Ah, the ol' International Friendly. Does it get any better than a planned exhibition between the national soccer teams of the United States and the People's Republic of China?
Excuse my sarcasm and anger. I'm kind of sad because there simply aren't enough merchandising tie-ins to 'Shrek the 3rd' to sate my appetite. Shrek shakes, Shrek Rick Krispy treats, Shrek underoos simply aren't enough.
Ok. Deep breath. Back to the game.
In all honesty, I fully expected to begin this post with something like, ... You know International games are meaningless. ... What is the point of DVR-ing a game that carries zero weight. ... blah, blah, blah.
Funny thing happened though, the ol' Stars and Stripes mounted a 4-1 win for their best, most entertaining performance since beating Mexico 2-0 in September 2005 to qualify for the 2006 World Cup.
For the first 60-odd minutes it was like my prayers had been answered. One-touch passing. Diagonal balls. Fluid, attacking soccer. There's something to be said when eight of your 11 starters had just come off a European season. The team looked poised on the ball, sharp. Fit.
The absolute apex of this came in the 32nd minute, in perhaps the best sequence I've seen by the USMNT in nearly two decades of watching it.
It began with a weighted ball up by Michael Bradley deep in his own half to Sasha Kljestan, who ran it down right on the touchline. Kljestan found his Chivas USA teammate Ante Razov with a looping cross to the left penalty area. Razov could have volleyed on the China net, but instead headed to an on-rushing Clint Dempsey, who in turn flicked a header to a rampaging DaMarcus Beasley. The Beaz threaded a pass back to Razov on the left side of the area...too bad his shot was blocked by China keeper Chen Dong.
The entire movement was simply an sensational, video game-esque display from the Nats. Was it on par with the famed Carlos Alberto goal by Brasil in the 1970 World Cup final vs. Italy? No. But it's a definite shame that Razov didn't score since it won't get the YouTube immortality. To me, it was better than any of the four tallies the US hung on China.
That missed chance was the highlight of a great half of continental footie by the US team. With Beaz, Bradley and Benny Feilhaber pulling the strings of the attack it felt like a very Dutch team. (Yes, Feilhaber plays in Germany.)
Credit coach Bob Bradley for trotting out a 4-3-3/4-5-1 attacking formation, with Beaz and Clint Dempsey given space to operate in the attacking-third of the field. (As a player of Pro Evo Soccer/Winning 11 this is actually a formation I've used for the US team. And do yourself a favor, if you're a soccer fan get that game over FIFA it's the best, most accurate playing sports game ever. Trust.)
Would such a formation/display have occurred with Landon Donovan on the field? Probably not, considering the tall, physical Chinese players would have blocked him from making his trademark 40-yard runs. It's great to see the team has other options without the poster/whipping boy of American soccer. (Didn't we miss him on freekicks?)
Putting that many players into the attack was a breath of fresh air. It was good to throw a big, solid target guy like Razov who was willing to defer to teammates. (Notice three ex-Chicago Fire players from the Bradley era: Beasley, Razov and Carlos Bocanegra...maybe Bradley does know what he's doing.)
And you see what happens when you incorporate an mostly Euro-based team. These guys can adjust and play on different levels. No disrespect to MLS guys, but when there are 12, 13 teams you aren't going to see that many different varieties of soccer played. You're seeing the same players over-and-over again. It tends to dull the creative part of your brain.
Take the Fulham guys on the USMNT, one week they have to deal with the one-touch magic of Arsenal, the next the bruising physical game of Bolton. The difference between the Galaxy and RSL...not so much, no?
It's hard to believe how much this performance impressed me. After nearly 12 months of shit from the USMNT, from the World Cup disaster to the coaching shenanigans it was a crummy year of waiting. This 4-1 display vs. China honestly, to me, was more uplifting as a fan that dumping Mexico 2-0 back in February.
The top of my praise goes to Beasley. Faithful readers here will know I got on the PSV/City man for his indifferent play upon transferring to England. In retrospect it wasn't quite his fault that Psycho Stuart Pearce didn't give him games.
Saturday he scored on a penalty, which he rightly drew when the keeper pulled a Jens Lehman trip on him, assisted Oguchi Oneywu's goal from a freekick and basically created havoc all evening. China did not have an answer for the No. 7 shirt. It's not hyperbole to say, when DMB is on his game he's the best asset the USMNT has going for it.
Welcome back DaMarcus. We've missed you.
(Please, though, don't go to Rangers. It's a step backward. If you're going to play against Kilmarnock, St. Mirren, etc why not just come home to MLS?)
** Feilhaber -- Beard = results. Guy scored his first senior international goal and assisted from the corner on Dempsey's header. Goes to show you what putting in work for a European club like HSV will do. If you've played in the Champions League vs. Thierry Henry and Arsenal, it's a safe bet you can hack it against CONCACAF foes. Again, please, pretty please, do not become John O'Brien II.
** The Bradleys -- Yes, this game meant nothing results-wise, but Bob Bradley looked like he had a good vision for what he wants in the Gold Cup. Good roster selection. Good tactics. Good way to incorporate new faces. As for Michael, he's a hell of a passer. His through ball set up the Beasley penalty. Dutch to Dutch.
** Oguchi Oneywu -- For a minute let's forget where the big man will ply his club trade in the fall. His 79th minute header goal ought to serve as a warning to the rest of CONCACAF -- The Gooch is back, go get your life preservers! (Ok, he didn't have to do much on defense, whatever.)
** Tim Howard/Kasey Keller -- Umm...did Keller even touch the ball in the second half? The lone China goal wasn't Howard's fault. For all intents and purposes, no reason Howard shouldn't be the No. 1 without question going forward. I like Keller as much as the next guy, but I think it's time to pass the torch.
** Dempsey -- The man they call Deuce has skillz, son. After two near misses on goal in the second half, he buries a header from the corner. Good to see it. His dribbling is something to behold.
** Kljestan/Bornstein -- Not that they played bad, and Kljestan got credited with an assist, but you could tell which guys were playing in MLS. Again, no offense.
** Carlos Bocanegra -- Too bad he blew his open header which would have made it 5-1. Solid outing in his first time with the captain's armband.
** Razov -- Hey, who expected that? Looked very good in his recall to International soccer.
** Jonathan Spector -- The ESPN boys kept saying that the narrow dimensions were troubling his long-range passes. Bollocks. This guy simply keeps getting handed golden opportunities for both club and country without really ever doing anything. Maybe I'm wrong, but I just don't see it with this guy. Sorry.
** Other US subs -- First off, I cannot say anything nice about Charlie Davies since he attended Boston College. I can't. Though it's worth a though, is the Swedish Allsvenskan all that much better than MLS? If you've legitimately seen the league, let me know otherwise I naysay it! ... Kamani Hill, Lee Nguyen...not enough time to do anything of note. Same with Biff Tannen lookalike Frankie Simek. ... That whole Bob/Michael Bradley/Jesse Marsch thing that Ston...sort of odd if you heard Rob Stone talking about it.
Sino-the-times (People's Republic thoughts)
** China wasn't bad, per say. They just played (and looked) like it was still 1955. Very organized and committed to defense. Zero creativity. Zhang Yaokun's goal was well taken and a result of some shambolic American missed-clearances. But seriously, didn't the Chinese players look like they could have starred in the Chinese version of 'Leave it to Beaver' or 'Father Knows Best'? I guess that's communism for you.
** Also, China's uniforms actually looked like the bootleg unlicensed kits you find in PES/Winning 11. Mao would have approved of their drabness.
** ESPN play-by-play guy Rob Stone (who hasn't apparently aged in the last decade) did have some misleading info on China's most well-known player Dong Fangzhuo. First he mentioned how Dong started vs. Chelsea...but by that time the EPL title race was essentially over and SAF fielded a second-string squad. Second, he mentioned how he led the Belgium League in goals...that would be the Belgium Second Division, but the Jupiler League. (In case you care, François Sterchele of Germinal Beerschot led the first division with 21 tallies.)
** Great job by China in the 83rd minute on a free kick. They must be big fans of Khano Smith at the Great Wall.
** I'll say it again, China is like a lot teams. They can play organized and even counter attack, but don't have the drive or imagination to really scare you. There wasn't a Park Ji-Sung or Nakamura out there for the People's Republic. I'm not buying this sleeping giant stuff. Sorry.
** Finally, I just don't get China. Are Allen Iverson jersey's traded like currency? Would I run into anyone that mildly resembled Wu from "Deadwood"? Could I take a vacation there if I wanted to, or would the US State Department be all over my ass? OR worse, Jack Bauer nemesis, the nefarious Cheng?
** As with any USMNT on ESPN, we take out the proverbial red pens. And for once, I'll say it, ESPN did a superb job. Not sure why they added Julie Foudy in with Eric Wynalda and Stone at halftime, but whatever.
** In the 18th minute the ESPN camera operates got an excellent angle behind the ball as China lined up a free kick. We got to see Tim Howard scrambling between the sticks, telling his wall to move. It was a great shot and something we haven't seen too much of. It made the game feel intimate.
** Wynalda actually seemed relaxed and not about showing off in the booth. His anecdotes complimented the game action. The all-time US goalscoring leader even made a very good point that the National Team should be about the 11 guys in the best form, not the 11 best players. Hey, want to send that over across the pond to Steve McClaren?
** Nitpicking, yes, but shouldn't there have been a mention that Feilhaber's goal was in fact an own-goal since it came off the Chinese defender last. Yes, Feilhaber sent it toward goal and it would have taken an amazing clearance to keep it out of the net, but still, I've seen scores like that ruled own goals. Perhaps the ESPN guys should have broached the subject. Maybe.
** Kudos to Stone for dropping a Hartford Whalers reference in the 35th minute.
** Plaudits to halftime anchor Dave Revsine for actually taking the time to pronounce things properly. Too bad ESPN had to show that Danish fan running on the pitch. Only the black eyes of the sport seem to attract the mainstream media. Sad. (More on that in a sec.)
** Not sure what the corporate policy is, but it's a bad job not letting the fans know that all the Gold Cup games are on FSC. I realize there is no love lost between ESPN and Fox, but it's a disservice to the fans to leave them in the lurch.
** Spartan Stadium -- Glad to see San Jose get a game, but the small pitch dimensions? Someone was asleep at the switch at USSF HQ. That said, it's certainly one of the unique venues in American soccer and it's a shame it's dormant since the Earthquakes were transplanted to Houston.
Obviously there is talk about brining the Earthquakes back thanks to Oakland A's owner Lew Wolff. From what I've heard and read, it sounds like your typical, let's build a 'Soccer-Specific-Stadium' on the cheapest available land in the middle of nowhere and hope the fans will come. The anti-organic club idea. Fans don't seem to mind Spartan Stadium. Figure out a way to make the revenue work. Don't just plop a stadium out by an airport or toxic waste dump and expect the fans to show up. Come on MLS!
** 'Superpower, Superpower, U-S-A' -- For once, this cheer was appropriate, given the geopolitical status of the People's Republic and its 1.3 billion people. Boosting your Superpower status vs. Honduras...kind of weak, no?
** Beware the Danes -- Figured I'd comment on the abandoned Demark/Sweden European Championship Qualifier from Saturday. You can watch the whole sorry display here for yourself. Naturally, the pitch invasion gets the headlines, but I chalk this one up to legitimate scumbag Christian Poulsen. The former Schalke and current Sevilla hard man is a first class troublemaker. Does that excuse that pale, doughy and Little Vito lookalike from running onto the field? No. But this isn't your father's Denmark, the land of Legos and Alvar Hanso. This is a land that, let's not forget, published the controversial cartoons of the profit Mohammed, basically asking the Muslim world to wipe them out. The Danes, they don't seem to give a fuck.
And in closing, holy shit, I can't believe I wrote this much on a meaningless game.
Maybe during the week I'll write a (brief) Gold Cup preview. Believe it or not, after the China game I'm actually looking forward to seeing what Bradley throws out there on Thursday vs. Guatemala (9 p.m. EDT, Fox Soccer). Maybe he'll unleash the beast that is Eddie Johnson.
Never thought I'd write that a few weeks ago.