A wasted opportunity
What initially looked like a matchup of intrigue when first scheduled, had long since lost its luster by the time the U.S. took the field against England on Saturday at Soldier Field. U.S. fans hoping to see whether or not Bruce Arena's boys could handle the pace and power of a lethal attacking combination such as Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen, were instead already resigned to witness the decidedly more pedestrian combo of Alan Smith and Andy Johnson.
Although England won the game 2-1, it's practically pointless to take much stock in the actual result of this match. With a veritable Who's Who of English and American stars missing in action, the game was more akin to the English 'C' team against the U.S. 'B' team. Nonetheless, one can still take away several observations from the game.
First and foremost, the U.S. continues to harbor a gaping hole on the left side of defense. This was a hole that was utilized throughout the game by England with virtually every English attack of note stemming from the left side. It's a weakness that needs to be remedied if the U.S. is going to make any significant progress in the next World Cup.
The problem isn't so much that the U.S. lacks viable world-class left-sided defenders (although one could argue that as well), but that Bruce Arena's thought process in dealing with the current void leaves something to be desired.
Arena's main problem in this respect is that he's been sticking to the 'tried-and-tested' theory and seems unwilling to experiment at that spot even though the game against England would have been the perfect opportunity to blood new talent.
Arena's current choice to fill the slot is Carlos Bocanegra, but he's a natural center-back by trade, and ill-suited to play the left side. In the CONCACAF qualifiers, it's been less of an issue since most CONCACAF teams lack star wingers.
However, in a World Cup tournament, Bocanegra's lack of pace on the left flank could prove a serious handicap. If anything seeing Bocanegra in action against the pacy Shaun Wright-Philips would have been a good gauge. Unfortunately with Wright-Philips injured and Bocanegra seeing limited time on Saturday, Arena chose to go with journeyman Greg Vanney in his stead.
The flaw in this thinking is that we already know what Greg Vanney offers, and there was never going to be much learned from his performance in the game. He's more than solid at the MLS level, but it's questionable whether or not he can cut it at the highest levels of international soccer. As is, Vanney didn't have the greatest of games against England. He was defensively suspect and offered little in the way of an attacking option.
It's time Bruce Arena began to thoroughly explore his left-sided options, whether that means radically moving Eddie Lewis to a left back role, or giving youngsters like Kansas City's Jose Burciaga Jr. or the MetroStars' Tim Ward a shot. Burciaga Jr. in particular deserves an opportunity, he needs to work on his short field distribution but looks the most national team ready of all the MLS left backs right now.
The irony of course is that on Saturday Arena did have the chance to see if one such young talent could make the grade at left back, yet mystifyingly left Manchester United's Jonathan Spector on the bench for the entire game.
The other noticeable deficiency from Saturday was upfront, where without Eddie Johnson, the U.S. was generally impotent. It's imperative that Arena finds some viable striking alternatives before the U.S. develops an unhealthy over-reliance on Johnson.
Josh Wolff had an erratic game, but did show a good sense of positioning throughout and probably deserves at least one more chance. It's surprising that someone as in-form as Taylor Twellman didn't get a call-up, whereas Conor Casey did. Casey's case mirrors Vanney - he's a solid journeyman but on the international stage the U.S. needs an upgrade from him if it's to take the next step.
Speaking of in-form, it's also a pity that the Galaxy's Peter Vagenas wasn't called up. He's been easily one of the top midfielders in MLS this season, and with the rash of injuries suffered by U.S. midfielders as of late, it's shocking that he didn't at least warrant a look.
Admittedly, Vagenas has had his critics in the past, but he seems to have taken his game up a notch this season and it's not unheard of for players to be late bloomers at the international level.
There's also no doubt Clint Dempsey had a learning experience on Saturday. If anything, it was a welcome to the hard-knocks style of the Premiership. The current shoo-in for MLS MVP, Dempsey's ineffectual first half was largely a result of being played out of position on the left-side of midfield and from the man-handling meted out by the English players.
The physicality is something he'll have to get used to on the international stage, and to his credit he did. In the second half, back in his more familiar central spot, Dempsey was much more involved in the game, stayed on the ball better and ended up scoring his first international goal. It's a stretch to say he had anything more than a decent game, but you've got to love Clint Dempsey, he's got the type of feisty attitude and desire combined with skill that every team needs.
As for England, it definitely wasn't a performance to write home about either. As patchily as the U.S. played, they still outplayed England for large spurts of the game. There was a bright side however for Sven-Goran Eriksson. With Kieran Richardson's sparkling debut and the emergence at domestic level of Middlesborough's Stewart Downing, the English may have at last found the solution to its own long-standing left-side hole (midfield in this case).
Charting the progress of Richardson will be interesting. The Manchester United prodigy has been on loan at Premiership strugglers West Brom for most of the season and has made an impressive impact there. With his return this summer to Old Trafford, it'll be interesting to see if he can keep up the momentum or whether he'll fall by the wayside as many of United's highly touted home-grown starlets have in recent years (Richard Wellens, Danny Webber, Luke Chadwick and John Curtis to name but a few).
In any case, if either team were to take anything away from the game, it was a healthy new respect for the U.S. by England. After the game, Richardson for one, told reporters that the competition by the United States was "a higher level" than what he had faced in the Premier League.
Last week's Champions League game will rightfully go down in history as one of the most, if not the most dramatic final ever. Liverpool's astonishing metamorphosis from the first-half, where they looked barely better than a Sunday rec league team, to the second-half where they battered Milan into submission, was memorable. Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez showed why he is rightfully regarded as one of the finest coaches in the world - managing to stir his team from a 3-0 first half shellacking and switching up to a 5-man midfield that flummoxed Milan in the second half.
Despite Benitez's tactical genius, it's difficult not to feel that there was an element of choke in Milan's performance. The first Liverpool goal came about due to lackadaisical defending by Milan, nonchalant in the belief that the game was already won. However, by the time penalties rolled round and Milan's three best spot takers blew their kicks, it was hard to believe that this was the same outfit that held their nerve against Juventus in a similar situation in 2003.
Spare a thought for Kaka, Milan's brilliant Brazilian playmaker, who hardly deserved to be on the losing team. His defence-splitting pass to Crespo for Milan's third goal was a thing of beauty. As for the penalty shoot-out, as ugly as Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek's leg wobbling antics were, it's surprising that it seemed to fluster the Milan penalty kickers the way it did. On that note, there's also no doubt that Dudek was illegally off his line when he saved Andrea Pirlo's kick. Even so, given Milan's capitulation and Liverpool's grit, Liverpool was a worthy winner on the night.
The only damper now is whether Liverpool will actually be able to defend its trophy. By finishing fifth in its domestic league, Liverpool fell out of the necessary qualification spots for next year's Champions League. With the English FA backing them, UEFA president Lenart Johansson's apparent wavering on refusing Liverpool entry, and the backing of the amusingly misnamed G-14 coalition (which actually consists of 18 of Europe's top teams), my guess is that Liverpool will be allowed to defend its trophy. Even if they are denied, after the euphoria surrounding last week's win, I doubt anyone on Merseyside really cares at this point in time.
Speaking of next year's Champions League, it's great to see a small fry team such as Villarreal qualify. The Spanish minnows have had an incredible season and have easily played some of the most attractive soccer in Europe this season. Behind the lethal goal-scoring of Diego Forlan (Manchester United fans can scarely believe that lethal and Forlan are being used in the same context), Villarreal has been incredibly entertaining to watch. The problem is that next year's Villarreal squad will bear little resemblance to his season's incarnation. Argentine playmaker Juan Riquelme, unquestionably the hub of the team and one of La Liga's top two playmakers, sees his loan expire and will not return to the team. With goalkeeper Jose Reina also likely to leave (to Liverpool) it's difficult to see Villarreal making any kind of impression in the Champions League.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org