To conclude the year, a look back at one of my favorite columns I’ve ever written for any publication.
I hardly remember what I wrote without re-reading and re-reading the piece, but I remember making mental note after mental note as I watched USA vs. Honduras on October 10th unfold at Danny Coyles in San Francisco.
Arriving home at 2am, I was committed to recounting this moment and sharing it with the TSG community. I published the typo-riddled piece (I don’t believe I’ve even edited since) at 5:04am PST the morning of October 11th without getting in a snooze….and then had some oatmeal and too much coffee and headed to a soccer game at 7am. That game was played drunk on adrenalin and perhaps some Guinness as well.
USMNT fans will remember where they were for this one….
So closes the decade….I’ve scheduled this piece to re-publish at 5:04am this morning…..a mere 82 days later.
Tomorrow TSG’s first salvo on the USMNT roster for South Africa.
In a game that media outlets could have used to springboard soccer to new heights in the U.S., perhaps it was best that the diehard fans watched and appreciated clustered together in 37 packed bars across the nation.
Who cares if ESPN and half of America doesn’t recognize? (P.S. As I write this, ESPN.com on their home page and their soccer page has still not acknowledged one of the greatest qualifier games of this decade if not longer. [Update: it finally garnered a mention on their homepage.])
It’s 3am in the morning and I am attempting to put some words to describe the U.S.’s emphatic, seize-the-day announcement that they will be present in South Africa. I wish my mobile phone wouldn’t have died so I could present you with a simple picture, a portrait. It would be the ear-to-ear grin of Michael, a USMNT fan from Tracy, CA (nearly 2 hours from San Francisco) who shook my hand on the way out of Danny Coyles and had the most satisfied expression I’ve seen on a Yanks’ fan’s face in a long time.
Michael, I know the elation probably carried you long past your drive home. The USMNT is Cup bound.
For Michael and 200 folks–and I’m sure you out there as well– crammed in the only bar in town showing a jittery feed of the game from San Pedro Sula, it was a moment and feeling you will treasure for awhile.
A moment, where the USMNT stood up in an away game, and with the figure of a big-bad-bald unlikely Conor Casey (in a reference to the clip above) exclaimed, “You ain’t so bad! You ain’t so bad! Hit me harder.”
You’re going to have forgive me my usual technical analysis here as the confines of my home presents a better place to takes notes–that being said, experiencing the game with friends and fellow fans that I had never met alike trumps the couch any day.
To be accurate, the match was a tale of two halves: a first half where the U.S. absorbed a volley of attacks down their right flank that had every fan wondering, “Is that really Jonathan Spector out there?” and a second half where Conor Casey’s roster spot and Bob’s Bradley’s continued selection of him were vindicated after Honduras fell short after a three goal U.S. rally.
In the opening minutes, fans could see Honduras was going to make this a physical affair. Sure Stu Holden had the first foul, leg-whipping Carlos Costly (I believe) to the ground after replays showed the Iceman was punched in the gut as he closed on the Honduran attacker. Welcome to Honduras Stu and friends, we hope you brought some fight.
As the first 45 settled in….wait, the rate of the play never really settled. Benny Feilhaber commented earlier in the week, that “the way to take a crowd out of the game on the road is to keep the ball.”
Well, the U.S. didn’t really heed Benny’s advice as they absorbed one Honduran strike after another, but instead of answering with and managing possession, they thrust the play up the field and out to the wings furiously.
For those of us who have questioned the possession maintenance and line-up selection in the central midfield, I don’t think our concerns were alleviated at all today, but at least the U.S. observed their June 6th playbook of getting the ball quickly out to their ballhandlers (Holden and Donovan) and away from the Honduras strength in the central field (Palacios and Thomas).
As the half wore on Honduras found something down U.S. right flank primarily with Jonathan Spector challenged in positioning. Spector certainly showed his rust–and Michael Bradley his in the cover over that flank–as the home team probed and probed with a plethora of down-the-line, through-ball, and crosses-into Spector’s kitchen.
My fellow SF Black Sox teammate and goalie, Jon Kart–never one on the field to call out players but rather the team–was concise with this statement on Spector, “I don’t understand how he’s positioning himself on any of these! What is he doing?!”
Just when you thought the U.S. defense would relent–a Carlos Costly run on a long deflection left Tim Howard to cut the angle and Costly to shoot wide–and the U.S. might burn out from the up and down play, the U.S. core strength–their fitness–came into play and possession swung in the U.S. favor. The 15-minute period before the half was highlighted by one of, if not the best, crosses I have ever witnessed, as the Iceman nailed a perfect strike to a waiting Chuck Deezy who headed once for a save and then volleyed the rebound over the bar.
A note here on Charlie Davies. My brother watched the game with his folks in O’Brien’s in San Diego. Beyond getting his dad to “the stanky leg” celebration before the match, there were murmurs that Chuck was carrying an injury in the game.
Halftime….or better said, the calm before the storm.
I don’t think the patrons at Danny Coyles knew what hit them. The cheering had just ended for the kickoff when a terrible Gooch giveaway and subsequent–and questionable–foul led to a Juan Cesar De Leon free kick and curling strike over the top of the wall. Howard cannot be blamed for not making the save, but I’m not sure if the ref was charitable in putting the wall back what seemed like more than the 10 or if it was just poor positioning. What it was for sure was a deficit for Team USA as Howard and Boca “exchanged words” with a Honduran striker cradling the ball in the net like he had just saved a baby from a burning building.
Cue the Rocky music because the U.S. struck back, not with beauty, but with brute force. An Onyewu long ball found the head of Davies who knocked on for Conor Casey who went hard and legitimately to the ball, through the defender and the keeper Valladares. The nugget caroom of his shoulder and into the goal. 1-1 US in front of a stunned Olimpico.
The Honduras weakness coming into this game? Their central defense. Plaudits here to Bob Bradley for going with a target man up top and that target man being Conor Casey who finally found the net for the first time as a USMNTer.
….and for the 2nd, just seven minutes later, Landon slotted what now must be called a “Donovan” of a pass into the belly of the Honduras defense and onto a rumbling Casey who deftly let the play come to him. CC knocked the ball into the right corner after Valladares had committed. 2-1 United States. Pandemonium at Coyles and the U.S. playing like you knew they could.
Honduras was reeling….and then in trouble again as Casey, now playing and leading the U.S. with his confidence, was brought down outside of the box. With the wall this time placed dare I say closer than regulation, Donovan bent an absolute boombasa of a perfect strike into the top right. Beckham who? 3-1 U.S.
In the remaining 20 minutes or so, the highlights belonged to the home team–another Leon strike as the U.S. scampered too late in defense, a goal called back by an offsides call and a the PK miss that might have Carlos Pavon fearing for his life over the coming week–but the tempo and rate of play belonged to the Yanks. With Holden (until he gave way to Cherundolo), Bradley and Donovan primarily maintaining and moving possession, the Americans killed off some clock and had some nice buildups that had you thinking, “I knew they had that in them.”
The culmination? A nice little crossover move by Benny to end the game that had the US cap leader narily missing for the 4th of the night. While Benny’s deke wasn’t succesful, the flair of it announced the U.S. arrival to the World Cup scene.
Now without further ado, on to our traditional follow-up.
Best Play of the Game:(Lando to Casey) With an honorable mention to Donovan’s picturesque free kick, TSG favors team plays when selecting the Play of the Game as much as we can. Donovan’s, in what is becoming and will now be known by his name, trademark lead pass to a well-positioned CC and CC’s subsequent trailing foot knock into the right corner, had U.S. fans chanting “South-Afri-Ca” up in the Bay Area.
Most Unheralded Play of the Game: (Tie: Oguchi Onyewu / Conor Casey) In a game filled with USMNTers stepping up, two plays stick out equally here at TSG headquarters. The first, an 18-min or so Onyewu right leg stretch that stopped a run up the right flank. Onyewu proceeded out to the wing and shut down a Pavon (I believe) run before it even happened. More on Gooch shortly.
The 2nd play, none other than Conor Casey…in defense. Somewhere around the 66th to 76th minute (you’ll have to forgive me), La H had a right flank corner kick. Who parried the shot with his dome from the goal line? A retreated Conor Casey (we better get a replay of this game).
The Golden Shinguard: (Conor Casey) With an honorable mention to Landon, Gooch and even a write-in vote for Bob Bradley, was there any doubt that the pride of Denver and the Colorado Rapids would win this one? Certainly during the line-up selection, but not after the 72nd minute. Well done, Conor.
Here’s what TSG was looking for as key differential points before the game.
• With Clint in the infirmary, who gets the left, or right, middie slot?
The Iceman got the nod from Coach USA, had a rude awakening in the opening minutes, had some jitters for the first 10 or so, and then completely looked the part. Holden stretched the field, nailed his customary have-your-youth-team-see-this-example cross, and got up and down the pitch contributing on both sides. While the U.S. suffered a little bit from Clint’s ability to hold-up possession, Holden’s lengthening of the field and on-ball prowess more than made up for the loss of the Deuce.
Will give it a day or so, but we know what question comes next. (Note, Deuce is not expected to join the team in D.C. as of now).
• Does Ricardo Clark play as far up the pitch as he did against T&T?
Thankfully, the U.S. game plan had Bradley and Rico sitting in the midfield in a defensive posture and mostly outletting balls to the more capable LD and Stu on the wings. Rico and Mikey did an admirable job in defense, with blemishes here and there. On offense, you had Mikey coming up a bit more, if only because the play was on his side perhaps? Still, with either central midfield spot you had bursts of offense, but never really quite the consistency that you want or really need.
More conversation will certainly materialize here, but on the day Rico’s defense and MB’s activity (after an uneven first half at best) helped just enough more than hurt.
• What is the U.S. wingfull strategy in this one? Watch how this one plays out.
It turned out to be a cautious and correct strategy. I remember maybe one time where either Spector or JB came all the way up the pitch and that lone time Spector got dispossessed. After a 1st half that relegated both Jonathan’s to stay at home duty, the 2nd some, again, cautious chances advancing. We’d like to see more attack orientation from our wingfulls, but you could not fault them today for being tethered.
• Let’s see what you got Chuck Davies.
TSG will give Chuck and ourselves an “Incomplete” on this one. While Chuck knocked-on to Conor for goal one, he was largely sporadic in being involved in the offense. A dazzling turn in the 2nd saw Chuck taken down without a penalty. Honestly that could have been the goal to make up for the 1st half missed chance.
To be fair, they played the game more Casey and Holden’s way so Chuck’s touches were somewhat limited. It was Casey, not Davies who we thought, that softened up the defense.
Please help us here with these ratings. Two hundred screaming fans and no replay might have us off on one or two ratings below.
C: Bob Bradley – 7.5
A good day for Coach USA and the pursed smile and jubilant eyes on his first hug at the final whistle said it all. The highly-questioned head coach was cursed as the Casey line-up addition was announced in Danny Coyles, but later of course vindicated. The Spector selection survived a dicey first half review and turned out “okay.”
On strategy, the Bradley allowed the team to push the play and the States fitness as much as anything impacted the match. Bradley still has to figure out that central midfield conundrum, but the coach gets a pass today since the Yanks booked their trip.
Well done Bob…and frankly I don’t remember what you were wearing. (From Mark…I remember a polo shirt.)
C: Tim Howard: 7
Directive, assertive and made his customary “Yeah T!” saves. Either you accept that Howard will leave his line or you don’t. TSG does, so we’re fine with that 2nd goal, because Howard’s cutting down of the angle on Costly’s run and shot at the 28th minute clearly lead to the ball streaking wide.
D: Jonathan Spector: 4.5
Absolutely lost and negligent in the 1st half. Spector got some respite in the 2nd half as U.S. dictated possession. While Specs came up big on an errant run around the 22nd mark, he was constantly off on his angles and at least twice dropped his offender on a run or cross into the box.
Specs hasn’t played much for West Ham and it showed. To his credit, gathered and composed himself for the 2nd and was a lot stronger in his play. The States needed it.
D: Oguchi Onyewu: 7
An atrocious clearance and foul to start the 2nd aside, Gooch was a man among boys in the back. Played his line well and was absolutely stout in the center. A little rust here and there can be forgiven, Gooch was on his game tonight and did not show the defense lapses in big games that trailed him here at TSG.
D: Carlos Bocanegro – 6.5
Showed a better ability to stay in front of his man on 1-on-1 play, got beat a few times on speedy through runs, but experience and leadership mattered on the night and Boca had it.
D: Jonathan Bornstein – 6
Nothing spectacular, nothing egregious. Shaky at times. You didn’t remember his game tonight (the play was mostly on the other side) and that was a good thing.
M: Stu Holden – 6.5
A solid if not dynamic game from Stu. Early on he seemed to be a little afraid to make a mistake in his first big game start and then started to own his position.
Stu always tracked back on defense and TSG loved that. Lashed his customary “Oh my!” cross and maintained possession. Just what the doctor ordered
M: Mikey Bradley – 5.5
Prone to giveaways in the 1st half, TSG might bestow the nickname “Flash” on MB. Had some thrilling runs in possession up the pitch, but usually they fizzled. Flashed a few shots past the keeper, but wide of the woodwork.
In general, I saw a better Bradley–especially in the 2nd half–then I have recently. Is it enough? I’ll reserve my judgement, but I’m leaning towards the “no” category.
M: Rico: 6
Was a contributor in defense in support of JB on the left flank. Didn’t have nearly as many giveaways as in games past. Yup, that’s about it.
M: Landon Donovan – 8
Acted and played like you now expect. Let the game come to him and was precise in all his moves. The quiet captain led by example.
F: Charlie Davies – 6
You can forgive strikers for misses like Charlie’s in the 1st half, better that we has in position. He’ll finish more of those. A good pairing to Casey and was, like many tonight, solid if not spectacular.
F: Conor Casey: 8.5
His night…and then some. Casey held up possession in the 1st half and righted himself after a few errant drop passes. One goal by force; one goal skill. He made Bradley into Fergie on the evening.
F: Jozy Altidore – Inc
Ironically, played the relief role of Brian Ching. Generally energetic and got the job done.
F: Benny Feilhaber – Inc
Maintained possession. Should have started.
M: Steve Cherundolo: Inc
Bob Bradley’s play to waste a little more time.
I’ll be back in a little bit to correct my oleo of typos, but I’m our and stoked for early morning soccer game. Be well.