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USA ends year with more questions

FOX Soccer News analyzes USA's 2-2 draw versus Russia.
FOX Soccer News analyzes USA's 2-2 draw versus Russia.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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THUNDER STRIKE

Watch Bradley's beautiful goal in Wednesday's 2-2 draw with Russia.

A strange 2-2 draw with Russia made for a fitting end to a strange year for the United States men’s national soccer team.

Throughout the year, the Americans’ form has swung wildly. They have thumped and been thumped. They’ve won unconvincingly, gotten landmark away wins against giants, dazzled at times and been confoundingly incompetent at others. Tactics have meandered from optimism to footballing depression. Theirs was a personality split into three or four.

Traveling to Krasnodar to take on Russia on Wednesday, the United States showed all of these personas in a single game. Against a Russian team not quite at full strength, the US started the game mystifyingly out of sync. The very simplest of balls were misplayed and opponents misplaced. On one such play in the ninth minute, when Danny Williams played a free kick right into the feet of Aleksandr Kerzhakov — an occurrence seen worryingly often throughout the game — Russia capitalized as Fyodor Smolov was released into space and easily beat Tim Howard.

For the remainder of the first half, the US was resoundingly dominated by a Russian team that simply sliced through its defense and failed to score more often only because it seemed to lose interest in doing so. The US, for its part, was unable to connect passes and managed no offense whatsoever. It wasn’t until the 29th minute that the Americans even got a significant shot off, when defender Clarence Goodson hit a slow roller at Vladimir Gabulov.

There were lots of turnovers on both sides, but the US seemed to make a point out of collecting the most, inventing new ways to rack them up. Not until late in the first half did the US take a stake in the game, finding some traction going forward. But no serious chances ensued.

Early in the second half, Howard seemingly got away with clipping Aleksandr Kokorin in the box. Kokorin's trailing leg was either swiped out from under him or purposely dragged behind Howard’s, depending on your reading of it. Either way, he was booked for simulation and the US was kept in the game by a referee who offered Russia surprisingly few home calls.

Grateful, the US bulled its way into the contest, looking more cohesive and fluid in possession. Still, Howard routinely was called upon to intervene when Russia danced through the American lines after winning the ball.

BACK IN THE MIX

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Improbably, in the 76th minute, Maurice Edu played a long ball to Juan Agudelo. He knocked it down for Michael Bradley, whose searing volley dinked off the near post and into the net to equalize. Stunned, Russia pursued the go-ahead goal with fresh gusto. It got an assist in its quest from Goodson, who stupidly and unnecessarily bundled over Artem Dzyuba in the box in the 83rd minute when Howard had the play covered. Roman Shirokov converted and that, it appeared, was that.

But in the 93rd minute — with time ticking down as it always seems to in the seminal moments of any sporting contest between the US and Russia — yet another high ball from Bradley into the Russian box fell for Mix Diskerud, whose shot was deflected and trickled into the net to put the final score on the board.

In spite of a somewhat positive outcome against the ninth-ranked team in the world, the issues that have marred Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as US head coach — initiated to take the team to a higher level, as you’ll recall — permeated his team’s play once more.

The Russians easily played through the American defense, which often was bailed out by offside calls, both accurate and not. They found room to make runs through and space to find others in with disconcerting ease.

By fielding three natural holding midfielders and just one pure winger, a visibly nervous debutant in Joshua Gatt at that, Klinsmann’s ill-fitting 4-3-3 formation isolated his strikers Herculez Gomez and Jozy Altidore. The latter did useful work by knocking down and holding up the ball but had little support. Ball circulation was exceptionally poor, with only Bradley — as usual — distinguishing himself in the middle. To provoke any sort of danger, the US had to play Route 1, pumping high balls over the top. This was not what we were promised when Klinsmann took over.

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And while the US may have scored two goals, the attack floundered, making few demands on an unimposing Russian back line. It got its tallies courtesy of hopeful efforts by trailing midfielders who got deflections from the post and a defender, respectively. That isn’t to diminish Bradley’s world-class strike, but it does serve to illustrate that the goals were unconventional and somewhat lucky.

With 2012 in the books for the US, the Klinsmann experiment is at a crossroads. In 2013, it will contest the Gold Cup and endeavor to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. But in the affair with Russia, the US looked like a team overly reliant on the spare class of Howard and Bradley once again.

Going into a crucial year, the questions this team has left unanswered still far overshadow the responses it has mustered.

Amy Lawrence is a contributing writer for FOXSoccer.com who has been writing about the game since USA `94, covering the Premier League, Champions League, European leagues and international soccer.

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