Donovan to pick up the slack
Following the United States' 2-0 victory over Venezuela on Friday, much of the postgame talk centered on the energy and aggression the Americans brought to the match. Players and coaches alike were quick to admit that not only was it the difference in Friday's game, but those qualities were absent earlier in the week against Morocco.
The U.S. team that took the field against the Africans is widely believed to be a close approximation of the side that will line up against the Czech Republic on June 12, which is what made their performance on Tuesday so worrying. The hope is that both results from the past week will serve as kick-in-the-pants to those players. No less an authority than goalkeeper Kasey Keller believes that to be the case.
"The first team guys had better look over their shoulders," Keller told Reuters. He later added, "I think for the guys who played against Morocco, they're thinking that they have to go and show [well]."
But are there really that many jobs in jeopardy? Aside from Bobby Convey's ongoing battle with DaMarcus Beasley, there don't appear to be. Sure, Brian Ching played his best international game in months, but is he likely to supplant Brian McBride up top? And as well as Jimmy Conrad performed, is he really a threat to Oguchi Onyewu and Eddie Pope? Certainly not.
This development highlights the fact that most of the spots in the presumptive American lineup have appeared set for months. It was expected that this would help build a cohesive side, but in light of recent results, it leaves open the question of whether some players have gotten complacent.
Certainly one player who will be chomping at the bit come Sunday will be Eddie Lewis. Fresh off the disappointment of seeing his club side, Leeds United, fail to gain promotion to the English Premier League, Lewis will be aiming to lock down the left back position, a quest made easier by the untimely injury to Cory Gibbs. And U.S. head coach Bruce Arena would like nothing more than for Lewis to do just that, especially given Lewis' talent for delivering accurate crosses from the flanks.
The ability to make these types of passes was the main difference between the Venezuela and Morocco games. Unfortunately, Convey was the primary provider of this kind of service, and given that he logged heavy minutes on Friday, he'll likely be reduced to bit part status on Sunday. This is problematic because none of the other flank midfielders, be it Beasley, Clint Dempsey, or Josh Wolff, have the ability to whip in dangerous crosses on a consistent basis. That will require both Lewis and right back Steve Cherundolo to get deep into the opponent's half.
But the U.S. will need to show some flexibility in their offense should their forays down the wing prove unsuccessful. That's because while little is known about the Latvians, their performance at Euro 2004 -- in which they earned a shock draw against Germany and pushed the Czech Republic to the limit -- saw them employ a counterattacking style similar to Morocco's approach on Tuesday. And in Maris Verpakovskis, the Latvians have a striker capable of giving the U.S. defense all kinds of problems.
The Latvian's presumed style is one that the U.S. has struggled against in the past. And the Americans' ability to break down such a side could prove even more difficult given the absence of some key personnel. Captain Claudio Reyna is still resting his tender right hamstring, and according to published reports, midfielder John O'Brien underwent an MRI on his right Achilles' tendon. The results were negative, but he's listed as day-to-day, a description which encapsulates the former Ajax man's entire existence since the 2002 World Cup. In any event, this latest development has cast some doubt on O'Brien's participation in Sunday's match.
That means the burden for much of the Americans' offensive creativity will fall on the shoulders of Landon Donovan, who has been short of his best during his last few appearances with the national team. Despite garnering an assist on Friday for Clint Dempsey's goal, Donovan was guilty of several loose passes that were the starting point for some dangerous opposition counterattacks. The Los Angeles Galaxy attacker has also lacked confidence around the penalty area, which is why Sunday's match is so important to Donovan, and by extension, the team. A confident Donovan opens up a world of possibilities for the Yanks. But when he's not on his game, it makes life difficult for the U.S., especially in the absence of players like Convey, Reyna and O'Brien.
Hopefully, Donovan, along with the rest of Sunday's starters, can take a cue from Friday's side, and not only turn their passion into creativity, but confidence as well. If that can be achieved, then the U.S. will be set up nicely as they head to Germany.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org