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U.S bereft of ideas against Guatemala

FRISCO, Texas -- There is no question that somewhere out there, a World Cup qualifier lurks that looks an awfully lot like the slow-going squad seen Wednesday at Pizza Hut Park.

Still, that fact is of little comfort to any U.S. Soccer fan who blew a couple of hours watching such a humdrum friendly, a 0-0 draw at Pizza Hut Park that everybody will simply have to view as something of an investment. Think of it as little something to sock away, then to withdraw later when the stakes are higher.

Otherwise, a scoreless draw against Guatemala is a patently unsatisfactory result for the Yanks in the new blue stripes -- and the first slight blotch on Bob Bradley's international managerial resumé.

A Guatemalan side that went through a three-plus hour workout the evening before Wednesday's kickoff made its aim quite clear -- to collect its appearance fee and get out of suburban Dallas with as little as possible happening on the field.

Check.

Clearly, the Guatemalans were elated with the tie. The time wasting began early in the second half, with even the trainer getting into the act, dropping things Keystone Cops-style as he "rushed" out toward another fallen player.

Bradley's side obviously wasn't nearly as happy with the result -- nor should it be. Not getting on top of this Guatemalan bunch, a defensively dug in, below average international squad, was easily the team's worst performance in Bradley's first four games in charge.

If Bradley's first three matches (all wins) were crisp $1 bills, this one was a chipped quarter.

The tie itself is pointless, of course. What Bradley and his charges are unhappy about is the lack of problem-solving, the failure to "stick to the task" as the manager said, the failure to hunt, probe and scan for a way to break down a stubborn bunch aligned in a frustrating 4-5-1 bottleneck.

The manager noted that this kind of game plays out similarly all over the globe during World Cup qualifying. "It's a different kind of game [for the players] to see," he said. "Because we all understand, we will see these kinds of games in qualifying."

For the 10,932 at the stadium or the national TV audience, it certainly might have been nice to see a better match. Or, at the least, a good lopsided whopping like 2006's 4-0 U.S. victory over Guatemala in Frisco.

So in one way this was a terrific learning experience for the impressionable likes of Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber (combined age: 41) and maybe even Landon Donovan. Problem solving is a part of big-time soccer. There will be such matches, where the brains of the team will be required, simply put, to figure it out.

These are the contests where the problem-solvers have to stir a few new ingredients into the soup. They have to consider adding some of this or a dash of that, probing, searching, experimenting, moving into slightly different spots, just making little tweaks and adjustments until they start to find the spaces. The gaps are out there, it's up to the primary ball handlers to target them.

The problem Wednesday, of course, was that some of the chief problem solvers were young enough to be Kasey Keller's kids. Really. Feilhaber is 22 and Bradley is 19. Both are national team pups. Neither has a starting role at this time with their respective European club, so they didn't even have that to lean on. So they were rightly concerned with playing a tidy game and not conceding possession in bad spots (which Bradley did exceptionally, while Feilhaber was guilty of making one early miscue).

Even Donovan, 25, has mostly been asked to play in supporting roles at this level. Older fellows such as Claudio Reyna or Brian McBride have always provided the direction, the confidence and the emotional pep when their side saw the initiative slip away toward the opposition.

So, who should have been doing more out there on a pleasant spring night to help break down the defense? Should Donovan have found more ways to get involved, or is it the challenge of others around the best U.S. attacker to get him the ball more often?

Bradley blamed the group's collective effort. As a team, he said, the Americans struggled to find ways to keep the tempo high, to execute faster and to move the ball and the ideas along at a faster clip.

"You are looking for ways to create advantages," he said. "The advantages can come at times because the ball moves faster. Or the advantages may come because the movement off the ball is good. Sometimes the advantage comes because a guy makes a great play. Sometimes it's winning a ball defensively and having an opportunity before the other guy is set up."

That's exactly how it happened early, as a ball collected sharply in the midfield was sprung quickly and finished with a Justin Mapp cross. But Eddie Johnson couldn't do enough with it, leaving the effort at goal to bind safely away. The first of a precious few scoring opportunities on the night had been squandered.

Later Donovan sent Johnson through, but the struggling U.S. striker couldn't beat Guatemalan goalkeeper Ricardo Trigueno. To that point, Johnson had been somewhat effective as a target forward. After that, however, he seemed to sink further into the scoring funk that has settled over him for more than a year now. The question of the night: Where will the next ball land that bounces hard off Johnson's chest?

Midfielder Clint Dempsey wasn't much better early. His crosses -- what few there were -- weren't international-soccer quality. Ditto for Mapp on the left. Meanwhile, Feilhaber and Bradley weren't stepping forward quickly enough once possession was secure.

"We had too many guys who didn't understand how to play in a game like that," Donovan said. "I guess it's a good learning experience. It's better now rather than later, but it's clearly not good enough."

Isn't it asking a lot for inexperienced guys to go figure it out? Perhaps it is, Donovan said, but at some point that's exactly what they all must do.

"Guys need to figure out ... that games look different," he said. "Not every game is going to look like the Ecuador game [last Sunday]. It's not good enough to take it slow, to just move the ball around slowly. We've got to figure out ways to go score."

Player Ratings

GK Kasey Keller, 5 -- Very little to do as he crept toward the milestone 100th cap. (No. 98 on Wednesday). Made two saves, not dirtying his uniform on either.

RB Frank Simek, 6 -- An international debutante, he was easily the better of the two young outside backs. Managed the technical stuff, the occasional tough stuff and got forward adequately. Won't displace Steve Cherundolo anytime soon, but it seems the U.S. has decent cover at right back.

CB Jimmy Conrad, 6 -- Some of a dull game's best moments were his battles against Carlos Ruiz. Conrad dished it out, took it, then helped Ruiz off the turf a time or two. He was Jimmy On the Spot once when Spector was beaten.

CB Jay DeMerit, 5 -- Usually the free man centrally as Conrad matched up more often with Ruiz. A solid U.S. debut, although he could have moved the ball faster at times. An utterly unnecessary yellow card in the opposition penalty area damaged his grade.

LF Jonathan Spector, 4 -- He'll presumably have better nights in the U.S. jersey. Beaten about four times. And his JV-level swing and miss attempted shot from 18 yards drew howls from the crowd.

RM Clint Dempsey, 5 -- He can cross the ball, right? You couldn't tell it Wednesday. Below average out wide early, he improved by drifting inside more often. By game's end, he was the most productive U.S. attacker, if only because he was throwing his body around inside the penalty area.

CM Benny Feilhaber, 4 -- Not as good as he was on Sunday against Ecuador. Lost the ball in a bad spot early. Passed adequately, but his game lacks a little bite at that spot.

CM Michael Bradley, 5 -- Played a tidy, simple match, which is probably what you'd ask of a 19-year-old in his first international start. Decent tackling. Safe passing. Usually kept the ball moving and seldom lost his defensive bearing.

LM Justin Mapp, 4 -- The better of the U.S. wide midfielders early. He was active throughout, although nothing special. Earned a couple of free kicks, but his crossing was ineffective. Needed to pull the trigger faster on a couple of opportunities to serve.

F Landon Donovan, 5 -- A couple of well-placed passes to onrushing teammates highlighted an otherwise ordinary night by his standards. Needed to find more ways to engage. Seemed irritated at the final whistle, something you want from the captain following an unsatisfactory result.

F Eddie Johnson, 4 -- Confidence sagged further still after blowing two good, early chances. First touch not great as a target forward. Must turn on defenders more often and develop a keener sense for when to slow the attack and when to maintain the pressure.

Subs

F, Kenny Cooper, 5 -- Came in for Feilhaber in the 59th. Active early; made a couple of things happen around the penalty area. Needed to throw his big body around a little more late as the U.S. went to Route 1 soccer.

M, Brian Mullan, 5 -- Experience showed after replacing Johnson in the 67th. Delivered a couple of nice passes (although nothing game-changing) and tweaked the tempo by sliding inside here and there.

D, Wade Barrett, 5 -- Played safe and simple after replacing Spector in the 74th. Maybe a little too safely.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.