Friday, October 9, 2009

USA Hitting the Stretch Run

Massive five days coming up for the US Men's National Team. San Pedro Sula. Honduras unbeaten at home. Costa Rica. No second chances.

Before going into my own thoughts. There's obviously an abundance out there to read up on to prep for the game. Stating the obvious, Jeff Carlisle says the US is wary of los Catrachos' home form, having gone 8-0 during this qualifying cycle. He says watch out for the Honduras midfield (Wilson Palacios is dangerous), the absence of Dempsey (no matter his form, he's scored big goals for the US), and the glut of players with yellow cards who could miss a potentially all or nothing final game.

This second ESPN observer mentions other obvious things, like the Honduras home crowd advantage, lack of playing time for US players in Europe (I guess he doesn't count Charlie Davies, Benny Feilhaber, Michael Bradley, Steve Cherundolo, and Carlos Bocanegra... great reporting buddy) and the general unappealing style Bob Bradley prefers. This guy just repeats that the Honduras midfield is dangerous and that the constant switching of the US starting lineup is unsettling.

In an actual piece of analysis, someone named Leander Schaerlaeckens writes that the US has a big problem - a lack of a world class defensive midfielder. Interesting because most people consider this the deepest position in the US player pool. It may be disingenuous to speak of the US lacking a world class player at any position, because let's face it, other than Tim Howard the only players who could argue for world class status are Landon Donovan and hopefully Jozy Altidore in the future. But his point is still valid. All the great teams have those rocks that cover the back four and sit behind the attacking players. In recent years that has been personified by payers such as Makelele, Gattusso, Marcos Senna, Javier Mascherano, and Felipe Melo. Going back further, all the great teams had the hard man in the middle - France in 98 had plenty of those players (Deschamps, Vieira, Petit), Brazil has had them (Gilberto Silva, Dunga), and even those total football Dutch teams from the 70s needed their hard men to cover for Cryuff and co. For the US, Bradley doesn't count as a pure defensive mid, because he likes to roam forward and is given the license to do so. Clark is serviceable, but still needs fine tuning in holding his position and eliminating certain reckless fouls and tackles from his game. Jermaine Jones is the obvious candidate, but he recently suffered another injury set back which means he probably won't play again until 2010. Maurice Edu has potential, more so than Clark and Bradley, but he's also been injured for so long now, he has a lot of question marks. Let's hope he can return to action and get on the field for Rangers during the second half of the SPL.

It's curious to question US defensive midfield talent, because even though the US seemingly has more central midfielders than any other position (considering that Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, and even Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden can all play center mid, not to mention the players Bradley has given caps to who won't be in South Africa), but in reality the reason it's often so hard to choose between the players is because there's so little difference between them and no one player stands out. Feilhaber has the best vision and passing, Torres the most calm and experience in big time club matches, Bradley the most two-way ability, Clark the most bite, and Donovan the best overall, but there's really no pair from those players that you would consider scary for opposing teams, even in CONCACAF.

Another unique take on the game is Grant Wahl, who thinks this could be a back-and-forth shootout type of game since a tie doesn't really help either team and both need victories to prevent big worries ahead of Wednesday's final games. I agree that we could see some open play, with the midfields getting stretched and some dangerous counterattacking, but I don't think that necessarily means lots of goals. Lots of heart attacks maybe.

The question everyone keeps wanting to talk about it the Holden v. Feilhaber debate for the starting lineup. While I usually advocate for Feilhaber to start no matter what, if he's put on the wing, I'm not sure I like it as much. So my view is that Holden should start, giving more energy and defensive presence up and down the wing. Feilhaber will remain the first man off the bench to bring in extra presence and that final bit of quality in the midfield as the game enters the final third.

The other issue that needs addressing is the constant reporting of the large number of players who carry yellow cards and could miss the final match against Costa Rica, and how that could affect team selection or how people play. Put simply, that's just stupid to even consider. The US needs to go out and try to qualify tonight. As confident as I am that the US can get it done at home against any CONCACAF team, you never want your automatic qualification going down to a single match, where anything can happen or go wrong. Also, I hate to break it to people, as much as I love RFK and think it can bring a good US crowd, if Costa Rica needs something from that last game, every Costa Rican in the United States with the means and wherewithal will most certainly converge on the venerable stadium, home to many great US performances, but also home to a few instances of "home away from home" for Central American or Caribbean teams. It's the nature of the country, and the Nation's Capital in particular, so I think all focus should be on making that game nothing more than a fond send-off. I'll be there screaming my ass off, but I don't want to have to sweat out that game.

Finally, we couldn't go over today's game without the on-the-ground view. My favorite US soccer reporter, from the Washington Post, reports on the scene in Honduras, where the country is in the midst of some political turmoil in the capital, but in San Pedro Sula things have been calm and all Hondurans are united in hopes of a big victory and a huge step toward South Africa. Good to know the US players don't need constant armed guards to protect them from protesters. Maybe there's something to this Obama Nobel Prize and the international community loving the US again...well, maybe not for one night.

One final thing - check out the US Soccer scenario generator to see what the CONCACAF table will look like after you plug in possible results from every match, including how goal differential would play out.

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