The U.S. Men’s National Team Continued Maturation
From a snowy February night in Denver to a summer evening in Sarajevo, the U.S. Men’s National Team has put together a string of performances that would be the envy of numerous national federations.
That our national federation currently boasts of the longest winning streak since Spain’s in 2009, well, it’s hard to be disappointed by the company.
Though results in international friendlies should never be overstated, they always provide intriguing occasions for reflection and interpretation, and the lessons from Sarajevo were many.
Going into Wednesday’s match against Bosnia and Herzegovina there was a palpable sense of progress surrounding the USMNT’s every move.
Considering the recent wins, the 33 goals from fifteen different players, playing some of the most inspired, disciplined and exciting soccer U.S. fans have ever seen, there’s been reason for optimism.
No matter how muted a history our men may have had against European competition, troubles in Europe (the U.S. had never won a match on European soil after going down a goal) were not headlining any pre-match analyses I came across.
Win, loose, or draw, it seemed hard to imagine anything more than another steady performance from the USA.
But the whistle had hardly blown before a careless give away from Eddie Johnson lead to a swift move from the Bosnians and Howard’s initial save wasn’t enough. Edin Dzeko made sure on the second, as the U.S. back line begged for an offside flag.
Down a goal, history was not on our side, but when Vedad Ibesevic’s header flew past Howard for the second goal, it seemed as though history would repeat itself. At that point it was time to shut down the DVR and get back to whatever you should have been doing that afternoon. Right? Well…
Thankfully I kept the DVR going, continued watching, and witnessed our men obliterate historic precedent with four unanswered goals. But I was also able to go back and watch the first half with a more careful eye and, oddly enough, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw. As bad as the score line looked after 45 minutes, the play itself wasn’t.
Slow starts have been a problem for the USMNT for some time (they were sluggish at the outset of all four matches in the 2010 World Cup, either producing dangerous chance for their opponents, or harmful goals against), but against Bosnia there was energy, discipline and quality from the opening kick through most of the half.
The defensive shape was good. After regaining possession transitions into the attack failed to produce any chances, but the transitions were balanced and at times inventive. Also, possession through the midfield came with relative ease, and there was a commitment to keeping the ball that allowed the U.S. to build momentum as the match went on.
Apart from giving up the two goals there wasn’t much to complain about, and the mistakes were fairly easy to identify. Eddie Johnson’s afore mentioned misstep, and a failed attempt at an offside trap were all Bosnia and Herzegovina needed to cash in.
It’s a good thing history is just history, as the next 45 minutes revealed more about the future of the USMNT than its past.
Down a goal, then two, the U.S. never appeared overwhelmed or panicked.
As a team this shows that they’re more capable of handling adversity, now that they have the collective experience to confront challenges on the fly. Both tactically and psychologically the USMNT appears to be developing a conscious sense of identity that hasn’t been apparent in previous decades, and the individual performances of new comers and seasoned veterans reflected as much.
Receiving his first cap at center back, John Brooks looked comfortable as when Eddy Pope received his fiftieth. Both he and Geoff Cameron were up to the task when isolated in one on one situations, and proved a formidable pairing given their limited experience.
Brad Evans may not be our best right back, but he’s starting to look like it, with the skill and attacking mentality of a dynamic winger. Clearly, his critical match winner against Jamaica was no fluke.
Speaking of dynamic wingers, whether Fabien Johnson plays in the back or the midfield his versatility is a valuable asset. He’s a strong defender with the technical ability to jump-start the attack, and his assist on Altidore’s first strike was a sign of his creativity.
With respect to the veterans, what more can we say about Michael Bradley? I’m glad you (I) asked. In my last article, I argued that Bradley is our most important player (Luke O’Brien also discussed this perspective in Deadspin and Howler Magazine’s article America’s Most Important Soccer Player Conquers The Old World.) So I’ve come to an adjectival crossroads with Bradley, and between “most important” and “best,” it will have to be “best” from here on out.
Michael Bradley is the best soccer player in America, and nobody else is even close.
Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey may be the dynamic duo to spearhead the U.S.’s goal scoring efforts next summer, but the style, tempo, and character of that effort will be determined by Bradley’s engineering. The tactical awareness, technical precision, unfailing courage and tireless effort he embodies is starting to redefine the USMNT’s style of play; defend with commitment, build the attack with patience, lull the opposition into a sense of confidence and strike when the time is right.
Bradley had a hand in each of the U.S’s four goals, and his fifty-yard chip to Altidore, which led to Eddie Johnson’s opening goal, was a sign of pure class. A perfectly timed delivery that required imagination, vision and pinpoint accuracy, and one that may leave AS Roma realizing Bradley was a steal at $3.5 million. It may be premature to predict, but it’s beginning to feel that Roma will have to secure him to a long-term deal or be satisfied with selling him for five to ten times more than his latest fee. After all, Claude Makelele’s retired, and Michael Carrick and Andrea Pirlo aren’t getting any younger.
The rest of the night was filled with more proof that talent and depth are a new luxury for the USMNT. But if there was a singular takeaway from the friendly with Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was that Jozy Altidore has come alive.
Over the years Altidore has been criticized for every imaginable failure fans could come up with, which is nothing to say of the racism he’s encountered in Europe. To his credit he’s handled it all with grace, intelligence and determination.
On the field his work ethic has been exemplary. He always pressured the oppositions back line, always works back to the ball, while stretching the field, and though his timing and angles on runs have taken time to develop, he seldom stops running once the ball’s in play. He’s never allowed criticism of his play (fair or unfair), or malicious ridicule, to dissuade his desire to improve. Thankfully, managers and clubs haven’t quit on him when fans and pundits have.
Now that the goals are pouring in – 53 in two seasons with Alkmaar Zaanstreek – and he’s returned to the Premier League, his hat trick was enough for some (Is Jozy Altidore the first great goal scorer in U.S. soccer history? Written by Luke O’Brien) to wonder if Jozy could be “the first great goal scorer in U.S. soccer history?” I hope the answer is an unequivocal YES! But as tantalizing as the question may be considering recent form and results, let’s wait and see.
What is clear is that Altidore is matching his consistent qualities with newfound awareness, technical development and confidence. How all those elements have come together is hard to say, but if his national team and club manager for those of you who never saw Sunderland manager Paulo Di Canio as a player, watch this are able to pass on as much wisdom as Altidore seems capable of absorbing, he may end up exceeding the expectations of fans and pundits alike.
In the end,the match in Sarajevo was an indication of our men’s teams’ continuing maturation. Altidore’s post game interview capped off a great night for U.S. soccer on a high note. Redirecting attention from his own accomplishments, Jozy went out of his way to emphasize the success of the team instead. “It’s exciting,” he said of their recent results, to see “how far the program has come.”
Lest complacency set in, he went on.
“At the same time we understand we still have to raise the bar. We can’t afford to make mistakes [like the ones tonight] because in group stages of the World Cup you can’t come back from them. We have to learn to iron those out but we take the positives from tonight and move forward with our head held high.” Well played, and enough said!
Robert Kehoe III played soccer and studied politics at Wheaton College (IL), and philosophy at Boston College. He lives in Madison, WI with his wife and sons.