Posted by: mdegeorge | June 18, 2010

A wild ride at Ellis (Theme) Park: The good and bad from Team USA

It was an emotional rollercoaster ride in Ellis Park today. A half hour after getting off and recovering my belongings from the lockers near the track, I’m still spinning. I can only imagine what the players are feeling like.

It’s cliché to the highest degree, but this was the ultimate tale of two halves. The U.S. was dreadful for the first half hour, looking lost on defense with huge gaps blown into the midfield and limited help for the back four. Their attack was disjointed and ineffectual with players not on the same page. The Slovenians exploited acres of space between the midfield and the back four, pinching two goals and flying high to what looked to be a second win in as many matches and a first-ever trip to the knockout stages.

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Head coach Bob Bradley made two changes at halftime, introducing Benny Feilhaber and Maurice Edu into the fray and changing the shape of his team to a 4-4-1-1 with Clint Dempsey tucked in behind lone striker Jozy Altidore instead of out on the wing.

The result: they came out like gangbusters, perhaps more out of desperation than any new found tactical proficiency. Landon Donovan’s run down the right flank for the first goal wasn’t going to be denied by anyone on the Slovenian team. Then, the coach’s son, Michael, his play building and becoming more influential with each passing minute, stepped and blistered the equalizer.

It was a marvelous goal to cap 37 tremendous minutes after an opening 45 which had many in the red, white, and blue-clad contingent reaching for airsick bags.But the cheery, world-beaters’ satisfaction isn’t there as I type this thanks to a refereeing blunder that cost the US a win even the neutral fans said they deserved. Maurice Edu pounced on a perfectly weighted Landon Donovan cross and pounded it home, for the winner, only to have it called back on an atrocious lapse of judgment from World Cup debutant referee Koman Coulibaly.

It was an error of errors on a day that has featured two horrible performances from officials (if we include yellow card-crazed, star of the show Alberto Undiano Mallenco, who doled out nine yellows, including two to German striker Miroslav Klose in their game). Replays clearly show that no one was offside, and the closest man to potentially being offside would have been Bradley, who wasn’t involved in the play. Replays also show that in addition to the normal 18-yard box scrums, both Altidore and Bradley were taken down, Bradley is what I can only describe as a technically sound suplex. But we don’t even know what the call was since Coulibaly refused to tell players what the decision was.

It left Landon Donovan “gutted” after the game, a feeling I’m sure many fans share. In such a short tournament, every opportunity is so fleeting and precious that any missed carry fate-altering significance. Any team that showed that kind of character in fighting back after being punch in the chest twice deserves better than to have their fate sealed by a referees dubious whistle.

In some respects though, the result and the aftertaste of the game is appropriate for the tenor of the performance. The comeback was extraordinary; even more outstanding would have been the Americans’ ability to bring that creativity and intensity from the opening whistle instead of waiting for it to be a do-or-die scenario. As Alexei Lalas put it in the postgame, they’re living on borrowed time and eventually it will catch up to them.

The Americans now look ahead to Algeria, who faces England later today. Six days away, in the after glow of the sudden change of momentum today, the Americans have the ability to ensure the Desert Foxes allow them a ride down the Lazy River. Here’s hoping this match won’t also morph into a thrill ride.

Game Notes:

– The parallels between this tournament and the last tournament in South Africa are stunning. The Americans again face a must-win contest on the last day of the group stages against a North African opponent (and it’s a must win regardless of the result between England and Algeria today). The symmetry of sports is superb.

– The unsung hero of that second half: Steve Cherundolo. The Slovenians chose to attack almost exclusively down their left wing the entire half to the point that I can’t recall Carlos Bocanega’s name being called much if at all. Cherundolo provided excellent support to Jay DeMerit on a number of occasions and utilized a more defensively-committed Donovan to quickly shift back into attack. And the veteran right back showed poise in taking over as a temporary center back when Gomez entered for Oneywu.

– Moving to the England fixture for a moment. Assuming England defeats the Algerians, they will sit atop the group along with Slovenia on four points each. The American would have two while the Algerians would still be without a point. That leaves the U.S. in the obvious must win situation. Were they to win, they would progress along with the winner of the England-Slovenia tie. Were England and Slovenia to draw and the Americans win, all three teams would be level on five points each. The tiebreaker would be goal difference, or essentially how much each team beat Algeria by. Slovenia only managed a 1-0 win, so the U.S. would have to win by at least two goals to ensure they’re ahead of the Slovenes, which would be enough to progress. They would have to beat Algeria by more than England did to win the group. But first they have to win…

– Bob Bradley has some big decisions to make in order to capture and retain the lighting in a bottle that powered the US through the second half, preferably without the wet-toilet-paper-soft defense in the opening half hour. He’ll have to decide what formation he wants to play: the 4-4-2 the team has struggled with over the first three halves of the tournament or the 4-4-1-1 which was so successful in the second half against Slovenia. The absence of Robbie Findley due to suspension for his phantom second yellow card today may swing the balance in favor of the latter formation, with Dempsey tucked in behind Altidore.

– Then there’s the wild card formation: a 4-3-2-1. It’s the shape I suspect they often fell back into today with three central midfielders in Edu, Feilhaber, and Bradley all on the pitch in the second half. It would give any one of those three free reign to support the attack through the center of the field while keeping Donovan and Dempsey out wide. It’s tempting to put someone like Herculez Gomez up front to start and run off Altidore, but I think Bradley will keep him in the super-sub role (though I would like to see him introduced more expeditiously if that’s the case, no later than minute 70).

– The central midfield position also remains unsettled. Ricardo Clark failed to impress in the first game; ditto for Torres in the first half today. Edu was certainly better and freed up Bradley to join the attack, but he was guilty of several silly lapses on back-passes that put his defenders and goalkeeper under unnecessary pressure. Feilhaber also could be deployed centrally after a better performance largely on the wings. My guess is that Edu and Bradley start centrally with Donovan and Feilhaber or Stuart Holden on the flanks.

– I was very critical of Altidore in this game; I though he drifted, through large stretches, is prone to sudden rushes of blood to the head when he has the ball in his feet, and is often looking for an easy way to draw a foul than create a play when in possession. But he stepped up at the end of the match to help create some good chances. He still needs to do more against Algeria.

– At least this provided American fans with a good geography lesson today. But then again, the only way they’ll ever remember Slovenia and Mali is by these bad associations.

– I’m often critical of ESPN for their broadcasting choices. But their ability to bring in Martin Tyler and Ian Darke for this tournament is tremendous. I could listen to those men, Derek Rae and Johnny Champion (who does ESPN UK games in the Prem but not at the World Cup) call soccer all day. There’s a detached, impersonal, yet dryly sarcastic and witty quality to them that is amazingly refreshing here in the land of catch phrases and screaming until you have a hernia. Darke’s performance today was everything Coulibaly’s was not: poised, fair, and perfectly matching the tenor of the game. It even balanced out the bias of John Harkes, who surely does everything short of playing his stars and stripes-emblazoned vuvuzela in the press box. Darke enhanced the intensity and excitement of the game with the right comment at the right moment to let the game shine time and time again. For that, he must be commended.

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