6/18/2010 – USA 2, Slovenia 2 – 0-0-2, 3 GF 3 GA, in with a chance
Since college football happens on Saturday and people read the internet at work, I usually have the luxury of taking a day or two to compose my thoughts on an emotionally wrenching event before pouring them out into this space. No such luxury after a 10 AM game on Friday.
It doesn't matter in this case since I won't know how to feel until the US plays Algeria. Go through, and the second half was Yes We Can We Are Amurrica It Is Morning And Let's Roll Up Our Sleeves And Get Out Of This Recession. Fall short and it's time to bomb Mali. That would be unfortunate since some 13 years ago I was sitting on the internet playing checkers at 3 AM after a night of Jedi Knight and my opponent said "hello from Mali." We had a nice conversation. I explained what "doh!" meant and he told me he was using the only computer in his village of 300 to play checkers at 10 AM. Erroll77 is now 29. If I was him I would find a TV and root like hell for the USA against Algeria. The USA didn't bomb Germany after that mad dentist conjured a penalty out of nothing in the Ghana game, but they're in NATO. We do what we must.
I digress. What just happened is Schrödinger's Cat: World Cup Edition. At halftime I left the noisy bar and thought dark thoughts about how the US has largely moved away from MLS players but remains addicted to MLS managers. Jose Torres was brought on and the first half was spent seeing Slovenia cover passing lanes until one of the center-backs aimlessly booted a ball upfield that Robbie Findley might run onto, for whatever good that might do. The US had conceded a goal built from sheer lazy marking from Bocanegra, who allowed Walter Birsa to tuck inside totally unmarked and launch a shot Howard, off his line, had no chance at. The second goal was a World Cup-crushing gut punch that followed a sequence in which the US was one wrong touch or Donovan sliding tackle away from equalizing.
Then something decayed. At halftime I was busy composing a rant about how the loss had nothing to do with the USA's inability to play above the level of their competition and everything to do with their inability to do anything except on the counter and the unfamiliarity with defending it. The US then got a couple goals off hoofed long balls and managed to avoid further crippling goals on the counter. Why is unclear.
It wasn't the substitutions, neither of whom had anything to do with either US goal allowed to stand. Before he got on the end of the Donovan service Edu was frankly bad, and Feilhaber's contribution was limited to a couple of ambitious passes that didn't come off. It wasn't the run of play, which was the same as it was in the first half, with the teams splitting possession and the US having slightly more edge in the final third. It just went differently for no immediately understandable reason. It just happened.
They're still in it, though, and since I'm at a loss as to what, exactly, to think I will default to my mode of operation in 2002, when I was in a Galway pub and Niall Quinn knocked down a header for Robbie Keane to blast past Oliver Khan:
The situation then is creepily close to what the USA just faced down. Ireland had drawn their first game 1-1. The last game of the group was against a team from the Arab world widely regarded a minnow (in their case, Saudi Arabia), and a draw was required if they were going to have a chance to advance. The goal is a carbon-copy.
Keane scored deep into stoppage time, so Ireland didn't have time to punch in the winner and see it set on fire. The country decided to take the rest of the day off and drink by the river. I've still got to watch the England game, but in many things the Irish approach to life is the wise course. For now, a stirring comeback that leaves the USA's fate almost entirely in their hands, and a reason to keep faith even when the weight of history tells you to go home and sulk.
While it's up:
But first! The Run of Play wins twitter in the aftermath. Read from the bottom:
- Jozy's finest game in the US uniform and not even close. Consistently dangerous, drawing a bunch of free kicks around the area, one of which resulted in the Edu goal-type substance, and knocked down the long ball perfectly for Bradley. Had a couple of those thrilling runs that are becoming a regular occurrence, too.
- Torres didn't do much and got pulled at halftime, but I'm not sure how much was even his fault since there didn't seem to be any passing lanes available.
- In retrospect, the horrendous Edu call was coming. In the first minute of the game Dempsey should have gotten yellow for an elbow to the head, then Findley got a yellow for handling the ball with his face. Other than Jorge Larrionda (surprise!) making a hash of whichever game he did a couple days ago, we haven't seen that many bad calls in a game, let alone a half.
- Speaking of Findley: anyone else actually happy he has to sit for the Algeria game? Pace is nice but it's almost sad to see Findley run a ball down. What's he going to do with it? Boot it directly out of bounds? Ah, yes.
- Feilhaber instead of Holden was weird, right? I guess the former might be more likely to spring a guy with a throughball through a crowded defense.
- The US had to make the balls-out switch to Gomez but, man, having Edu in the back in a World Cup game was terrifying.
- It's too bad the US doesn't have a true destroyer they can rely on because allowing Bradley to go box-to-box makes the US attack considerably more dynamic. His late runs into the box find him open all the time. This time, unlike Australia, he shot.
- The outcome of the Algeria-England game does not matter much for the US. As discussed in the preview, the only way an Algeria win does not put the US through is if 1) the ENG-SLV game is a draw, 2) that draw sees Slovenia score two more goals than the US does against Algeria. That's a highly unlikely outcome. Anything other than an England win means the US just goes through if it wins, so root for Algeria, but it's not likely to matter either way.
- Germany outcome removes any incentive to finish first. You'd like to avoid the Germans since they only lost because of a questionable red card to Klose (like Eddie Pope's sending off in 2006 the first yellow was a "huh" moment), a saved penalty, and some heroic goalkeeping by the opposition even after Germany went down to ten. But you have no idea where they will finish in the group.
There are varying opinions on whether the Slovenia game is a must-win or must-tie; I'm in the tie camp. If the US ties and England beats Algeria as expected, the final matchday will see Slovenia and England enter with four points and the US two. The US would go through if they win against Algeria and…
- England wins
- Slovenia wins
- there's a draw and the US wins by two
- there's a draw and either Slovenia or England scores fewer total goals than the US.
That is almost all possibilities that include a win over Algeria. So they can't lose. But a tie is far from tragic.
On the other hand, a win gives them more leeway against Algeria and could see them escape the knockout game against Germany everyone would dearly like to after the machine mistook Australia for Austria and acquired plenty of lebensraum. Winning is good.
Unfortunately, the US is not going to have a couple of pieces of key information before they go into Friday's matchup against Slovenia: what happened in the England-Algeria game, and if Germany as terrifying as it seemed or if Australia just a team that can give up four goals to anyone. If they knew these key bits of information they would know whether they should attempt to win by a lot or just win.
Without that information and given the situation in the group, the right answer appears to be "just win." This, I'm sad to say, may see Ricardo Clark start again.
Slovenia, as you might expect given their population is approximately equivalent to Iowa, is a boring defensive team. They do have a few talented attacking players but their overall lack of talent sees them play a traditional 4-4-2 that you could call a 4-4-1-1- if you wanted, or a 4-2-2-2, or… well, a lot of different things. A 4-4-1-1 plays pretty similarly to what England does with Rooney and Heskey—Rooney comes deep for the ball, Heskey presses up the pitch—and so you could see some situations similar to the ugly breakdown that led to the England goal, hopefully minus the ugly breakdowns.
Here's my Torres pitch: I think this actually is an argument for Dollar Store Xavi. Torres operates best as a deep-lying playmaker who does not get dragged up the pitch much. Though he's not exactly spectacular in the tackle, the Slovenia attack is not athletic enough to punish him the way he would have been against England and his presence at the back will be more consistent than Clark—who tends to get dragged out of position—and Bradley—who also tends to get dragged out of position, but at least with him there's usually a point. The US defense is less likely to get pulled out of shape when he's around and more likely to spring quick attacks that bypass the Slovenian's compact discipline as much as that is possible. Clark's positioning has been erratic at best over the last month.
SI's Jonathan Wilson describes the Slovenes as essentially identical to the US, with their best and most creative players operating as tucked-in wingers:
Slovenia's only real creativity comes from the wide midfielders, Valter Birsa and Andraz Kirm. Both tend to tuck in when Slovenia is out of possession, pulling wider when the ball is won, while still looking to cut in on the diagonal -- just as Donovan and Dempsey do. They also tend to switch during games, occasionally playing as orthodox wide men and looking to swing in crosses, but more usually playing as inside-out wingers.
The back four and the two central midfielders are defensive players first, and the central defenders are good but not great. With Slovenia set to sit back and look for the counter themselves, opportunities to break will be minimal and this might be a game for Edson Buddle and his recent run of finishing instead of a Robbie Findley more likely to waste possession and biff open nets. Buddle's also a much greater threat in the air. With a lot of the USA's offense likely to come from overlapping fullback crosses, aerial power seems preferable to speed. Also, if you're bringing in Torres you might want a little more size elsewhere for set pieces for and against.
Slovenia's goalie, unfortunately, is damn good.
I've already brought this up in the previous sections: if I was Bob Bradley I'd swap Torres for Clark and Buddle for Findley, expecting that Torres would be sufficient defensively against a side lacking the sort of middle-of-the-park power England has and more likely to hold possession and unlock the Slovenian defense. Buddle, meanwhile, is more likely to get on the end of a cross or set piece and more likely to finish any opportunity that happens to come his way.
Will Bradley actually do this? I don't know. I think you might see Clark or Edu in the first half with Torres a halftime sub if the US needs a goal. Findley… well, I reviewed the England game and he was a much better hold-up forward than Altidore, consistently bringing down long balls and getting the midfield involved in pressure situations. That more than his speed was his contribution. Against a very different opponent I'd rather have a guy to get on the end of things.
The other option is bringing on Holden, which would probably see Dempsey move up top. That's an attractive option too since Slovenia is set up to give up space on the wings and Holden is probably the USA's best winger. The USA as set up against England is exceptionally unlikely to get in a good cross. This game seems to call for more width, and Holden's about the only guy who provides that unless you want to pretend it's 2006 and DaMarcus Beasley is a good option.
Everyone except Clark and Findley is a sure starter. Those nine plus tactical whateva should be enough to get a result, but Spain-Switzerland and whatnot, and we are not Spain.