US vs. ES: Cue the Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda

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“You don’t need to really be peaking now. You need to qualify for the World Cup but you need to be peaking next summer.” ~ former USMNT player Clint Mathis in a recent interview with’s Grant Wahl

Its only the beginning...

It's only the beginning...

I tried to find some solace in this quote as I watched the USMNT’s game versus El Salvador yesterday that had them hunkering down in they dying minutes to hold onto a one goal victory against the supposedly over-matched Custalecos.

As I mentioned at the half, the US served up a performance reminiscent of other recent matches against inferior opponents — control the run of play, prove vulnerable to speedy counter-attacks, give up the first goal, then add in a few moments of brilliance — all to pull out a narrow victory and leave everyone suggesting what the score coulda been if this, that or the other thing happened.

In TSG’s instant reaction right after the match we talked about some of that (the Honduran referee, the disallowed goal and its impact on the team), but all that matters is what did happen, not what shoulda happened. And what did happen was a mixed bag.

There were positives….

  1. Bob Bradley’s willingness to change the line-up
  2. The team switching fields more in an attempt to jump start the attack
  3. Altidore – Davies solidifying their exciting tandem up top

…but many of the same issues persist…

  1. Inability to put the ball on frame with opportunities from 20-yards in
  2. Disorganization in the back four (including their glaring willingness to let the opposing player come to them instead of aggressively pursuing to defend)
  3. Not valuing possession as much as they should

The US once again proved it will play hard and fight back. Absent that, we would have been talking about a loss yesterday as well as a couple of others this summer instead of come-from-behind wins and draws. This mentality will prove valuable should they make it to South Africa next summer.

In the end, it’s a win and three points toward qualifying in a tight CONCACAF quartet with only three guaranteed spots up for grabs. However, with continued missed opportunities and miscues you have to wonder whether the US is progressing at this point or merely treading water.


Best Play of the Game: The Donovan – Dempsey hook-up for the first goal due to its beauty, its timeliness and proper officiating. Donovan put a great ball into the mixer off a set-piece following an El Salvadorean hand ball. Dempsey made up for an earlier miscue (on a brilliant Spector cross) and buried it with authority off a diving header. And nine time out of ten, I am guessing that goal gets erroneously disallowed due to every other US player being offsides when the cross came in except Dempsey.

The runner-up  is the Montes save of a power-header by Torres off the great cross by Stu Holden deep in the second half.

Most Unheralded Play: Landon Donovan tracking back inside his own eighteen to win the ball away from Arturo Alvarez at the top of the box in the 45th minute of the first half. More on Landon in a minute, but he showed his desire to do whatever it takes for the team and even kept possession of the ball.

The runner-up is, again Montes, who sought treatment at the 35-minute mark looking to slow down the game. His shenanigans led to the extra stoppage time where Altidore would score the eventual game-winner.

Golden Shin Guard: Landon Donovan. He made a strong case that his Azteca performance was an anomaly in an otherwise brilliant summer. He was breaking down defenders one-on-one, making great passes and providing mostly good service on set pieces. And we already talked about his willingness and desire to defend. Well done, Landon.

Preview Follow-up

What will the central defense look like in the absence of the Gooch man?
Subsequent to our preview DeMerit was ruled out and Marshal was inserted behind Boca. While the entire defense struggled, the weak link wasn’t in the middle. 

Is Michael Bradley progressing, regressing…or regressing quite quickly?
Matthew and I disagree here, but I think Bradley played a good game overall. His first half bordered on strong, but he faded in the second half giving away possession a little too easily. Let’s just say, he merely progressed closer to where he was.

On the left side, who defends Rodolfo Zelaya who lit up Heath Pearce like it was 4th of July in March?
Bornstein got the nod on the left and his poor clearance directly led to the lone El Salvadore goal. Zelaya caused issues for the US throughout the day getting past Bornstein, nearly drawing a penalty kick in the 55th-minute and providing the service for the best chance of the second half for El Salvador that required a Tim Howard kick save to prevent the equalizer.

Jose Francisco Torres to relieve early and make the case on how soon or how much later Robbie Rogers will factor.
Torres didn’t get in until the 84th minute, but still made his presence felt as he nearly put the game away with the third US goal. It took a great Montes save to keep Torres off the score sheet. Rogers was on the game day roster, but didn’t get in the game.

Which Clint shows up?
The same one that we’ve seen on all-summer. Dempsey played a disinterested game, wasted a few opportunities, but had a few moments of brilliance – the goal and the pass to Altidore on the disallowed goal.

Player Ratings

C: Bob Bradley — 7
Bob made the changes we were all clamoring for pairing Davies and Altidore up top at the whistle. Feilhaber replaced Rico Clark (who didn’t even make the game day roster) in the middle. He was hamstrung in his selection of the back four, but gave Spector and Bornstein the chances they deserved, unfortunately, the didn’t make the most of them. It was also nice to see him recognize what he has in Holden, making Stu the first sub-off the bench and  Bradley finally forgave Torres for his Saprissa play and inserted him in the 84th minute.

It was also nice to see better discipline all-around with few cheap fouls and no cards. I’ve been on Bradley in the past about this disturbing (before yesterday) trend, so I have to give him the credit here.

G: Tim Howard — 7
He should have done better on the El Salvador goal, getting caught in no-man’s land, but came up with a brilliant save late to secure the victory. Howard was a lot more vocal and demonstrative as he tried to lead the patchwork back four.

D: Jonathan Spector 5
I was excited to see Spector starting, but he didn’t have a great game. His most glaring weakness continues to be his ability to defend balls in the air. It was a problem at the Confed Cup and again yesterday on the goal. He had the inside position on Castillo, but got pushed out of the way as Castillo put it over Howard. Spector flashed his ability to provide support in the attack including a great cross that Dempsey mis-hit. (Harkes would comment that it was harder for Dempsey to NOT score than score on a ball like that.)

D: Carlos Bocanegra 7
I’ll take the American football offensive lineman approach here…he didn’t get mentioned much by the announcers which isn’t a bad thing for a defender in this kind of game.

D: Chad Marshall 7
Looked confident throughout the game. Allowed a clean rip in the first half when he choose to hang back instead of aggressively defend and had to make a sliding tackle early in the second when an ES player got behind him, but stepped-up for the team when it needed him.

D: Jonathan Bornstein 4
As mentioned above, he had his hands full with Zelaya and his horrid clearance attempt led to the first goal

M: Clint Dempsey 5
Even with the timely goal, it is hard to suggest that Dempsey had a good game. Too many wasted opportunities, poor touches and begging for calls.

M: Benny Feilhaber – 7
Provided the deft passing and possession that we were hoping for and even flashed some creativity. He’ll need to play a little bit cleaner going forward.

M: Michael Bradley — 6
In addition to the commentary above, Bradley missed a couple of opportunities to put the ball on frame via a header and some medium-distance shoots. Overall, he was more active and composed than in recent games.

M: Landon Donovan — 9
The man of the match had two assists and a number of great plays

S: Jozy Altidore 7.5
Except for his plethora of offsides, Jozy’s played a very good game. Surprisingly, he looked to create almost as much as he looked to score. For the most part he used his body well, especially on the post-ups, but did get knocked off  possession a little too easily a couple times in the second half. Now, about his dancing…

S: Charlie Davies — 8
Did everything right except put the ball in the back of the net. He showed speed and skill and is fast becoming one of those players that gets you to the edge of your seat when he possesses the ball with even a little space. I liked his desire on the play where he squeezed between two defenders to create a chance of a “hopeful” ball played into the box right after the ES goal. Alas, it was just wide. Only knock would be the dive he took after a heavy touch deep in the ES zone.

Sub 1: Stu Holden — 8
Rewarded Bob Bradley for his confidence in him with a very strong 18+ minutes of play. Had a couple of dynamite crosses (along with one poor one) and was the guy who finally cleared the ball out from the box in the most dangerous (for US fans) scramble at the end of the game. If Bob wanted to be bold, Stu starts over Clint on Wednesday.

Sub 2: Kyle Beckerman — INC
While I made some notes during the game that Beckerman struggled, I am going to give him an incomplete due to only playing 10+ minutes. I’d be surprised if he sees the pitch again in the qualifiers.

Sub 3: Jose Francisco Torres INC
Despite the power-header I’m going to give him an incomplete as well as we didn’t have the opportunity to see how he learned from Costa Rica given he was subbed in at the 84th minute.

17 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Antonio H. on 2009/09/06 at 1:39 PM

    Charlie Davies was simply amazing. I’ve never seen a US forward with his one-on-one ability. .EVER. I’m going to go back and watch the game again to see how many times he destroyed ES defenders. For ages the US has had strikers that were either counter attackers, clinical strikers, or target men. . .but never dribblers. He should have had an assist to dempsey on that spectacular cross and a goal from Jozy’s nice through ball. Can’t wait to see him wednesday let’s just hope he plays the whole 90 this time.

    And Goal differential is probably the most important part of the hexagonal. We needed. . .didnt get it. . now lets see what we can do against T&T. Same Line-up(minus the back line of course) except I’d like to see the subs come on a little bit earlier


  2. Posted by Antonio H. on 2009/09/06 at 1:42 PM

    p.s. how many assists does “Captain America” have in qualifying this year? I think its around 7 or 8 dont know for sure.


  3. Posted by Brian on 2009/09/06 at 2:00 PM

    ” I am guessing that goal gets erroneously disallowed due to every other US player being offsides when the cross came in except Dempsey.”

    but isnt that the rule that he was onside when the ball was kicked at least thats what i read couple other places thats why the goal wasnt called back doesnt matter if other people were offside the person who scored wasnt so it counted


    • Posted by Mark T on 2009/09/06 at 5:53 PM

      Brian, perhaps my writing was a little unclear. I was trying to say that most in most cases like that the linesman would mistakenly whistled offsides, but yesterday they actually made the right call. In other words, I was praising the officiating crew for getting a tough one right.


      • Posted by Brian on 2009/09/06 at 8:45 PM

        to me it sounded like you thought it should be called off

        also what was the call on the dissallowed altidore goal
        the tv kept showing dempsey where he played all ball on the pass


        • Posted by Kevin U. on 2009/09/06 at 9:39 PM

          The call brian was not that altidore was offside because the side ref didnt put his flag up…the ref called a foul on dempsey as he followed through with his sliding pass….just a terrible call that shouldnt of been made..I hope Dellecamera was right when he said that the people who oversee the refs were there because it would be a shame if those refs call another qualifying game…they made one good call on the dempsey goal but lucky for us no yellow cards and no suspensions


  4. I just posted some photos from yesterday. On my site at:


  5. Posted by kaya on 2009/09/06 at 11:54 PM

    God I hope Bob just put Beckerman on to make the home crowd happy. You give a very generous assessment; he had no business being there, period. I agee with most of the rest; cannot figure out what’s going on with Dempsey.
    I hope these guys gel a bit more for T&T. I am so excited for Davies and Altidore. These guys ooze enthusiasm and I love it.


  6. Two days later and I still can’t get over the disallowed goal. I watched the match again last night and saw nothing that indicated Dempsey committed a foul. Late tackle going for a ball. It looked like would have been a foul if he made contact with a player, but nothing of the sort. A great poke through ball.

    The defense is in shambles without Gooch and DeMerit, but honestly I am concerned about how they play when both are in. Frankly speaking our defense has many vulnerabilities I wish they played the “all-hands-on-deck” defense that we saw against Spain all the time. TSG asked about the D’s willingness to let attackers come at then rather than visa versa… that is the D’s problem no matter who’s playing the back four.

    I don’t know where I am on Baby Bradley, but right now I’m thinking he’s not the guy. Intense in getting fouls and cards, but where’s that intensity in running the play upfield and tracking back. When I’m evaluating the midfield during the game those four should be all over the ball, but, except for Donovan, it seemed like the ball never went through the middle. These guys are supposed to be our maestros.

    Lastly, can’t there ever be a game where I don’t have to worry. That’s what powerful soccer nations do. I like good games as much as the next guy, but we should put a few (other than Barbados) out of the park. Mexico got GD points on the night with a big win, so did Honduras… if it comes down to GDs after Oct. 14 our ties and squeak bys are going to make the “at least we got 3 points” talk look foolish.

    I love this team, but they make a young man feel old.


  7. Wow… Sometimes I wonder if other people watch the same match I did. Why does everyone get so down on Dempsey? His scoring record this summer speaks for itself and it’s been the same story for years now. He’s starting for a team that qualified for European play. Roy Hodgson isn’t the sort of manager that tolerates lazy players. He tracks back a lot more for Fulham so I imagine Bradley has asked him to stay higher up the pitch and get into the box.

    I think you guys want Dempsey to be a player he’s not. He’s not going to set the tempo and boss the game. I thought he was actually far more involved in the play this match, coming inside to find the game. He is going to drift in and out and do things to create chances for himself and others. His job is to do the unexpected, to make penetrative passes and take people on – he’s going to lose the ball sometimes. He could’ve done better with some of his finishing but the shot of the Davies cutback was under good defensive pressure and very nearly blocked. His header which bounced over the bar was deflected by M. Bradley. His third chance he buried. He set up the disallowed goal and should’ve done better 1v1 with the keeper. Granted, he could sometimes do the simple things better, but are we a better team without him on the pitch? Maybe you’re just holding him to a higher standard than anyone else.

    I have to question giving defenders 7s for that terrible showing? No one on the back line deserved higher than a 5. Marshall was woefully out of position all night way too far away from Boca except inexplicably when he was standing within a few yards of him on the wing on the goal. Spector was okay defensively but gave away the ball dangerously a couple times and didn’t have his best match. Bornstein should go the way of Beasley after that performance which was APPALLING. You guys don’t seem to understand that staying tight at the back in soccer is about team effort, organization and positioning, not individual heroics.

    And Bradley gets a 7? After making subs to go to a 4-6 system and destroying our shape so we had to hang on for dear life yet again to finish the game? Wow, just wow.


    • Posted by matthewsf on 2009/09/08 at 12:09 PM

      Thanks for the comments Ryan. Both criticism and astute commentary is really important to making TSG a good read.

      I agree Ryan on Clint– you have to set what your expectation is for Clint Dempsey and I do hold him to a higher standard.

      I’ll challenge you on your Dempsey review.

      I have been scrutinizing Deuce before this year and had a very keen eye on him this year. I think he played a better game against El Salvador, however, he’s a veteran and looked at as a major contributor. In fact, for now, his spot has gone unchallenged. Boca, the captain, even gets his spot challenged. I don’t think any coach wants someone that drifts in and out of the game–they want to know what to expect from their squard.

      I (Matthew) comment on Deuce (as I just did in our T&T preview) because he’s played differently for Fulham this year. Two weeks ago with Fulham gauranteed a loss against Chelsea he was still running half the pitch to challenge the goalie on what was sure to be an easy boot up the field.

      I would say this, as I said in my Clint-Marvin Gaye column, he has a knack for scoring goals (his shooting percentage was one of the highest in the EPL last year). EPL’ers say that’s lucky; I say it’s skill to being in the right play and right time.

      However you cannot discount that he’s played very very differently for his club vs. his country. He’s possessed the ball for Fulham, he’s tracked back. He freely gives of his body. He works within the offense. He plays hard for 90 minutes.

      On the USMNT, he is supposed to track back. Is it a coincidence that the side that BB pairs Donovan with is typically the weaker defender. Nope, he knows that Donovan will come back and provide cover. He can’t gaurantee that with Clint.

      For Dempsey on the USMNT as with other players, it’s the evaluation of what you’ve done for 90 minutes, not 5 minutes. Dempsey’s 5 minutes are usually the best of anyone on the field. But as you suggest in the back 4 review, this is a team sport. Dempsey needs to be committed to the coach’s strategy and tactics for 90 minutes.

      I encourage you to watch Fulham’s games or watch replays of 2006. Dempsey is for club more involved and was for country more involved.

      Are we still ecstatic to have Clint on the USMNT? Without a doubt. Do we realize that he’ll lose balls making aggressive runs? Without question (in fact, I’ve allowed that same latitude to Robbie Rogers as he possesses some of the same skills). Is it okay for Clint to play inconsistently as a trend across multiple games? I think that where the line is drawn.


    • Posted by Mark T on 2009/09/08 at 12:45 PM

      The ratings are subjective and created to spur conversation. So, I’m glad that’s what happened and thanks for taking the time to comment.

      On the contrary, I really don’t hold Dempsey in as high regard as you do. I think he has the skill to make others around him better when playing for the USMNT, but I haven’t seen it this summer and I have given up waiting for it to happen. His creative forays come up empty far, far more often then they produce anything fruitful. If it were up to me, I’d have him as the 70th minute sub for Davies or Altidore because that is all his questionable effort has earned.

      Relative to Bradley, I’m curious, what did you want him to do?

      Holden came on for Davies, Dempsey goes up top. Great sub, Holden played very well for 18+ minutes.

      Beckerman came on for Feilhaber who was clearly tiring. Not the sub I’d like there but Bob was giving him a shot (and I am resisting saying that it was a hometown thing as Beckerman was the second best player on the Gold Cup squad).

      Torres came on for Altidore. Should he have brought on Ching who doesn’t necessarily have the speed to track back on D and get back up the field to counter / hold possession?

      Yes, the US had to hold-on the last 5-minutes (plus stoppage) for the victory but that was due to their performance the prior 40 minutes. They still had chances in the last five minutes and I am not so sure that the defense or central mids (Beckerman / Bradley by that time) were playing at a level that would have allowed the US to finish strong by maintaining possession.

      Bob Bradley can’t make the passes, take the shots or win balls away from the opposing team. I have been highly critical of him in the past, but I think he ended up doing what he had to for the three points.


      • Beyond having a great manager in the shape of Roy Hodgson, there’s a reason for what Mathew is talking about and it’s called Danny Murphy. Deuce needs someone in central midfield to set the tempo and involve him in the play to be his best as a contributor in midfield. We just don’t have that player. Feilhaber has proven capable of doing so on occasion. The other Central midfield options have not. We’re hoping that J. Jones becomes eligible and can do some of that work. To me, Deuce looks far more isolated that he does for Fulham where he also has Pantsil’s hard work in support. He and Spector did not have a good understanding.

        As for Bradley’s subs, I thought Holden was a good substitution, he does put in a good cross and i think he’s an acceptable first option off the bench. I just don’t see how anyone can defend the next two – going no one up top, even if it was late in the match. It’s not just Bradley – I hate when managers do that. I agree with you that Beckerman was the second best player for us in the Gold Cup. I think I called him the poor man’s Gattusso then but he was often exposed defensively there and he was clearly out of his depth here. I’m glad Torres got a shot but I think like-for-like is a good idea when things are going reasonably well so Torres for Feilhaber makes far more sense. And I’m not a member of any Ching fanclubs but if there’s ever a time when his greatly exaggerated skill set is called for it’s up a goal with 15-20 minutes left as the only alternative to having no strikers on the pitch.

        My biggest quibble is that the defending was atrocious and you guys are handing out 7s. Maybe it’s just me, but I think average/adequate = 5. Anything higher you should earn.
        Regardless, even though I disagree somewhat, I’m back here again writing to you guys so obviously I enjoy your blog and your enthusiasm for the team. Keep up the good work.


        • Posted by Mark T on 2009/09/08 at 3:34 PM

          If that’s the case on Dempsey, then I reiterate that he shouldn’t be starting in the midfield. Keep his as a late-sub striker.

          Above, mentioned Beckerman wasn’t the sub I liked there…I would have preferred Torres as well. As for the lack of strikers, Dempsey slid up top when Holden came in.

          Relative to the title of this post…at the end of the day, as atrocious as the defense was, they were one bad clearance away from a shutout. Sure things could have been worse — they were one great Tim Howard save away from the equalizer — but it didn’t happen. If they played that way in a loss / surrendered another goal(s), it would have been reflected in the numbers.


        • Posted by matthewsf on 2009/09/08 at 5:08 PM


          Good comments on Deuce and nice pick up on Danny Murphy — certainly an unsung member of that team (and probably the reason they let Jimmy Bullard walk).

          That being said I think you need to adapt to the play of the game and Deuce needs to work on this.

          Good point on the ratings “scale” as well.

          Let me took with my brother and see if we can come up with a sort of ratings key so that folks know what a “7” is versus a “5.”

          I’m not sure if Mark and I agree on it yet either.

          Just so we’re clear–we appreciate the comments & the criticism. Criticism is good–it helps us improve and creates good dialogue.

          Like we’ve said before, the best thing about this publication is the educated non-personal commentary.



        • Posted by Kevin on 2009/09/08 at 8:06 PM

          I tend to agree with you on the Dempsey comments, but as to BB’s subs I disagree. When he brought on Stu for Davies, that was a great sub. Now as to the subs you’re complaining about Torres came on for Altidore, and to me it seemed like Donovan moved up top forming a very makeshift midfield. Beckerman was a good idea as he was very good at the gold cup, but he failed pretty miserably in my opinion. All together you have three solid subs that should be good. As for Ching coming on he’s not a doesn’t have an extremely exaggerated skill set player he just doesn’t fit well with our squad. You have to remember that every squad needs a target striker in case they need him (whether on the bench or on the field) and that’s what ching is. Personally I would like to see him come on, but if you’re talking about the best sub for the team Torres was the correct one.


  8. Posted by matthewsf on 2009/09/08 at 5:16 PM

    Oh one more note here from TSG’s Matthew:

    I do the glory piece on Tim Howard last week and he gets caught off his line against El Sal. Probably because he was expecting Rodolfo Zelaya to drive to the goal against Boca instead of hurl a cross.
    But still….


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