Who Really Matters on the U.S. National Team?

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At this point, it seems as though everything about this U.S. squad has been over-talked and over-analyzed, especially by me, but, ironically, few of the questions that accompanied the U.S. at the start of the tournament have been answered. Just last week, I made a list of the most pertinent ones for USA-Slovenia, and nearly all of them still apply. Friday’s USA-Slovenia game was a thrilling match, but it was also quite interesting. We saw a U.S. defense show itself vulnerable to the same kind of mistakes that have accompanied it for several years and an offense that showed its worst tendencies in the second half. On the surface, the second half looked much better. Slovenia had nearly no chances on the counterattack, despite an offensive formation that left America’s back line open, and the U.S. actually managed to score two goals in the run of play (plus, neither of them were gifts from the goalkeeper).

However, this wasn’t really a tale of two halves, at least in terms of the U.S. showing a lot of marked improvement. Slovenia, besides looking disinterested in generating any more offense, also looked tired and lacked the touch they possessed throughout the fist half. Meanwhile, America didn’t actually improve that much offensively, often experiencing long droughts without chances, and Donovan’s goal, while well finished, was really the result of very poor Slovenian defending. Certainly, the U.S. played most of the second half in Slovenian territory, which is unique in itself, and they saw more of the ball. Buy, hey, that’s bound to happen when you’re essentially playing a 3-4-3 (which the U.S. shifted to after Hercules Gomez’ insertion).

So, what do we make of this team? What should we expect tomorrow? What is the Americans’ ceiling if they do advance?

These questions obviously involve many of the players as well as the coaching staff. However, I think the real indicators for U.S. success can be pinpointed by analyzing just a few of them.

1. Jozy Altidore (Striker, Tweeter)

Ok, if I’m looking Jozy (whom I plan to name my first dog after when I graduate next year) in the eye and asking him three questions that he’s required to answer truthfully, they go: What kind of striker do you see yourself as? Which strike partner compliments you the most? What the hell do people do for fun in Hull City that isn’t illegal?

I can only offer insight on the first two. The truth is that we simply have no idea what to expect from Jozy (even more than we have no idea what to expect from every other U.S. player) each game and, more importantly, in the future. He’s only 20 years old, and the only significant amount of playing time that he’s gotten in European club soccer was with now-relegated Hull City, who managed almost zero offense with or without Altidore. Simply put, we know that he’s got a nice combination of size and speed. We know that he’s capable of winning a lot of free kicks for the U.S. with his physical presence and shifty movement. We know that he’s (sometimes) able to play as a solid target man up top (a la Michael Bradley’s goal) and hold the ball with his back to goal. That’s it, and it’s still a mystery as to what kind of club or international player he’ll end up as. Jozy’s speed is deceptive, as we saw in recent flashes of brilliance against Turkey and England, and I think he has the potential to be more than a glorified Brian Ching. Altidore needs to figure out exactly what he can do, both individually and within the context of this team. It’s disappointing that his partnership with Charlie Davies has been put on hold, but we can’t really know who he should be partnered with (Buddle, Findley, Gomez, Dempsey) until we know exactly what he can do/ will do.

2. Clint Dempsey (Midfielder/ Striker, Rapper)

Last week, I grouped Dempsey and Donovan together when I talked about the overall inconsistency of the national team, but they’re not really the same. Generally speaking, we know what Landon Donovan looks like when he’s on his game, controlling the U.S. attack all around the field, making dangerous runs up the wing, and playing nice crosses and free kicks into the box (Exhibit A: 2nd Half against Slovenia).

We know what he looks like when he’s not: something very similar to the invisible man.

However, when it comes to Dempsey, I’m not really sure what his best game in an American jersey looks like, or what position he would be in when it happened. We’ve seen Dempsey look dangerous as a striker and as a midfielder, and we’ve also seen him look disinterested and lethargic from both spots. Nobody, not even Clint or Bob Bradley, knows where he’d rather be, but both of them need to figure out the key to tapping into some consistently great play from the Texan. I know that Dempsey is capable of some better passing and creative flair than we’ve seen from him recently, and he isn’t just an opportunistic goal scorer.

3. Bob Bradley (Coach, Father, Husband-sorry all these election ads are getting to me-)

Bob surprised me with some of his roster choices, and he’s also surprised me with the amount of experimentation he’s done with this team leading up to, and during, the World Cup. Bradley has long been criticized for being too boring, predictable, and loyal, so this is an interesting contrast. Bradley’s had some injuries, but I still think he deserves some questioning for his roster decisions. Specifically, his inability to figure out a steady rotation for his midfield is problematic. The U.S. midfield plays differently every game, and I can’t imagine there’s much chemistry there. Jose Torres (who I’ll get to in a moment) not only looked nervous in his start last Friday (which is expected), he looked like he wasn’t sure what his role should be. This is just symptomatic of the unsettled nature of the midfield.

To explain, Michael Bradley has a lock on one center mid position and Landon Donovan has a lock on one outside mid position. Dempsey is also a lock to start, but he sometimes shifts to forward. The ongoing question is who starts next to Bradley and who starts at outside mid if Dempsey is up top. Jose Torres, Ricardo Clark, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, DaMarcus Beasley, and Stuart Holden are all candidates to fill one or both of those positions, and all of them except Beasley have seen time during this World Cup. Simply put, we only get to see what they do during games, so Bradley has to know, based on game time and practice, what all of these players are capable of better than we do. The problem isn’t just that he hasn’t settled on a lineup, the problem is that these players aren’t really sure what their role should be when they do play. Of course, part of that is that nobody knows what role best suits Michael Bradley, but that’s a whole other debate.

4. Jocarmo Clordu (Midfielder, Tricolored)

Tha’s right, I just combined Jose Francisco Torres, Ricardo Clark, and Maurice Edu. I don’t really want to write much else about them, because I’ve already dedicated enough words to the subject, but nothing has been settled still. At this point, one of them is simply going to have to play better than they have up to this point. Clark always looks spotty, Torres got yanked at halftime after a poor performance last week, and Edu (apart from his should-have-been goal at the end) was rather unimpressive in the second half against Slovenia. At this point, it’s about who Bradley has the most faith in. I’m tempted to think he’ll go back to Clark, but he obviously didn’t think Clark was the right choice in a must-win game before. Tomorrow, for all intents and purposes, is also a must-win, so it’ll be interesting to see whether he’ll start Clark in a game where the U.S. has to score.

5. Oguchi Onyewu (Defender, Muttonchops Grower)

If you’re going to play 90 minutes in the first game of the World Cup and about 70 minutes of the second, there can’t be any doubt about your knee. So, I’m just going to assume that Onyewu is healthy at this point. The problem hasn’t been his fitness or his physicality, it’s been his positioning and decision-making. Just when we though things were okay with the defense, following a pretty solid second half against England, the U.S. gives up two early goals to Slovenia. Onyewu was the a large factor in both goals by being out of position or being a step slow, and he and Demerit need to find the chemistry they had last summer during the Confederations Cup.

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