up the full three points. Bob Bradley brought in a squad of veterans with this starting line-up:
All in all, not a bad line-up.
Guatemala started a band of young speedsters and thugs. I know, it is not nice to call an opposing side thugs, but in this case it really is appropriate. Within the firt 18 minutes of the match, Guatemala had tallied six fouls and Carlos Ruiz had at least four. It was a dispicable display of intentional fouling that should have received a yellow card for persistent infringement. Later, in the second half, after Tim Howard smoothered a dangerous, low cross and had the ball clearly in his possession, Ruiz kicked Howard in the head. That Ruiz didn't get even a yellow card for that attack is an apt testament to the atrocious officiating by the Surname referee Enrico Wijngaarde (but more on that later).
There were times when the U.S. was playing well, they possessed the ball with authority, strung together great passing, took some good shots and looked like a top quality team. But the U.S. inconsistency shown through as well, when there were periods of poor first touches, bad passing, flat-footed defense and general malaise. For a while it looked like the Guatemalans were going to run over Heath Pearce, but he recovered and did well in the second half. At that is the tale of the U.S. performance over the past several years (even before the Bradley era). The U.S. has flashes of brilliance, significant quality playing time, but has failed to be consistent about either. I don't need flashy brilliance on a regular basis, but I do need to see consistent quality and it is not there yet.
The back line was pretty solid last night, aside from a few lapses. Carlos Bocanegra finally showed up and put on a great display (even aside from his goal). He was positioned well (at least when I could see him) and broke up more than a few chances. There is still a tendency for the U.S. to boot the ball out of the back rather than playing out of the back, but I think the U.S. is starting to overcome that. When Pearce was getting run under, Bocanegra was great about shading over to cover which prevented a great deal of the Guatemalan attack. During the first half, Jose Contreas was getting in between the back line and the midfield, but Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu adjusted well, pushing Onyewu a little forward to hassle Contreas to great effect.
The U.S. problems extended from the midfield. Eddie Lewis had a poor game, he was beaten to the ball, dispossessed regularly and didn't make smart plays. Landon Donovan on the other side didn't defend well, never really got going in the attack and for the final 30 minutes, was basic absent. Michael Bradley, however, settled down, played solid midfield, got into the attack with a few shots on goal, and looked more like an attacking midfielder (although he clearly is supposed to be in the bucket 4-4-2). The reason for that, of couse, is the presence of Pable Mastroeni, who did was he does best, which is perform as one of the best American holding midfielders.
The U.S. attack was shoddy. Brian Ching, particularly in the second half, would have been better off as a midfielder. He played solid defense, but I need the strikers to, I don't know, score goals!! Ching didn't really have any good chances on goal, but I do have to commend his defensive play. Clint Dempsey, as much as it wounds me to say, should be done as an American international until he starts playing better. Yes, he had some good shots on goal and a few chances, but for most of the game, he was a non-entity and that is troubling. The thing is that I think Dempsey himself knows he is not playing well. When he was subbed out of the match, his expression on the bench said it all to me.
Tim Howard. What can I say. There is a reason he is the American #1 and why Brad Guzan is going to be quite familiar with the pine bench for the next couple of years. I still believe Howard to be amoung the top five goalkeepers in the world and he showed it last night. He was in command, made a couple of good saves when he had to and showed a lot of fire at a time when the U.S. was struggling.
The game was brutally physical. Of course, the U.S. was expecting a rough game, it is par for the course with Guatemala. But it did get out of hand. About the 60th minute, Eddie Lewis was looking up a high ball, getting ready to head it down the line, when Guatemalan defender Gustavo Carbera essentially assaulted Lewis. Cabrera wasn't even looking at the ball and leapt into Lewis, leading with his elbow. Lewis went down hard and when he rolled over, blood was flowing from a cut over his eye. It wasn't even close and the replay makes Cabrera's actions all the more criminal. The good news is that Lewis was able to make it to the locker room under his own power.
The fortunate side effect of the Lewis injury is that it helped the U.S. break out of their funk. DaMarcus Beasley came in for Lewis and immediately laced a corner kick to the top of teh goal area where Bocanegra headed it home. Bocanegra was unmarked and a replay showed why as Brian Ching set what U.S.A. Olympic Basketball Coach K would have said was a perfect pick. A good goal and I note scored again by American Defenders not strikers. The U.S. then essentially bunkdered down to hold onto the lead.
The officiating was terrible and there is no other word for it. Rather, the center referee was horrible, the assistant referees missed a couple of calls, but they were not bad calls and were evenly spread between the teams. The first yellow card to Steve Cherundolo was perhaps the softest I have ever seen. Cherundolo's second yellow was deserved. That Carlos Ruiz didn't get a card of any color is inexcuseable. Cabrera needs to sit more than just one game, a three game suspension is warrented as he wasn't even trying to play the ball. In short, the referee didn't exhibit control of the game, was out of position (he even cost Michael Bradley an opportunity for a quality strike by being between Bradley and the goal), and was uneven in his calls. He misapplied the advantage, failed to ball obvious hard fouls but called some soft ones instead. It will be too soon if we never see this referee again.
Two short items: The lighting at the stadium was terrible, particularly in front of the goals. On TV, I couldn't even see the American players in their dark uniforms. At least it appeared that the players could see.
The ESPN coverage irritated me. First, the game was supposed to be on ESPN2 but some unimportant baseball game between the LA Angles and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays ran long. Sure, the Devil Rays and Angels are at the top of their divisions, but really, there are something like 30 games left in the baseball season. ESPN did start the game on Classic, but switched with barely any warning. Here's a thought, why not switch the end of the baseball game to Classic?
Second, Glenn Davis should not be doing play by play. John Harkes doing the color commentary was OK, not great, but not bad. Davis was rediculous, things like "giving the ball away in a bad area" is not quality that I would expect from a network that is rumored to be bidding on English Premier League rights. ESPN needs to do better.
Finally, Player rankings