You imaginary readers out there in the ether may be tempted to accuse me of slacking right off the bat in the blog here, but you would be mistaken. I have a job, you know.
Not that I was working the past week. I had a long-planned trip that rose up right smack dab in the middle of the Confederations Cup, which was probably just as well, as I didn't spend Thursday through Sunday afternoon obsessing over the Brazil-US final. We camped at the beach, my son, my girlfriend and her family (and friends, nearly 80 people in all). Had ourselves a shit-ton of sun, beer and good times. I got back home on Sunday, right about halftime of the Final. Thanks to TiVo, I started at the opening whistle.
So, by now, you all know what happened. What follows is less a re-hash of the game and my feelings about it (bitterly disappointed, devastated, wallowing in Clint Dempsey's tears), than what we now know about this US team, its coach and what it all means going forward.
I was amused by Michael Bradley's outburst after the Egypt game. As a father myself, I'd like to hope my own son would come to my defense--or his teammate's defense--with similar passion. But Bradley the Younger was woefully misguided in his comments, the most vitriolic of which was,
"All the f------ experts in America, everybody who thinks they know everything about soccer, they can all look at the score tonight, and let's see what they have to say now, all right?"
Well Mike, congratulations on your historic win. Congratulations on hitting to that inside straight and advancing out of the group despite incredible odds. However, that performance against Egypt does not excuse the one against Brazil (in the group) or at Costa Rica or against Honduras or at El Salvador. Those of us who "think we know" about soccer didn't have to look very hard to see how awful the side played for large chunks of those three games. Are you trying to tell us that the US team put their best feet forward in those matches? That your Dad ran out the best XI players (seriously, Marvell Wynne played in one of those games)? That the wrong-headed 4-3-3 formation in Saprissa Stadium didn't completely fall apart less than two minutes into the game?
All those criticisms were entirely warranted, Mike, a fact which you prove with your outburst, which your teammates proved with their inspired effort the remainder of the Confederations Cup. A team capable of that level of play and committment should be rightfully ashamed of mailing in qualifiers. If Bradley feels the recent qualifiers were above reproach, he's misguided. He should watch game film and notice the team's complete turnaround.
What I have to "say now" is, "Awesome. That's how we, your fans, thought the team could play. We're happy to see it. I can't tell you how exciting the last week was. Now show some consistency and eliminate those tentative, naive performances."
While I'm happy to give Coach Bradley credit for beating Spain, I'm still not completely confident in his stewardship of the team, mostly due to his team selection (and that ghastly lineup in Costa Rica, which I have to assume, lest I go completely insane, was a one-off, never to be repeated). Yes, he found the right mix in the Egypt game. Bocanegra getting fit allowed us to put out our Best XI in the Spain semi-final. But how did he get there? And why did it take him so long?
My belief is that he was desperate. His tactics, his players were not getting it done. The Costa Rica blowout, the squeaker at home against Honduras, the dismal effort in El Salvador. He knew he had to do something. He was going to lose his job on the backs of DaMarcus Beasley and Jonathan Bornstein and Sacha Kljestan and Danny Califf.
Sure, we look at that list of players now and laugh. But had those guys gotten results--despite all available evidence that they couldn't--we'd still be looking at them as big players in the National pool. Fortunately for all involved, they played to their level. Which is low.
Coach Bradley's desperation can be encapsulated in a single player: Benny Feilhaber. Two summers ago, Feilhaber's game-winning rocket against Mexico won the Gold Cup (which got the US into the Confederations Cup, doncha know). He was a star on the rise, deft with the ball in midfield, an inate sense of the game and with some Brazilian flair flowing through his veins. Then he went to Derby County and couldn't get a game (for the worst-performing side in the history of the EPL). And he got hurt. But, most damining, accounts surfaced that he turned off the National Team set-up by being a prick. He was blacklisted.
Though he'd only played one 90-minute match for his new club, Aarhus (Denmark), after returning from injury, Bradley called him into camp after the Costa Rica debacle and inserted him into the second half of the Honduras game to great effect. It was a desperation move and though Feilhaber is clearly not as sharp as he will be with more playing time, he's a difference-maker, the team's most creative midfielder, a player who provides inspiration and invention in the offensive third.
Also in similar boats, Jonathan Spector and Jay DeMerit languished in the background of the team, mystifyingly so to some observers, including this one. Bradley ran through a who's who of options on the flanks--Heath Pearce, Bornstein, Wynne, even the ill-fated Beasley at left back experiment--before giving Spector a run-out in the Honduras game. All the West Ham player (who, it should be noted, has had a number of injuries as well) did was shine nearly every second he was on the pitch, minus a few missed assignments on set-pieces. One would expect he is now firmly entrenched at right back, but, considering my absence of faith in Bradley, I'll believe it when I see it in the Azteca on Aug. 12th.
Carlos Bocanegra's injury against Honduras might be the best thing that's ever happened to Jay DeMerit. That and Danny Califf's howler against Costa Rica. DeMerit, at the very least, cemented his spot as the third-choice center back. If Bocanegra continues to play out on the left--which he totally should Bob!--then DeMerit is an automatic selection. The big Watford centre back now has 15 caps, a paltry number considering he's been highly regarded in England for five years, one of those being in the EPL. Here again, we have an accomplished player whose chances for the National Team were begging until Bradley's desperation peaked, right about the time his head was on the chopping block.
Now, one can look at the team that rampaged through the African Champions, held the best team in the world at bay in a famous victory and battled Brazil for 90 tenacious minutes and say, those are our guys. We'll see in six weeks if Bradley agrees.
Landon, I take back everything bad I ever said about you. You still need to be more decisive in the box, but goddamn if you didn't play your ass off in South Africa, running at guys, being confident on the ball and basically making a menace of yourself. Please do this every game. And your post-Final quote, "We don't want respect, we want wins," was awesome.
Charlie, Welcome to the club, sir. You wonder why the one US striker with a sterling goal-scoring record in Europe would languish on the bench for so long, but (see above) we're glad to have you, even if you're not the prettiest player. What I like most is that you run with purpose and, boy oh boy, can you run.
Clint, For a while, you were turning into Landon. Disappointing. You still lost interest at times, but 3 goals in 5 games is a nice return on investment. I still think you get too easily annoyed when the service isn't inch-perfect, and you could stand to eliminate some of the more fancy shit from your arsenal, but when you're on, you're as dangerous as anyone alive.
Oguchi, enjoy your payday. Man of the tournament.