The atmosphere was certainly festive at the very southern tip of the African continent as the United States played to a 1-0 win against the Republic of South Africa Wednesday in Johannesburg. The match provided an excellent view into the future for American soccer. It certainly was a bright one.
The match started off with probing runs at both ends of the pitch. The Americans had a few set piece chances early on, and the South Africans managed to get through one-on-one on American ‘keeper Brad Guzan, only for the Yank No. 2 to channel his inner Tim Howard and Kasey Keller and make a triplicate of high quality saves in the first 20 minutes.
Captain the side for the evening, he certainly did his share to add to the reputation of American ‘keepers throughout the international community.
As expected, the Americans put fresh faces into the match early and in important roles. It started with New York Red Bull center back Tim Ream making his international debut and first start.
The MLS Rookie of the Year award finalist managed to get his first touch on the ball just minutes into the affair with a headed interception of a long, speculative ball out of the South African midfield.
Eric Lichaj, making his first international start and accepting his second cap, provided another positive performance from an American youth. The Aston Villa right back, who made his debut in the Premier League at the weekend against Manchester United, was dangerous along the entire flank, looking solid in defense and making his presence felt in the attack.
Commentators even went so far as to say that Lichaj had “eliminated” his counterpart on the flank in the first half. Certainly high praise for a player with a bright future in the American camp as a wing back on a squad with little depth in that area.
Where the youth demonstrated their abilities early on, one of the veterans demonstrated a lack of ability that led many American fans to question the player’s selection. Robbie Findley, the speedster of the American lineup, had a tendency to drift away from his solo-striker role.
The Americans had nobody to receive crosses. The void was so apparent that Bob Bradley pushed young Alejandro Bedoya, certainly no target striker, just under Findley to attempt to bolster the tip of the attack.
Despite fielding what was dubbed a “C” team, the United States entered the break drawn with a veteran South African squad. Bob Bradley whetted the appetites of the American faithful saying in his halftime interview that he would involve Teal Bunbury and Juan Agudelo in the second half. Bradley made good on that promise by bringing in “The Canuck” immediately at the start of the second half.
Bunbury’s presence was felt very quickly at the top of the pitch. His game, much more physical that Findley, who made way for the Canuck, was very visibly more suited to combating the physical South African defenders. Bunbury’s shot just a few minutes into his debut forced a good low save by the South African ‘keeper.
Robbie Rogers, who had a solid 60 minutes, made way for the man that many Americans had desperately wanted to see: Juan Agudelo. Wearing the No. 17 shirt, the New York Red Bull stepped onto the field at just 17 years old in South Africa.
He got into the action immediately on the right wing, taking on a pair of South African defenders and eventually dishing the ball to be distributed from the top of the box.
Ream made way for former University of Denver and current Real Salt Lake center back Nat Borchers late on in the match. Ream’s debut showed that the defender is clearly in possession of a level head, having done well against a quick and physical South African attack.
Ream’s future in the Yanks backline seems very assured, and he is likely to appear for the Americans once again at the January camp and subsequent friendly with Chile at the Home Depot Center.
It was two of the debutantes who managed to connect for the game-winning goal for the Americans. Mikkel Diskerud, with an audacious drag-back, flicked the ball into the path of a surging Juan Agudelo. Agudelo’s goal required a strong finish, and he provided such a shot, slamming it onto the inside of the crossbar to put the Americans up for good.
Agudelo, as was noted by the commentary crew, couldn’t keep the smile off of his face, and rightly so. He worked hard all night, scored in his first cap, and was a consistent danger.
The Americans can take away several good things from tonight’s match, most notably the play of their youth. Ream and Lichaj in defense, Bedoya and Diskerud in the midfield and Bunbury and Agudelo in attack all demonstrated that the skill and potential they have all displayed can assuredly translate from their club form to the international state.
Ream displayed the composure and vision out of the back that made him indispensable in the New York defense this past MLS season. Lichaj showed yet again that he is the heir apparent to one of the wingback positions for the Yanks with a solid and physical performance. Even Gale Agbossoumonde, who only had a brief stint on the pitch, showed flashes of the aerial dominance that is quickly becoming his trademark.
Bedoya worked hard all night on the pitch, even playing out of position to support the struggling Robbie Findley. But it was Diskerud who displayed some of the best technical skill on the ball of the night. His drag-back was cheeky to be sure but executed with all the confidence in the world. Never did it look as though Diskerud was out of his element.
And of course, Agudelo will get the lion’s share of the headlines, and deservedly show. The pure joy written all over the young striker’s face was emblematic of the entire American effort on the night.
The Americans will next be in action in their annual January camp leading into a friendly with Chile at Home Depot Center.