I didn’t want to make today’s post too lengthy, so I figured I’d write something separate for those of you who only care about the Red, White, & Blue. The U.S. faces Slovenia in its second match tomorrow (10 AM ESPN), and, if I may take a moment to set the stage, it is, perhaps, even more important than last weekend’s game against England.
Slovenia managed to get the win against Algeria last Sunday and now sits atop Group C play. This might not mean much, considering they haven’t played either of the favored teams in the group, but a slip-up by the Americans (especially if they were to lose) would put them in a nearly untenable position for their final match. Assuming that England takes care of business against Algeria, a loss by the Americans would put them in third place, five points behind Slovenia and three points behind England. They would then have to hope for the near impossible result of Slovenia actually defeating England in order to have any chance of advancing.
Accordingly, the Americans have been treating this match with plenty of respect. The Americans would never admit this, but one of the reasons for tomorrow being a must-win, or at least a must-tie, is that Algeria actually looked the stronger team throughout most of Sunday’s game against Slovenia. Despite the end result, I still think the Americans must be thinking in the back of their mind that they’d rather give themselves some breathing room with a win tomorrow than head into a match with Algeria knowing they have to emerge victorious.
There are some obvious and not so obvious questions for the match tomorrow. In honor of the recent heat wave, I’ll rank them by a temperature, the higher the temp. the more interesting and important the question. Just go with me here.
1. The 88 degree “You know, now that Sarah Palin’s gone, maybe it’s time that I finally chase my dream of working on the Alaskan Pipeline” question.
Who starts next to Michael Bradley in central midfield?
There seem to be two schools of thought here: should Bradley go old-school and just stick to his guns, playing the same lineup regardless of who the opponent is, or should he, understanding that the Slovenians are going to sit back a lot, give the U.S. attack a little more creativity by inserting Jose Francisco Torres into the starting lineup? Both arguments have merit. There’s something to be said for trusting your guys and gaining momentum through the tournament as chemistry improves. However, there’s also something to be said for strategy and getting the best matchups on the field. Plus, if Ricardo Clark can’t handle a tactical change that causes him to sit for most of a game, he shouldn’t be a professional soccer player anyway. I’m leaning towards starting Torres and seeing what he and the rest of the team is capable of. Perhaps starting Torres is actually Bradley’s ideal lineup, and he only played Clark because he was preparing for a long defensive day from the English. However, I think it’s likely Bradley sticks with Clark to start and probably just bring Torres into the game at an earlier point, possibly even at halftime.
2. The 94 degree “Instead of going to the beach I’m just going to lay in my room naked with the fan on” question.
Who starts up top alongside Jozy Altidore?
Saturday’s match didn’t provide much evidence to make up our minds on this ever-present question.. Robbie Findley was ok but certainly not spectacular, and it’s actually possible that Bradley started him more for his defense than his offense. The Real Salt Lake speedster is known for his willingness to track back, and he usually does a good job of putting pressure on the opponents’ back line when they have the ball. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise if Buddle got the start instead, especially considering that Bradley has shown himself very willing to tinker with his offensive lineup in the run-up to the Cup. I’d personally like to see Buddle get some more time to build a partnership with Altidore and show what he can do. Whatever concerns there might be about their similar playing styles, we simply don’t know how they would play together. I still like Findley more as an end-of-game sub to inject some pace into the American lineup than a starter. Apart from his speed, he hasn’t shown himself to be a very creative player, and I think defenders figure out his direct style pretty quickly. I’m not saying Buddle’s a whole lot better, but I do think he has more composure when headed towards goal, and he also links up with his wingers and strike partner better. I’m going to go out on a limb and say, as I did before, that Bradley sticks with the same lineup he had on Saturday, but I won’t be shocked if Edson Buddle gets the start.
3. The 99 degree, “I’m going green by just grilling my food using direct sunlight” question.
Will Bob Bradley be a bit more active with his substitutions?
Whatever Bradley chooses to do with this starting lineup, I would like to see some earlier subs this game. I can understand his mindset in the England game, thinking that the Americans’ grip on the tie was always fragile and a substitution might disturb the defensive wall they’d built. However, if the Americans are going to show any ambition of getting out of the group stage, they need to establish whether some of their key bench guys are capable of contributing.
If the aforementioned players (Torres and Buddle) don’t start, I’d still like to see them in the game, and Bradley better also think about some of those midfield options he’s got on the bench like Stuart Holden, Damarcus Beasley, or even Benny Feilhaber. I particularly think Holden is capable of some nice things if he’s given a chance. I’m not saying Bradley needs to go crazy with changes (which isn’t possible anyway since he only gets 3 subs, plus crazy for Bob Bradley probably means buying whole instead of nonfat milk). Bradley just needs to establish how some of his subs will perform with this particular team on the big stage in case he reaches a point (because of fatigue, card accumulation, injury, or strategy) when he has to insert some of these guys into the game.
4. The 106 degree, “My sweat is now mixing with my tears as I melt into a salty pool” question.
How ambitious are the U.S. players and coaching staff?
Contrary to the way a lot of analysts talk about them, the Americans actually go into a lot of their games as the favorite. The Americans are favored in nearly every single match they play during qualifying, because we’re in the weak CONCACAF region. Perhaps the only situation where the Americans enter in as true underdogs is against Mexico in Mexico City. I understand that many of the Central American sites where the U.S. plays make for some difficult games, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Americans come into these games as the better team. However, the U.S. rarely looks like the favorite, as they always play more of a counterattacking game, often pack it in after taking a one goal lead, even when playing at home. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but if the Americans get a goal in the first half against Slovenia, how will they approach the second half? I certainly hope they won’t fall into their turtle-in-the-shell play, because to do so would be to sacrifice everything they played for last Saturday. Let me explain.
The Americans always knew that if they beat Algerian and Slovenia they were almost guaranteed a trip to the next round as the second place finisher in Group C, even if they lost to England. By tying England, they are now guaranteed at least a tie for first place in the group if they win their final two matches. At that point the tiebreaker would come down to goal differential, the number of goals scored minus the number of goals conceded. If the Americans have any desire to win their group they’ll play aggressively against Slovenia from start to finish, and, let’s be honest, they should.
There’s no reason why the Americans should have to play defense and counterattack against Slovenia. The U.S. should set the tone in this game and make it their goal to win by as many goals as possible. It’s what every quality side in this tournament would do, and it’s what the Americans will do if they want to stop pretending like they’re the underdog in every single game they play. A second place finish will likely set up a match with Germany, who has, arguably, looked the strongest of any team so far in this tournament, while first place would probably bring a more palatable game against Serbia or Ghana.
Finally, if you’re looking for a place to watch the game tomorrow, Three Lions Club at Blackbaud Stadium is opening at 9 AM tomorrow for the 10 AM U.S. game. I haven’t made a final decision on whether to head out there or not, but it’s probably the best place in Charleston to watch the game if you can get out of work to do so.
Today’s normal post on today’s games will be up soon.