I'll admit to having my attention diverted by the NFL openers this past weekend, in which my team, Cincinnati (don't ask), proved once again without a doubt that if ever a team is capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the Bengals are golden every time.
Anyway, on to soccer, and here's what I'm thinking about this Monday:
1. The U.S. national team's lack of form. The U.S.' surprisingly hard slog through CONCACAF World Cup qualifying seems to be firmly back on track after a pair of critical wins against El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago. While credit must be given for the U.S. team's ability to grind out results, there still has to be strong concern at the U.S.' inability to impose itself and dominate play against such low-caliber opposition. U.S. players spoke after the games about not playing the way they know they can. However, I'll be honest, other than what appears now to have been a temporary blip in the Confederations Cup this summer -- the majority of the time under coach Bradley, the U.S. has played in much the same fashion as it has in the last two games. That is to say, the U.S. has trouble playing a controlled passing game through the midfield when the opposition presses, has trouble fashioning goal openings when the other team takes on a more defensive mind-set, and is still prone to alarming defensive lapses that would be normally be punished by higher-class opponents than those of CONCACAF ilk. The problem is that the U.S. remains at its best when it plays a strictly counterattacking style and tries to absorb the pressure of a team that is bringing the game to them, as was the case against Spain and Brazil. That style works even better when the U.S. manages to score first. However, I still see this team having a lot of trouble coming from a goal down against better opponents and when it's pulled out of its counterattacking posture by the need to chase a game.
2. The U.S. midfield. Just as worrying is the midfield's continuing inability to control the game. It's certainly going to be interesting to see how coach Bob Bradley plays things out once Schalke's Jermaine Jones is fit and eligible (something that continues to be up in the air given the recent news that he might need another surgery). There's no question that Jones should be the automatic choice as the starting D-mid enforcer. However, while he'll help immensely in terms of the U.S. team's ability to break up opposition attacks, he's not going to help out in terms of the moving the ball, cultured passing and controlling tempo and this is where the U.S. still has a huge shortfall. It's critical that Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber or Jose Torres step up and fill that void, or the potent attacking quartet of Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies up top and Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey on the wings will go to waste. Michael Bradley in particular appears to be on cruise control as of late -- and I'm still far from convinced that he should be the nailed-on, untouchable starter that he's seemingly become. It's a real shame that the U.S. no longer has a central midfield player of the caliber of Claudio Reyna or John O'Brien to fit into the current mix.
3. The U.S. U-20s. I hate to be so seemingly down on everything this morning, but after looking at the U.S. roster for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, I can't see this team making much of a mark at the tournament. I suspect it'll be quite the uphill battle even to make it out of group stage. At this point in their careers, it's quite understandable why Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu aren't on the squad, but their absences leave the team seriously lacking in any kind of firepower. The sheer fact that FC Dallas' Brek Shea is likely to be one of the starting forwards or see substantial playing time up top is testament to that. (As I've said repeatedly ever since first seeing Shea in action at Bradenton, his best chance to make it in Europe is probably as a central defender.) Even more worrying is that virtually half the roster (OK, I'm exaggerating a little) seems to be made up of FC Dallas reserves, who can't even regularly break the starting lineup in MLS for one of the worst teams in the league. That said, you can watch all the games in the U-20 World Cup on the ESPN family of networks. (The tourney kicks off Sept. 25 and runs to Oct. 16.)