For the U.S. Men's National Team, Friendlies Are Key To Success

Ben TrianaFeatured ColumnistNovember 23, 2009

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 27:  Brad Guzan of Aston Villa composes himself during the penalty shoot out during the Carling Cup 4th Round match between Sunderland and Aston Villa at the Stadium of Light on October 27, 2009 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Too often, the friendlies following a successful World Cup qualifying campaign are dismissed.  Club demands outweigh national commitments. Squad selections fluctuate, and more often than not, there seem to be too many variables in order to gain an accurate assessment of the team. 

And so, the initial response from many is, “It’s only a friendly. It doesn’t mean much, or, the ultimate lineup wasn’t available.”

Many feel rightly justified in reacting in such a manner as every four years some World Cup favorite is ousted in the first round while a tournament long-shot makes it to the quarter finals. 

In most of these cases it's a surprise star or a team with the right chemistry, playing well that exonerates such misunderstanding. It is true that sometimes these factors can’t be helped, and maybe this is what confuses fans, and so in the end, friendlies mean nothing.

But too many times, quality showings in friendlies set a team up for success down the road. For the United States in 2010, these games might decide the team’s fate.

One need only look at the USMNT’s games before the World Cup in 2006. The team started out well enough, winning five games in a row at the beginning of the year, but it is after the team was selected and a trifecta of games were played aptly labeled the “Send-Off Series,” that problems began to arise.

First, like now, a goal scoring tandem was never found. In five out of the six games, only one goal was scored by a U.S. player. In the other match, only two goals were scored, and Clint Dempsey, a midfielder, was the only player to score more than once in that six game window. During the Send-Off games, six different defenders were featured and one midfielder (Eddie Lewis) was assigned to the left-back position.

Bruce Arena’s selection hinted at his concern over his defense, an issue that would not be resolved, and then perhaps only through card count, by the second group stage game against Italy. Unfortunately, at that point, chances of the U.S. advancing to the second round were all but lost.

The USMNT isn’t the only team that has utilized friendlies to fine-tune their roster. Italy, 2006’s World Cup champions, played three warm up games in the months before the tournament. They won two out of the three and drew the third. Gilardino scored in consecutive contests. Also, three out of the four goal scorers during the friendlies found the net in the World Cup.

Clearly, Italy was using these games to create chemistry, select starting players that would more than likely be playing that summer, and fine tune tactics.

Throughout history, teams have used the friendlies before a World Cup to create their most dangerous squad.

Alf Ramsey, manager of the 1966 English national team, used the run of games to quell any doubts that his change of tactics was the right choice, a monumental decision that produced England’s only World Cup title and workout one or two final position players. Like Italy in 2006, England finished out his last three warm-up games with wins. 

This philosophy appears to still be practiced today. England and Brazil squared off recently in an obvious assessment as to where they ranked on the world stage. While the game was timid, and the goal scoring limited (as expected), the teams were able to determine that they were on the right track, relatively, heading into the last six months of preparation (after the Christmas break of course). 

The same could be said for the U.S. team, again relatively.

On paper, Slovakia and Denmark are great friendlies to end the year. They are both teams that qualified for the World Cup final, they are both European teams that the U.S. rarely has the opportunity to face, and the weather may well mimic what the team will be forced to stumble through in South Africa (with varying amounts of precipitation of course).  Granted, neither team is as revered as the powerhouses that England and Brazil are, but neither of those teams were likely to schedule a game against the United States. The team takes what it can get, and currently, Slovakia and Denmark are better opponents than San Marino and Cyprus.

However, it appears the American soccer media and fans have shrugged off the importance of these friendlies. Two mediocre performances have been dismissed as key individuals were missing from the side.

Wasn’t the opposition missing players as well? At least Denmark was, and a number of analysts have marked Slovakia as a diminutive side, surprise winners of their group, enjoying a strong run of form, with few standouts in the side. Therefore, even if the U.S. was missing key elements of its team, shouldn’t the team have fared decently?

As I mentioned earlier, it seems that most have shrugged their shoulders and replied, “It’s a friendly, who cares?”

But just like 2006, these friendlies are warning signs. At best, the team appears confused from top to bottom. 

The defense is fragile and has lost its identity. No longer is the back line the spine of the team, playing as one single, albeit conservative unit, bending, not breaking, giving up its collective body in a very “American” last ditch effort to deflect a shot or save a goal. Tactical and mental errors abound, and after simple offensive adjustments by the opposition, the goals follow.

There is no chemistry, creativity or philosophy to the midfield setup. Who distributes the ball? Who is the playmaker? Who should attack? Who is the best defender? Which tandem works best? Which players pull middle or open up space for attacking fullbacks?

Supposedly half of the midfield is decided with starlets Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan secure in their outside positions, but Dempsey has not shined recently, does not play inspired, passionate soccer for country like he does for club, seems confused with how the team should interact, is a defensive liability, and gives the ball aware during transition. During the first half of the Denmark game, the midfield, at the very least, played a much more controlled, patient, organized game—the team may not have played better overall, but it gave the team an interesting different feel and personality that is rarely replicated with Dempsey on the outside.

Currently, there is no remedy when Donovan is not included in the squad, but it was not too long ago that Donovan was not playing well, and the entire team struggled. Also, Donovan is the free kick taker, a poor one at that, scoring once off a set piece in recent games, and nowhere near the dead ball server that others, specifically Benny Feilhaber and Stuart Holden, have proved themselves to be. Dempsey’s free kick in the Slovakia game was a welcome surprise from the norm. There are limits to Donovan’s game. What is plan B if he is to go down injured or is out of form come this summer? There should have been glimpses of the possible options in these friendlies. Unfortunately, there were not.

The struggles up front for the United States have been well documented elsewhere, and there seems to be no respite for any players currently enrolled to score from a forward position.  Discounting the dearth of goals, the forward lines fails to take pressure off of the team by spreading the field, challenging the defense, forcing other teams to be honest in their positioning and helping to retain possession. 

If friendlies are an indication of what to expect from a team—and friendlies are—the situation for the United States is dire.  Ignoring the writing on the wall is inexcusable.

In the end, there are elements that can be overlooked in a friendly. The ideal lineup is not always available, but that issue is often mitigated by the unavailability of players from the other squad.  However, the famous Argentinean coach Cesar Luis Menotti that led the team to World Cup glory once said, “I maintain that a team is above all an idea, and more than an idea it is a commitment, and more than a commitment it is the clear convictions that a coach must transmit to his players to defend that idea.” Currently, the USMNT exudes no idea. There was no through line, no philosophy, no plan evident in their play. 

No matter who is on the field, the idea should be present when a player wears the U.S. jersey. It does not matter if it is a friendly, a qualifier, or the World Cup final, a philosophy can be found. 

Both Slovakia and Denmark demonstrated a style of play. Slovakia: to play a controlled, disciplined, patient game. Let playmakers do their job, and do not give up an easy goal.  Denmark: to, like Slovakia, play disciplined, intelligent soccer, pressure, attack and overwhelm the opposition. 

Where does the United States National team stand?

The initial reaction is to look to the coach, and Bob Bradley has taken his fair share of criticism. But who, outside of the USSF and the USMNT really knows how much is Bradley’s doing and how much is a team that failed to implement his plan? Either way, he will be held responsible in the end…and rightfully so. 

In the meantime, the media and the fans should be doing more. Too easily do we dismiss friendlies. Too easily do we let the team and the manager walk away from a game without questioning their actions and motives. Such leniency does not help the cause.

We should question the team’s philosophy: What was the plan for the Slovakia and Denmark games? What changes were implemented once you considered a European defense rather than a CONCACAF team? With star players out of the lineup, what attacking philosophy did you stress? Why call up this individual? At this point in time, should so many new faces be placed in the lineup, or should some continuity be considered with, realistically, six months left to go before the World Cup?

These questions are obviously for the coach, but the same should be asked of the players: Why did you choose to play so directly? Why press forward when you should be covering an opposing player? What caused you to be so out of position? Are you on the same page with your partner?

Perhaps these questions are being asked. Maybe they are not making the front pages as soccer is not one of the predominant sports in America, but certainly, when friendlies are concerned, these concerns are dismissed as “it’s only a friendly.” Unfortunately, these friendlies prophesize how the team will play when it matters, and right now, too few are reacting like any of this matters.