The US is on to the seminfinals after the unlikeliest of scenarios unfolded today in South Africa. Twin 3-0 wins by the US over Egypt and Brazil over Italy left three teams tied for second on points after each recorded one win during the round robin group stage. On the first tiebreaker the US and Italy were tied with an unimpressive -2 goal differential; the US went through thanks to scoring four goals compared to Italy’s three (all scored against 10-men US in both teams’ first game of the tournament).
US manager Bob Bradley made three changes to the team that lost 3-0 to Brazil: Brad Guzan replaced Tim Howard in goal; Ricardo Clark returned from suspension to replace the suspended Sacha Kljestan; and Charlie Davies replaced DaMarcus Beasley. In addition to the personnel changes Bradley switched from a 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2 with Davies paired with Jozy Altidore up front, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan in relatively free roles in the midfield supported by Michael Bradley and Clark. The back four remained unchanged with Jonathan Bornstein, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Jonathan Spector across the back left to right.
First, the positives. Donovan was the best player on the field today. The Egyptians had no answer for his direct dribbling. My only criticism of his play is that it was too unselfish: on two occasions when he entered the penatly area, Donovan elected to pass when he had good opportunities to shoot. On the second goal Donovan had the assist; he played a one-two with Bradley who side-footed Donovan’s pass into the right corner with his first touch. Bradley was also excellent today. He willed the US forward with charging runs with and without the ball and by playing balls wide to forward-pushing outside backs. On his goal Bradley picked up the ball in the middle of the field and pressed forward immediately. After an Egyptian defender committed Bradley played the ball and continued his run. Donovan one-timed a perfectly weighted pass into Bradley’s stride and Bradley made no mistake finishing calmly. On the third goal Bradley picked out a wide open Spector, again one of the top performers, on the right. Spector hit an inch-perfect cross that Dempsey headed into the far corner. Presumably the third-choice right back behind injured Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hejduk, Spector may be winning himself a spot in the starting eleven with his performances this tournament. He is always turned on, fully committed and he is neat with the ball. As long as he can stay healthy there should be a spot for him on this team.
Clark is another player whose commitment cannot be questioned. His work rate provided a nice layer of cover for DeMerit and Onyewu and it allowed Donovan and Bradley to take more chances going forward. Clark’s aggressive tackling and smart passing helped the US win the midfield. Center backs Onyewu and DeMerit have been strong all tournament and today was no different. Onyewu wins everything in the air. DeMerit’s reading of the game and positioning were flawless. When captain Carlos Bocanegra returns from injury it will be a shame if DeMerit is displaced. If all the US players brought his level of commitment, the US would be a much better team. Davies is another player that plays full-steam ahead all game. He was rewarded with the most beautiful ugly goal I’ve seen in awhile, pinging one off the face of the Egyptian goalie while surrounded by defenders. His hard run to the near post, something Altidore needs to do more often, caused the mess that resulted in the goal. Davies’s speed also allowed him to get behind the Egyptians several times. Even with the slighter frame he was able to hold the ball with his back to the goal better than Altidore. Altidore turned his defender and played a dangerous cross for the first goal but was largely ineffective. He does not seem to be on the same page as his teammates, often pulling up for balls instead of making the first run to the near post. I love Altidore’s game and his potential but I am not convinced he is our best option at this moment. In what could’ve been a tragic decision, the Kiwi referee denied a clear penalty/red card on an Egyptian defender when he stopped a driven shot from Altidore with his arm. Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl tweeted “Somewhere Hugh Dallas watches and laughs.” Of course Dallas is the *&$%# referee who denied the US a penalty in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal against Germany.
In goal Brad Guzan was rarely tested. He waved at a few crosses, which was troubling but he also made two or three nice saves without spilling the ball. It will be interesting to see if Bradley sticks with Guzan for the semifinal. No matter who is your number one I think you go with what got you there and in this case it is Guzan.
Dempsey had another uneven performance. He scored the important third goal that put the US through but his propensity to lose possession in difficult spots is unacceptable. It seems that Dempsey has been freed of all defensive responsibility because his work rate is severely lacking. ESPN commentator John Harkes was all over Dempsey for his poor play and I was in 100% agreement. Surely Jose Torres or Freddy Adu would bring more to the table. Unfortunately neither of those talented players has made an appearance in this tournament. If it is Bradley’s tactics that limit his defensive work that is one thing, but losing the ball repeatedly and diving is not what we need from our players.
Bornstein is another player who did not make any glaring mistakes but also did not add much. The lack of wide defensive cover keeps the former forward pinned back for large stretches and that may effect his ability to be comfortable moving forward. His defense is a bit too nervous for my liking, with a lot of fouling and sliding. When everyone is healthy I would like to see Bocanegra at left back with DeMerit and Onyewu in the middle. If Bocanegra replaces DeMerit then I’d like to see Hejduk and Spector as the fullbacks.
Manager Bradley again made just two substitutions, bringing on Benny Feilhaber in the 69th minute for Altidore and then Conor Casey for Davies in the 82nd minute. Feilhaber did not get too involved in his 20 minutes; he did make a couple nice tackles on the defensive end and passed smartly when given the opportunity. Casey held onto the ball nicely in his short time on the field.
The US grew in confidence as the game progressed. It was so exciting to watch and root on the US as the events unfolded, especially after hearing that Brazil was up 3-0 on Italy at half-time. The joy on the faces of the players after the third goal and then the final whistle was truly special. Here’s hoping the momentum will continue all the way through the final.