Mistakes add up. That’s what the U.S. soccer team should have learned today. Mistakes from long ago can add up and gain their own momentum such that further, more damning mistakes later are practically inevitable. If you’d like, you can bemoan these belated mistakes but the truth is that those first ones were the ones that set everything wrong.
The first mistakes, it seems, happened on the very last day of qualification against Costa Rica. One mistake was a tragedy: I’m referring to Charlie Davies’s nearly-fatal car crash. Every time you saw Robbie Findley making some dumb mistake this World Cup? Just remember that could’ve been an assured Davies making moves and finishing clinically. Perhaps this mistake was one of those unavoidable misfortunes that happens and can’t be wished away. The other mistake, Bob Bradley’s mistake, was very much evitable. On the last day, the U.S. already had its World Cup berth in hand. It was presumed by many that the U.S. would take the opportunity to rest critical players. Bradley didn’t choose this route: he chose to try to win the CONCACAF qualification tournament. Bradley’s rationale was that hey-it’s-always-good-to-win. Which is a wonderful sentiment and something I agree with, except hey-it’s-better-to-win-at-the-World-Cup. If Bradley’s sending out the full complement of players out was an attempt to win a seed, he was very misguided: the U.S.’s previous World Cup performance was far too weak to deserve a seed from FIFA. So Bradley sent out the full complement of players for a meaningless game. And Oguchi Onyewu got injured and tore his ACL. Onyewu, remember, was coming off of a dominant Confederations Cup and was working his way into the rotation with AC Milan. And remember the (unfortunately) starring role Onyewu played in the first three goals scored against the U.S.: in each time, the goaIl wasn’t totally Onyewu’s fault, but it was at least partially his fault. And at each time, Onyewu’s error wasn’t a physical problem, but a positioning one: one, essentially, of rust acquired during a long layoff. If Onyewu doesn’t get injured because of a misguided attempt for a meaningless win, then these errors might not have occurred; had these errors not occurred, then those games might well have been wins instead of draws. And were they wins instead of draws, the U.S. doesn’t have to play with an insane level of intensity against Algeria—because it was truly win-or-go-home in that game—which means, perhaps, it comes in fresher against Ghana. And, incidentally, if a fresh Onyewu is playing against Ghana, suddenly you have a big defender to battle with Gyan, the goal scorer in extra time. Mistakes add up.
The second mistake was the infamous Coulibaly’s. The logic, again, is similar. If he allows the goal, it’s safe to say the U.S. wins. If the U.S. wins, it would have nearly clinched a spot in the knockout stages; it would’ve only taken a draw to win. That would’ve meant a less-than-insane-intensity for that final Algeria game, which would have meant fresher legs against Ghana and you see where I’m going here, don’t you?
The final mistake was made in choosing the lineup, and is again Bob Bradley’s mistake. Practically everyone knew—well, except Bradley, apparently—that Robbie Findley was very ineffective at anything other than running very fast in a straight line. Findley, by the way, can’t even score in the MLS—why are we to believe that he can suddenly start scoring in the World Cup? But Bradley persisted. Practically everyone knew that Clark was an offensive liability prone to bad turnovers and not nearly as good at defense as his reputation indicated; in fact, Edu does every good thing Clark does and more. This was pretty easily confirmed when Edu came on and the U.S. immediately became much better. According to Grant Wahl’s twitter feed, Bradley elected to start Clark because of fresh legs. Which, of course, was a BS reason: Edu had played all of 109 minutes spread over two games. He was fresh—and he proved it by playing fairly well when subbed on. Give credit to Bradley for rectifying his mistakes; but mistakes add up: Bradley spent two substitutions early in the game in a game that went to extra time. Altidore, in particular, is someone who was crying for a substitution: from the first time the cameras picked him up on screen, you could tell he was incredibly tired from the physical pounding he’d taken in good efforts against Slovenia and Algeria. There’s no fault in that; but Altidore’s production was neither sufficient nor up to par. He needed to be substituted well before the end of regular time—but couldn’t, because Bradley decided to try to see whether playing bad players yielded good results. Mistakes add up.
The other mistake is one of interpretation. The common interpretation is what happened to the forwards? Both Bill Simmons and Bob Bradley shared this interpretation. I disagree strongly. The first place to blame for the bitter taste left in the mouth by the U.S.’s departure isn’t the forwards at all; it’s the defense.
The forwards, it’s true, didn’t score a goal. That’s not great. But Altidore created tons of chances with his passing (he had the header to Bradley with Slovenia, he had the pass to Dempsey that led to the rebound to Donovan against Algeria, and he played two passes to Feilhaber and Bradley against Ghana that resulted in very good situations) and earned tons of fouls and cards in every game, including his last and worst game. And Altidore had plenty of shots at goal; sometimes they just don’t go in. Obviously Findley, Gomez and Buddle weren’t that good, but they weren’t necessarily supposed to be: remember that’s where Davies used to be. At any rate, the broader goals—offense—were fulfilled. Let’s say you count the two goals that should’ve been allowed were it not for referee incompetence: then the U.S. scored seven goals in four games. That’s a prodigious pace, particularly when you consider the number of missed chances; clearly there’s nothing wrong with the offense.
No, what was wrong was the defense. While the U.S. scored seven goals, it allowed five. Of those five, only Gyan’s strike in extra time could be classified a “good goal”. (And even that involved defensive errors.) The rest were characterized by substantial defensive errors that other competent World Cup teams just didn’t make. Like the forwards, the defense had a hole in the lineup caused by injury (mistakes, after all, add up), but the non-injured defense were simply not athletic or good enough, frankly, to do a proper job. Of the starters on the back line, three were over thirty, the wrong side of the line. And it showed: they were often slow, whether it was a step in speed or a step in thought. Consider, also, that Tim Howard is one of the better goalies in the world, one capable of stopping many shots that others aren’t. Tim Howard made the defense look good, and it looked bad. It’s surprising that our country missed this, given that what we like to remind each other is “Defense wins championships” (it doesn’t: elite teams win championships; elite teams have elite defenses and elite offenses). But we missed it here. Hopefully we don’t miss it in 2014.