If the US continues to improve at the rate it did over the course of three powerhouse friendlies, it should be the hands-down favorite to win the World Cup in South Africa in two years. In a wildly entertaining match the US created numerous scoring opportunities, pinged the crossbar and reduced the world’s top-rated team to a chasing, hacking ragtag bunch over the last 10 minutes. Argentina created its fair share of chances as well and was unlucky to not have gotten a penalty when it appeared Tim Howard clipped Sergio Arguero when Arguero was in alone. Howard also stood on his head to make two other saves in difficult moments.When asked to comment on the team’s improvement from match to match, Tim Howard said, “Tonight it was about standing up for ourselves, believing we can get a result…We stood up to the challenge…If we can take those performances into CONCACAF qualifying, I think we’ll be alright.”
There wasn’t a bad performance for the US. Landon Donovan returned from injury and earned his 100th cap. He played an advanced midfield/withdrawn forward role and his ability to find space and pressure along with Pablo Mastroeni’s excellent positioning and tackling allowed wide players Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley to enjoy their best games. Dempsey was particularly effective drawing fouls in the first half. Michael Bradley looked a bit tired and was careless with the ball on occasion, but never in dangerous spots. He was substituted at half-time for Maurice Edu, who had an excellent half. Edu spread the ball nicely and really picked apart the Argentines with a mix of short passes and balls over the top.
Dan Califf saw his first action from the group of friendlies and performed admirably along side Oguchi Onyewu. Most of the successful Argentine forays came from wide positions. Califf and Onyewu won their aerial battles and tracked runners well. It was Onyewu’s header off of a corner kick that struck the crossbar. Steve Cherundolo and Heath Pearce were again the fullbacks. Pearce made several excellent runs forward and crossed well. Cherundolo could have ventured forward more to support Dempsey but safely stayed home probably because Messi was beginning a lot of attacks on the left side.
Up front Eddie Johnson was playing a difficult role as the lone forward. He did pretty well. Compared with the prior two friendlies, he was more aggressive with his runs and did a better job of connecting with his teammates.
Several of the substitutes Bob Bradley used positively impacted the US. Freddy Adu entered the match with about 30 minutes remaining and was able to create several dangerous opportunities in his limited time. Sacha Kljestan also did well holding the ball and moving forward. There was no drop-off in the defense when Jay DeMerit came on for Onyewu. All players were up for the occasion. Depth is so important in World Cup qualifying; it was great to see tonight’s performances from some second-choice players.
In a truly bizarre scenario, Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar Chicas apparently ejected Pablo Mastroeni for his second caution with about 20 minutes remaining. The problem is that the caution he had just issued was to Maurice Edu. Edu and Mastroeni don’t exactly look alike.
Their numbers are similar: Pablo was wearing 25, Edu 26, so my guess is the referee suffered short-term memory loss and thought the 26 he just wrote was 25. ESPN commentator John Harkes said the error, if indeed that was the situation, is diabolical and should never happen at any level and he is absolutely right. With four on-site officials, that kind of error is hideous and inexcusable. Of course this kind of mistake is not unprecedented: at the 2006 World Cup English referee Graham Poll was sent home after allowing Croatian Josip Simunic, a player he had cautioned twice, to continue playing and only ejected him after issuing him a third caution.
Argentina’s Javier Mascherano did not permit the advantage to last long, however. He earned a second caution with a high tackle on Donovan that was worthy of a straight red. There was no love lost between the two sides. Former teammates Howard and Gabriel Heinze were exchanging pleasantries after the match but no other players were talking or exchanging jerseys and Freddy Adu could be seen repeatedly yelling the favored football epithet “F&%* off” at an Argentine player.
A tie against the same team that thrashed Mexico 4-1 just a few days ago is is nice result for the US to build confidence from as it heads into World Cup qualifying which begins in one week against Barbados.