I'll say this about Taylor Twellman. I'm becoming a believer.
Following the 5-0 pasting of Norway two weeks ago, I said that given the less than stellar opposition, there should be a giant asterisk put in front of the result, and by extension, Twellman's performance. You could have driven a truck through some of the gaps in the Norwegian defense.
But what sold me on Twellman's performance wasn't that he scored his fourth goal in two games, it was the way he connected with his teammates. Front and center were his two assists, especially the excellent one-touch pass that sprung Clint Dempsey for the Americans' second goal.
Plays like that show that Twellman's play at international level is becoming more varied. He's still not quite the finished article, as his play with his back to goal still needs some improvement. But he did show that there is more to his game than just his predatory instinct in front of goal, which is considerable. And the more he displays these traits, the harder it will become for head coach Bruce Arena to leave him off the final roster for Germany.
Another player staking his claim to a roster spot was Dempsey. The Texan looks positively reborn on the right side of midfield. His defense has improved mightily, and his surging runs forced the Japanese to foul him repeatedly. And it's a sign of Dempsey's maturation as a player that he didn't let the rough stuff get to him. Last summer, such attention would have thrown him off his game.
Against Japan, Dempsey was content in the knowledge that such tactics led to numerous set pieces, and given that the U.S. lineup had an average height that was three inches taller than their opponents, such opportunities were always going to be dangerous. Of course, Dempsey also responded in the best way possible, by sticking the ball in the back of the Japanese net.
While left back remains the biggest hole in the U.S. roster, the right midfield position isn't much deeper, making Dempsey's continued development vital. That said, a starting role for this summer still seems a bit out of Dempsey's reach, but a role as a supersub is intriguing. The thought of Dempsey taking on leg-weary defenders late in a match is positively mouth-watering. As the U.S. gets deeper into their preparations, it will be interesting to see if Dempsey will get an opportunity to shine in such a role. That is if he doesn't crack the starting lineup.
If there was one aspect of the match that took a bit of shine off the evening, it was the way the U.S. finished the game. A dominant opening hour gave way to some ragged play that had the Americans scrambling towards the end. Granted, without the liberal substitution rules, Japan would likely never have been able to crawl back into the match, but the American's game management in the waning moments was suspect.
Arena pronounced himself unconcerned about the last 30 minutes, but his postgame comments left one with the impression he was trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, he praised Japan's subs for "forcing the tempo of the game" while their U.S. counterparts "hurt our continuity." The U.S. reserves should definitely have done more to stem the tide.
At least Landon Donovan was willing to take some responsibility for the sloppy ending. The U.S. captain admitted that the Yanks should have done a better job of controlling the tempo.
"The first 40 minutes we were all over them, they couldn't breathe, and we scored two great goals," said Donovan. "But we have to find a way to relax and keep the ball. We needed to do our running keeping the ball instead of doing our running going forward."
But the evening ended with more positives than negatives. The Americans' movement off the ball was excellent, the victory was deserved, and several players continued to make Arena's roster decisions as difficult as possible.
On to the ratings:
Kevin Hartman, 5 - The Galaxy keeper couldn't really be faulted on either goal, and came off his line well to diffuse several attacks, although his kicking was shaky at times. His World Cup odds remain long, but all it takes is one injury to change that.
Todd Dunivant, 5 - Again showed his ability to get forward well, and his defending was solid, although it faded late in the game. His long ball was the catalyst for Pope's opening goal. While it would appear that the U.S. has better options at left back, Dunivant would appear to have a bright future with the national team.
Jimmy Conrad, 6 - The Wizards' defender enjoyed another solid outing, and held things together as the game became more frantic. Conrad is one of a handful of players whose stock has increased dramatically during the current camp.
Eddie Pope, 7 - Another excellent performance that would seem to indicate he's regaining his best form. He took his goal well and his defending was excellent in the first half, when the U.S. dominated.
Chris Klein, 3.5 - Had some key interceptions early on, but looked shaky thereafter. He tired in the second half, most noticeably when he was beaten by Maki for Japan's first goal and was deservedly subbed out.
Pat Noonan, 6 - Was very dynamic in the first half, and combined well with Dunivant on the left wing. Noonan had some excellent dribbling sequences that gave the opposition fits.
Kerry Zavagnin, 5 - Had a horrible giveaway early on, when Ono dispossessed him, but raised his game after that. Zavagnin won a lot of loose balls in the first half that kept many attacks alive.
Landon Donovan, 6 - Was very active in the first half, and went on a few of his trademark runs. Delivered an inch-perfect cross to Twellman for the third goal, but should have done more to control the tempo in the game's latter stages.
Clint Dempsey, 7 - Another excellent outing. Dempsey is another player whose stock is at an all-time high, with the potential to go higher.
Josh Wolff, 5 - Wolff seems to be developing a solid partnership with Twellman, and the two combined to create several excellent chances. Only downside is he seems snake-bit in front of goal at the moment. Great entry pass initiated the sequence on Dempsey's goal.
Taylor Twellman, 8.5 - Played even better than he did against Norway, and against better opposition. Twellman has set the standard for the other forwards in camp.
Eddie Johnson, 5 - Had some good moments, especially on his 70th minute header that went just wide. But he looked every bit like a player coming off an injury, which he is.
Ben Olsen, 6 - Had two vital interceptions when Japan started to take control.
Brian Carroll, 5 - Did his best to calm things down, but he needed to come on a bit earlier.
Brian Ching, 4 - Seems woefully short of confidence at the moment. Coming on as a sub just doesn't seem to suit him, but he hasn't done much to earn more time.
Chris Rolfe, 4 - Shades of Mike Burns were evident when Rolfe allowed Nakazawa's shot to squeeze past him. With Twellman returning to New England, Rolfe could contend for a spot next weekend against Guatemala.
Heath Pearce, NR - Late cameo for Pearce. With Dunivant returning to his club for the CONCACAF Champions Cup, Pearce should go the full 90 next weekend.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org