After controlling much of the play and having a man advantage for the last 25 minutes, the US U23 team had to settle for a disappointing 1-1 draw with Cuba. Similar to the roster Nowak named on Sunday, the lineup and personnel Nowak ran out inspired more questions than answers. Deploying a 4-2-3-1 with Jozy Altidore as the 1, Nowak asked Charlie Davies and Robbie Findley to play unfamiliar wide roles and their lack of comfort was on full display. I wonder how many coaches who concoct a one forward lineup ever played forward. It sucks to be the one. And it is rarely effective.
That said, with the US on the front foot for the opening 15 minutes the decisions looked brilliant. Freddy Adu, clearly the best player on the field, was given time and room to operate and he used both well to nearly end the game shortly after it began by hitting the post in the opening seconds and then scoring inside 15 minutes. As the Cubans adjusted to the pace of the game Adu had less time on the ball and the play become a bit choppy. He was still able to create several excellent opportunities. A varied attack led to three one-v-ones that all ended badly for the US. Altidore and Findley shot weakly and Davies shamelessly dived, presumably seeking a PK and ejection. I am hoping Maurice Edu, the team’s captain, or one of the coaches took Davies aside after the game and told him he is not Italian. He repeatedly dived after suffering minimal, if any, contact. Edu may need a talking to himself as he looked a step slow on the ball, often a result of overconfidence. Also, the holes he was presumably responsible for plugging, like behind Findley when Kamani Hill pushed forward, were not plugged. Cuba found joy in those spaces too easily. On the other side Hunter Freeman was indecisive in his passing and movements though fully committed in his defending. I’ve never rated Freeman and was very surprised to see him playing ahead of Marvelle Wynne. It will be interesting to see how the backline evolves when Jonathan Spector arrives from West Ham because I’ve never thought much of CB Patrick Ianni either. He looks and plays physically but lacks awareness to the point of seeming aloof. The Cuban goal was poked in after the ball rolled under his foot. At that level the reactions have to be quicker. Nathan Sturgis played capably as Ianni’s partner though he was rarely challenged.
For all the negative points, the US did deserve to win 3 or 4 – 1 and were unlucky not do so. Adu was awesome. Hill’s first meaningful performance as a back was promising. Dax McCarty was excellent with his decision making, commitment and distribution from the deep midfield. McCarty doesn’t get enough credit. He was the odd man out in the U20s last summer, but still proved very effective in roles off the bench. He’s a tidy, useful player that could easily replace Davies or Findley in a more conventional lineup when Michael Bradley or Sacha Kljestan return to the first XI. After Kljestan’s impact, his return to the first XI seems inevitable. He restored order to the US possession and helped control the tempo after coming in for Altidore at the break. While lacking the pace of Findley and Davies, he creates with smarter play.
The great thing about tournaments is that the games come fast and hard. The US cannot dwell on this result as it has another match tomorrow night. Here’s hoping for better support for Altidore and better luck for the US.
Sidenote: five of the Cubans who played last night are not at the team’s hotel and are likely seeking asylum. Best of luck to them.