(Friday, June 29, 2007) -- Amazingly, the United States men, under-strength and patched together, stayed level with Argentina's powerhouse for the first hour of their opening Group C match in Copa America before the U.S. succumbed last night to a flurry of late goals and ended up losing 4-1 at Estadio Jose Romero in Maracaibo, Venezuela.
Given the makeup of the two teams, most expected it would have been a lot worse, but the U.S. went ahead on an early penalty kick from Eddie Johnson before surrendering the lead two minutes later. Still, the two teams remained tied until the 64th minute.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley put an extremely defensive lineup on the field with only midfielders Benny Feilhaber and Justin Mapp and forwards Eddie Johnson and Taylor Twellman having any sort of offensive mentality, and the four of them often ended up playing very defensively.
In reality, the match stayed close because for the first two-thirds of the match, Argentina was off balance and disorganized. Like an All-Star team, it had not really played together, and it showed. But the U.S. had something to do with that, dropping 10 men behind the ball with an active midfield keeping Argentina off balance. In the first half, when Argentina broke through for some late chances, U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller was up to the task with a pair of good saves.
Perhaps the game turned on a pair of substitutions. In the 62nd minute, Bradley inserted Eddie Gaven for a tiring Ben Olsen who had run himself ragged in a defensive midfield role. Four minutes earlier, Argentine coach Alfio Basile replaced a surprisingly ineffective Esteban Cambiasso in the central midfield with attacking midfielder Pablo Aimar, who quickly got things organized and turned the match around, scoring one of the impending goals himself.
Until the last 15 minutes, the American defense played very well. It stayed together and stayed organized, and was able to help one another when it was needed. However, over those last 15 minutes, the U.S. simply was not able to contend with Aimar and Carlos Tevez, second-half subs with fresh legs running out of the midfield. On the last goal, when Tevez burst into the open, no one on the U.S. back-line seemed to have the strength to go with him.
The first Argentine goal came out on top of a melee in the American box. The last three were all world-class -- beautiful passes and beautiful finishing. The U.S. hung on as long as it could with what it had.
Now, the Americans must face a resurgent Paraguay, which embarrassed Colombia 5-0 in last night's opening match. If the U.S. is somehow going to advance from group play, it must find a way to attack, likely from the midfield. What a difference Gold Cup champions DaMarcus Beasley, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey might have made had they been included in the U.S. roster.
U.S. player ratings
Goalkeeper Kasey Keller - 5.5: The only goal he had a chance to stop was Argentina's first, and he should have. The three in the second half were all clinical finishes by great players.
Defender Marvell Wynne - 5: Almost the forgotten man in the American player pool, he did surprisingly well in his first international appearance, using his athleticism to great advantage. He is technically still a long way from an accomplished player, but was the right man for the job tonight.
Defender Jimmy Conrad - 5: Was very good for the first 70 minutes, but much less so over the final 20. Essentially allowed both Aimar and Tevez to run past him on the last two goals but, by that time, the opposition's fresh legs took advantage oh his tired ones.
Defender Jay DeMerit - 6: For the last year in England, he faced some of the world's best attackers, so he was not overawed tonight. Had a very strong match and was the strength of the U.S. defense.
Defender Jonathan Bornstein - 5: In the first half did a lovely job containing Lionel Messi while still adding something to the weak U.S. offensive effort. Still has problems getting caught out of position and was completely caught off guard on the Tevez goal. Mental errors will be reduced as he gains experience.
Midfielder Ricardo Clark - 5: Worked very hard over the first hour then seemed to hit the wall physically. He held his own against some very high company.
Midfielder Ben Olsen - 6: He was a dynamo in the midfield making defensive plays on both sides and generally disrupting things. The final score might have been different had he not been replaced.
Midfielder Benny Feilhaber - 5.5: An up-and-down match. Made some wonderful plays -- his accurate pass set up Eddie Johnson's braek into the box and his subsequent penalty kick -- and was one of the few pushing forward at times, but he also disappeared at times
Midfielder Justin Mapp - 5.5: Played a better-than-average, two-way game, at times was the biggest U.S. offensive threat and did fine defensive work especially in the first half.
Forward Eddie Johnson - 5.5: He did better than his appearances in the Gold Cup and was dead-on with his penalty kick. He still needs to gain confidence in himself at this level and tonight might help him accomplish that.
Forward Taylor Twellman - 5: Did fine work defensively, but was not very effective as an offensive player, particularly because he needs service and received none.
Midfielder Eddie Gaven (62nd minute for Olsen) - 5: Was brought in to give the team an offensive lift which he really didn't and the overall defense suffered. He had a few good touches and made a couple of good defensive plays, but not nearly enough.
Forward Herculez Gomez (69th minute for Twellman) - 4.5: For his first cap, he came in to add offense at the moment that Argentina found its stride and surged forward, so he had little effect.
Midfielder Kyle Beckerman (79th minute for Clark) - 4.5: Never really found himself and, like Gomez, accomplished little.
SoccerTimes U.S. Player of the Match: Jay DeMerit.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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