...with lessons in hand.
So what did we learn in the Confederations Cup? It's a strange boat we find ourselves in this week. Are we far removed from the creeping despair that led to the universal wailing and gnashing of teeth in the wake of the 3-1 and 3-0 losses to Italy and Brazil? Are we still wondering how the US not only managed to escape the group stage when all seemed lost, but somehow snuck past the best team in the world and into their first FIFA tournament final? Let me present the three big lessons that I think we take away from the experience...
Lesson #1: Put down the remote, Bob. (Or, Back to tactical basics)
When push comes to shove, a counterattacking 4-4-2 that defends in two banks of four is the way to go. Bob's formation experimentation seems to reek of watching too much La Liga and "Big Four" Premiership games. Single strikers. Two deep-lying mids. Fullbacks bombing forward. Staggered defense and midfield layers. Maybe we can play that way against the lesser lights of CONCACAF (though I'd argue we don't score enough goals that way--witness the rewards a 4-4-2 brought against Trinidad & Tobago), but against sides of roughly our quality or better, the 4-4-2 provides the most bang for the buck.
Note that I'm not abandoning the idea of overlapping fullbacks just itching to get into the attack. We need that width when we're controlling a game. But much of the time we end up being the less technical, but more athletic side. In other words...not the side carrying the play. In this respect (and contrary to my own previous directive to ignore the "Big Four"), I'm reminded of Liverpool, who struggle to break down lesser sides when they're in possession, but flourish against sides that want to attack them or possess the ball. Why is this? Rafa Benitez' system emphasizes a strong defense that generally keeps 5-6 back at most times, employs hard-workers on the flanks of midfield to close down opposition fullbacks, and counters, typically with 4 (sometimes 5), often with lethal results.
A back line of Boca-Gooch-DeMerit-Spector suits this system. Boca and Spector are "defend first" fullbacks, though Spector has the added benefit of being able to get off a cross or two (though if you'll notice, they tend to come from deeper areas, rather than from overlapping runs to the byline). It'll be interesting to watch both the Gold Cup and qualification going forward to see the direction of Bob's tactical thinking. The Gold Cup may not be the best measure in the group stage, but the knock-out stages might give a clue as to his mindset. The bigger answer will come in how we line up against Mexico in August.
Lesson #2: Lookie what I found here! (Or, Look Ma, defenders!)
I think perhaps the biggest find of the tournament has got to be Jay DeMerit. Not that he was hiding under a rock or anything, but, for a long time, we've been riding Gooch and Boca with little viable alternative in the center of defense (Danny Califf, anybody?). DeMerit took Boca's unfortunate injury and ran with it, establishing himself as a genuine alternative, so much so that Boca, when he returned, was pushed to left fullback. I don't doubt that DeMerit also played himself into a move to one of the mid- to lower-tier Premiership sides in the process and pretty much booked his passage for a return to South Africa next summer.
Likewise, Spector, healthy at last, was finally given a solid run at right back with both Hejduk and Cherundolo unavailable. The result? Solid, calm defense and nice possession play. Fullbacks in possession is a feature of the modern international game, and Spector played smart with the ball at his feet, whether it be the early crosses to Dempsey or keeping possession by playing lateral or back rather than booting long. The biggest surprise to me was watching him hit what looked like clearing balls forward, the kind we normally see our backs and mids doing just to relieve pressure, that ended up on the chests or feet of our attackers.
With Beasley at left back dead and buried, Pearce struggling, and Bornstein a reasonable, if not entirely palatable option, I think we now boast six solid alternatives in defense: Gooch and DeMerit in the middle, Boca in the middle or wide, and Hejduk, Dolo, and Spector wide. I still have my doubts about Hejduk technically and tactically, but he's rarely failed when called upon, so I include him in this mix. If all six remain healthy, I think we're looking for just one more quality option, either wide or in the middle, for the 2010 roster.
Lesson #3: Still in the shallow end (Or, Out of our depth)
While we can field a starting team that can compete with the best in the world, our depth peters out far too quickly. A handful of injuries or suspensions leaves us with nothing coming off the bench at this time. You only need look at the final to see Brazil bringing on Alves and Elano while Bob sends on Kljestan, Bornstein, and Casey. Not exactly a level playing field is it?
Of course, we do have the likes of Edu, Dolo, and Ching returning from injury, might be acquiring the services of Jones from Germany, and you've got to think that Adu and Torres (and perhaps Kljestan if he pulls out of his funk) will continue to grow, so all is not lost. But we're miles away from being able to put together a B (or even C) team that can really compete internationally, and not just in CONCACAF. Of course, this isn't a unique situation for a national team. Only the best of the best feature such deep player pools, but if the US is to make the next step, we need more guys who can fight for spots and guarantee that those currently holding the starting spots need to stay sharp to keep their places.
Having said that, I was surprised and pleased to see two of those players with "locks" on starting spots, Donovan and Dempsey, really stepping up their games. Both, despite hefty reputations, haven't been in great form for the national team for some time now, but as this team came together, they both emerged as emotional leaders and consistently quality performers. Let's hope that this is a sign of things to come, and that these guys have decided, as arguably the most talented fish in the pool at this time, to step up their level of play and make this "their team."
There were other things that we learned in this tournament. Beasley is done until he works his way back to form (if ever). Clark is reckless but is still a viable option against top sides. Altidore needs playing time and encouragement to work harder. Kljestan needs to be dropped until he remembers how to play again. Casey is no Chinger. Bob gets the pre-game tactics right, but struggles to make changes (tactical and substitution-wise) in-match. And on and on the smaller points go. Regardless, the three I outlined above are what I take to be the most important things we learned in South Africa.