By Neil Blackmon
Calls for "Cleetus 2.0" just got louder.
For sixty minutes, the United States plodded along like a side still lost in the wilderness, no matter what name was spelled out in the press guide next to “Manager.”
There was little in the way of attack, save an early cross just past a leaping Edson Buddle’s head and a late arriving Jermaine Jones’ outsretched right leg.
There was sloppy ball movement, not simply in rare forays towards the Mexican half but in clearing distributions, where at least three or four passes by newly inserted fullback Edgar Castillo on the left found men in green jerseys in space and caused heads to shake and profanities to be uttered.
Mainstays like Steve Cherundolo and now the senior “Bradley” on the team, MB 90, were also shaky, the former in his normally outstanding distribution to the midfield and the latter in his decisiveness on the ball, a new development that seemed to echo the failings of six weeks ago in Pasadena.
There was zonal confusion, players too bunched together and the attendant lack of shape that results from those issues. With lack of shape comes lack of space, and since, as Rinus Michels once noted, “football is a game of space”, it was eye-opening to see how much more space El Tri had than the Americans. In short, even with the obvious disclaimer that this was an American side twelve days into a regime change with no more than three practices in a new system under its belt, the first hour of Wednesday night’s affair in Philadelphia had a bit of a “Meet the new boss…Same as the old Boss” feel.
Klinsmann took the game in stride...
And yet, despite all of this, there was Jurgen Klinsmann, finally manager of the US Men’s National Team, telling ESPN’s Monica Gonzalez at the half that he felt great, and that things were very positive, all while wearing a big grin.
Meet the new boss indeed.
Meet him and understand that despite the very obvious reservations one could have about the man charged to take the United States Men’s Soccer program to the next level, one can’t help but get sucked in by some overwhelming sense of optimism.
Optimism because a team can be thoroughly outplayed and find itself down 1-0 on a goal that was a bit fluky.
Optimism because a back four and a new left back (there’s that old demon of a position again) can have fits with his clearances, but enough of a defensive shape and ability to maintain responsibility can prevent more than one successful shot on goal despite a half where a world class opponent was camped out in the US half.
Optimism because a striker left alone in a game not coming to him didn’t let his isolation affect his movement and work rate—and yes, it is the little things.
Optimism because of a manger that seemed more calm than confused, one who smiled and looked like someone in awe of the job he had, not the job he had to do, even after his team did what the last manager’s teams too often did late in his tenure—fall behind before twenty minutes.
And optimism because of fan and, far more critically, player reaction after the game ended in a 1-1 draw, a reaction that suggested that the United States as a footballing nation can, and will, be better. “We’re not all world beaters,” Tim Howard suggested after the match. “But we can be better than what we are.” It was a game that captured the sentiment of Jared DuBois, co-host of the great American Soccer Show and guest columnist here at TSG earlier this week: Yes, we can…and should be optimistic, even amidst our fear of being too hopeful.
Here are two overarching final thoughts and perhaps reasons for that optimism with reservation, as well as player ratings from Wednesday night’s match.
First, you want optimism that for a moment allows American fans to feel a sense of swagger? And after only one friendly? How about the fact that for just around thirty minutes Wednesday night, the United States played as encouraging a brand of football as their fans have seen in well over a year.
And they did against a team that has had one of, if not the best summer, of anyone in international football. And they did it without their finest player.
Indeed, after Carlos Bocanegra’s wicked but misplaced header ricocheted off Guillermo Ochoa’s right leg, the Americans played like a team full of the new and quiet sense of belief their manager entered the job with.
Suddenly, the zonal confusion and lack of shape that so plagued the first half was gone, with the US utilizing width in ways it hasn’t in recent memory and substitutions Juan Agudelo, Brek Shea and Robbie Rogers menacing the Mexican defense with their movement, creativity, and pace.
Agudelo showed many why there’s so much promise for his future, dazzling with his work rate and his willingness to get back and involve himself in the match–Harkes be damned.
Outcome-wise, his willingness to track back to the edge of the US area contributed to the game’s most controversial and critical moment in the 88th minute. Agudelo closed in on a Mexican attacker along with Ricardo Clark, who won the ball impressively and then flicked it forward to himself and over a Mexican defender, playing a brilliant ball in space to a streaking Robbie Rogers.
Rogers, who looked every bit the player now playing for a manger he has a long relationship with and hitting the restart button on a disappointing career, took the ball and looked to be clear on goal. It was not to be. And yes, given Rogers’ history we have no sound reason to believe he would have finished his chance.
Still, it was shades of El Tri frustration past, as a terrified Gerrardo Torrado played the role of Eagles free safety at the Linc and dragged him to the ground, ending the chance and quite possibly preserving the draw. Jamaican referee Raymond Bogle, a ninety-minute advertisement for the inferiority of CONCACAF officiating, blew his second call in a fifteen minute span, issuing only a yellow to Torrado. But it was a compelling moment. And there were other promising things from Agudelo, including his movement off the ball and his willingness to take on defenders in constricted areas, a reminder of both his bright future and why he should stay in New York and continue to train with the great Thierry Henry, who his game resembles in bright moments.
Brek Shea, too, gives reason for belief. The cynics about his possible role on this team pointed, with some justification, to hot MLS players brought into the fold in the past.
The Conor Casey’s, Kenny Coopers and Chad Barretts of the world had let us down so many times before. But Brek Shea is but twenty-one, we can now retort. And his form and play last night denote a future that’s immense—and more critically, one that’s immense away from the center of midfield, which has become the hub of promising American player development. Shea was controlled on the ball and poised, able to make good decisions, reluctant to act too quickly but decisive enough to act when need be, and no more was this evident than on his timely cross to Rogers on the American equalizer, where he waited for support, strong enough to hold off two defenders just long enough for it to arrive.
There is plenty of time to debate whether or not Brek Shea is nearly ready to ply his trade overseas. This writer, at least, would caution against such a move, and point to Stu Holden, who established himself as a dominant multi-year force in MLS before departing for greener pastures with success. Those discussions, however, miss the point. The FC Dallas man having a breakout season appears poised to help Jurgen Klinsman establish a new American identity, and at twenty-one, has a long while to do just that. And all of those things are reasons to be tremendously encouraged.
Of course, we need to mention the reservations. There was the matter of the match’s first hour. Yes, the Americans played stirring football for half an hour (albeit most of it occurring one Rafa Marquez had departed from the Mexican backline). And yes, it’s also true that the team had very little time to implement a new system, and bumps in the road are to be expected. Thing is- those moments of brilliance don’t happen in a vacuum. The first hour showed just what type of job Jurgen Klinsmann does have in front of him. The aforementioned lack of shape and zonal confusion was made worse by the performance of Edgar Castillo, who looked outclassed most the evening, sloppy in his clearances, choppy in his first touch and outright panicky when the Mexicans threaded attacks up his wing. When he did advance, his offensive skill-set made him look a bit better, but it is clear that he is little more than a depth-guy at the international level.