So ostensibly the point of our visit to South Africa is as a dry run for the big dance next summer, a chance to gauge where we're at against the world's best and to take home what lessons we can. In that spirit, instead of railing on the fickleness of the universe (BigSoccer will have that covered in spades, if the servers don't go septic from Rossi bile first) or taking cheap shots at Bob or Dempsey or whoever, I'll instead focus on some lessons that we should have learned from the 3-1 defeat against Italy...
Lesson #1: Close down the shooter, or how Bob learned to carry more than two d-mids.
Now, to be fair, you probably expect your world-class keeper to handle shots from the kind of distance Rossi cranked their opener from (and boy did he ever crank it, fair play to him), but DeMerit's got to close down the space in that situation. What was he holding back for? Spector was tucked in beside him watching the runner. Was it a lack of communication? Deer in the international headlights?
As for De Rossi on the second, I had my head in my hands, so I haven't seen a clear replay yet, but again he seemed to be operating in some decent space, and it's not like there's any secret about his proclivity for spanking the long-ranger. This is where we were doing well in the first half with two d-mids closing down those opportunities. I wondered in my match preview if the demands of so many matches in quick succession would find Bob out for carrying just two central mids who play tough defense (Feilhaber, Torres, and Kljestan are all of a more attacking ilk). Now he'll be missing Clark for arguably the game he was most important for, Brazil.
Lesson #2: Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players
Feilhaber looked a bit lost on the right, but grew into the game, turning in a decent shift. I'm not so worried about him. Heck, even DeMerit handled himself pretty well (the closing down thing I mentioned above aside). The problems, for my money, were Bornstein and Clark, who both looked out of their depth. Is it coincidence that they're plying their trade in MLS? They're good players in CONCACAF, but not on the highest stage. Still, we have precious few options at left back, and I do think that Clark will get there eventually when he learns patience on the ball.
Notice that I didn't say that he needs to rein in his aggression. The red was maybe a touch harsh, but I want Clark playing on that knife edge because when he's buzzing around making tackles, he's a real asset in the middle. Where he gets into trouble is when he's won the ball. His first option always seems to be the direct ball into attack or trying to thread nonexistent needles. A bit of patience might see him crashing about like a wrecking ball and dumping the simple ball to more dangerous passers. I expect to see him in South Africa next summer, but until he learns to keep possession, he's still behind Bradley and Edu in the two-way mid department. I wonder if a change of league scenery might reap large rewards for both player and country?
Lesson #3: Clear it like you mean it.
How many times did defenders (and midfielders to be fair) make half-assed clearances or just dump the ball back to the Italians to reset the attack? It looked like half-court basketball at times. I understand the desire to play for possession, but sometimes the better part of valor is getting the ball clear. And the paradoxical element was that, when presented with more time and space, particularly with balls in the air, these same players went for the blind headed clearance that eventually ended at the feet of the Italian midfield. Gift wrapped. Puzzling.
Lesson #4: We can counter.
In fact, we're pretty damn good at it. It's the finishing touch that gives us problems. In the World Cup, when we're not the automatic favorites we so often are in our little CONCACAF pond, we can play to this strength. Our strength isn't in possessing the ball and breaking teams down with intricate passing. We tackle hard and have some passers who can set the fleet-footed away, and we thrive on set piece chances. The lesson is learning when to take those chances so that we don't needlessly turn the ball over by making ill advised passes/forrays. And, of course, we need more reliable finishing. But doesn't everybody? Of course, all of this depends upon teams attacking us, so we won't get much practice at it playing in CONCACAF.
And a few quick hits to close on...
* While we did invite pressure after we took the lead, it's hard to see what we might have done differently playing down a man, so I can't find much fault there. We tried to hit them on the counter and nearly did a couple of times.
* Hope the nepotism naysayers back down a bit. There was no question in my mind that Bradley Junior belonged out there.
* Beasley? Again? When you could have put on Torres or Adu?
* It's a shame that Donovan can't play pissed and in space all of the time, cause he's ten times the player when both of those fleeting stars align for a few fragmentary minutes here and there.
* We're simply not patient enough. I know I argued for clearing the ball with gusto above, but there's a distinction between trying to force the difficult ball and clearing a potential danger.
* That wasn't quite as humiliating as I thought it might be, but our tactical immaturity was evident, and I wonder if the early goal did us any favors by pretty much guaranteeing that our relatively inexperienced and unsettled back line would be under heavy pressure for an hour or so.
* Evidence for said immaturity? How about when we finally started getting a few chances about 20-25 minutes in and started to get carried away, leaving a lot of space for the Italians to counter into?
I'm sure there's more nuggets in there to mine, but I'm running out of steam here, so I'll just set the keyboard aside and wait for the comments to roll in so we can keep the discussion going...