There wasn't much to celebrate last Tuesday night as the United States played Brazil. The idea that a friendly game against an international powerhouse is the right venue for a "celebration" should have been the first clue that it was going to be anything but a party.
The general assumption is that friendlies are irrelevant and one guaranteed to pack the stands is as good as a time as any to celebrate American soccer.
For a U.S. team lacking a multitude of top-level competition within its region, friendlies carry extra weight especially when that opponent is the hosting nation for the next World Cup.
The friendly could be considered a litmus test. Unfortunately, the results weren't pleasant.
Perhaps the idea for a friendly against Brazil as the perfect time to have a "celebration" came from the same place that has turned the national team into the shell of a Ferrari with the engine of a 4-cylinder KIA Optima.
The team's packaging looks great when the focus is on Landon Donovan or Tim Howard, but soccer is still a team sport, and these players need a base to support their efforts. Otherwise, everyone's stuck in neutral.
At the end of the game, few viewers would have called the game anything but an embarrassment for the United States. The team was beat by simple give-and-go passes, was slow to recognize Brazil's predictable flank attack, and was predominantly undisciplined and demonstrated poor decision making ability.
Even with a number of the players either young or unproven, the errors were at the fundamental level. This is a reoccurring theme left unattended under Bob Bradley, and a flaw better teams are starting to recognize as the best way to beat the U.S. The idea is to stay focused, disciplined and stick to the game plan. Eventually, the Americans will make a mistake.
Call it an education for the U.S. Since the 2009 Confederation's Cup, the U.S. has been promoted to a new class. The team's performances announced to the world that the average skill and ability of American players could be harnessed to beat a good team on a good day.
So opposing teams have to play harder, and the good ones are doing that. Now it's time for the U.S. to evolve.
Teams have to play well. They can't put just anyone out on the field. The Brazilian group that played Tuesday night was young, but Nemar had a possibility of making the last World Cup squad. Pato plays for AC Milan and could have played this summer as well. Daniel Alves plays for Barcelona. Clearly, the U.S. faced top competition.
For the first ten minutes, the U.S. played well. The team pressed defensively. The high pressure forced a turnover that generated an offensive opportunity from Benny Feilhaber into the box. Soon after that Donovan had an opportunity on goal that could have been a penalty if he would have gone down
The announcers were wrong about it being a blown call. Players don't get to have a shot on goal and a penalty. If Donovan would have scored he wouldn't have been asking for a penalty, and he would have been furious if the ref would have called back a goal in order to give the kick. The same happened to Arjen Robben during his breakaway against Spain in the World Cup final.
It's not about encouraging forwards to dive. It's part of the game, albeit unfair. You have to decide in less than a second which has the better chance of being a goal, the penalty or a tap-in.
Still, it looked like the team was excited and willing to play a more aggressive brand of soccer.
Then the Brazilians started the counter, relying on their fullbacks to get into the only open spaces on the outside since the U.S. decided to clog the middle of the pitch. Within five minutes, the U.S. capitulated to the pressure, hunkered into a shell, relinquished possession, and fell back into its more familiar style of play: Drop back, absorb the onslaught, hope for the best.
The best was a 2-0 loss that could have easily been much more.
Old habits die hard for this team. Once again, they rely on effort, conditioning and athleticism to make up for poor defense. They don't mark players and make decisions without realizing that every movement they make, every space they leave, or every player they allow time and space affects everyone else on the field.
It's as if they aren't aware of the ripple effect their play has on their teammates. They don't recognize that whenever they leave their man to step to the ball, that man is now behind them. They get caught in between, and most players at this level can take advantage of that mistake.
It looked like most of the time they didn't move as soon as the player next to them did, a normal practice most middle school players have discovered.
Offensively, as John Harkes noted, they don't know when to pass and when to dribble, and by the point in the game where Michael Bradley walked back to Omar Gonzalez to request the ball in the defender's space thereby nullifying his responsibility as the box-to-box midfielder and clogging a major passing lane all at the same time, it was over for the U.S.
It wasn't all doom and gloom though. Landon Donovan was more than capable against the aforementioned Alves, once again demonstrating how far he's come as a player. Also, the goalkeeping was what many have come to expect from American net minders.
However, these American struggles have been highlighted since their Ghana exit at the World Cup if not before then. It's a wonder that the same mistakes keep happening.
The entire coaching staff and a number of the players all experienced the loss against Brazil in the Confederation's Cup. Did they not expect the team to push the fullbacks forward and look for the overlap?
Is it possible for the team to play a high-pressure defense if the back line doesn't take on some of the defensive responsibilities on the flanks?
How can a 4-4-1-1 create offense for an anemic forward line against a 4-2-3-1? Or conversely, match the team defensively?
If it's understood that the Brazilian players are better skilled individually, that they are going to play a more attractive, attacking style, how can the U.S. compete if they do not play a smarter, team-oriented game?
Similar questions were asked of the team after the Ghana game. The formation, player selection, decision making and execution was all dismal.
For better or worse, the responsibility will fall on Bob Bradley. Only France's Raymond Domenech did more to justify a dismissal. It's his responsibility to choose the best formation, players, and most importantly, have them prepared for their opponent.
At this point, the U.S. shouldn't be beat on simple one-two combinations. Players should understand the importance of creating space and smart positioning as well as staying with a moving opponent.
Eventually, teams come to resemble their coach. Currently, the U.S. team remains an entity with brilliant individual moments, a tremendous amount of heart and likability, but mental lapses and seriously poor decision making.
The same could be said of Bob Bradley which leaves fans with the following questions, if not many more:
1. Will the team ever play with the sophistication needed in the modern game?
From the formation to player selection to the intelligence needed to compete against the best, it always seems like the U.S. is a step behind.
The U.S. might be the only team in the top twenty-five still playing in a 4-4-2. Likewise, teams that don't press, lose. The best players cannot have all the time they want on the ball.
Individually, players need to be more clean and disciplined.
2. Will the team ever play to its strengths?
Most specifically, will the team utilize its midfield depth. The forward line can't score and the defense is young, if not flawed and yet, there are a plethora of decently talented midfielders. Why not play to the team's strength?
It's clear Donovan and Bradley need to roam in space, that there needs to be at least one, but more likely two, defensive midfielders, and a technically skilled, playmaker. There's not a single player that can do all of that for the U.S., but a group could.
And when will the team utilize its conditioning, youth and aggression? Feilhaber, Donovan, Bradley, and even Edson Buddle made smart decisions when they pressured the Brazilians into mistakes.
The team clearly feeds off of the high energy. No team can deal with the speed and pace, and it makes for a more exciting game. Once this team drops back into a defensive shell, it loses its bite.
3. How is the team going to cope without a world-class striker and what will it do to develop one?
It's looking more and more like Jozy Altidore may be the newest incarnation of Eddie Johnson.
Few others have offered any alternative either. If the U.S. can't field an offensive threat against opposing defenses, then their opponents are going to be able to overcompensate for Donovan and Dempsey.
The U.S. can't afford to play at such a disadvantage. Too many times the U.S. appears to be playing nine or ten on eleven because the front line can't get involved in the game. Everyone knows how those games turn out.
Yes, the Men's senior team is in a state of flux, but as Alexi Lalas has repeatedly stated, the first game after the last World Cup final is the beginning of the next cycle. It doesn't have time for a celebration.
In sports, there is no free game. The work begins as soon as the last game ends. The time for celebration is when the team's holding the World Cup trophy.
Remember, the U.S. hasn't held one yet.