Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Better to be Lucky than Good -- U.S.A. 2, Mexico 0. The U.S. men's national soccer team weathered a strong Mexican attack during a memorable, thrilling second half, and got two goals against the run of play to continue their domination of the Mexican side. Mexico has yet to beat the U.S., away from Mexico, during this decade. In fact, during this streak, the Mexican team has been unable to score against the U.S.A., on U.S. soil, and that frustration continued tonight for Los Tricolores, as they simply could not find the back of the net. Defender Jimmy Conrad seemed to be in position to block most of the better Mexican chances. When Conrad wasn't able to blunt the attack, goalie Tim Howard was there to save the defense.

On the other end, the U.S. created few chances. On the game's biggest play, the U.S. was able to work the ball downfield with a couple of throw-ins, and Clint Dempsey controlled it in the corner, when the Mexican defense gave away a corner kick far too easily. Given this undeserved opportunity, the U.S. capitalized. Landon Donovan served up a perfectly placed corner kick to the back side and Jimmy Conrad snapped off a strong header past Osvaldo Sanchez, the Mexican goalkeeper. This was a truly world-class service by Donovan -- his best effort in a couple of years, at least.

Mexico responded with a furiously-paced attack that consistently shredded the outmatched right side of the U.S. defense. Only Conrad's heroics and Howard's steady play kept Mexico from tying the score, but their efforts were bolstered by the Mexicans ability to finish off good opportunities. The Mexicans were constantly threatening until U.S. coach Bob Bradley restored some semblance of order to the defense by replacing Chris Albright with Josh Gros, and then subbing out Clint Dempsey for Brian Carroll, the Washington, D.C. area native and D.C. United regular, who made his first appearance for the national side. Though Dempsey had set up Eddie Johnson with the U.S.' most creative attack, Carroll's entrance made the biggest difference in settling things down.

As the game went into stoppage time, the U.S. got an unexpected assist from Canadian referee Lucio Navarro. A pass by one Mexican bounced off Navarro to a U.S. midfielder, who instantly passed up to Landon Donovan. The surprised Mexican defense was caught flatfooted, while Donovan burst past three defenders as if they were standing still. Then, Donovan dribbled wide of the diving goalie Sanchez, and slotted the ball for the knockout goal.

The U.S. certainly showed weaknesses. Chris Albright doesn't appear to be up to playing defense at the highest international level. The U.S. attack was virtually nonexistent. Most of the attackers were invisible. Clint Dempsey has the skills, but lacked the fitness -- and the assistance a good scorer needs. Bobby Convey had one good moment when he followed up his own giveaway, and stole the ball in the Mexican 18-yard box. Convey had the chance to walk in alone on goal, but shot too quickly, giving Sanchez the advantage and allowing him to make a solid save. The fact is Convey looked overmatched in Reading's early season games, and he's been riding the pines for a while. He has the speed the U.S. needs on the wing, but it's not clear that he will ever develop the power or the instincts to become a dangerous flanking player. He needs to move on from Reading, so that he can get regular game experience. Convey was fine last year, when Reading was playing in the second division, but isn't ready to play in the E.P.L.

As great as Donovan looked on the two goals, he remains a curiosity -- a player without a natural position. When he is on the front line, he plays almost as if he is an attacking midfielder. He doesn't go forward without the ball, refusing to play with his back to the goal. That might reflect good sense, given Donovan's small stature, but it limits the U.S.' attack. This is why Arena left McBride up top by himself. Donovan needs to use his speed, to run at the goal. Unfortunately, when he is in the midfield he is too timid, and his defense isn't what it should be -- perhaps, again, due to his small size.

Donovan succeeds as a striker in CONCACAF games, largely because the other teams aren't very big, either -- and the defenders are unable to keep up with him. Against the bigger and faster European, South American and African sides, Donovan disappears. Ultimately, Donovan's best position has to be in the midfield, but this requires the U.S. to find some scoring threats up front. In the early World Cup qualifiers, Eddie Johnson looked like he would be the deadly striker the U.S. so badly needs, but he hasn't played at that level in the last year and a half.

Then there is the defense. As good as Conrad and Bornstein were, Albright was terribly overmatched. Bocanegra was tough, but it appeared he was beaten a few times, as well. Still, the defense was good enough to win. It is the result that matters most of all. Just ask the disappointed, largely pro-Mexico crowd that filled the sold-out University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale.

It's a good start to the Bob Bradley era, though it remains unclear just how long that era will last. I still expect that the USSF will make a big push to bring in a foreign coach to take over the team in the Spring. There's nothing wrong with establishing the U.S. as the top team in the CONCACAF region -- though I think that is oversold. Notwithstanding our ability to beat Mexico regularly, the Mexican side is more competitive against the top teams from the other regions. This game showed that the U.S. team has to improve in a number of areas before they can be competitive outside of CONCACAF, where higher standards are required to be competititive.

Still, a win over Mexico is something to celebrate -- there will be plenty of time later to dissect the team's deficiencies. For tonight, we can celebrate the rediscovered brilliance of Landon Donovan, the excitement generated by speedy, young Jonathan Bornstein, and the emergence of Jimmy Conrad, the Man of the Match.


peter said...

Saw your post on kos, and whilst I appreciate your passion for footy your comments are typically american (misinformed).

Convey has been through knee surgery this season. He started every match this year until he had get his knee scoped. He was a huge part of a dominant championship side that easily won promotion, and was/is one of Reading's true flair players.

Fisch said...

I appreciate your insight. I realize that Convey was huge for Reading last the championship league level. I watched Reading play almost every week after they were promoted. They're a very exciting side, but Convey seemed like a bit of a fifth wheel. He was always game, but never seemed to be involved when Reading scored. I think he is on the bench now because of his ineffectiveness, not his knee. But, I'll be delighted if I'm proved wrong.

Fisch said...

More about Convey -- I should add that I observed that the year began with Convey taking corner kicks, with poor results. THen he was reduced to taking short corners, and finally replaced in the role. I don't know what the British press or his coach had to say about Convey, but I had the impression he was being phased out of the lineup, even before he had surgery.