Posted by: mdegeorge | June 23, 2010

Living an American dream: U.S. seals progress with fairy tale finish

If there is a more deserving victor, you’d be hard-pressed to find them.

Justice was finally served for Team USA, they of the wrongfully disallowed goals, chances gone begging seemingly only by divine order, and persistence finally rewarded in a manner even Hollywood’s best would be hard-pressed to surpass.

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The chances came fast and furious. 20 shots thumped the way of the Algerians. Eight on the cage, succinctly beaten away by stalwart goalkeeper Rais M’Bohli. A goal denied by a linesman. Another by the woodwork. Others by what can only be attributed to sudden rushes of wind or blood to the head.

It’s a game that lends itself to literary veneration bordering on hyperbole thanks to a hero in Landon Donovan whose career has done much of the same for over a decade.

It’s just desserts from two teams playing borderline negative football. The Slovenians decided far too late to turn on the attack and, even when they did, there was little evidence to indicate that they would secure a breakthrough. The Algerians, for whom a draw would be a purely cosmetic addition to their World Cup journals, seemed patient almost to the point of surely inspiring one or two bloggers (not this one though) of some type of Islamic conspiracy.

But when Frank de Bleeckere had concluded his trio of whistles that sounded more harmonious than any sound American soccer hearts could fathom, it was the best and most deserving team of Group C who ascended to the summit of the group.You’ll have to excuse me, but I’ve spent the better part of the last two days delving into the vast collection of sports writing of the late great David Halberstam, the virtuosity of whose tale of this game I could scarcely imagine.

But it’s time to lose the fedora and put on the analyst’s baseball cap (a much more comfortable fit, if you ask me.)

Team USA has earned the right to fight another day. But their victory, as indicative of the consternation with which it came, was hardly without error.

First and most glaringly, Bob Bradley got away with a poor team selection. The inclusion of Jonathan Bornstein told everyone Bradley wasn’t playing for a draw and rooting for Slovenia. It was an understandable choice: with Algeria playing just three at the back, Bornstein’s defensive responsibilities, easily his weakness, would be minimized. But in the first half and for most of the second, all the traffic on the wings came down the Americans’ right side from Steve Cherundolo and Nadir Belhadj. Bornstein was capable in defense but invisible going forward; his withdrawal when attacking guile, supposedly his specialty, was required makes a repeat of this selection anytime soon highly unlikely.

The idea of starting Herculez Gomez was also a misstep. Gomez is the quintessential Super Sub, able to spend an hour on the bench grasping the pace of the game. It’s not a knock on him; it’s just a specialty which many strikers wish they possessed and can be an asset when used properly. I wouldn’t think it a stretch to opine that he has a goal or two in him before this tournament is up.

But introducing a tentative and sometimes anonymous Gomez from the start left just one striker on the bench in Edson Buddle (thanks to the suspension of Robbie Findley). And Buddle is a more natural replacement for Jozy Altidore, someone extremely unlikely to come off the pitch without a dangling limb.  The paucity of striking options necessitated the formation change that occurred when DaMarcus Beasley was introduced for Bornstein, and brings into question the original decision to carry only four forwards. The roles played by Beasley and Stuart Holden thus far could easily have been consolidated into one player while a fifth striker like Brian Ching as a late-game specialist on set pieces would have proven much more valuable for the goal-hungry Yanks over the last two matches.

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There was certainly a fair share of heroes for the US. Donovan is the obvious headliner for his ability to finally, mercifully find the back of the net. Michael Bradley stretched his steak of consecutive stellar halves to three with an opportunistic and creative presence constantly providing ominous moments for the Algerian rear guard. Maurice Edu performed well before being withdrawn, and Benny Feilhaber again provided a creative and stabilizing boost off the bench. Altidore was more active than I have seen him in some time, often tracking back into the midfield and not just relying on long balls played forward while still deftly flagging down ball after ball played into him with his back to goal.

The unsung hero of the day though, was Jay DeMerit. He was exquisite in marshalling ball after ball away from often isolated Algerian attackers. He and Carlos Bocanegra paired well, along with Cherundolo’s intervention to halt Belhadj’s many marauding forays forward.

For all the good, there are a few loose ends that need to be tied up, most of them directly responsible for the score not reading something more in the order of 6-0. The attacking chemistry must improve. On set pieces, there was a succession of plays where the front men alternated running to the back post and having the ball served into the channel, and then staying in the channel while the ball tantalizing bounded past the back post without troubling the defense.

Buddle and Gomez struggled throughout in locating the runs of teammates, especially strike partner Altidore. Far too often a ball into the box was challenged by two American attackers, often nullifying each other. And some of the misses, especially by Clint Dempsey, must be cut out if progress to the quarterfinals can be hoped for.

Despite the heroism, it was a pedestrian game from Donovan. He was largely invisible in the second half especially, unable to make the proper decision on set pieces, and ineffective in getting behind defenders as is his specialty. He showed up when he was most needed, but an earlier surfacing could have alleviated the need for such heroics.

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There’s also an age-old adage that my poor memory requires me to paraphrase: the great goalkeepers in the World Cup make all the saves their supposed to, and just one that they’re not.

So far, Tim Howard has accomplished the half of the maxim, but he has yet to steal a game for the US, something I believe is a requisite if they endeavor to pull a shock down the road.

His distribution and 60-yard tosses are exceptional, but he was soundly beaten by the early strike from Rafik Djebbour that fortuitously found the crossbar. He did his duty by stopping those he rightfully should have, but were the Americans now headed home, his inability to prevent either of the goals in the first half against Slovenia would have to be called into question.

I guess I also have to address the controversial calls.

The offside call on the Dempsey goal did look correct in real time, so much so that I stopped my hands halfway through their fist pump instinctively knowing it would be in vain. There was also an offside call on Algeria later that was dubious and could have played two Desert Foxes in on only Bocanegra.

The alleged elbow in the box by Anther Yahia looked incidental and in that instance, with a penalty and a dismissal at stake, it’s an opportunity for common sense officiating and allowing the players to decide the outcome on the pitch that thankfully was capitalized on.

The foul by Mehdi Lacen against Altidore also wasn’t a straight red, as one man was still behind the ball. Were he the last man, he would have seen red for a professional foul; that wasn’t the case and the yellow was justified.

And, in a case of turnabout being fair play, I didn’t see anything suspicious on the foul called on Algeria in the box in stoppage time. I guess the US deserved a break, huh?

All things considered, it was a strong match for de Bleeckere and his crew. The Belgian ref has a reputation as being a disciplinarian and has garnered less than spectacular reviews for his work on the continent in UEFA Champions League matches. But he was stellar today, even with a traditionally unruly and undisciplined Algerian squad that earlier this year infamously finished an elimination match from the Africa Cup of Nations with just eight men.

Oh, and the four minutes of stoppage time? Generous and lending itself to late drama, to say the least.

It’s far too early to determine who will await the Americans in Rustenberg in three day’s time. But in either occasion, it will likely be a familiar foe that finishes as the runner-up in Group D.

Right now, the inside edge for first in the group lies with Ghana, one point ahead of Germany and Serbia with four points from two matches. Germany has the edge over Serbia, despite a loss to the former Yugoslav republic, based on goal difference heading into a do-or-die match with the Black Stars. Serbia tussles with Australia with the Socceroos still capable of advancing with a win and some help.

It’s entirely possible that the US will do battle with one of the teams responsible for eliminating them from a recent World Cup. The Germans did the trick in the quarterfinals eight years ago, while Ghana sealed their exit in the final group game in 2006.

On the bright side, the US will get Findley back and presumably straight into the starting XI with his one-game suspension for two yellow cards served. All the yellow cards from the group stage are wiped clean, and no one is faced suspension for the Round of 16.

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