USA vs. Panama, Bob Bradley's Job Security and Other Soccer Musings

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"All the f------ experts in America, everybody who thinks they know everything about soccer, they can all look at the score tonight, and let's see what they have to say now, all right? Nobody has any respect for what we do, for what goes on on the inside [of the team], so let them all talk now." -- Michael Bradley, Sports Illustrated, "To Hell and Back," June 29, 2009.

Let's accept, shall we, that compared to nearly every other major sport in the world, international soccer moves at a glacial pace. Games tend to be few and far between, or come in a rapid flurry of activity centered around a major tournament in the summer.

And in the case of the U.S. senior national team tangible progress is only measured every four years at the World Cup.

Does this jive with our 24/7/365 newscycle, 140 character status updates, go go go go go world in 2011?

Not quite. Hell, most people don't want to read past the opening paragraph of a link someone sends them, or even watch past the 12 second mark of a YouTube video if it doesn't contain an "LOL."

So gazing through that unique paradigm, observing the U.S. in action in the 2011 Gold Cup has certainly been a strange look into how we consume, digest and analyze sport.

Two weeks ago Jozy Altidore was a slacking, talent-squandering, waste of space. Now, after a pair of goals in the group stage, he's a back to his status as the next great thing in American soccer albeit one who won't play vs. Panama in tonight's Gold Cup semifinal because of a hamstring injury.

A week ago Bob Bradley's head was on the chopping block -- well, not really since Sunil Gulati isn't going to upset the apple cart in the midst of a World Cup "process", now is he? -- fast forward to the Yanks' 2-0 win over Jamaica Sunday at RFK Stadium in Washington and Bradley is a veritable tactical genius. He even earned the endorsement from Zonal Marking, the be-all, end-all, when it comes to soccer tactics.(*) This endorsement is on par with a B-sitcom actor receiving a bouquet of roses after a taping from (the ghost of) Sir John Gielgud.

(*) Except from Jonathon Wilson, of course, who it seems these days he's using his own tactical genius to tell us how the epitome of soccer was played in Eastern Europe during the 1970s.

Certain segments of the established core of U.S. soccer wonks seem to take it as their duty to defend the overall "meh-ness" of Bradley's regime. People on the Internet who don't like him personally or professionally are irrational, misguided and impossible. How dare someone even dare harbor the thought that Bradley the Elder is the man for the job!

For them, Sunday must have been like 90 minutes of Christmas morning -- in the middle of June.

An for once, Bradley in a must-win, pressurized spot got it right from the opening whistle, both from a tactics standpoint and a message standpoint. (Still don't for the life of me understand why it takes the threat of elimination -- think the knife at their throat -- for the U.S. to play well in a major tournament.)

1. Benching Landon Donovan was a bold move that paid dividends. Nevermind that Bradley had the nice built-in excuse to bench Donovan for the fact he didn't arrive in Washington until 7 a.m. the day of the game from his sister's wedding in California. The move sent a message from the opening kick as the U.S. played with a rare urgency, taking the game to Jamaica instead of falling behind -- granted the Reggae Boyz should've scored when Dane Richards sliced down the right wing, feeding a teammate on the doorstep, but for Tim Howard to deny him at point blank range, followed by another Jamaican roofing the ball into the rafters of RFK with the goal wide open.

Maybe this is reading too much to Donovan on the bench and maybe he was in fact jet lagged. Still, no team on the planet is immune to stagnation and complacency -- the biggest complaints about how the U.S. has acted post-2010 World Cup.

Competition for spots in the starting XI can only be beneficial for an international team, regardless of how deep the talent pool is or isn't.

2. It took three matches in the Gold Cup, but Bradley realized that a) he didn't really have any forwards who were Brian McBride b) a central midfield of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley is too similar c) using wide players to get forward on overlaps with Jamiaca playing three defenders would be a wise move.

We hammer Bradley for his stale, stodgy embrace of the 4-4-2 -- and just about everything else -- might as well praise him when he gets it right. Also, though he's not his son by blood, Bradley the Elder hopefully took Jones out for a nice steak dinner after the match. The German-born midfielder was all over the place, certainly using his years of top-flight European experience to dictate a match from the midfield from sheer force of will and power, if not grace and 100 sideways passes like a Xavi, for instance.

Now, later today, we'll get a chance to see if Bradley and the rest of the U.S. have turned a corner playing against a Panama team which already beat them in the Gold Cup, or if Jamaica wasn't really that good. One thing's for certain, the game against Jamaica(*) was the rare U.S. game which was relatively enjoyable to watch. Somewhere the light went on in the U.S. camp that, hey, let's try to test the keeper from distance once and while. Teams seem to like doing that against us, right?

(*) For all the pregame talk of how Jamaica was "dangerous" did any writer exactly explain why this was the case, aside from going 3-0-0 in their group? Let's be honest, if the U.S. needs to fear a team consisting of some decent MLS guys like Richards and European journeyman, that's a problem.

It was nice, too, to see the U.S. press the advantage and take the game to an inferior opponent. For a change the U.S. didn't play timid or cautious, which is what a supposed regional giant should do.

The pressure isn't fully off the U.S.

Another loss to Panama, this time in the semifinals, won't go over well. There is no way Panama, without Blas Perez, should be able to sneak up on the U.S. Nor will Panama fear this American team, which it knows it can beat.

How will the U.S. adjust? Will the swagger it played with against Jamaica be a one-time only Father's Day gift, or will the U.S. realize it has that ability? The U.S. surely couldn't lose twice to the same opponent in the same of eight does, could it?

At the very least, the win on Sunday shook away some of my own personal apathy toward the current team. Credit the fans at RFK for the simple, effective banner: "Luv the Team, Hate the Fed." When you boil it down, as distasteful the politics of FIFA, CONCACAF or even the USSF are, it's not the players faults. When they give an effort like Sunday it's hard to remain a cynical jerk.

That is until the next hiccup, when the switchblades are instantly ready to pop right back out into the back -- or front -- of Mr. Bradley.

And so it goes in 2011.


* Whattdaya know, Michael Bradley's loan at Aston Villa was a complete waste. Thought, according to the entire U.S. soccer Interwebs it was a slam dunk? Hey, look, my skepticism proved accurate for once. High five!

* Would Bradley the Elder risk starting with Donovan or Dempsey on the bench, to allow Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya to start like the victory over Jamaica? Either Donovan or Dempsey then could enter as an impact sub, especially with Chris Wondolowski the only healthy U.S. forward on the roster.

* Could this be the game for Freddy Adu to do ... something. He's a live, healthy body at this point.

* If the U.S. keeps up its emerging wide play, it should only open up space for the U.S. attack, right? Dempsey ought to find a way to finish off a movement with out of his late gallops into the penalty area. It's either that or scoring off a set piece, isn't it?

* Still a little worried about the U.S. giving up a soft goal on the counter attack.

* A little unusual, isn't it, that the final is on a Saturday, rather than Sunday? Two days -- with 120 minutes possible on Wednesday's semifinal -- is a quick turnaround. This is CONCACAF, making it seem perfectly logical.

* Yeah, five Mexican players fail a doping test, of course, you can replace them as needed. Why not? Anything else we can do to make the FMF more straight cash?

* Adios and fare thee well Jack Warner. You'll be missed by ... no one.

* Panama's Luis "Matador" Tejeda is 29 years old. He's played for 14 different clubs, now plying his trade for Juan Aurich in Peru.

* It could be close to 90 degrees in Houston on Wednesday.

* Has Fox Soccer Channel (#TeamFSC4life) done a solid job with the Gold Cup? Haven't watched much of the tournament on there out of necessity.

Lineup Guess:

Has to be a 4-2-3-1, right?


GK: Howard

DEF: Cherundolo -- Goodson -- Bocanegra -- Lichaj

DEF MID: Bradley -- Jones

ATT MID: Dempsey -- Kljestan -- Donovan

FOR: Agudelo

Final Thought:

Is U.S./Mexico inevitable? If so, it would be the third straight meeting between the two CONCACAF giants.

One thing is certain, about 90,000 Mexicans and or Mexican-Americans are going to be upset Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl if El Tri falls short.