by Tim Froh
Special to Climbing the Ladder
The headlines are everywhere. “U.S. scoffed for sending “B” team to Copa America.” “Arena criticizes Team USA entry into Copa America.” And on and on. American soccer fans are so polarized on the issue that many arguments have inevitably devolved into extensive bouts of childish name calling. While the search for a new coach tended to divide the fans in ways they hadn’t been before, the U.S.’ involvement in Copa America has no doubt elicited both extremely negative and extremely positive reactions. For this writer though, the U.S.’ participation has been a positive stepping stone, regardless of the outcome of the game tonight against Columbia.
The initial reaction to Bradley’s roster, at least amongst most U.S. soccer fans, was befuddlement. Looking over the list, one couldn’t help but be struck by names like Lee Nguyen, Charlie Davies, and Danny Califf, players who might as well be playing in the remotest regions on Earth as far as most casual followers of the team are concerned. Some, like Califf, had received caps under Arena before, others were only getting time with their club’s reserve team, and still others had, like Davies, only just begun to make an impression on the club level.
There is no disputing that a lot of the players Bradley brought to Venezuela are raw. Even if some of the players, like Davies or Nguyen, don’t get much playing time, the experience of the trip itself will have been invaluable. Experiencing that environment (which has seemed surprisingly tame compared to the bubbling cauldrons of hate in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras) is important, and Bradley will assuredly be gauging the reactions of his players to their surroundings. Ultimately though, the effects of Copa America will be most keenly felt on the pitch.
The match against Argentina was a baptism by fire and a symbol of what this tournament has been all about for Bradley. While the U.S. did well to hold their own against a vastly more talented Argentine side, Argentina’s quality ultimately shone through, leaving the U.S. breathless, discouraged, and totally demoralized. The Jekyll and Hyde performance was no more evident than in the play of left back Jonathan Bornstein. In the first half Bornstein played stride-for-stride with Argentine wunderkind Lionel Messi. In the second half, Messi moved to the right side for a better match-up and it ought to come as no surprise that the majority of Argentina’s chances were generated against the inexperienced Marvell Wynne (earning his first ever cap). Bornstein himself was caught out a number of times in the second-half, something he would replicate again against Paraguay, leading some to wonder whether this is systematic of Bornstein’s play or whether it’s simply a matter of fatigue.
While the 4-1 loss was disheartening, Bradley motivated the players to a tremendous turnaround performance against Paraguay. Here he let the team control the pace and tempo from the opening whistle. While Paraguay scored first (on yet another horrible defensive miscue), the U.S. responded with a wonderful shot and goal from midfielder Ricardo Clark. The midfield, led by the aforementioned Clark, Benny Feilhaber, Sacha Kljestan, and Ben Olsen, set up chance after chance, but no one could capitalize. Perhaps the most emblematic case of this poor finishing came when Drew Moor, completely unmarked in the box, headed a beautiful Clark cross right into the hands of the Paraguayan keeper. Bornstein was only stating the obvious when he commented after the game: “At the same time, it’s disheartening when you don’t put those chances away and then they come right back down and score. It’s a good thing that we are making chances, but we have to capitalize on them.” While the U.S. outplayed Paraguay in almost every statistical category, the better team, the team that could capitalize on their chances, won.
Bradley has learned, both in this tournament and in the Gold Cup, that the U.S. still does not have the quality finishing to make us a truly world class side. While their passing against Paraguay was intelligent and precise, and while they dominated possession and forced Paraguay to play an ugly style of negative long-ball, the United States' inability to finish has now reached a point of laughable inevitability that appears more psychological than skill-based. Indeed, the U.S. forwards seem more content to pass the ball around in midfield than make the final run and be put in a position to score. Against Argentina, Johnson actually slowed down after breaking free against the Argentine keeper (the resultant collision led to the U.S.’ penalty kick). Both he and Twellman had been scoring goals at a phenomenal rate in MLS but both have looked totally anemic in front of goal, both in the Gold Cup and in Venezuela. If the U.S. can get out of its goal-scoring funk against Columbia, the tournament will unquestionably have been a success.
Under Bradley, the National Team program has made tremendous strides, not only in diversifying the player pool, but also in fostering a winning mentality and offensive oriented style (as witnessed most particularly against Mexico in the Gold Cup final). Bradley has recognized the major weaknesses and worked to correct them. He’s discovered that there is still no clear answer up top, but that, at least in the short term, Brian Ching and Eddie Johnson are the first choice strikers. He’s found a dynamic midfield combination in Ricardo Clark and Benny Feilhaber. He’s learned that Ben Olsen will still play a role for this team in World Cup Qualifying. He’s discovered that Jay DeMerit, Jonathan Bornstein, and even Drew Moor can help us down the line. He’s begun giving valuable opportunities to players like Mapp, Kljestan, and his own son Michael. All of this knowledge will prove invaluable as the U.S. begins its World Cup Qualification campaign next year.
While the naysayers might bemoan the United States’ lack of respect at the international level, or our “disrespect” for the Copa America, or even our talent pool, Bob Bradley has so far done an admirable (although not perfect) job shepherding this team in the post-Arena era. We’ve ourselves learned that a U.S. “B” team can stand toe-to-toe with perhaps the most talented team in the world for at least sixty minutes (but it’s still a ninety minute game). The team now possesses some truly outstanding talent that has only learned to play better and tougher in some of the world’s most hostile playing environments. And if this team can get a result against Columbia today, I’m sure even the most jaded of fans can be proud of three points against three of some of the best national sides in world.