Last night in Port of Spain Trinidad, the U.S. dropped not only their first game in 2010 World Cup qualifying but their first game to T&T in 24 years. T&T's first goal was the result of lucky bounce off Brad Guzan's back and the second the result of a penalty kick.
The good thing is that the U.S. is already through to the Hexagonal round. Bob Bradley took the opportunity to try out a young team. You wanted young and here is why playing just young players, no matter how talented, in meaningful games is not always a good idea. The game was meaningful to Trinidad since their victory, combined with a Guatamala loss to Cuba, means that T&T is in the driver's seat to advance to the Hexagonal, they control their own destiny come the final round next month. The group now looks like this:
USA 12 Points
T&T 8 Points
Guatamala 5 Points
Cuba 4 Points
Trinidad faces Cuba in the final match and a draw or a win means they advance. Guatamala has to win to have a chance to advance and T&T has to lose. I am not sure how the tie breakers work.
But the U.S. didn't look great and I think there are three reasons for that beyond simply youth. On the youth matter, the starting 11 had and average age of 23.6 years of age. Take old men Frankie Hejduk (34) and Danny Califf (28) out of the mix and you get an average age of just 22. That is a young squad to field and while I think Bradley had to get these players into get them experience, and many of these players play and have played at the highest levels of professional and youth national team play, they don't have that much experience and that makes a difference. I know that the youngsters need expererience and the only way to get that is to play, but last night demonstrated the reason why the most successful teams on earth have a mix of youth and experience. But as I said, there were three other reasons, other than youth, for their poor performance.
First, the team didn't play well because they haven't trained together. There were several instances where it was obvious that this team has not played together, players were getting in each others' way, passes weren't completed because runs were moving in a different direction than expected, communication was lacking and so forth. This team had been together as a squad for just two full training sessions and game day. Most of these players had not been called in regularly to the national team squad in the past six months and many of these didn't even play together at the Olympics. The results of their lack of comfort together or even knowledge of playing styles were obvious.
Second, it may seem unfair, but this squad knew the result of this game was meaningless for the U.S. Conversely the game was of great importance to the T&T side and it showed in the level of experience that T&T fielded--clearly their first team. I am not saying this team tanked the game, but there were times when the urgency just didn't seem to be present.
Third, Bob Bradley's tactics did not fit this team and this is where the coach is a fault. With this squad on the field, Bradley used essestially his bucket 4-4-2 with the variation of having Adu withdrawn for a sort of five man midfield and that did not suit the talents of this squad. Jose Torres is an attacking midfielder and should not be lining up as a withdrawn midfielder. Sacha Kljestan is not a winger, he is a good midfielder, but not a winger since he lacks the speed and the crossing ability to play a true winger. The midfield was too bunched up with Torres, Adu, and Edu in the middle and Beasley and Kljestan pinching in too far if they are supposed to be wingers. As a result, Heath Pearce and Frankie Hejduk were called upon to do too much on the outside and while Pearce is stepping up, Hejduk's crossing skills looked poor last night.
Bradley should have fielded a different set up than this bucket 4-5-1. A 4-1-4-1 with Edu as a holding midfielder would have been smart or a 3-2-4-1 with a back line of Pearce, Califf and Hejduk and a second line of Orozco and Edu would have put as many players in the midfeild as possible, but freeing up Torres and Adu to work as a striking pair. Even something like a 3-2-3-2 would have looked solid with Adu pushed a little more up top and Torres in the middle. But Bradley likes that four in the back and I don't think it was necessary in this game. This was a squad of attack minded players so let them attack.
Having said all of this, I think the U.S. side did acquit themselves very well despite the above conditions. The first T&T goal was a bit of bad luck, but the team showed character and kept playing. The penalty sucked, but it was a legitimate call. Altidore knew and I think has learned his lesson, a shirt pull when on offense gets a free kick, but the same foul in your own box costs you a game.
Two things I saw last night that I liked, Altidore/Davies and possession. If only for a few minutes, Altidore and Charlie Davies worked well together, combining on the goal, yes, but even at other times. Davies and Altidore are both very fast, quite strong and both are good in the air. With this pair up top, it forces defenses to be more aware of both men, which has the chance to open the defense a little more. This could be a striking partnership for the U.S. that could bring success.
There were many times when the U.S. showed great possession and ball movement, switching the ball from side to side quickly, spreading the defense out and creating the opportunities for more chances. I think that if this squad were to train more together, I think those chances would become real shots on goal.