Monday, June 28, 2010

World Cup Perspective from Sounders FC Player Taylor Graham

I wish I were writing under different circumstances, having just witnessed yet another game where the United States played well, but failed to get the necessary result to advance to the quarterfinal stage. After the 2-1 defeat at the hands of the last remaining hope for the African continent, Ghana, the US is heading home after a World Cup in which they had a great opportunity to advance deep into the tournament. It was a tournament of ‘what-ifs.’ What if the US could start a game with the same intensity that they played with in the second half of every game? What is the US could rid themselves of their Achilles heel of conceding goals within the first 15 minutes of every game?

Despite going down a goal in three of their four games in South Africa within the opening minutes of kickoff, the US always responded with increased possession of desire to attack. For me this shows a lot of character. Character to persevere. Character to outwork their opponents, which is a testament to their coach Bob Bradley. Throughout a 90 minute game, it might not seem that terrible to concede the opening goal, since there is ample time to search for the equalizer. But this is certainly not the case. Teams that are good in possession, like Ghana, can sit back, possess the ball, knowing that it is the US who has to come out of their defensive shell, take risks, and possibly open themselves up for the second and killer goal. The fact that the US was able to equalize in ALL three games after giving up the first goal is quite impressive. This takes good fitness, and mental strength.

And remember that team USA was playing with a lot of unproven players at the international level. Sure Landon Donovon and Clint Dempsey have been there before, but it was their surrounding cast that allowed them to win their group, ahead of England who entered as the overwhelming favorite. For me Michael Bradley was the man of the tournament for the United States. I know that Landon scored three of the team’s five goals, but Bradley covered every blade of grass of every pitch in which he played. Anyone who screamed ‘nepotism’ about the coaches’ 22 year-old son who starts in the center of the midfield (the most important position on the field) has all been proven wrong. His ability to break up opponents attacks, combined with his playmaking of our offense was as good as any American midfielder I have ever seen. It seems like we finally have a viable replacement for Claudio Reyna, who retired after the 2006 World Cup.

Jozy Altidore was another difference maker. The combination of his physical presence and pace bothered every defender he played against. His ability to hold up the ball in possession is essential for a team like the US who like to counterattack. He is good in the air, and good at drawing fouls and set pieces. But at the end of the day, the role of a striker is to score goals, and he was unable to do that. His goals will come for the US; unfortunately they did not come on African soil. Hopefully he will keep maturing on the field, as well as continue helping the world in a positive way off of it. (Jozy raised over $140,000 to help victims in Haiti after their earthquake. His parents are Haitian.)

Now that the US is out of the tournament, I can look at the tournament with my head rather than my heart. While England have yet to reach their potential at this tournament, I see them advancing to the semis, leaving Germany, Argentina, and Mexico in their wake. (Although it would be entertaining to see Argentina win it all since coach Maradona promised to streak through Buenos Aires if they win.) I also see Spain advancing to the Semis, along with Ghana, and Netherlands (sorry Brazil fans, I see their lack of discipline hurting them at some point in this tournament). These picks are certainly a leap of faith, but what do I know? I have yet to win a final four pool, so clearly I lack the ability to pick sporting victors. Maybe this is my year…

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