USMNT: Goodbye Cleveland, Hello D.C.
OTF’s North American soccer guru Austin Fido adds to his portfolio to bring you commentary and analysis on the Yanks…
USMNT kicked off a frantic summer of international football with an entirely predictable loss to Belgium. Sure, they didn’t need to lose that badly, but history is written by the winners. And this time around the winners wanted history to reflect the fact that, in the summer of 2013, the Belgian national soccer team is a lot better than USMNT.
Alderweirweld, Benteke, De Bruyne, Dembele, Fellaini, Lukaku, Kompany, Mirallas, Pocognoli, Vermaelen, and Vertonghen: magnificent footballers with equally magnificent names. Saying the word “Lukaku” is one of the most enjoyable things you can do with your mouth without the company of a consenting adult. Watching him play is almost as much fun.
Romelu Lukaku took some of the hardest names to spell in world soccer on a polysyllabic spree in Cleveland.
It was Lukaku’s charge into the box in the 6th minute that drew Tim Howard off his line in a panic to block the shot, which created space for Kevin Mirallas to nip in for the rebound while the US back-line seemed more interested in pondering why the offside flag wasn’t waving than helping out their ‘keeper.
Lukaku’s well-conceived but poorly executed through-ball lulled Omar Gonzalez into a heavy first touch that turned a simple interception into a pass to Kevin De Bruyne, and a very simple finish for Christian Benteke.
It was Lukaku who burst past Clarence Goodson to create a shot on goal, palmed away by Brad Guzan for a corner that wasn’t properly cleared and resulted in another De Bruyne cross, this time for Fellaini to score.
And it was Lukaku who had DaMarcus Beasley’s attention for the split-second it took Steven Defour to realize he could find Benteke, open and on goal, with a lob to space that might usually be covered by the left-back.
If you didn’t think conceding four goals to Belgium was well within the spectrum of possible outcomes of this match, then your optimism is to be commended. If anything, USMNT was spared a heavier margin of defeat by the referee’s decision to award a penalty when Toby Alderweirweld committed the heinous offense of getting hit in the elbow by an Eddie Johnson cross.
Don’t say CONCACAF refs never do anything for US teams.
It was a friendly, played at modest tempo. USMNT had their chances, But none of the quality displayed by the Belgians. Yet, the Belgians might have more concerns after this match than the Americans.
For all their quality, and the absence of key players such Eden Hazard, Belgium’s first two goals were gifted to them by two defensive errors that rarely get made at international level. The Belgians know they can beat lesser teams pretty handily: it’s why they are top of their World Cup Qualifying group. But they are only top of the group on goal difference. They need to shake off the challenge of Croatia to secure automatic qualification for a summer in Brazil next year. And, to date, the Croatians have matched Belgium’s points accumulation.
There has been a lot of reference to Belgium’s defensive record in this qualifying cycle: only one goal conceded so far. That goal was conceded in the 6th minute of Croatia’s visit to Brussels. If you haven’t seen it, take a look:
Turns out Omar Gonzalez isn’t the only guy who can turn an interception into an assist.
That game was tied. The return match will be played in October, in Croatia. And the hosts have every reason to be confident. They won’t have seen much they didn’t already know coming out of Cleveland. Geoff Cameron’s goal was a reminder that there isn’t a team in the world that can’t be caught out on set pieces. Mario Mandzukic will have noticed how quickly Lukaku gave up on his assignment after the initial clearance.
For USMNT, while it would be absurd to celebrate a 4-2 humbling, there’s no reason to panic. The point of friendlies is to learn, and there’s a lot of learning still for Jurgen Klinsmann and his players.
It’s fair to suggest that the head coach of an almost certainly World Cup-bound squad should have a better idea of his best team and tactics by this stage in the qualifying cycle. We’ll be more than halfway through the Hex by the end of June. We’re basically a year away from the final World Cup roster announcements. Do you have any idea what Klinsmann’s best eleven looks like? Me neither.
We know his ideal core is Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Clint Dempsey. But that’s everyone’s ideal core. They were all in the last team Bob Bradley put out: for the 2011 Gold Cup final. So too was Clarence Goodson, who I thought would be one of the first against the wall come the Klinsmann revolution.
Instead, Goodson has stayed and Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo and Landon Donovan have dropped out of favor. Right now, there are a lot of places up for grabs in the first eleven, let alone the final 23. And most of the favorites weren’t on show in Cleveland.
In the first match of a long summer, Jurgen got a good look at some guys he wants to bring to Brazil (Gonzalez, Zusi), some guys who deserve a fair shake (Davis, Kljestan), and some guys who are going to stick around if no one else steps up (Beasley, Goodson). Of those who still have something to prove, the Belgium game may have worked out best for Graham Zusi and DaMarcus Beasley.
In Beasley’s case, if you’re going to cut Omar Gonzalez some slack (and it would be rash if Klinsmann didn’t) then it’s only fair to give DaMarcus the same benefit of the doubt: he’s learning how to play the third position of his career. Omar’s still figuring out his first.
Beasley’s value as a utility man rises with each not-terrible performance at left back, particularly since the first choice for that position is currently penciled in as “someone other than DaMarcus Beasley.” Against Belgium, he generally held his own in one-on-ones, and offered the forward momentum you’d expect from a career wide-man. He may be occasionally shaky on his positioning, but that’s why he’s not (usually) a defender in the first place. He’s a good player who does the work asked of him by his coach. Never a bad option to have in the squad.
Zusi had arguably the biggest test of his international career. He didn’t fail. He suffers by comparison with the Belgian Kevins – De Bruyne and Mirallas – but they didn’t have to spend as much time frantically tracking back as Zusi. He needs more time against a higher caliber of opponent than he gets with Kansas City to really answer the questions about his ability – which is what Klinsmann seems prepared to provide.
For everyone else, it looks like a case of “could do better”. Fortunately, the chance to do better will come fairly quickly: against Germany on Sunday at RFK Stadium. This will be a different test from that provided by the Belgians.
Most of Germany’s established stars will be missing – since most of Germany’s established stars were in the UEFA Champions’ League final last weekend. Still, what is essentially a second-string German side was good enough to beat Ecuador by the same score we witnessed in Cleveland: 4-2. That Ecuador team wasn’t all that different from the one which beat USMNT in October 2011. And it was even more similar to the team that beat Paraguay 4-1 back in March, taking Ecuador to second place in the CONMEBOL World Cup Qualifying standings.
Which is to say that a win for USMNT vs. Germany in the nation’s capital this weekend would be an achievement that should not be undervalued.
OTF’s Austin Fido has been know to have Klinsigasms every now and then. Follow him @canetop