US preps for World Cup against Czechs, Turks

Last week, the US Men’s National Team played two friendly matches against the Czech Republic and Turkey teams, as a tune-up for the World Cup.

I actually got the chance to attend the first game against the Czech Republic, played in Hartford. Getting to the stadium a couple hours before the game started, there were huge crowds of people camped beside their cars on the grass lot — a soccer tailgate of sorts. Talking to a few parties, I found out that most had taken the day off from work and brought the entire family out for the pregame festivities as early as 10 a.m. (The game started at 8 p.m.) Not only was the game sold out, but the crowd really got into the game. There was even a streaker! Of course, there was the Sam’s Army section (a group of supporters that follow the US team to games), but everyone else was also pretty enthusiastic and at least semi-knowledgeable about what good soccer fans should do.

As for the game itself, one could only describe it as disappointing. Coach Bob Bradley left most of his best players on the bench, so the likes of Howard, Donovan, Dempsey, Altidore, Bradley, and Bocanegra didn’t see any action, much to the crowd’s displeasure. It was more of a game to see who would make the 23-man roster and for experimentation. In the first half, the Americans and their young Czech opponents played more cautiously, so chances were tough to come by. Still, both teams managed to score a goal off a free kick before halftime. Things got a lot livelier in the second half. Both teams were pushing forward more on the attack, which led to a more action-packed back and forth game. Despite getting a Herculez Gomez goal on a nicely played corner, the US gave up three goals in the second half — so it was the Czechs who came out winners.

Though the game didn’t do much to show us how well the US can expect their starting eleven to play, it did yield some results. Oguchi Onyewu, the high profile US central defender, is still bothered by his injury, as he was easily beaten by his man for the header that was the first Czech goal. He was substituted off at halftime, and defensive midfielder Maurice Edu moved into the central defense, where he didn’t fit at all. Edu did a fine job in the midfield, scoring the US’s first goal, but was easily beaten by the Czechs quite often, especially on their final goal. While the US had good play in wide areas from Beasley and surprisingly, Robbie Rogers, they couldn’t do much in the center of the field, with Jose Torres being relatively ineffective, and Sacha Kljestan only doing marginally better. It was strange to see striker Brian Ching not make the roster after he was more effective in the game than fellow striker Edson Buddle, who did make the roster. All in all, there wasn’t much to take from this particular friendly.

The Saturday, May 29 match against Turkey in Philadelphia was the real test for the US team. They were facing a very strong Turkey team and finally fielding their own A team. Playing in front of another packed crowd, the US got off to a poor start in the first half. In fairness though, Turkey really came to play, and were passing the ball very well. As the US defense tried to play a high line, the Turks were able to play incisive passes to get a number of good opportunities on goal. The Turks really gave the US trouble with players rotating in and out of positions, and a lack of covering defense by the US led to a quick counterattack goal by Turkey. Turkey continued to give the US problems throughout the first half, and had three or four very good scoring chances, while the US never got in rhythm and only managed one good chance off a corner kick. Feilhaber looked lost on the left, while Dempsey really struggled to get into the game at all. Spector didn’t look too good at right back either, with many of the Turkish chances coming from that angle, and was caught too far forward on the goal.

Though they were thoroughly outplayed in the first half, the USA played very well in the second half. The US really turned up the pressure when Turkey had possession, and that helped them get back into the game. Findley’s introduction really bothered the Turkish defense, as he made many good runs and the incisive pass to Donavan for him to set up the first goal. With that performance, he quieted critics that questioned why he was chosen to make the roster. Jose Torres also did a great job replacing Feilhaber and slotting into central midfield. He kept the ball moving well, and was rarely caught in possession, a frequent problem for him against the Czechs. Dempsey also benefitted from having Findley in as a second striker by having a more defined position, and it showed in his performance. He and Donavan each made solid passes and incisive runs, culminating in Dempsey’s game winning goal.

When we got a chance to see the full US team in action, we saw a poor first half in which if it were not for some poor Turkish finishing, the US could have easily been down by three. But the second half performance was very good, and if they could repeat the pressure on the ball and their smart runs that pulled the Turkish formation apart, they should have a good chance against most of the teams in South Africa. However, the US hasn’t yet gone up against a team that strictly puts ten men behind the ball on defense and squeezes the offense out of any room to operate, and that may very well be the case in the group stage, especially against Slovenia. Do they have the creativity to break down such a team tactic?

Still, with the win on Saturday, the US will go to South Africa with high spirits, and judging by the crowds at the two games, there’s no shortage of passion from their fans. They’ll have one more friendly against Australia, and then it’ll be England on June 12th in the World Cup opener. The outlook is bright for the US ­— the team has a lot of potential and definitely has the talent to make it out of the group stages. Though they could be capable of giving a knockout round opponent a challenge, it doesn’t look like the squad has the overall skill level to make it past there. Still, with the recent influx of interest and passion for the game, the US is heading in the right direction in the soccer world.