I’m high on believin’.
So here we are, two weeks into the World Cup and the round of 16 has been fully hammered out. There’s much to talk about: Spain, England, Suarez, Costa Rica, Messi, Seth’s love for Messi, etc etc.
But let’s focus on the only team that truly matters. Now that they survived the Group of Death, what have we learned about the USMNT?
Jurgen knows what he’s doing
This isn’t to suggest that we all doubted Jurgen’s credentials, but there were certainly questioners, especially after the Donovan exclusion. But I said it when Sunil and U.S. Soccer hired him, and I’ll say it again: Jurgy (which I and I alone can call him) is the coach to take us forward, and he will revolutionize our football culture.
Jurgen has got it right in nearly every move he’s made so far. His lineups are tactically brilliant: Jermaine Jones given huge freedom to sweep forward, but trusted with the responsibility of covering and coming back. He’s done that, and he’s had a fantastic tournament. Kyle Beckerman, who I wasn’t too keen on a few years ago, has been excellent so far, clogging up the midfield and distributing the ball well. He shields the backline with discipline, leaving Jones and Bradley to look forward more.
Of course, there have been some slight question marks. Omar Gonzalez today over Geoff Cameron was concerning, as everyone loves to wring their hands over the mythical center back relationship (Besler and Cameron, sitting in a tree, K-I-C-K-I-N-G…) and Omar hasn’t really played much since his injury. But he performed well enough, as did Matt. Bedoya was always iffy to me. I get that he offers speed and true width, and works back diligently, but he’s absent offensively.
Everyone hates Michael Bradley
I’ll be honest: nothing makes me more irritated than Michael Bradley hate. There’s certainly some truth in it, and I’m absolutely a biased source as I love our number 4. But I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here.
Here’s the bulk of the criticism against him right now:
“He gave up the ball against Portugal and they scored and it cost us a win.”
“He was terrible in the first game and the second game.”
“He wasn’t even that good in the third game.”
Let’s address those one at a time.
Re: bald: Rude.
Re: Portugal: Bradley committed the cardinal sin of a defensive midfielder (or any player giving up the ball with 30 seconds left) by giving up the ball in the middle of the park. Sure. That’s true. But he was 80 yards from goal. Beasley wasn’t tight to world player of the year Ronaldo. Cameron, Gonzalez and Besler couldn’t sort out defending a cross from 60 yards away. Timmy didn’t make any attempt to save it.
Bradley is maligned here because the easiest thing to identify as the straw that broke Lady Liberty’s back is the ball being given away. The other issues (Beasley sleeping and tucking in, Cameron et al not marking adequately) are harder to note and by the time they happen, you’re already grunting Bradley’s name. It’s Bradley’s fault then.
Wrong. You dummy.
Re: his form: Let’s get something straight. Bradley is most deadly when given options. Options allow him space and time. Jozy Altidore was his most lethal option. Jozy provided the verticality that the USMNT needed to quickly unlock teams like Ghana, Germany and Portugal. Bradley could have a look up, pick him out and bang a 50 yard pass into his path. Even if Jozy doesn’t score, the defense is wary of that move. The field stretches out in all directions, and even when it becomes compact again, that option over the top is always available. But Jozy is gone. Bradley is starved of that option, and he’s been looking for someone to fill it. He tried to hit different players in both the Portugal and Germany game with that pass, notably Jones. Without that option, he’s limited. The game narrows and compresses, and his ability to spring counterattacks suffers.
Regardless, Bradley has been poor moving forward. Wayward touches and poor passes, they’re inexcusable for a player of his quality. Defensively, he’s been as good as ever. He tracks back wonderfully, has good positional awareness and is great in a tackle. For the bulk of his USMNT career, that was the bulk of what he needed to do, along with deep distribution and occasional attacking moves.
I said it in a blog post earlier this year: Bradley is our most important player. With the help of Jones and Beckerman, he dominated the midfield against Portugal. He was boxed in with the rest of the team against Ghana; I don’t understand how that can count against him.
Bradley is the type of player that people won’t notice until he screws up. It’s the curse of a defensive midfielder. But when the US play against Belgium, watch him. How he moves, how he looks around before receiving a pass, how he is almost always in a position to receive a pass in the midfield, how quickly he looks up to play a long ball. His mistakes are noticeable, but his best moments are quiet and often awe-inspiring.
The US are a good team
Boo on anyone who didn’t think we couldn’t do this. Not to toot my own horn, but – toot toot – I knew we would get out of this group. (Just kidding — I love tooting my own horn. I am clairvoyant Seth, and I know this would happen. Toot toot, homie).
Sure, we didn’t look great against Ghana, but we had nobody going forward. Johannsson is a finesse forward, who’s best running at or off of defenders. He won’t hold the ball up for you. The Ghana game was a grit game, and we certainly proved we had grit.
The Portugal game. Ah. Gorgeous, a masterpiece by the Jurgy and the USMNT. We dominated for 75% of the game, only to be thwarted by Michael Bradley and Michael Bradley’s twin brother, Saddam Hussein (imagine my voice booming that out with fire crackling in the background). We looked real good in that game, as my cousin from Louisiana would say if I had a cousin from Louisiana.
Germany was what it was; we knew what we needed, and we knew it with a tired mind. We traveled the most of any team, and had 27 hours less rest time than Germany. Plus we were emotionally shot after the Portugal game.
Regardless, you better believe it. We’re fluid, athletic, quick. Sometimes we’re too ponderous on the counter, but often quick and decisive. The team looks cohesive, disciplined and fit. At times, we purr.
We’re playing Belgium
Oh Belgium. Let’s review World Cup history: in the (tied for) first ever World Cup game, the USMNT beat Belgium 3-0. I’ll take Worthless Sports Statistics for 800 please, Alexi. (Actually I’m surprised nobody has mentioned this yet, unless I missed it).
Belgium, on paper, are better than we are. They have world class talent, a critical chunk of which plays in England, which is basically the University of Missouri Journalism School of football leagues (go Tiger Typewriters, a journalism sports team I just invented). And they’ve beaten us twice in two years: in 2013, the Waffles won 4-2. In 2011, 1-0. But as a team, they haven’t looked convincing this year. They don’t seem to mesh as a unit. They lack a strong midfield leader, a consistent target forward threat (Lukaku has been poor) and have often fallen short of ideas. They’re good, don’t get me wrong. But they’re not as good as people (like myself) thought they would be. And we’re better than many people thought (and still think) that we are.
As the wisest man/sponge of modern times once said, “If you believe in yourself and with a tiny pinch of magic, all of your dreams can come true.” Let’s go boys. Please, Christ I have nothing else in my life but this.