U.S. reserves fail Saturday exam
Saturday night, 18 American players had a chance to audition for World Cup slots. To a man, they failed.
Losing 3-1 to Honduras in a friendly at the Home Depot Center, the Americans looked fit — and nothing more.
The result was an embarrassment for manager Bob Bradley. Despite a three-week training camp and his team’s urgent needs, none of his players showed up.
No, this wasn’t the American “A” team — but it was a group of men that the USA desperately needed to get a few heads out of. This was a disappointment and a step back for an injury-hit side that will need all the warm bodies it can get come South Africa.
Some will point to Jimmy Conrad’s early ejection as a reason for the Americans’ poor showing. Don’t believe it. While Conrad’s two fouls were foolish, they’re merely the latest in a long string of foolish decisions made by the Americans.
This team is plagued by stupid fouls, and until the USA stops committing them, they can expect to be penalized for them.
Now, the coach must confront two apparent realities just 136 days out from the World Cup.
First, despite bringing in almost 90 players in his tenure, Bradley has not been able to find 15 men who can start and win on a consistent basis. That speaks to an overall lack of depth for a national team program that may be entering a valley.
In spite of MLS’ growth and the emergence of overseas markets for American players, too few of them are able to make the leap to the international level, leaving the USA badly undermanned and forcing Bradley to make tactical moves that don’t always showcase his players’ strengths.
Second, Bradley’s tactics don’t seem to be working. Whatever system he is trying to instill in his charges isn’t taking root.
Saturday, the United States were at least a half-step quicker than the Hondurans, but badly behind in every other vital aspect of the game.
Honduras displayed a tight, brisk back four that forced the USA out of the final third, were deliberate and crisp on the ball, and were able to split the American defense right down the gut with diagonal balls all night long.
Let’s talk about the men first.
Out of the group that took the field Saturday night, Bradley could have reasonably hoped to find two or three field players who could at least act as cover. Given that low bar for success, it’s startling how poorly this group performed.
Four "prospects" — Sacha Klejstan, Kyle Beckerman, Jonathan Bornstein and Chad Marshall — were arguably top of Bradley’s mind. All four of them showed conclusively why they should not hop on that plane to Durban.
Klejstan, who enjoyed a brief breakout spell with the nats, has regressed, and Saturday night he was ineffective at steering the flow of the game.
Beckerman was worse — he lacks basic tactical knowledge and continues to make bad decisions that haunt the team.
Bornstein may be a hero in Honduras, but they were happy to eat him alive last night: He lacks speed and positioning and forced an overmatched Marshall to bail him out early and often.
And Marshall, who was needed to cover too much ground after the ejection of Conrad in the 18th minute, is smart but slow. Sadly, he is not adept enough to be a top-level center back.
Another three — Robbie Rogers, Jeff Cunningham and Robbie Findley — didn’t get much chance to display anything. Cunningham rarely made himself available (and was yanked at the half), Findley was eager but showed little control, and Rogers cannot beat men on the corner and cross the ball — a key weakness for a man who is supposed to be delivering play from the flanks.
The subs Bradley made at the hour mark were crisper — but how could they not be? Of that lot the only intriguing player was Alejandro Bedoya, who looked as if he had awareness and skill. Since he also looked as if he had some ideas of his own, this may be the last time we get to see him.
Which brings us to the team’s tactics, or lack of them. Aside from playing a flat-back four, there is little that distinguishes the game the Americans play. This was thrown into sharp relief last night by a Honduran side that kept and cleared its lines, ably moved players both vertically and horizontally to create space, and sussed out the American’s weaknesses early.
Specifically, Honduras discovered — as we all have over the past year — that the Yanks are soft in the belly. It’s no mistake that Carlos Pavon and Jerry Palacios were able to draw fouls and score running right down the heart of them.
Honduras also figured out that the Americans can be unsettled easily, and put pressure on Benny Feilhaber, Beckerman and Kljestan early, resulting in a number of coughed-up balls.
Finally, both Marvell Wynne and Bornstein are so weak outside that any player with a modicum of control can outfox them, which Roger Espinoza did to great effect.
Now, the truth will be about how the American national team program responds. Forget about the players saying post-game that they’ll learn something from this, because it’s been shown in the past that they either cannot or do not. It’s the coaching staff that must take a hard look, and make some very tough decisions.
The men that they have brought into camp are not getting it done, and the system they are trying to instill is not working.
So Bradley has to clear house — keeping in mind that these all were peripheral, if needed players — and find some men in the next four months who can play a better, smarter game.
The guys who played Saturday night have had ample chances and they have done nothing to put real pressure on the overseas guys who know their spots are safe.
It’s time to find some guys who are hungrier if only to make it a contest for places on the plane.
Jamie Trecker is a senior soccer writer for FoxSoccer.com.