U.S. Men Show Grit, But Not Growth
Monday, June 9, 2008
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., June 8 -- In the space of 12 days, the U.S. men's national soccer team played three of the top nine ranked squads in the world, a daunting stretch perhaps unmatched in the program's 92-year history.
Next up: Barbados, ranked No. 121.
The Americans tested themselves Sunday night against two-time world champion and top-ranked Argentina and, in an eventful if unfulfilling match witnessed by 78,682 at Giants Stadium, they earned a 0-0 tie. It ended amid heavy rain, lightning and red cards for each side.
From here, the United States will head west for the first match of its 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, next Sunday against Barbados at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. The return leg in the two-game series will be June 22 in the island nation. Heavily favored to advance, the Americans would then enter semifinal-round group play between August and November.
Argentina, coming off a 4-1 rout of Mexico in San Diego, is preparing for South American qualifiers against Ecuador and bitter rival Brazil.
The Americans began this stretch with a timid, uninspiring performance against ninth-ranked England, a 2-0 loss at Wembley that was hardly in doubt. They were better against No. 4 Spain, thanks in large part to 19-year-old Freddy Adu, but still overmatched in a 1-0 loss. Though the results were secondary to the way the team performed and reacted against opponents with glittery lineups, the U.S. team needed to upgrade its overall play and find a rhythm against Argentina heading into the World Cup qualifiers.
The first half was encouraging. Goalkeeper Tim Howard, solidifying his starting job for the foreseeable future, made four saves on Julio Cruz (Inter Milan). In the fifth minute, he stabbed Cruz's low bid with his left foot and slapped away the rebound attempt. In the 28th, Howard denied Cruz inside the penalty area after a superb pass from FC Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi and, just before the break, made a sprawling, one-on-one stop.
The other standout was Heath Pearce, who has emerged as the top option among a thin corps of candidates at left back. Pearce disrupted several Argentine possessions and combined well with DaMarcus Beasley on the flank. His powerful, angled 22-yarder in the 35th minute drew a save from Roberto Abbondanzieri at the near post.
One player who continued not to impress was forward Eddie Johnson, who started for the third consecutive match and failed to produce. Johnson, 24, has faded since his promising introduction to the national team four years ago and did not make much of impression in his first season with English club Fulham.
He was paired up front with Landon Donovan, who returned from injury to play for the first time in this treacherous run. Donovan, the U.S. program's all-time leading scorer, became the 11th American to play in 100 matches and, at age 26, the fourth youngest in international history. Only a South Korean and two Saudis reached the century mark at a younger age.
Donovan brought an element of running at defenders, and he did it with modest success. Three minutes into the second half, Donovan's corner kick nearly led to a goal, but Oguchi Onyewu's header struck the crossbar.
Adu entered in the 61st minute, replacing Clint Dempsey, and settled into an attacking midfield role.
The Americans, though, were left shorthanded in the 71st minute when Pablo Mastroeni received his second yellow card and was sent off. Mastroeni could be seen telling Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar, "It wasn't me!" But his protests were ignored and the U.S. team had to repel Argentina for much of the final 20 minutes.
Argentina's Javier Mascherano (Liverpool) was ejected in the 86th minute for a harsh challenge on Donovan at midfield. The Americans had a golden chance to win it during added time, but Sacha Kljestan's attempt at the end of a crisp counterattack was deflected over the crossbar.
U.S. Notes: Goalkeeper Kasey Keller, not on the current roster, was honored in a pregame ceremony for making his 100th appearance last year.