FOX Soccer Exclusive
Donovan, Shea blows reveal USA panic
It says a lot about the current state of affairs for the United States national team when the withdrawals of Landon Donovan and Brek Shea for a pair of matches against Antigua and Barbuda, and Guatemala send waves of panic rippling through American fans.
Losing Donovan (knee) and Shea (abdominal strain) is a potentially important setback when US coach Jürgen Klinsmann harped on the need for width ahead of these two games. Without those players in camp and no replacements forthcoming, there are fewer options available to provide it.
The fact is, losing Donovan and Shea shouldn't matter given the resources at Klinsmann's disposal and the tasks at hand. That this situation inspires such uncertainty and hand-wringing among fans is what should concern everyone.
It is well past time for the US to act like the CONCACAF heavyweight that it is and render those arguments irrelevant. The opponents are weak. The stakes are high. Nothing less than six points and a safe place in the Hexagonal will do. And for one of the two best sides in the region, it should present a comfortable assignment.
It probably won't. Nothing about this semifinal round has unfolded in a routine manner. Instead of controlling the terms of matches with its superior talent, the US has allowed the conditions and the opponents to dictate the affairs. A laborious home win over Antigua and Barbuda in Tampa, a disappointing draw in Guatemala and an ugly defeat in Jamaica failed to impress.
Only one stretch – the first half in the 1-0 victory over Jamaica in Columbus – during this set of four games met the required standard. And the Americans still couldn't muster the sharpness in front of goal to really put their opponents to the sword and sidestep the tense late stages at Crew Stadium.
"We always want to perform well," Klinsmann said during a conference call with the media Monday. "We want to play the way we did in the first half in Columbus. That's definitely the way we want to see the game go. But if it's not possible to play that style, then it's not possible to play in that flowing mode because of the field, because of the circumstances or whatever it is. We still have to find ways to battle through it and get the points. The points, at the end of the day, are the most important thing moving forward."
Pragmatism always warrants a place in the discussion during World Cup qualifying, but the obstacles ahead of the game at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium on Friday shouldn't require it. Antigua and Barbuda boasts a roster filled with lower-league players (and Reading's Mikele Leigertwood, if deemed fit and selected after sitting out at the weekend against Swansea City) and struggles to operate through any attacking outlet aside from veteran forward Peter Byers. It plays its home games on a cricket pitch. The field conditions remain a question mark for the Americans, but the intent of the well-drilled opposition (just one goal conceded on home soil in this round) does not.
"Some teams, like Antigua on Friday night, will play very defensively," Klinsmann said. "They won't give you any space to play through. They will make sure you have to find ways to create chances. You have to figure it out and break them down. That might not be the prettiest way to do it, but you have to do it. Do we always want to play good-looking football? Yes. But it's not always possible."
It should be against this caliber of opposition even with the potential hindrances presented by the conditions, the negative opponents and the unpredictable referees. Or, at the very least, it should be possible for the US to look like a better outfit than it has so far during this semifinal round and sweep through these matches with some measure of command over the proceedings.
Maybe this pair of games will represent a positive step toward that mandate. The opponents are either not good enough (Antigua) or not healthy enough (Guatemala with its cadre of missing central defenders) to pose a genuine threat. The return of Michael Bradley and the improved fitness of Clint Dempsey add much needed quality in the middle and final third. The defensive corps appears solid. The prospect of entering this final matchday tied on points with Guatemala and Jamaica should increase the urgency.
And yet the talk remains about the possible danger posed by the absences of Donovan and Shea and the imprudent decision not to call up a capable replacement like Chris Wondolowski (an occasional operator on the right flank for San Jose) to add diversity to the 22-man roster.
Those sorts of discussions tend to unfold when the qualifying performances and the non-friendly results haven't proven entirely satisfying to date. Only a pair of comprehensive victories over the next week will alter the path of the discussion. Fulfilling that brief isn't beyond this group. In fact, it should be expected of it. Until that measure of success finally arrives, and a place in the Hexagonal is assured, the debates will rage onwards and nerves will continue to jangle a little bit more than they rightfully should.
Kyle McCarthy writes about the beautiful game for FOX Soccer, the Boston Herald and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @kylejmccarthy.
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