Saturday night's 2009 opener for the Men's National Team was never going to be a display of the best American soccer can offer at this moment, but it was supposed to be a time when younger stars would be displayed and given the packed schedule for 2009. This was a game to evaluate some options for U.S. Coach Bob Bradley, particularly, in central mid-field and defense particularly the outside back positions. Both teams looked ragged for more of the game than they should at this level, but that is to be expected; the U.S. had a lot of youth (as did the Swedes), but Sweden was not 100% fit. Some good things:
Troy Perkins. The Norway-based, former DC United keeper got his first cap for the U.S. and despite the scoreline, looked pretty good. Both goals against him were great headers that were no fault of Perkins. He was perfectly positioned for each of them and nearly saved both, but both headers were quality placement and almost unstoppable. Maybe on the second one, he could have gone out to pick off the cross, but it was eight yards out, so I don't quibble with his choice. Perkins is not going to test Tim Howard right now (not with Howard's form of late), but he could make a good case to challenge Brad Guzan for the number 2 spot. I would expect that come Gold Cup/Confederations Cup time, you will see Perkins name on the call up sheet. I could see him as a back up to Howard or Guzan in either of those competitions depending on how Bradley decides to assign the Premier League based keepers.
Jonathan Bornstein and Marvelle Wynne. I know that Bob Bradley likes and will probably use Steve Cherundolo and Heath Pearce for his back line, but aside from one mistake by Wynne that led to a goal (and Wynne immediately learned the lesson), these two backs made a case for their inclusion in future camps and squads. Wynne's world class speed was not used as effectively on attack as it could have, but certainly served the U.S. well on defense. There was one play in the first half where Wynne closed something like 10 yards of ground in the blink of an eye, it was solid stuff. Wynne is also very strong, he simply is not going to get muscled off the ball by anyone other than someone built like Onyewu. Both Bornstein and Wynne will have a role in the upcoming camps--as they should.
Danny Califf and Michael Parkhurst. There is little chance that these two will supplant Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu in central defense on a regular basis, but Parkhurst is still young and Califf is a good back up. With Bob Bradley probably doing a split squad this summer, they could both see action.
Sasha Kljestan. Yes, he should be on the full national team and last night showed why. In addition to his hat trick, he was a great playmaker, orchestrating from a deeper position. Great work and a commanding presence. He was in the defensive mix, in the offensive scheme, and never looked tired. Saturday was truly his coming out party and I am sure that Celtic are opening up their checkbook.
Ricardo Clark. To be honest, I never really understood why Bob Bradley is so big on the Houston Dynamo midfielder. Last night, I saw why. Clark did the dirty work of the midfield while Kljestan got the glory. Clark was all over the place, acting as the destroyer in midfield, breaking up the Swedes' play, tackling and generally being a nuisance. Clark is also not giving up the ball as much as he used to, and that is improvement.
Brian Ching. Yes, he is not as fast as Landon Donovan or Jozy Altidore. No, he does not have the flair of Altidore or Adu. No, he is not young anymore, but Saturday night showed why Brian Ching is Bob Bradley's go-to guy for a target striker. The Swedes couldn't muscle him of the ball. Ching doesn't fly around in the air when competing for the ball, he uses his body to push the defender back so that the defender either loses the possesion battle or fouls Ching. If Ching plays like that against Mexico in the qualifiers, his place on the U.S. squad will be all but cemented.
Some not so good things.
Kenny Cooper. I have long been an admirer of Cooper. But Saturday night demonstrated why Brian Ching is going to get the nod over Cooper. When Cooper and Ching were on the field together, you could see the marked difference in the work rate. Bob Bradley was even yelling at Cooper to harass the Swedish defenders more. On the international level, central defenders are usually not good ball handlers and if you harass them, they will probably make a mistake you can capitalize on and that may be all you need. Cooper just doesn't work as hard as he should when he is not holding the ball. Cooper needs to muscle down, stay on his feet and simply dominate through size and strength.
Charlie Davies. Speed, skills, movement, I thought this guy had it all, but just didn't impress me at all. Ching did yeoman's work to free up Davies and Davies just didn't deliver.
Midfield Depth. I have to say, I am worried here. Going into a summer with World Cup qualifying, Gold Cup and Confederations Cup, the only area of the field that I am truly worried about is midfield. I simply don't know if we have enough quality players to go around in a split squad scenario. I can see five, six, maybe seven truly quality midfielders on the U.S., which is probably enough if we just need to populate one squad, but not two.
On a tactical side, I did like Bob Bradley's pairing of John Thorrington and Marvell Wynne on the right side. I could see a Wynne/Dempsey pairing work well also. But pushing Wynne further up the right flank and pinching Thorrington in a little and running almost a back three instead of a back four looked like it worked well. I think that Bob Bradley held Wynne back too much. Wynne's speed and endurance should be let loose a little more. Wynne is fast enough that even if he is on the attacking end near the penalty area, he can still get back and defend quite easily and he can do it for the entire game. What is the point of having that kind of speed and not using it. Yes, Wynne needs to work on his crossing, but he has to get games to get better at it.
From a tactical standpoint, Bradley needs to develop those kinds of pairings on both sides of the field. He can over load a side for a while and then shift, putting opposing defenses on their back foot. The U.S. did move the ball well through the midfield, switching the field regularly and quickly, but the Robbie Rodgers/Jonathan Boornstein pairing didn't work too well. I don't think a Pearce/Beasely pairing is going to produce as much either, but a Pearce/Torres or a Boornstein/Torres-Beasley might do well. Boornstein looked great at picking out Kljestan in the midfield and that could be the key. If Bradley can solve his left side problem, and have a speedy right side, or vice versa, that could be quite potent.