Friday, October 14, 2011

October Friendlies

Why do something yourself when someone else can do it for you?  With that mantra, I am proud to introduce the second ever writer for Late Night Thoughts.

In creating this article, I was trapped between three different introductory strategies: (1) The Banal, Informative Hello – Banal means boring, (2) The Resume – only worthy if impressive, (3) The Chuck-Norris/Most-Interesting-Man-in-the-World-Style – Funny, maybe.  Overdone, definitely

I decided to just do them all.

(1) It is my pleasure to introduce my good friend and fellow sports enthusiast, Joseph Dammann.  His columns will most frequently revolve around soccer.
(2) The newest contributor to Late Night Thoughts is Joe Dammann.  Joe is a classics major at Union College and the current secretary of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity.  Over the past year Joe studied abroad in Greece and conducted research for a Union Prof over the summer.  Once a talented soccer, basketball, and lacrosse player in high school, the current senior has taken his talents to the intramural field – also known as essentially no where.  Joe is a Patriot’s fan, thus, will not be given pertinent information to the construction of this website since everyone knows these people can never be trusted. 

(3) Joe Dammann wrote a blog once, but reading it was too pleasurable to remain legal.  He doesn’t read text books, because he wrote them all.  Sometimes, instead of going to the super market, he decides to kill and butcher Schenectady’s wild chickens by himself.  Nobody ever cautions him about “dropping the ball” because they know his balls will never drop.  He is… the most gripping wordsmith in the world…

Here we go.


US Men’s National Team, October Friendlies:  Yes, These Matter

The soccer world is a confusing place for those not in the know.  Part of my objective in this column is to continually educate about those intricacies that are most confounding.  Case and point: the international friendly.  Any conversation surrounding an international friendly usually goes like this:

“The US team is playing tonight against Spain.”
“Is this to qualify for the World Cup?”
“No, it’s just a friendly.”
“Oh…then why should I care?”

The American sports landscape has no place for an exhibition match that has significance in any way (see the continual backlash and bitching about the MLB All-Star Game), so the idea that these technically inconsequential games could have an impact on the future of the team is often a difficult concept to sell.  But the truth is, these games do matter, a lot. 

It has to do with the nature of international soccer.  The level of play is just on a different platform, and the learning curve can be steep.  Young promising players rarely make a splash instantly with their national squads.  They have to be eased in, given a chance to adjust to the higher speed of play and improved caliber of internationals.  That’s where the friendly comes in: they provide the situational experience of a high-intensity international match without the dire ramifications of losing.   These friendlies are especially important for the United States, which is a young team in transition that needs more games to develop a clear playing style.  The final outcome of the game isn’t so important as the individual performances of new players brought into the team.  So, forget that these games don’t count towards anything and enjoy some free-flowing football. 

Unfortunately, that’s something that Jurgen Klinsmann, recently appointed head coach of the US Men’s National Team, couldn’t afford to do.  Every game for him is a matter of life and death.  Even in the perpetually uninterested USA, the head coach of the national team is always a hot seat.  Coming into these two games, the Klinsmann era hadn’t started well: 0 wins, 2 losses, 1 tie.  He needed a win.  Badly.  Klinsmann had two bites at the apple with a friendly on October 8 against Honduras, and then another friendly against Ecuador four days later.  Both of these teams are fairly tricky opponents, but are a good representation of the sort of squads that the United States will play during World Cup qualification: quick, fast, agile players with a good amount of skill and dangerous counterattacking tactics.  Both should be beaten…on paper.  But the American team had its own set of issues; among them a string of injuries to key players has decimated the midfield.  What was once the strength of the national team would be a glaring hole for these matches.  However, a group of young, exciting players, such as 18 year-old striker Juan Agudelo and 21 year-old winger Brek Shea, offer a certain dynamism that had been missing from the national team of late.  This was the backdrop for the match against Honduras in rain-soaked Miami:

Match Analysis: USA 1, Honduras 0

Ok, so maybe this wasn’t the free-flowing soccer that I promised above, but it was an entertaining and cagey game that the Americans pulled out courtesy of a fine bit of Clint Dempsey skill.  Perhaps it was the weather or the intensely pro-Honduran crowd in Miami, but it took about thirty minutes for the US attack to really start applying pressure on the Honduran backline.  A good spell of crosses and dangerous moves through the middle resulted in a goal close to halftime.  A low driven cross from the right foot of the aforementioned Brek Shea (who suffers from a truly tragic hairstyle found its wall through the box to the feet of Dempsey, whose neat footwork and precise finish put the Americans in front.  The second half was filled with more attacking combinations and chances for Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad, but in the end they were unable to add to their lead.  The US really should have beaten this team by two or three goals, and the chronic lack of finishing is worrisome, but the overall effort from the team was encouraging.  The offence looked much more composed and played with more of that patented flowing style which Klinsmann is trying so hard to implement.  The depleted midfield had issues connecting with the strikers and there were certainly some issues in the back, but a decent result and, more importantly perhaps, the first win for Jurgen as the head coach of the Yanks.

Player Ratings (1 being repulsively bad, 10 being god-like):

G – Tim Howard – Not much to say here other than that he is consistently the best player on the field.  Made a couple of clutch saves to foil some troublesome Honduran counterattacks.  You’re only as good as your goalkeeper.  In Timmy we trust! – 8/10

D – Steve Cherundolo – The right back is yet another vision of consistency: his motoring runs up the flank should be copyrighted.  Directly involved in the build-up to the only goal.  Solid defensively, although a speedy winger can cause him some trouble.  7/10

D – Michael Orozco Fiscal – It’s truly difficult to get below a three in these player ratings, but I was seriously tempted here.  This kid just doesn’t cut it at the international level.  Beaten over the top multiple times, as well as being physically manhandled by Honduras’ rhino-like striker Carlo Costly.  Jurgen, take him behind the shed and end his suffering…please. – 3/10

D – Carlos Bocanegra (Captain) – The talismanic centerback had a solid game, although he wasn’t done any favors by the performance of Orozco Fiscal.  Covered for his partner’s mistakes very well and was a commanding presence in the air.  Need to find him a decent partnership in the back. – 6.5/10

D – Timmy Chandler – The first of several German-Americans brought into the team by Herr Klinsmann, Chandler had a delightful game, combining dangerously with Shea down the left flank and defending admirably.  That left back spot, which has been a problematic position for so long, looks like it belongs to Chandler now.  – 6.5/10

M – Danny Williams – This was the debut for Williams, another of Klinsmann’s hidden stash of Germans.  International debuts can be difficult to judge.  You don’t want to be too harsh given the steep learning curve, but he also needs to show enough to warrant another look in the team.  For me, he definitely earned another call-up.  He has a touch of flair about him and a nose for getting in dangerous positions in the box.  It’s impossible to have too many Germans on your team. – 5.5/10

M – Kyle Beckerman – Was fairly dreadful going forward into the offensive third and struggled to connect more than one or two passes together, but he can do a job defensively.  My issues are his lack of pace and tendency to be overzealous on a tackle.  Unless he improves markedly in the future, he’ll only be a mediocre defensive midfielder for this team. – 5/10

M – Maurice Edu – I was slightly confused by this selection.  Edu and Beckerman essentially fill the same roll.  Playing them both seems very defensive to me against an ostensibly weaker opponent.  I could copy and paste many of my same criticisms from Beckerman here, although Edu does have a knack for scoring on set pieces and is markedly more athletic than his dreaded companion in midfield. – 5.5/10

M – Brek Shea – I want to avoid overhyping this kid, but his is breathtaking to watch.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a combination of size and speed wearing the Stars and Stripes.  His marauding runs to the end-line created at least five chances in the first half, including a nice assist on Dempsey’s goal.  The only blemish was a squandered opportunity to double the lead.  Seriously, go youtube this guy.  Funny name.  Funny haircut.  Real talent.  – 7/10

F – Clint Dempsey – Difficult to determine whether he was deployed as an out and out striker or as an attacking midfielder, but the formation didn’t seem to affect his play much.  Excellent game from Clint.  One beautifully taken goal in the first half and another goal disallowed in the second half on a dubious foul call.  Dempsey is easily the most offensively gifted player on the field – perhaps one of the best Americans ever.  His position needs to be solidified though.  – 7.5/10

F –Jozy Altidore – A really nice game from Jozy, his recent club transfer to the Netherlands has clearly added polish to his game.  Specifically, the way he holds the ball up is done with more purpose and insight then in the past.  Should’ve had at least one assist on the night.  However, an athlete as special as Jozy should use his strength to be a bit stronger on the ball rather than constantly hit the turf looking for the foul…this annoys me to no end.   – 6.5/10


D – Jonathan Spector – Not much to discuss, pretty quiet few minutes from him other than a nice cross on the disallowed Dempsey goal. – NA

D – Oguchi Onyewu – The most effective of the subs, Gooch is coming back from a horrific knee injury and it’s really encouraging to see him back to full speed.  Could be the logical answer for the second centerback spot. – 6/10

M – DeMarcus Beasley – After being left out of the national team for a few years, Beasley played pretty well.  The closest thing the US has to a true winger, his pace and trickiness (when in-form) can cause all sorts of problems for defenders. – 6/10

M – Michael Bradley – His first appearance since his father was fired from the head coaching position.  Didn’t do a ton to distinguish himself in his brief appearance.  – 5/10

F – Juan Agudelo – Another one for the future, and this kid might have more raw talent than Shea.  At 18, he’s the definition of a man-child.  Good energy and hold-up play during his time in the game and had a hand in the disallowed goal from Dempsey. – 6/10

Match Analysis: United States 0, Ecuador 1

A quick three-day turnaround for the Red, White, and Blue saw them play and lose to a decidedly more difficult Ecuador team at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.  Many of the familiar problems of the Klinsmann era reared their ugly heads in this one: lack of creating and finishing chances, costly mistakes in the back, and ineffective substitutes being the main culprits.  Which is too bad really, because the Americans came sprinting out of the gate.  The first 5-10 minutes were a constant bombardment of the Ecuadorian penalty area, but the US couldn’t manufacture a goal.  In an almost complete reverse of the Honduras game, the first half an hour was easily their best period of the game, but after that there was little to speak of in the way of scoring opportunities.  The Ecuador goal came with about 10 minutes left to play from a speculative ball into the box.  Tim Ream was caught sleeping and allowed his man to sneak inside and head it past Tim Howard.  A really disappointing performance from the Americans, but there were some bright spots to take away from the game. 

Player Ratings:

G – Tim Howard – Similar to the Honduras match, hard to argue that there is a better player on the field.  Didn’t have much of a chance on the goal and made several other game-saving saves.  – 7/10

D – Steve Cherundolo – For all of his veteran guile, savvy, and skill, his lack of pace was seriously demonstrated by Ecuador.  It’s and issue that can be ignored against weaker teams, but any team with speed on the flanks will be licking their lips – 5.5/10

D – Carlos Bocanegra (Captain) – An oddly poor game from the captain tonight, very uncharacteristic.  However, it was good for him and Gooch to get some more game time together.  That looks to be the centerback pairing going forward. – 5/10

D – Oguchi Onyewu – Easily the brightest spot for the US tonight.  His lateral quickness looks great and the backline desperately missed his menacing physical presence.  – 7/10

D – Timmy Chandler – Another solid performance from the German-American, that left back slot looks like it’s his unless he gets injured.  Offers some interesting thoughts going forward down that left flank, which is looking increasing dangerous between him and Shea. -6/10

M – Danny Williams – A nice night for the other Deutsche-lander.  He was involved in a good amount of the chances in that dynamic first half.  From what I’ve seen in these two games, he’ll be receiving another call-up very soon.  – 6.5/10

M – Kyle Beckerman – Similarly ambivalent performance from Beckerman as against Honduras.  Perhaps even worse with his distribution and possession tonight.  Still, his defensive qualities means that he may stick around with this team for a little while longer. – 5/10

M – Maurice Edu – Seems to have been pushed slightly forward in the midfield, which is encouraging, but did little with what offensive opportunities were given to him.  This team seriously lacks creativity and playmaking in the middle of the pitch. – 5/10

M – Brek Shea - Continues to impress me.  He’ll be playing in Europe for a big club sooner rather than later.  Just seems to have that extra bit of speed at just the right time.  Did look rather fatigued by halftime though, which is probably a function of playing 90 minutes in a hurricane three days before.  6/10

F – Clint Dempsey – Seemed to sit a bit deeper behind Jozy.  Maybe the only player who wanted to take the game on his back, heavily involved throughout the game.  Shows great heart and desire, but isn’t a true playmaker in the middle who can really stimulate the offense.  – 7/10

F – Jozy Altidore – Continues to show good hold up and passing skills, especially on a fantastic play to spring Williams on a breakaway early in the first half.  Shows glimmers of talent that could make him a very special player in the future.  Everyone forgets, but the kid is only 21.  – 6.5/10


D – Jonathan Spector – Fairly anonymous appearance from him.  Not sure if he has a future with this team with the likes of Chandler and Cherundolo playing well.  – 4/10

D – Tim Ream – Though game for Tim, who usually looks so promising and solid at the back.  His poor marking in the box led directly to the Ecuadorian goal.  Although he had a bad game, he’s young and will surely receive more chances in the future. – 3/10.

M – DeMarcus Beasley – One of the only bright spots in the second half: looked very lively and energetic.  Seems to be benefitting from his improved club situation just like Jozy. -6/10

M – Michael Bradley – Looked far more active than in his brief cameo against Honduras.  His freekicks into the box were especially dangerous.  For me, he should be starting alongside either Beckerman or Edu in the midfield since he offers a more complete game. – 6/10

F – Juan Agudelo – Very quiet up top after halftime, although that can be blamed on a lack of service and offensive congruity.  Still, showed a high workrate, something that I believe is invaluable in a striker.  – 5/10

F – Edson Buddle – Brief cameo late in the second half. - NA


It’s always difficult to drawn definitive conclusions from these games, but there are some clear areas where the US needs to improve and improve quickly.  There seems to be little offensive cohesion and the midfield looks bereft of ideas in the offensive end.  The lack of goals so far in the Klinsmann regime (2 whole goals through 6 games) is very concerning, especially given the attractive, attacking football that he’s supposed to be implementing.  As far as individuals go, the most important revelation is the return of Oguchi Onyewu to full fitness.  The back line looks infinitely more formidable with him alongside Bocanegra.  The emergence of Timmy Chandler as the answer to the riddle at left back further strengthens the defense.  Brek Shea is truly a world-class talent and will be a fixture in the national team for another decade barring injury.  Yet just as important as finding players who fit into the team is the removal of those who just cannot compete at the international level.  I’m looking at you, Michael Orozco Fiscal.  And probably you, Kyle Beckerman. 

The US Men’s National Team will play further friendlies in November, January, and probably March before beginning World Cup qualifying during the summer of 2012.  But until then, I’ll continue to dissect and analyze these games whose results don’t mean anything at all.  Such is the manner of the international friendly.   


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