Posted by: mdegeorge | November 18, 2010

A breath of fresh air for Team USA in South Africa

For as much as the contrary was drilled into viewers’ heads by every ESPN employee within shouting distance of a microphone today, Team USA’s 1-0 victory over South Africa was a heartening triumph.

The emphasis, however, truly was on the individuals in this meeting. The fact that the nation’s B- squad composed mostly of kids who can’t by a drink legally in the States yet had the better of play against a squad that started seven World Cup veterans is of little consequence in the grand, four-year scheme of things.

So in the individual spirit of the day, here’s a position-by-position assessment of the alleged future of the U.S. National Team:

Juan Agudelo (L) of the U.S. fights for the ball with South Africa's Anele Ngcongca (C) during their Nelson Mandela Challenge soccer match in Cape Town, November 17, 2010. At right is Brian Carroll of the U.S. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)

Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan was solid, highlighted by a couple of first half saves that preserved the scoreless margin into the half. With Marcus Hahnemann likely done with international duty as his 40th birthday approaches, Guzan is a qualified backup to Tim Howard. Given his dearth of game action with Aston Villa this season, his sharpness was surprising and a refreshing surprise. It’ll be nice to see Guzan’s true ability once he gets a full-time gig in the Premiership.

Central defense: Tim Ream’s much-heralded debut garnered most of the mention today, perhaps disproportionately so. But the 23-year-old acquitted himself well in a harsh environment. The 6-foot-1 Ream struggled with the physicality of Davide Somma at times, but showed decent speed and communicated well with his back-line mates…Clarence Goodson is an interesting case to watch for the next four years. He’ll be 32 when the next World Cup rolls around (as will the starved-for-match-fitness Oguchi Oneywu) so it’ll be interesting to see if the late bloomer is still in the picture. Considering three of the other defenders who traveled to South Africa in June will be over 34 by then, the rock-solid Goodson may have to be a factor. The lanky defenders’ pace wasn’t an issue against the swift Bafana Bafana, but it’s disappointing that his aerial ability in the penalty area wasn’t better exploited by a team struggling for offensive chemistry…Nat Borchers was competent in a limited role, but barring a major turn of events, his reappearance in the team after a five-year absence is largely based on merit rather than a hope for the future…Gale Agbossoumonde only had a brief cameo on his 19th birthday, but contributed a clearance on the final South Africa corner of the game.

Fullbacks: Fellow birthday boy Eric Lichaj was the most impressive performer for me. His audacity going into tackles was notable, as was his ability to almost completely nullify the roving Steven Pienaar for 79 minutes. It would be nice if he received more playing time for club, but at just 22, he’s got plenty of time to grow…Jonathan Bornstein acquitted himself well as the senior member of the squad. His side was more or less avoided for most of the match, but he didn’t provide his usual attacking guile up the flank…Jonathan Spector had to be one of the disappointments of the game. His tackles were frequently mistimed and his passes off the mark. It was a chance for a player chronically short on match fitness to get a strong half under his belt and perhaps make a case for more regular appearances for club, but he certainly failed in that regard today.

Central midfield: Two of the only players to log the full 90 were Logan Pause and Brian Carroll. They controlled the tempo fairly well, were strong into tackles, and did a decent job of maintaining possession. They’re decent cover but they have the misfortune of playing a position at which Team USA is stocked like none other. At this point, neither appear to have the ability to displace the likes of Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu, Ricardo Clark, etc. in the pecking order. Pause and Carroll are both 29, making their inclusions more of a reward for their past form then a precursor of future national team aspirations. Their selection in the future, if not done properly, could even become a detriment to determining a permanent pairing among the candidate above them.

Wingers: I thought Robbie Rogers and Alejandro Bedoya played well. Rogers’ speed is an asset, especially if paired with a more central-minded winger like Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan on the opposite wing. He needs to develop better strength on the ball, but that will come with age and size. Bedoya has a great upside that has plenty of time to develop. He has the added advantage of regular football, including a taste of the Europa League next season with Swedish club Orebro. A strong performance by either in the next few months only further muddies the question of Stuart Holden’s place in Bob Bradley’s future plans.

Attacking midfielders: I like Eddie Gaven, but he’s not a man for the future of the national team. He’s is well adapted for a trequartista/in the hole position behind a pair of strikers—as so many pundits want the national team to adopt—but not at this skill level. He’s like a poor man’s Holden. Bradley’s choice to deploy him as a support striker shows that even in a game whose result is academic, the cards still stay close to the vest…Behind Lichaj, I’ve also become enamored with Mikkel Diskerud. Maybe it’s the genuine soccer player’s name or the fact that he chose to represent the United States instead of Norway. But the 20-year-old Diskerud has the makings of a bona fide replacement for Donovan if Captain America ever has to hang up the boots. He’s playing regularly in an international league and showed tremendous instinct in slotting home an inch-perfect through ball to set up the winning goal. It’s too early for any coronations, but Diskerud is one to watch.

Forwards: It was a pedestrian day for Robbie Findley, but his forte at this level won’t be as the lone striker. He’s a high-energy player who’s at his best when he has a partner, preferably a center forward adept at controlling balls played into him, he can make runs off of. Isolating him against South Africa did him a disservice…Let’s start he admittedly asinine comparison machine with the young strikers. Teal Bunbury played well in his first national team action and has tremendous physical gifts (6-foot-2). He showed a composed first touch and has the skill to make things happen with the ball in his feet. The only thing that gives me pause (literal, not Logan) is his striking resemblance to another number nine who exploded onto the scene at a young age playing with Kansas City and fizzled out, Eddie Johnson…The lion’s share of the plaudits have to go to Juan Agudelo, the lone goalscorer and the youngest American ever to score a goal at age 17. His toe-poke on the goal showed great instinct, and his composure in finishing off that move with fellow teenagers Diskerud and Bunbury was beyond his years. Surely Agudelo will draw comparisons to Jozy Altidore (weird name, foreign parentage, New York Red Bulls system, emergence at a ridiculously young age, similar styles). But before we field the offers from Europe, let’s make sure he can get through a full MLS season.

Notes: First and foremost, let’s not get as enamored as I have (in some cases) with these players. Many of the players on the field today will never get this close to a cap the rest of their careers. Others will be the future of the program. There weren’t any coronation moments out there in Capetown today. For anyone opining to the contrary, I have two words: Freddy AduSomma officially enters the Giuseppe Rossi-Neven Subotic “don’t bother coming back to this country category” after electing to represent South Africa over the U.S. Enjoy wading through abject poverty for your training camps…Somma aside, the decisions of Bunbury and Diskerud to play for the U.S. instead of Canada and Norway, respectively, demonstrate the nation’s ability to win some of these battles for a reason other than easy playing opportunities. The same holds true for the captures of Jermaine Jones and Edgar Castillo. It’s becoming more popular apparently to stay with the U.S. and fight for a place than have an easier path to the Starting XI  farther from the limelight…Don’t forget there are a plethora of European based young talent not represented in the future stars category. Michael Parkhurst has performed well in Denmark. Josh Gatt is currently on the books in Austria. Former Barcelona and Arsenal youth product Alex Zahavi could enter the fold before his 20th birthday. Sebastian Lletget is a promising teen in the vaunted West Ham Academy. And Bundesliga outfit Mainz counts a pair of youngsters in Jared Jeffrey and Preston Zimmerman among its reserves…As much as I enjoy the promise of these new youngsters, it could quickly become a spelling nightmare. Imaging a team sheet that reads: Guzan-Lichaj-Borchers-Agbossoumonde-Bornstein-Kljestan-Bedoya-Feilhaber-Diskerud-Altidore-Agudelo. Melting pot, indeed.

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