U.S. earns respectable 1-1 draw with Argentina though effort lacked.
By Robert Wagman
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (Sunday, March 27, 2011) -- By drawing 1-1 with powerful Argentina in front of a near-capacity crowd of 78,936 chilled fans at New Meadowlands Stadium last night, the United States men recorded a positive result it neither deserved nor earned.
Almost from the start, the U.S. was back on its heels with Argentine superstar striker Lionel Messi leading the way in the first half as his team put on a clinic. It used the width of the field very well and the Americans were forced back into a totally defensive effort. Midfielders Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, the U.S.'s prime offensive weapons, dropped deep into the defensive end to help the besieged outside defenders, who had to pinch in. The result was almost no American attack.
"Argentina was very good with the ball in the first half and found a great rhythm that made it difficult on us, and the goal before halftime changed the thinking," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "I was very pleased with response from the team in the second half. To come away with a good result against a very good team, there are some things to talk about, some things that need to be improved, but also some positives."
Argentina coach Sergio Batista threw a couple of curves at the U.S. Taking full advantage of Messi's magic, he has adopted the style of play used by Messi's Barcelona club team and plays without forwards lurking at the top of the formation. Rather, he allows Messi and other two Argentina striker, Angel di Maria and Ezequiel Lavezzi, to constantly be in motion in the short-pass offense. The result is the constantly go at the defenders and never present targets to be marked.
Batista also surprised by leaving all his starters in for the entire match, making only a single substitution, taking out star midfielder Esteban Cambiasso, but not until the 73rd minute.
The Americans were fortunate to come out of the first half trailing by just one goal. The U.S. back-line held together well after settling in and Mexican referee Roberto Garcia showed great patience in awarding only one yellow card to the Americans, who responded physically to Argentina's show of finesse.
With young forward Juan Agudelo of Majot League Soccer's New York Bulls replacing defensive midfielder Jermaine Jones to start the second half, the U.S. went from a 4-2-3-1 formation back to a more traditional 4-4-2 with Agudelo playing on top beside Jozy Altidore.
Training this week in Cary, N.C. was all about formations. The U.S. entered 2011 with more depth, especially in midfield, then in recent years. The question now facing Bradley is how to get the best 11 on the field at one time in positions that best suit them. So much of training was trying various combinations and tinkering.
Bradley had hoped to have his full team available for tonight and for Tuesday's match with Paraguay in Nashville. But injuries have intervened. With two certain starters, midfielder Stuart Holden of England's Bolton Wanderers and defender Steve Cherundolo of Germany's Hannover 96, as well as defender Zak Whitbread all not available -- Holden long-term -- Bradley has had to go back to the drawing board.
Going into the training camp, the best guess was that Bradley would be most comfortable with a 4-2-3-1 formation in this summer's Gold Cup because his best two offensive players -- Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey -- like to play as withdrawn attackers. By playing a pair of holding midfielders in front of the defense, he can have his outside backs push forward.
An assumption was Holden would play between Donovan and Dempsey. Tonight, Maurice Edu pushed up in the central midfield between Donovan and Dempsey.
Surprisingly, with a pair of forwards on top, the U.S. seemed to find itself offensively and pushed the ball forward more in the first five minutes of the second half then in the opening 45 minuts. Where Argentina had completely dominated the first half, the Americans created a number of chances after intermission.
Both goals were similar. Messi evaded most of the U.S. team in the 42nd minute and hammered a shot at American keeper Tim Howard, who kicked it out, but directly to Cambiasso for a conversion. The U.S. responded in the 59th minute when defender Carlos Bocanegra received a free kick and hammered a header at keeper Mariano Andujar. When Andujar could not hold the ball, it fell at to Agudelo at the left post. He poked it into corner of the net.
In the end, this match was much like many others where the U.S. was up against a world-class opponent, forced into a defensive shell and dependent on set plays and corner kicks for offense, and fortunate to get a positive result, as was the case tonight.
U.S. Player Ratings
Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 7: Had a terrific match. Made five saves, some spectacular and, at times, seemed to be holding off the Argentines by himself.
Defender Jonathan Spector - 6: Had a surprisingly strong match, spending much of the time pushing into the middle to help out.
Defender Jay DeMerit - 5: Threw himself in front of shots to make good stops, while often allowing Messi to dribble circles around him.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu - 5: In the early going, he almost pulled a muscle by trying to stop Messi from rounding him. That pretty much highlighted his night as he was constantly a step slow in defending against the quick-passing Argentines.
Defender Carlos Bocanegra - 5.5: An up-and-down match. Had troubles with the pace and gave the ball up several times, but also made key stops and was important to the U.S. goal.
Midfielder Maurice Edu - 4.5: His role was to control the offense in the middle of the midfield and he did not seem to communicate well with those behind him.
Midfielder Jerimaine Jones - 5.5: He is what in European soccer is called "a hard man." In the half he played, his response to the buzzing Argentines was to simply knock them flying. A yellow card slowed him a bit.
Midfielder Landon Donovan - 5: As Donovan goes, so goes the U.S. Tonight, he did not go all that well and struggled as he was forced to play a lot of defense.
Midfielder Clint Dempsey -- 5.5: Essentially, ditto for Dempsey. Forced to spend much of the night defending his offensive role was diminished.
Midfielder - Michael Bradley 4.5: Likely ended the night with a sore neck from watching Messi carry around and through him. Gave a great deal of effort, but without much result.
Forward Jozy Altidore - 4.5: A very poor first half while a lone striker, he had a better second 45 minutes when he was able to play wider and caused the Argentines some problems.
Forward Juan Agudelo (46th minute for Jones) - 6: A strong half. Caused the Argentina defense problems with his mobility and was in the right place at the right time to knock in the U.S. goal.
Defender Timmy Chandler (46th minute for Spector) - 6.5: As good of a debut as any young U.S. player in recent memory. The only defender able to push forward, perhaps against a tiring Argentine side, but had to pace to get back and defend well.
SoccerTimes U.S. Player of the Match: Tim Howard.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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