In usual American fashion, the men's national team came from behind in what turned out to be a more competitive match than the first forty-five minutes foreshadowed for the second half.
The Argentinian side dominated the first half, and truly there wasn't a single U.S. player that stood out.
But how could any when the formation and strategy was exactly what Argentina would want: Drop deep, absorb pressure, let Messi and Co. run at us, hope for a counter-attack with a lone striker.
Could the South Americans ask for anything better?
They learned one lesson from the first half: the United States can organize itself (and thank goodness, since its an international team); it can let in only one goal when playing its traditional "shell defense"; and yes, Argentina is very good.
That's is a great lesson to learn if the goal of the match is to only lose by one goal. Unfortunately, that's rarely the case at the international level.
Still, the American side redeemed itself in the second half.
Bob Bradley changed the formation to a more conventional 4-4-2 (something this writer expected as it is the best formation for this U.S squad), and the United States pressed its attack which is really the only option against a side as strong and inventive on the ball as Argentina.
The change led to a set piece (still the best chance for the U.S. to score a goal), and Juan Agudelo scored a second chance rebound (Charlie Davies-esque). A decent defensive effort and wonderful goalkeeping by Tim Howard earned the U.S. a tie for a great second half effort.
Here are my player rankings:
Tim Howard—9: Performances like this game are why so many American fans consider Howard one of the best goal keepers in the world. His display was as good as any and the type necessary to win a tournament. He made no mistakes and could do nothing on the goal. A great performance after a quiet World Cup.
Carlos Bocanegra—6: Struggled late, but was the strongest performer out of the defensive starters. Boca lacks a first step and if most attackers don't realize it right away, they figure it out by the end of the first half.
Tim Howard was all over him when he was beaten inside for shots, but he did not commit a major gaffe (Messi's pass through his legs was less his fault and more Messi's talent). Furthermore, without an heir apparent, he's the only choice at left back even as he ages, especially if he can continue make an impact on set pieces (like he did on Agudelo's goal.)
Jay DeMerit—3: Nights like tonight are why the blond defender returned to the MLS. He was beaten by simple feints and over-committed too many times against elite attackers. DeMerit has to be on his best game to compete at this level. Game-shape or not, he made Argentina's forward line look twice as good as they are (and they are already excellent) by being unable to anticipate give-and-goes, overlaps or drop passes. The U.S. has to have smarter options in the middle.
Oguiche Onyewu—4: There's a chance that Onyewu may never reach the form he exhibited before his injury. Gooch was never a presence in the back, didn't organize or command the back line—and when he had the ball, he gave up possession. Nine times out of ten he cleared the ball as far as possible.
With the U.S. under pressure, those decisions only hurt the cause. Bradley may need to promote a new center back if he hopes to strengthen and reinvigorate his back line. There needs to be more intelligence and leadership in the middle.
Jonathan Spector—4: It was going to be interesting to see how Spector handled right back with intermittent playing time at Aston Villa. The U.S. played so defensively in the first half he had few opportunities to get up field. Still, like DeMerit, he was always on his heels, and outside of a few blocks, had a disappointing outing. With the likes of Chandler and Lichaj, Spector may see limited time as the U.S. moves forward.
Jermaine Jones—4: Jones' grade could be worse, but he's being given the benefit of the doubt because of the defensive strategy employed in the first half. Nevertheless, he made little impact on either side of the ball, made a poor, frustrated tackle that could have been a yellow card (a Jones' tendency), and there was no evidence of the potential he displayed on his debut. It's clear Jones does not play well in a condensed midfield, nor next to Bradley. With such a problem, it will be interesting to see how he will be used going forward.
Michael Bradley—5: Never a Bradley fan myself, but this was one of his better displays. He stayed home and adhered to the plan. He relinquished most of his passing duties to Edu—an intelligent choice—but his uncontrollable moments (running at attacking players full speed) happened too often, and of course, talented ball-handlers (a la those on Argentina), proceeded to dribble around him.
Getting beat on a playground 360 by Messi didn't help either. There's a reason why Bradley isn't starting for Villa; he's a limited player. As a holding midfielder, when the ball falls to him, he needs to execute perfectly. Usually that means finding the right pass, and this is something he struggles with, but is there a better option?
Maurice Edu—5: Nonexistent in the first half, but excluding Tim Howard, so was the whole team. He played much better in the second, though. Edu and Bradley seemed to have cleared up some of their chemistry problems from earlier outings. Great offensive support and good cover when needed on defense.
However, if he's going to be the offensive link ensuring that Donovan and Dempsey get the ball, he needs to relieve pressure by keeping possession, make timely passes, and get the team out of trouble with creativity: especially if the U.S. continues to play in a 4-4-2. But he'll never live up to the expectations.
What was once believed to be the U.S. strength, the central midfield, may be the most difficult to fill. The team clearly needs to play with two attackers, and that means removing a midfielder. With Dempsey, Donovan and a holding midfielder taking up three positions, the last midfielder is going to have to be a well-rounded candidate. Few current American midfielders fit that bill.
Clint Dempsey—5: Some will be critical of his quiet night and bad back-heel giveaway, but he was smart on the ball most of the night, contributed defensively, and supported the attack. Lack of service hampered his game.
If Bradley can find a central midfield tandem that can cover the defense and get the ball to him, then fans will see more from the Texan.
Landon Donovan—5: Like Dempsey, there was not much he could do without the ball. He made the right passes and upheld his defensive responsibilities. He could have executed a little better on a couple of attacks, but until he gets more help and has more freedom, not much more can be expected of him.
Jozy Altidore—5: It's not Jozy's fault that he struggled in the first half. With the type of game Bob Bradley wanted to play, he had no business being on the field. The goal isn't for a lone striker with ten men behind the ball to hold the ball up. He has to do exactly what he tried—to attack the defense. But that's not who he is, nor his type of game.
Altidore's not fast, nor technically blessed enough to play the lone striker role in a bunker defense. It's clear he needs a partner. Tonight he showed he can play when he has less pressure and less responsibility on his shoulders. It was good to see how he can be utilized by this team. His performance alongside Agudelo has potential.
Timothy Chandler—6.5: Speed: it's Chandler's greatest asset. He was able to get forward with it and back on defense when beaten. Without his crosses and addition in the attack, the U.S. doesn't pin in Argentina's back and change the flow of the game.
Chandler is America's version of the modern outside back, a player able to get forward, decent on the ball and with service, and he can make up for defensive lapses by tracking back and recovering in a timely fashion. Fans can expect to see more of him.
Juan Agudelo—8: Some may think this rating is over-generous or has to do with the hype. Three reasons for an eight instead of a seven: he's eighteen and playing Argentina; he brought out the best in Altidore; and he brings energy, speed, and a calmness on the ball the forward line hasn't seen since the pre-injury Charlie Davies.
He may have been overzealous once on the ball. But there's a reason people are excited with the youngster, and it is more than fans' need to crown the new American Pele.
He exemplifies the type of play American fans enjoy: he has a modicum of talent, he's calm and intelligent, and he's scrappy. It's telling on the field. His energy and ability to convert that into positive outcomes (rather than just running around like so many other high speed/high energy forwards), makes him an easy player to support.
End Game Notes: As a number of writers have mentioned in pregame articles, a lot was riding on this friendly match-up. And even more was revealed.
To recap, the U.S. improved its reputation as a very dangerous team for elite opponents to play. This is an important standard to keep. It garners wide respect and only improves the team's popularity and support.
Moreover, the direction, formation, and viable players are becoming clear. The U.S. needs to employ two forwards (as a single player has not emerged)—and the midfield will need to run with Dempsey and Donovan outside. They'll also need the freedom to run inside, supported by an attacking midfielder, as well as a holding or defensive midfielder in front of the defense.
The central pair will have to cover for Dempsey and Donovan on counters—at least until they can track back as they get more comfortable with their attacking roles. Manchester United employed a similar system when they ran Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez together.
It's not bad being a poor man's Manchester United.
The secret is finding the right central midfielders (exactly what Man U. had to do).
And at the same time, Bob Bradley will need to reinvent his back line. He has four years—and hopefully, a strong Gold Cup performance and a Confederations Cup—to figure it all out.