TSG’s Brian Mechanick spoke with Jeff Carlisle as the ESPN reporter was about to hop a plan for South Africa.
Mechanick follows up today with a debrief from Carlisle with a little more than a week left at World Cup 2010.
To Brian & Jeff…..
Q: How do you rate the U.S.’s performance in this World Cup?
The exceeded expectations slightly. The fact that they won their group for the first time in 80 years, I don’t think anyone was expecting that. A lot of people say the group was weak, but anytime you can draw with England and take care of business in the other two games, that’s a solid accomplishment. On the other hand they went out in the second round, which a lot of people expected, so you can make the argument that they met expectations, but I would kick it up a few notches higher than that.
Q: How do you evaluate Bob Bradley’s performance as a manager in this World Cup?
On the whole I think he did pretty well. It’s easy to look at back on the game in hindsight and say, “Clearly he shouldn’t have started Ricardo Clark and Robbie Findley”, but I think if you pick a part that decision you have to put yourself in his shoes at the time he made the decision. The fact is the U.S. was coming off of two very intense, exhausting games against Slovenia and Algeria, and I think the logic of putting someone in the midfield who was a little bit fresher, that makes sense to me.
In terms of Findley, the U.S. offense was predicated on having Donovan and Dempsey pinch in and tuck into the middle and have the fullbacks overlap, but if you’re going to do that you need a guy who is going to stretch the defense vertically, so from that standpoint, putting Findley back into the line-up makes sense as well. Clearly, it didn’t work out as Bradley planned, but I think you need to give Bradley credit that he didn’t wait around until halftime and make changes then. He knew that the American’s tournament was on the line, he made changes, and I think they worked pretty well.
One thing a lot of people forget is when extra-time started Bradley had the right guys on the field, and they still coughed up a goal that was very preventable. That to me comes down to the players, not the coach.
Q: Has the American’s talent been overrated, or has the team underperformed to their ability?
I don’t think we’ve been overrating the U.S.’s talent. Coming into the tournament most people expected the team to make the second round and they did that. Could they have gone further? I think they could have. It wasn’t like they were dominated versus Ghana. Yes the first thirty minutes were looking pretty grim, but the U.S. as they so often do gathered themselves, rallied, made a game of it and took the match into extra time.
I think the team could have gone a little bit farther given how the bracket broke down, with Ghana opposing them in the second round and then facing the winner of Uruguay-South Korea, but overall this team went about as far as it could.
Defensively this team had weaknesses, and that’s not just a dig at the backline, that goes to the midfield as well. Certainly Ricardo Clark was primarily at fault for the goal against England, Walter Birsa shakes loose in the Slovenia game and I think the midfield and the backline were equally culpable on that goal. The team just wasn’t that good defensively and it cost them. They were good enough to get them out of the first round, but not much further.
Q: Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the death of the 4-4-2, with England’s lack of success in the system and most of the world’s best sides abandoning it. Should the USA get away from the system in this coming cycle?
When people say America plays the 4-4-2, that ignores what they were doing earlier in qualifying. They spent the first half of qualifying playing a 4-2-3-1, with either Ching or Altidore as the lone striker. Early on they had Dempsey and Beasley on the flanks with Donovan in the middle, and then they had the two holding midfielders, Michael Bradley and whomever Bob Bradley happened to pick.
Sometimes I think that when people bring that up, they imply there is an inflexibility there on the part on Bradley’s thinking, and I just don’t buy that. The 4-2-3-1 was tried, but they were having a really hard time getting enough guys into the attack. I remember against El Salvador, Landon Donovan broke out on the counter-attack and hardly anyone goes with him, and I think that’s ultimately why Bradley went back to a two-striker system. They tried it, it wasn’t working, and I think they have more success when they went to a two-striker system.
Let’s face it, scoring goals was not really the big problem for the team in this tournament, it was keeping them out. You can talk about the death of the 4-4-2, but I think Bradley did a sufficient amount of experimentation with tactical formations and he settled on the right one for this team.
Q: I think everyone can agree that the American depth has improved since 2002, but has the top-end talent also improved, and do you see it improving by 2014?
I do think it will improve because the team has more players playing in Europe, and that’s not meant to be a dig at MLS, but the more guys you have playing over there, playing in high pressure games, it tests you as a player. You look at the way Clint Dempsey has benefitted, and even Landon Donovan when he was over there for a short stint the way he benefitted, that is going to help the overall program. 2002, that team was blessed with two center midfielders who were very technically gifted, Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien. I can’t really think of any other time the U.S. has been blessed with those kinds of attributes. You hope that guys like Benny Feilhaber and Jose Torres get more of a crack to get playing time in the future, then I think you’ll see the technical level of the team improve.
I think the 2010 side had more attacking talent, but in a different way. You had guys like Donovan and Dempsey, who were more gifted running at people. Maybe this 2010 team wasn’t as gifted at keeping the ball, but then I say that and remember the game against Mexico in 2002 when the U.S. had very little possession in that game. I think the 2010 team had a bit more depth, but just in terms of pure attacking talent the team was a little bit more dynamic. Granted, Brian McBride was a more mature player than Jozy Altidore is right now, but I would still give a slight edge to this team.
Don’t forget, the 2002 team got very fortunate, that team backed into the second round and got a gift when South Korea beat Portugal, otherwise it would have been one of the great flameouts in U.S. World Cup history. I think the mentality of this team was much stronger, just look at the way they played against Algeria and compare that to how the U.S. played against Poland in 2002 and I think that’s where the big difference lies.
Q: Stepping into the role of Sunil Gulati, what would you do with the U.S. manager position and what do you expect the federation will end up doing?
I’ve always been a Jürgen Klinsmann fan, I think he would be great for the program. But it’s interesting, Bob Bradley is highly regarded overseas, by journalists, by opposing coaches, and I think he did a good job in this tournament. Granted, for some people the job is never going to be good enough and every single thing that goes wrong is going to be pinned on him. But with the mistakes he made, he didn’t just do nothing and keep plugging along, he pulled the trigger on substitutions when he thought it was right and by in large they worked. For that reason, and based on the results, I think the job is still his if he wants it, but that’s a real question for him. Does he want to come back? Does he want to do this for another four years?
Personally speaking, I would love to see Klinsmann have the job. Do I still think Bradley can take the program forward? Yes. As far as what Sunil will do, I think he will sit down with Bob and come to a decision. Both Sunil and Bob are in no-lose situations right now. I think Bob’s international reputation is higher than it has ever been, so he has his pick of jobs he wants. If you’re Sunil, I think you’re in a strong position as well. If he wants to keep Bob, he can, and if Bob decides to move on, you have Klinsmann waiting in the wings.
Q: A quick game of predictions: where do you think certain American players will be playing come August? First: Landon Donovan:
Initially, I thought Donovan was going to stay put. There was a journalist who said it best when Donovan signed that contract, “Donovan bet against himself and lost.” He signed that big contract right before he went to Everton and then started playing really well. He still might more valuable to MLS than anyone else. I asked [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber about this after the Algeria game. Someone asked if they were going to sell Donovan and he said no, and then I asked him that every player has their price, and he responded some players don’t have any price, so I didn’t think he was going to go anywhere. But money talks, and if Manchester City throws a bunch of cash at MLS, and if Donovan wants to go, then I think MLS will do what it can to accommodate him.
Q: Michael Bradley?
I think he’s going to go to a bigger club in the Bundesliga. Not necessarily Bayern Munich, but I could see him going to a Hamburg, or other upper-half of the table Bundesliga team. I could also see him going to a mid-table team in England. I could see him going down either of those routs. He’s had a great tournament, so I think the sky is the limit for him.
Q: Jozy Altidore?
That’s a tough one. He’s been at Villarreal for a couple of years now and has been loaned out twice. I see Villarreal loaning him out again. He’s still only twenty years old, and I think that’s the thing people forget about this guy. He’s still a lot of growing as a player to do and he’s still got potential. I see him getting loaned out to either another team in Spain or a lower-level EPL team.
Q: Do you think there’s a chance Clint Dempsey moves to a bigger club?
Yes, I do think there’s a chance. I think his reputation is growing by leaps and bounds. When I saw that Roy Hodgson took the Liverpool job, the first thing that crossed my mind was wondering if he would take Clint with him. That would be an interesting development to say the least. People got excited when Onyewu went to AC Milan, but the concern immediately arose, even when he was healthy, how much playing time was he going to get? That could be a tricky situation for Dempsey to enter into if he were to go to a club like Liverpool because obviously there’s a lot of upheaval, but I think he could.
Q: Looking ahead to 2014, who do you see as a player who was a bit too young for this cycle but could end up being a starter through this next cycle?
Two guys come to mind: Jose Torres and Benny Feilhaber. I think the U.S. needs a little bit more of a creative element, a little bit more of a possession-keeping element in the center of midfield. I know Jose Torres did not do all that well in his one World Cup performance, but that kind of skill is not something the U.S. has in abundance, so I would really like to see him get some more opportunities. You saw with Ghana a guy like Annan, where they had Boateng holding as the muscle and Annan as kind of the more skillful linking guy, and I’d like to see Torres grow into that role. Feilhaber should get a shot too: I’ve always liked his game. He’s had some problems with injuries and then his club career went off the rails there for a bit, but I’d like to see him get some more opportunities.
Q: Who are some of the young guys you’d like to see come in and inject some new blood into this team?
I’d like to see a guy like Omar Gonzalez get a shot. I think he’s done well in MLS, that team is dominating defensively and he’s learning a lot from Gregg Berhalter. [Ike] Opara is still a little raw in his distribution out of the back. I see Gonzalez as a little bit more composed at the moment, but Opara is a guy with a lot of upside so we’ll see how he does. Opara got some playing time early on, but then the Quakes went on an unbeaten run where he was out of the lineup so we’ll see how he does.
Q: What are your thoughts on some of the young EPL based players, like Eric Lichaj, Sebastian Lletget, and Anton Peterlin?
Lichaj. I think is the furthest along, he’s on O’Neill’s radar and he seems to be moving through the ranks pretty well. He seems to be going through all the necessary steps to break into the line-up. We’ll see what kind of progress he makes this year. I still wouldn’t write off a guy like Stu Holden. He’s over there now with Bolton and seems to be pretty well regarded, in addition to guys like Feilhaber and Torres, I’m a big fan of Holden’s game as well. You almost wish that move to Bolton would have happened earlier in the cycle so he could have gotten acclimated and really started to make an impact this year. It’s tough to predict how these U-20s guys are going to pan out.
Q: The U.S. didn’t perform that well at the 2009 U-20 World Cup. Do you think that is a cause for concern for the U.S. going forward?
It’s a minor worry, but I think there were some circumstances that did not help the performance of that team. The abolition of the reserve league hurt the overall sharpness of that group, because those guys in MLS weren’t playing games, so Rongen made the decision to go with some college guys. It’s not a huge worry or red flag, but it’s one of those things that raises an eyebrow and you think, “If this keeps happening, then maybe the U.S. system is not doing a good job developing talent.” But you can’t look at the performance of that team in a vacuum, you have to look at the big picture and see what else was happening in terms of how that team was able to be prepared.
Q: What is the outlook for the U.S. after a somewhat mediocre World Cup: is the team on the ascendancy, or have they plateaued?
I think the trajectory is moving upwards again. Certainly after 2006 you got the feeling that things had plateaued or we had gone backwards a bit. But you look at the performance in the Confederations Cup and you look at the performance in the World Cup, and for that I see the trajectory moving upward again. I think the key thing for whoever takes over is to rebuild that backline. Bocanegra, Cherundolo, and DeMerit are all going to be up there in age, and who knows what kind of physical condition Oguchi Onyewu is going to be in, so we’ll see what happens. When Bradley took over rebuilding the spine of that team was his toughest task. He quickly settled on Onyewu and Bocanegra and Michael Bradley and Altidore, so I think he was able to accomplish that. The biggest challenge this cycle is revamping that back four.