Little Gained in U.S. National Team's Friendly vs. Slovakia

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Little Gained in U.S. National Team's Friendly vs. Slovakia
Win McNamee/Getty Images

I have soft spot in my heart for morning soccer matches. They paid for my room and board when I was attending school. They also made it possible for me to have my nights free for studying or, more often than not, for attempting to scrounge up some semblance of a social life.

My employment could have been accurately described as "whatever food establishment was willing to hire," and I was lucky enough to land a position as the lone server for a lunch crowd at a neighborhood bar. About once a week I could count on a contingent of middle-aged Greek soccer fans that would come in to watch the early qualifying rounds of the champions league. 

It wasn't a difficult gig. All I had to do was put up with a little overly aggressive male posturing, keep the ouzo flowing, and pretend to support Panathinaikos or Olympiakos depending on which team was playing that day.

With a 10 a.m. kickoff, the USMNT game against Slovakia reminded me of that time in my life, so I trudged down to the neighborhood bar. While I didn't order any Oysters Rockefeller (a favorite with the Greek fans), I did order a Bloody Mary, and found a good seat to watch the game.

When the final whistle blew, I wondered why the match was even played, and why I had bothered to get out of bed and head to the bar. Apparently, I wasn't the only one. Most Slovakian fans had decided it was better to frequent the local nightlife in Bratislava than witness what transpired on the field.

Not much could be taken from the game, and unfortunately, the United States plays too many teams like Slovakia.  A friendly like this has little surrounding it that can be applied to future MNT fixtures.

For example, the environment was one that isn't going to be replicated in qualifying or the World Cup. Even against sub-par teams, the away-environment in CONCACAF qualifying and the World Cup is much more hostile than what could be replicated in Slovakia. 

Also, outside of a few individuals, the talent and skill level of the Slovakian team is far below what the U.S. will face in South Africa. Shouldn't the team be facing quality opponents in order to prepare for the World Cup?

Especially for some of the fringe players vying for a final roster spot, don't they need to be evaluated against a relative opponent? 

What does it matter if an American player distributes the ball well against a Slovakian team that does not pressure and does not play inspired soccer? The tenacity, speed, strength, and skill of most of the teams the U.S. will face this summer will be well beyond what they faced against Slovakia.

Of course, there were a few points to gleaned from this game:

 

As much as one might hope, Jonathan Bornstein's struggles will not disappear with a good run of matches or an improvement in form

After Bornstein's goal against Costa Rica, Bob Bradley was pretty much forced to play Bornstein—not that he was going to replace the left back as he is one of the coach's favorites. 

While other analysts will lament Bornstein's inability to defend Slovakia's 19 year old starlet Vladimir Weiss, that's not the crux of Bornstein's faults.

Defenders get beat. That's the nature of the position. Eventually, even the best defender gets bested by an attacking player. It comes down to odds; a defender will make a mistake.  

It's Bornstein's decision making, lack of awareness, and inability to recover that ruin his game. 

On this occasion, it wasn't that Weiss beat both Bornstein and Dempsey (as expected), it's was Bornstein's initial reaction to hug a forward inside the penalty area

Bornstein's ineptitude was exacerbated by the position of the infraction. Weiss had a horrible angle at goal. Plus, Bocanegra was sliding over to cover. There was no need to foul. All Bornstein needed to do was put pressure on Weiss, or head towards the middle and fill the space Bocanegra left. Instead, he gave up a poor penalty.

Unfortunately for Bornstein, he embodies all that needs to be bred out of the men's team: Poor decision making, inaccurate passing, inopportune giveaways, inconsistency (beyond a bad run of form), and untimely fouls. There's a good chance he becomes the whipping boy for more than one analyst.

What's worse, he will more than likely start in South Africa.

Still, there is hope. At this point there's no possible way Bradley isn't aware of Bornstein's strengths and weaknesses. Essentially, Bornstein's played himself into contention with any alternative at left back. There's a good chance Edgar Castillo will play against Denmark, and Jonathan Spector has shown he is comfortable anywhere along the back line. Bradley has to be considering all his options by now.

 

One of the ongoing storylines this summer will be the U.S.'s inability to score during the run of play

This is hardly a revelation. However, it's a quiet crisis killing this team.  Not all goals can be scored from set plays (as viewers saw in this game). As I've said before, the blow to Charlie Davies will haunt this team for a long time, and no other striker has stepped up to fill the role.

This is the one area where Slovakia may be a realistic example of what might happen this summer.  Almost all of the European qualifying teams will have defenses as well organized as Slovakia.  The U.S. is going to have to figure out how to score against strong defensive units.

 

All of the minor successes on the night must be taken with a grain of salt

Yes, Jonathan Spector adapted to a central defensive role easily. Yes, Benny Feilhaber and Michael Bradley complimented each other well in the midfield. Both Dax McCarty and Robbie Rogers did what was asked of them.  Brad Guzan made some timely saves, and it was great to watch the United States maintain possession for once.

But what can be taken from the match other than, "At least the players can complete these tasks?"

Spector was rarely pressured. Same could be said about the U.S. midfield. Feihaber and Bradley had plenty of time to bring a ball down, or make the smart pass. 

Likewise, the player selection for the game was pretty much decided in advance. Club demands prohibited most difficult decisions for Bob Bradley. It's possible Feilhaber started alongside Michael Bradley as he was the most experienced central midfielder available. The same could be said for Spector playing in the middle of the defense.

It's not a stretch to suggest that dumb luck may have been as likely as any forethought from the managerial crew in selecting the most possession savvy players to be on the field.

However, a level of versatility was offered up by the style of play, performance and positions of players. No matter what the situation, there will be a competent goalkeeper in net. Spector's ability to play anywhere across the back gives the defense options. There are some fringe players (Robbie Rogers and a few others) that allow Bradley the freedom to try different players up top (read, Dempsey) since his other attacking choices have not produced dividends. Finally, if needed, the U.S. have players that can possess the ball.

The only question is if any of these positives will be utilized in more realistic scenarios.

As I walked home, I found myself to be as disconsolate as many of the Greek clientele I use to serve. There was a high level of enthusiasm and exuberance that permeated every Greek game—be it club or country—since the Greek national team had just won the European Championship that summer. 

The similarity between the situations was not lost on me. Like the Greek national team accomplishing a major feat that summer, the U.S. had just come off its own major accomplishment.

Now, Greece is in the second place play-off hoping to qualify for the tournament. In the same fashion, the U.S. is struggling to answer some looming questions in order to perform in South Africa this summer. 

At least the U.S. has already qualified for the World Cup.

Still, the U.S. has one last friendly to gauge its progress. This Wednesday, the match against Denmark—a talented, strong opponent that has played well against top teams in hostile environments—should be a pretty accurate barometer of where the American team stands.

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