U.S. rues the inability to take its chances
BARINAS, Venezuela -- When the U.S. walked off the field after its 4-1 loss to Argentina, it was with the knowledge that it had lost to a superior side.
However, following the U.S. team's 3-1 defeat to Paraguay, resignation was replaced by frustration, as the Americans' failure to convert a host of clear chances not only cost them the game, but may see them eliminated from the Copa America before their final group match against Colombia is even played.
In pure soccer terms, the Americans were the better team on this night. They passed the ball with much greater precision than in their previous match and created all manner of opportunities. There were clear shots on goal, as well as free headers from the most tantalizing of locations. These were not "mistake" plays either. These chances came from passing sequences that sometimes stretched into double digits.
It's also worth noting that the Americans' profligacy wasn't just limited to forwards Taylor Twellman and Eddie Johnson. Outside of goalkeeper Kasey Keller and center backs Jimmy Conrad and Jay DeMerit, every member of the starting lineup had at least one wide-open look at goal. Yet with the exception of Ricardo Clark's 40th-minute equalizer, they wasted them all.
Some of this was due to the fine play of Paraguay's substitute goalkeeper, Aldo Bobadilla. But more often than not, it was a case of the U.S. either failing to hit the target or directing the ball straight into Bobadilla's grateful hands.
And in a classic case of soccer karma, a gift of a back pass from U.S. defender Jonathan Bornstein allowed Paraguay's Oscar Cardozo to waltz in uncontested and score the game winner in the 56th minute.
"The result is difficult for us tonight," said U.S. head coach Bob Bradley. "We felt that our team was strong. Nevertheless, we didn't do very well with some of the chances that we created, and certainly we made a mistake that Paraguay was able to take advantage of."
The impulse of course, will be to blame the Americans' wastefulness on the youth and inexperience that permeates their Copa America roster, the thinking being that a Landon Donovan or a Clint Dempsey would have done better. But the team on display in Venezuela is merely continuing the same trend that reared its head in the Gold Cup. These days, it doesn't seem to matter which American player has the ball with the goal at his mercy, the chance will be squandered.
It's a habit that Bradley was at a loss to explain, stating that it's "not always easy to pinpoint reasons" for his team's inability to convert chances. But what is clear is that the team is suffering from a massive lack of confidence in front of goal, and unless the U.S. finds its ruthless streak soon, it'll be heading home 0-for-the-Copa.
What makes the result even more galling was the way the U.S. rebounded from its opening match. The U.S. proved that despite the "B Team" tag that has been placed on it, the squad does have the technical ability to compete with some of the tournament's better teams, if not necessarily the Argentinas of the world. Players like Clark raised their game considerably, proving that they have the mental fortitude to bounce back from a poor performance.
But if there was one facet of the Americans' game that could be blamed on inexperience, it was on the defensive end, where a pair of youthful mistakes were gleefully exploited by Paraguay. In addition to Bornstein's aforementioned gaffe, Benny Feilhaber's failure to track Paraguayan midfielder Edgar Barreto led directly to the game's opening goal in the 29th minute, and it served to overshadow the good things the Hamburg midfielder did in the attacking end.
"We gave them two really good chances," said Keller. "If you give good teams those chances, they're going to beat you. But that's why we're here, to give these guys the experience. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to make mistakes to learn. Hopefully we'll learn from this experience and be better for it."
The only problem is that as far as the Copa America is concerned, it might already be too late.
Player ratings: (scale of 1-10)
Kasey Keller, 5 -- Was hung out to dry on all three goals, yet delivered two second-half saves that kept the U.S. in the match. He struggled with his distribution, but that has never been his strong suit.
Jonathan Bornstein, 3 -- Made several strong defensive plays in the first half, but his error that led to Cardozo's game winner signaled a nightmarish spell that continued for 20 minutes. Even if a miracle occurs, and the U.S. still has a chance at the quarterfinals prior to the Colombia match, it seems time to give Heath Pearce a shot.
Jimmy Conrad, 6 -- Conrad is catching some heat for the second goal, but from my vantage point, it was all on Bornstein. I felt Conrad had a solid performance, as he made several vital clearances from crosses into the box. After missing out on the Gold Cup, it appears he has re-established himself as one of Bob Bradley's starting center backs.
Jay DeMerit, 6 -- Struggled in his aerial duels with Roque Santa Cruz and Cardozo, but the timing on his tackles was impeccable. Weakened by illness, the Watford defender was substituted for in the second half, but his performances in the last two games have put him firmly in the national team mix.
Drew Moor, 5 -- For a guy who seems better suited for the center of defense, Moor did a pretty fair impersonation of a right back. There were times when he struggled with his distribution and his touch betrayed him on occasion. But he defended well for the most part, and delivered some inch-perfect passes, including one in the buildup to Clark's goal. His point-blank header right at Bobadilla was typical of the whole team.
Sacha Kljestan, 5 -- Not an awful performance, as the Chivas USA midfielder held his own, but his failure to put his 10th-minute header on frame will give him nightmares. His future with U-23 national team should give him some valuable seasoning.
Ricardo Clark, 7 -- A terrific rebound performance from Clark, who took his goal well and on a different day, could have had multiple assists. His tackling and range were reminiscent of his play in MLS.
Benny Feilhaber, 5 -- Brilliant one minute, subpar the next. It was Feilhaber who lost Barreto on the first goal, but he also had several defense-splitting passes that were wasted by horrendous finishing. In particular his 75th-minute through ball to Justin Mapp deserved better.
Ben Olsen, 6 -- Another consistent performance from Olsen, who has enjoyed a solid tournament, and appears set to become one of those veterans who help bridge the gap between World Cups.
Taylor Twellman, 4 -- His hold-up play and ability to link up with Johnson were miles better, and he effectively brought other teammates into the attack as well, as witnessed by his assist on Clark's goal. But his inability to convert his chances contributed to the U.S. defeat.
Eddie Johnson, 4 -- Like Twellman, a better performance in that he was much more involved in the offense, but he just couldn't finish anything. He showed great speed on a defensive play in the second half. Why doesn't he show more of that in attack?
Danny Califf, 5 -- Coming on for DeMerit, Califf was thrown into a tough situation, and performed decently. At times he used his arms a bit too much, which led to the free kick that Salvador Cabanas converted for the last goal.
Justin Mapp, 4 -- Blew one of the better chances of the game when he was put through on goal by Feilhaber, but failed to get his shot on target. Had a few dynamic runs, but his insistence on always trying to beat the next man instead of giving up the ball reduced his effectiveness.
Lee Nguyen, 4 -- Looked physically overmatched in his brief time on the field.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.