Busy, busy weekend, what with the U.S. team playing, World Cup qualifiers and of course MLS Cup playoffs. Here's what I'm thinking about Monday morning:
1. U.S. versus Slovakia. Of course the disclaimer here is that the U.S. was missing Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu, Landon Donovan and Charlie Davies from what would be its ideal lineup. However, the bulk core of the starting lineup was present, and the 1-0 loss to Slovakia highlighted the weaknesses in the U.S. offense, which have long been its lack of creativity and inability to break down solid defenses. Granted, Slovakia won its European qualifying group for the World Cup, but this team has only two high-caliber international players (Martin Skrtel and Marek Hamsik).
As a result, Slovakia typically plays the way we saw it play on Saturday: It defends deep with discipline, cedes possession and looks to attack predominantly on the counter. In short, Slovakia almost always sets up the way the U.S. often does against superior opposition. The result? The U.S. was stifled for virtually the entire game after the Slovaks scored and offered next-to-nothing going forward. And herein lies the problem: The U.S. relies on two things to score most of its goals: set pieces and counterattacking. With both Davies and Donovan in the lineup, the extreme pace the U.S. offers on the counterattack is enough to scare virtually every team. With Davies gone, that breakaway threat is markedly reduced, and defenses can key on Donovan.
Likewise, the U.S. has made a living beating up on the comedic defenses and undersized goalkeepers in the CONCACAF region via set pieces and high balls. That's far more difficult to do against European defenses. My point is the U.S. still needs to prove it can score against a quality foe when it trails and when it needs to bring the game to the opposition. We all know the current U.S. recipe for success against top-tier sides. It basically involves defending deep and hoping to snatch a goal on a set piece or counterattack. If the U.S. takes the lead, it defends even deeper and continues to look to score on the counter. However, to progress in the World Cup next year, the U.S. can't continue to rely on front-running against top teams. It needs to develop a more effective plan of attack if it does go down a goal and do so, without comprising its ability to keep its shape and defend at the back.
On the bright side, Brad Guzan looked very good as Howard's replacement (his save on Stanislav Sestak to prevent a second Slovakia goal was exceptional), and Jonathan Spector looked very polished at center back (other than playing Sestak onside for the aforementioned shot). I've said for years that Spector seems far more suited to center back than fullback. After watching him impress against Slovakia, I'd argue that until Onyewu returns, the U.S. should start Spector with Jay DeMerit (once he returns from his eye injury) at center back and move Carlos Bocanegra back to left back (unless Edgar Castillo can make that spot his own) to replace Jonathan Bornstein, who remains far short of being international-caliber. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Bocanegra is the ideal left back either, far from it in fact. However, at this point, he's certainly the lesser of two evils there compared to Bornstein.
2. MLS Cup playoffs. Well MLS almost got its ideal scenario of a Galaxy versus Fire matchup in the MLS Cup final (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com), which would have been a marketer's dream with David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Brian McBride. Two out of four isn't bad. The Galaxy, of course, overcame Houston 2-0 in a strange game in which the momentum kept shifting dramatically -- the two power outages certainly played their part. The Galaxy started well, then lost their way as the second half was all Houston, then comprehensively outplayed the Dynamo in OT. However, Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts got a little lucky when he pushed Brian Ching's header onto the post, and frankly, it was a strange decision by the ref to disallow Andrew Hainault's goal from the subsequent corner.
As for OT, it's a bit harsh to single out Ricardo Clark, especially since he'd played well to that point, but he basically cost Houston the game with a couple of clumsy (and completely needless) challenges on the Galaxy's Alan Gordon. In the first instance, which resulted in Beckham's free kick and Gregg Berhalter's goal -- I'm not sure what Clark was thinking. Aside from the fact that you need to limit the amount of free kicks you give Beckham and the Galaxy, Clark decided to hack down Gordon about 35 yards out from goal, while Gordon was surrounded by two or three Houston players. That's right, Alan Gordon. I guess I must have missed all the numerous instances in his career when Gordon picked up the ball 35 yards from goal, beat two or three guys off the dribble and either slammed the ball into the net or carved open a defense with an incisive pass. Why would you even think about fouling Gordon in that instance? And don't get me started on the second foul, when Gordon had lost control of the ball in the penalty area and was dribbling away from goal before Clark brought him down.
One last note on the Dynamo -- it's safe to say that heralded DP signing Luis Landin brought nothing to the table against the Galaxy. It's probably also safe to assume that the primary reason for that is he looks severely out of shape (and that's probably an understatement).
As for the Eastern Conference final, Real Salt Lake deserved the win against the Fire. RSL largely outplayed Chicago, and if not for a couple of point-blank missed sitters by Robbie Findley and Yura Movsisyan, they would have won comfortably. Although the Fire have the bigger offensive names, the reality is that the well-paced RSL forwards could provide the Galaxy's back line with a far greater test because of their speed.