I take back all the bad things I've been writing about Alexi Lalas. His observations immediately after the Americans' 2-2 draw against Portugal were spot on. It was a great match and the Yanks would have been thrilled with four points from the first two games if they had been offered prior to the start of the World Cup.
It's up to Jurgen Klinsmann to convince the team of that. That we're still in good shape and have showed the world what teamwork and hard work can accomplish. But while the last play of the Portugal match was the most disappointing, there were several things to be concerned about coming out of the match.
One is that Klinsmann's magical substitution touch abandoned him at a crucial point of the game. I understand the idea behind taking Graham Zusi out and putting Omar Gonzalez in the center of defense with a few minutes left (to waste time, for starters). But Gonzalez hasn't done much right in the last month and he was completely absent (out wide to the right and behind the play) when Portugal equalized. Perhaps he was in to man mark Cristiano Ronaldo, but he did a poor job of that as well. He should have been in front of the cross from Ronaldo to head it away, but even with fresh legs was out of the play as it occurred.
Which brings us to the worst performance over 90 minutes - that of Geoff Cameron. Lalas forgave him the horrible miss hit that put the ball at Nani's feet five yards out with only Tim Howard to beat five minutes into the match, but I can't. It was the kind of mistake you excuse at lower levels of soccer, but not in the World Cup. Cameron then compounded the error by being behind Varela when he headed in Ronaldo's cross to tie the game at the death. Ball watching in the 95th minute? Amateurish.
I understand a coach wanting to keep his defense consistent absent suspensions or injury, but one has to think that John Brooks will be seriously considered to replace Cameron against Germany on Thursday. After the Ghana match Klinsmann said that Brooks is his left central defense substitute (i.e., for Matt Besler) and Gonzalez the sub on the right. But Brooks and Besler have to be considered to pair against Germany, particularly given Brooks' familiarity with many of the German players.
He's convinced me as a commentator, but is it
too late to put him back in the center of defense?
(photo from content.usatoday.com)
As for the good news -- I start with Besler. He was fantastic throughout the match. Apparently Howard was voted Man of the Match, but for me it was Besler without question. Things could have fallen completely apart after Cameron's miscue, but Besler held it together, stepping when he needed to and distributing well from the back.
Jermaine Jones was very good again, although not as good as against Ghana, save for his fantastic goal. Kyle Beckerman worked hard and had some good touches, although he also was not as outstanding as he was against The Black Stars. One has to wonder, at 32 years of age apiece, whether Jones and Beckerman will have enough left in the tank to go the full 90 minutes against Germany (particularly with three days of rest while the Germans have four - thanks FIFA!).
Clint Dempsey worked very hard and deserved his goal (I had a player score a goal with her stomach once - in a 1-0 upset win over the school that at the time was ranked first in the state - so I appreciate particularly that method of scoring). Zusi gave away the ball too much, but his perfectly weighted pass set Dempsey up for the belly ball that looked at the time like it had put the Yanks in the Final 16. Howard made one fantastic save, but on a rebound shot from a ball off the post that seemed to go right through his hands.
Honestly, very few of our players except for Besler had outstanding games. Michael Bradley was once again sub-par (but please don't talk to me about how Klinsmann should pull him for the next match - we have no one else who can even come close to being able to do what Bradley does even on a bad day). That should bode well for our chances against Germany.
A win or draw against Germany and we're on to the Round of 16. A loss, and we might still get in depending on the result of the Portugal v. Ghana match. And if Germany draws against us they are not only in, but top the group.
Don't think that it hasn't already crossed my mind (and those of the powers-that-be in both the Ghanaian and Portuguese Football Federations) that a dull, goalless draw against a German team that the Americans' coach starred for as a player and coached on this very stage would suit both countries' purposes just fine, thank you very much.
Such an approach, however, doesn't seem to be in Klinsmann's DNA (remember when we could have sent Mexico packing if not for two stoppage time goals that broke Panama's heart eight months ago?). And it's hard to see the Germans giving either Klinsmann or the U.S. any quarter either ("uh, Ms. Merkel, about that whole listening to your phone calls thing? We're really, really sorry now").
If only we had held on. If only Cameron had taken a better touch early or marked his man late. If only Bradley hadn't given the ball away in the center of the field. If only Gonzalez had done the one thing he was put in the game to do.
But this is American soccer. We're second in the Group of Death with everything to play for, coming off of two gutty performances with a warrior leading us on the field as our captain. We don't coast or dazzle or do things the easy way. But, more often than not, we find a way.
Still, just this once, I would have been fine with us taking the easy way.