Sunday, October 11, 2009

When the Yanks Come Marching In

Well that was exhilarating.

The USA clinched World Cup qualification with a rather stunning 3-2 victory over Honduras in San Pedro Sula last night. Due to the TV rights debacle, rather than watching the game at home, I watched the game at a bar in DC packed to the hilt with scream USA fans. That was $15 well spent.

So all discussion about the game begins and ends with Connor Casey. When the starting lineups were flashed and Jozy Altidore was not listed, there was considerable angst among the crowd. At one point early in the match, Casey was shown on camera and was actually booed by the crowd watching the game. Well, he certainly had something to say about that, didn't he?

He started off slowly, but his hold up play improved drastically as the first half wore on, and then he hit for the two goals. He gets all the credit for going in and challenging the 50-50 ball with keeper and not just slamming into him for a foul. And while Donovan's pass was amazing and had the bar on it's feet in anticipation of the go ahead goal, Casey did well with his first touch and coolly slotted home. He drew the foul on the third goal as well, completing a drastic turnaround from previous performances with the USA, receiving a vociferous standing ovation from the crowd at Fado in Chinatown.

I agreed with the analysis in previewing this game that it certainly had the potential for going back and forth attacking, but not necessarily goals. Well I guess the natural consequence of the attacking mindset of both teams was in fact goals, and it made for a great viewing experience.

The second half in particular was just great to watch. It was probably the best half the US has played in quite some time in qualifying, certainly the best since the first half against Brazil and the game against Spain in the Confederations Cup. The most encouraging sign to me was that after the first goal, the US sensed it could grab control, and they followed through in seeking and getting the second. Even more impressive, the US sensed a chance to kill the game right then, and while I couldn't hear the audio at that point, I'm sure the Honduran crowd felt the same. And when Casey drew that foul in perfect free kick territory, we all sensed this was the moment that would clinch qualification, and Donovan capped just an amazing string of performances for the USA this year with the ultimate game winner. By this point, I had long lost my voice, but I sure as hell was still screaming hoarse.

Of course, a CONCACAF match wouldn't be a CONCACAF match without the referee conspiring to let the home team back in the game. He continuously missed easy fouls against Honduras but made weak calls against the US. The second goal was initiated with a pass in the box that was so offside that I really don't know how the linesman could ever be retained for another WCQ after missing it. Then the ref ignored a blatant foul by Honduras outside of their box and subsequently gave Honduras a phantom foul call in the US half at the other end. That free kick resulted in the US hand ball and it seemed the like the ref blowing the game was going to be complete. The Football Gods however made sure that karma was restored, and Wilson Palacios choked from the spot, hitting a pretty nice field goal. The US killed the game nicely with neat possession, even getting a chance or two to salt the game away, though in the end it was enough to book their tickets for next summer.

A final note on watching the game. We couldn't hear the audio with the crowd so loud in the bar, and as the clock hit 90 minutes, we must have missed the sign for time to be added on and we couldn't hear what extra time was given. So when Stuart Holden was subbed, the fourth official raised the number 7, but without showing the substitute number (which turned out to be Steve Cherundolo), so the crowd initially thought this meant 7 extra minutes. Well, let's just say that if the ref had given that, we may have rioted right there in downtown DC, and somewhere Mark Hughes would be feeling our pain. But the US held on and showed great heart to pull out the victory, making sure that when I see them Wednesday, I'll be able to relax and give the boys a nice send-off to South Africa.

A few other things to add on player performances:

-Stuart Holden made a fantastic cross for Charlie Davies's chance in the first half, but was largely ineffective. I love his energy off the bench, but he didn't exactly earn a starting spot last night. He improved in the second half, but was still a little disappointing.

-Michael Bradley started off slowly in the first half, but was very good in the second half, covering a lot of ground. His long range shooting is probably overrated, and he took a number of attempts in the second half that weren't very close, though his accuracy was improving with each attempt, ending with one that was dangerous. His midfield partner Rico Clark was also not at his best early on, but improved as did the entire team in the second half, allowing Donovan in particular to start taking control as he sought to link with Casey. Yet, there still remains questions about who to pair with Bradley in the central midfield in my mind.

-Charlie Davies, how do you miss that chance?! His first header was great, drawing a fantastic save from the Honduras keeper, but you absolutely must finish the rebound. No excuses. He still fought and chased well, but his end result was lacking, and despite promising play from him in France, his play with the National Team has slightly dropped off from the summer. Wonder if he misses playing with his buddy and usual starter Jozy.

-Also missing a fantastic chance was Benny Feilhaber after he dribbled through the Honduras defense and was in one on one with the keeper. He went for the far post curl, typically the correct shot, but he missed badly. My brother thought it was a great opportunity to fake the shot and drag the ball past the keeper near post. He came on a little late for my liking, and I'd like to see him start on Wednesday.

-Spector was solid in the second half, and Jonathan Bornstein held up well opposite him on the back line for a second straight match. Maybe he'll have something to say about that left back position after all. He'll still be a liability against world class opponents, but he's forcing Bradley's hand.

-Gooch made some great interventions throughout the game, but also threw in some shaky moments, in particular his give away setting up his foul, which led to the first Honduran goal. His lack of playing time at AC Milan could be problematic if it continues through the Spring.

-I'm not sure how many coaches vacillate between getting things horribly wrong to getting things amazingly right out of left field any more than Bob Bradley. The Connor Casey pick over Altidore seemed destined to lead to further derision from US fans, but his faith was rewarded. Altidore has so much potential, but his loan move to Hull is increasingly turning out poorly, with his playing time being limited and of course Hull just sucking in general. Now comes the typical time where Bradley can experiment with his selections. Wednesday's match may be meaningless to the US, but Costa Rica still hasn't qualified and they will come looking for a victory, so it will be a good chance for Bradley to get some players a good run in against a desperate opponent without worrying about absolutely needing three points.

It was a great night of football that left me both amped and drained all at once, and I can't wait for the next stage to come for this US team.

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