The only soccer I care about anymore is the World Cup. I haven’t watched an MLS game in, geez, I don’t know…5 years or more? And I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit I’ve been to two Blast games in the last three years and ’08-09 was the first time since 1980 that I didn’t set foot in the Civic Center/Arena to watch an indoor soccer game. To borrow a line (somewhat) from a recent movie: “I’m just not that into it anymore”.
That said, last night I was channel surfing around 8:00 pm and with another Orioles loss still an hour away from starting, I stumbled upon the USA/Honduras World Cup qualifying match in Chicago. I knew they were playing on Saturday – in the back of my mind – but I thought it was an afternoon game, to be totally honest. So I was somewhat surprised and quite pleased to see it was about to be played live — on ESPN — with my old indoor soccer TV buddy JP Dellacamera and one of the funniest guys I ever met, John Harkes, doing the play-by-play and color respectively.
It was a huge game for the U.S., as the Americans were drubbed on Wednesday night in Costa Rica, 3-1. It wasn’t “must-win” time, but it was “close-to-must-win” time for the U.S.
The short version: USA 2 – Honduras 1
With the victory, the U.S. is now at 3-1-1 at the halfway mark of the CONCACAF competition. They’re in 2nd place, trailing only Costa Rica. The top 3 teams from the region qualify for the 2010 World Cup next summer in South Africa.
I haven’t watched much soccer in the last few years. In fact, the last time I was interested enough to watch it actively on TV was the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Like a lot of people, I get “re-interested” every four years.
So, last night’s game in Chicago was my first exposure to the “new version” of the U.S. National team. There were literally seven players in the game for the red, white and blue that I’d never seen before last night.
At halftime, with the score tied at 1-1, my thinking went along these lines: “We need better players”.
Tim Howard, the goalkeeper, is by far the club’s dominant performer. The Honduras goal at the five minute mark wasn’t his fault at all and throughout the game, he was commanding and in charge, just the way you want your last guy to be. The U.S. will have a chance to win most of their games because of him.
Who is this striker/forward named Conor Casey? I hope last night was just “one of those nights”. He’s not quite a donkey (a soccer term for a player with little touch or flair), but if he plays like that a couple of more times, he will be. Holy cow…this guy is one of the best players in MLS? How? I didn’t see ANYTHING about him that stood out. Brian McBride and Kenny Cooper, Jr. (two names I AM familiar with…) wouldn’t do more than Casey? Yes, they would. On one leg, I think. The other forward, Jozy Altidore was basically a space occupying body who once or twice sent a dangerous ball into the box. Other than that, I didn’t see a whole lot from him. I assume he’s not a player the U.S. will be counting on heavily in the next five games of qualifying. If they are, he either needs to play a lot better or we all need to pray a lot more.
Clint Dempsey (I’ve never been a big fan…too much side to side for me and not enough finishing) got caught pussy-footing with the ball near midfield early in the game and the result was an early Honduras goal that shocked the U.S. and pushed them on the brink of panic. Dempsey, to his credit, didn’t let his faux pas affect him in the last 85 minutes, as he got involved on a number of occasions in the Honduras end and was partially responsible for the go-ahead goal in the 71st minute.
The only U.S. offensive player that stood out – as he does most times – was Landon Donovan. He still presses the action forward, shows little fear in taking someone on and seems to be involved, somehow-someway, in a handful of legitimate scoring chances every time I watch him. Pablo Mastroeni was supposedly in the lineup as an “attacking midfielder” but someone forgot to mention to him the importance of the “attacking” element of his role. His pedestrian play in the first 45 minutes earned him a spot on the bench to start the 2nd half and the kid who took his spot, someone named Benny Feilhaber, helped turn the game in the Yanks’ favor in the final 45 minutes. Feilhaber buzzed around, took people on and appeared like he wanted to make something happen. Even though he wasn’t skilled enough to do anything on his own, per-se, he was still someone to be reckoned with when he got the ball and the Honduran’s quickly figured out he needed to monitored at all times. I liked his style…a lot.
Carlos Bocanegra had a very good night, scoring a goal (the game-winner) and giving the U.S. good leadership in the defensive end of the field before bowing out with a hamstring strain in the 2nd half. His replacement, Jay DeMerit, was also decent, I thought. I’m familiar with Bocanegra, so his good play wasn’t a surprise, but I was seeing DeMerit for the first time and it struck me that he handled his duty with relative ease throughout the last 20 minutes.
The one kid in the back that I was interested to watch is another newcomer, Jonathan Spector. I didn’t know what to expect. I was impressed. He plays for West Ham in the English Premier League, so he can obviously play a little. But his effort on Saturday night was efficient and sturdy. Nothing flashy, mind you. But he was always in position, rarely let his man turn to the inside of the field and, for the most part, was effective without being noticed. That’s when you’re really good — when they don’t call YOUR name much…or the guy you’re marking.
I wasn’t thoroughly impressed with what I saw from the U.S. on Saturday, but when you fall behind 1-0 five minutes into the game, it suddenly goes from “let’s play some stylish soccer tonight and give the fans a treat and a win” to “let’s go get two goals by hook or by crook and escape with a win and move on…”
The U.S. got their two goals and the win. It wasn’t pretty. But it was FAR better than a loss and a far cry from a draw.
Offensive creativity and the ability finish chances as always been the biggest issue for the United States national soccer team. Even in the days of Eric Wynalda, Tab Ramos, Joe-Max Moore and Roy Lassiter, it still seemed like scoring two goals was more of a mission than it should have been. It appears – and I only watched ONE game in 2009, admittedly – that goal scoring and offensive firepower are Coach Bob Bradley’s biggest worry moving forward in the qualifying stage. Altidore and Casey weren’t worthy of Division 2 status on Saturday night. If those two are among the best the Americans have to offer, they better play much better team defense and pray for a second half penalty kick most nights.
The U.S. is off now until August 12 when they play at Mexico.