Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thoughts on US 3 - Hon 2

My WC qualifying viewing experience:

Even though only 4 bars in all of California were showing this game in English, 2 were within 45 miles of my house. Still, the prospects of fighting through LA traffic, hunting down a parking spot on the street, forking up a $20 cover charge plus more for beer, all to possibly stand shoulder to shoulder with smelly, drunken and/or unshaven fans for 2-3 hours, if I could even get in to begin with, just did not sound that appealing. Plus, there's the whole principle of not financially encouraging the Honduras Federation's decision to only show the cable on closed circuit bars. So I stayed home.

To my surprise, there were several internet streams of this game available. However, with the number of viewers trying to get on, most of the 1st half was just really choppy. Since it maddeningly would cut out or freeze every few seconds, I just decided to follow play by play updates. Then when I saw that Honduras had scored first, just minutes into the 2nd half, I figured I would try my luck at getting back onto a stream since I guessed that a lot of viewers would've stopped watching. From then on, the stream was relatively uninterrupted until the end. Again, what a freakin ridiculous way to watch such an important World Cup qualifier. Fifa really needs to ensure that these games are available on cable television, at the very least.

According to the play by play, it sounds like the US could not retain much possession in the 1st half and could only muster counter-attacks. Like most US fans, I'm getting tired of us chasing the opponents around until we win possession only to boot it downfield for them to attack again. However, of the 3 goal-scoring opportunities that I saw in the choppy 1st half stream, 2 of them came from the US. Charlie Davies had a powerful header stopped by the keeper and he proceeded to excitedly launch the rebound over the crossbar. Bocanegra also missed a wide open sitter off his head.

After Honduras scored on a free kick, which by all accounts was likely a foul drawn from a dive, thoughts of the earlier El Salvador and Costa Rica away qualifiers flooded my mind. We didn't even have possession, so how are we really going to score not just 1 but 2 goals to win it? Remember, a draw vs Honduras doesn't do anything for us since we'd still have to draw or win in our last game vs Costa Rica either way.

Conor Casey's 1st goal was just a matter of desire and size, and he was able to throw himself into a 50-50 situation and win the ball. Even better, the US possession surprisingly picked up seemingly after each of our goals. Now, I'm one of the critics who immediately questioned Bob Bradley's decision to start Casey. I thought it should've been Davies-Altidore or at least Davies-Ching, if Jozy was really out of form. If not some combo of those 3, then I figured Kenny Cooper, who has been a revelation in Deutschland, would be the only tall white guy to get a look. But Conor Casey? The MLS bum who has been completely worthless in every appearance for the USMNT?

The second goal was setup by Donovan on a exquisite pass through a tight window to Casey's feet. It reminded me of a Peyton Manning pass that squeezes past the flailing arms of a closing safety right into Dallas Clark's hands. What a sweet pass by Landon. Casey managed to one touch it into space in front of him with only the keeper to beat. Then he managed to quickly control the ball and deftly place it around the incoming keeper with great touch. He made it look so easy.

But it was US' 3rd goal that I thought, at the time, had finally sealed the game and booked our place to South Africa. This time it was Casey who setup the goal scoring chance and drew a foul just outside the box. When Landon was lining up the shot, I thought to myself that here he had a chance to finally put all the doubters to rest. It was a free kick which Landon has not really been all that impressive at up to this point. Many critics have lambasted the fact that he seems to take most of the free kicks. And he has never really been that clutch in terms of goal-scoring either, especially in the biggest moments. So I thought this was a real chance to make his mark. The last thing I thought before he struck the ball was that he couldn't have helped but to have learned something from spending all this time with the greatest free kick specialist who has ever played the game: David Beckham. Sure enough, Landon curled the ball around the jumping wall and back inside the farpost, smacking the net. He did it with power and touch. Amazing. How fitting. At that point I thought it was over.

I figured we'd have to dodge a few bullets but the last 20 minutes was ridiculous. They scored a goal out of the chaos in our defense. Then they got a handball call and a penalty kick which Carlos Pavon managed to Roberto Baggio over the top. Then Pavon missed an wide open header.

Shockingly, the US was able to maintain possession in injury time and waste it away as good teams usually do. For what I saw, Landon was man of the match.

What a great accomplishment. 6 straight World Cup appearances (though we hosted in 1994 and got an exemption) is no small feat and only a handful of countries have done the same. I still remember going to the first US qualifier of this cycle last summer against Barbados and wondering if this road would be a breeze or a battle. Even farther than that, I remember going to Bob Bradley's first game as US coach in Jan of 2007 and wondering if he was the right choice for the job instead of giving into Klinsmann's requests. Looking back, its never easy to qualify so we fans should be very happy indeed. Congrats to the USMNT.

In my opinion, Coach Bradley did what he was supposed to do and more in spite of all the criticism leveled against him from day 1. He successfully replaced several retired veterans and brought in a younger group of players into the team's core including his son Michael, Feilhaber, Spector, Davies, and Altidore among others. He led the US to the 2007 Gold Cup championship, booking our place in this year's Confed Cup. He developed the team's experience with tough friendlies vs world class teams like England, Spain, Argentina and Brazil. He continued our dominance vs Mexico on home soil (and no, the 2009 GC final doesn't mean squat). He lead the US to maybe the biggest non WC win ever vs the unbeatable #1 ranked Spain. And most importantly, he's led us back to the big dance. Personally, no matter how we do in South Africa, I'd still like to see a coach like Guus Hiddink take over after next summer to take us to the next level, whatever that may be for a country that's only 20 years young in its soccer development. I think we honestly have no idea.

Our qualification celebration was a little more toned down this time, instead of the wild celebration in 2005 when we did it at home vs hated rivals mexico. But to my surprise, it seems that the Honduran fans actually applauded the US' qualification. And in the post game hug, Bob Bradley seems to have promised the Honduran coach that we would play our hardest in the last game vs Costa Rica since the last automatic spot will be earned by one of those 2.

I do hope we do play most of our best players in the true spirit of gamesmanship. It is no small feat for a country like Honduras or Costa Rica to qualify and it should be earned.

My lineup for Costa Rica on Wed:

Donovan - Feilhaber - Bradley - Holden
Hejduk --- Boca --- Gooch ---- Dolo

For subs: I'm hoping Torres and Casey will be rewarded for their contributions.

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