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Aug 22, 2007

U.S. disappoints against Sweden

GOTEBORG, Sweden -- Heading into Wednesday's friendly match with Sweden, the stated goals of U.S. head coach Bob Bradley were to match the tempo and physical play of the Swedes, and build on the positive aspects of this summer's Gold Cup. Not only did the U.S. fail on almost all counts during its 1-0 loss on Wednesday, but the negative traits from this summer, namely a shaky defense and poor finishing, were once again staples of the American game.

The flashbacks to the Gold Cup were everywhere; especially just three minutes into the game when DaMarcus Beasley contrived to push Benny Feilhaber's teasing pass just wide of the post from 14 yards. There was also the soft marking on Swedish forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who when he wasn't winning headers with ease, was finding plenty of space when he dropped back into midfield to receive the ball.

Adding to the Americans' misery was the suspect defensive play on the flanks, where defenders Steve Cherundolo and Jonathan Bornstein struggled to cope with the power and speed of Swedish midfielders Kennedy Bakircioglu and Christian Wilhelmsson.

That said, it wasn't as if the U.S. was completely overrun. The Americans did pass the ball well in spots and it took a wonder strike from Kim Kallstrom in the 56th minute -- one that was aided by an uncalled foul by Bakircioglu during the buildup -- to finally breach the American defense. The U.S. didn't play horribly, just not well enough to earn a result.

"Sweden was still able at times to put a little more pressure on us in the right moments and play a little faster," said Bradley. "In that regard, the question was 'is it a fair result?', and the answer was yes. I think we had periods in the game where we adjusted to the tempo better, started to play a little quicker, and created some chances. But the next step for us is to sustain this for longer periods and be able to then put more pressure on the other team throughout the game."

Given the Swedes' physical nature and imposing size, this was a match where having a target forward was paramount, and when Brian Ching failed a late fitness test due to a strained left calf, the U.S. were stuck with the makeshift forward tandem of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. Are they talented? Without question, and both have had success up top in the past. But one only had to see Dempsey struggle with the steady diet of long balls launched his way to realize that chances were going to be scarce, a fact compounded by Michael Bradley's scattershot passing and the generally poor quality of the crosses coming in from the flanks.

It made for a disappointing evening, especially given the depth of experience possessed by the players on the roster. More was expected, a sentiment shared by players such as Beasley.

"In international matches, we know how to play, and we know how to win," said Beasley. "It's a tough game to swallow. Even as bad as we played, we felt like we could have gotten a result."

It leaves one to wonder just how much longer Bradley will persist with certain players who are underperforming. Bornstein, Onyewu, and to a lesser extent Bocanegra have all been struggling to achieve any consistency for the U.S. this year. Three friendlies remain, giving Bradley more opportunities to mix and match his lineup, but with World Cup qualifying beginning to loom on the horizon, time is becoming short. The home friendly against Brazil should give some insight into his thinking.

Player ratings: (1-10, 5=average)

Tim Howard, 7 -- Came up big when called upon, twice denying clear chances from Ibrahimovic. With this performance, Howard continues to solidify his already firm grip on the starting keeper's job.

Jonathan Bornstein, 3 -- The latest in a recent string of poor games. Was given a torrid time by Bakircioglu in the first half, and his distribution out of the back was horrible. Another example of how Bornstein struggles against strong, powerful opponents.

Carlos Bocanegra, 4 -- Showed an odd reluctance to follow Ibrahimovic when he dropped into midfield, which allowed him to direct the offense. Some communication problems with Onyewu were evident as well.

Oguchi Onyewu, 4 -- Seemed to take turns making good plays and bad plays, like in the 14th minute when a poor clearance set the table for Ibrahimovic, only for him to rescue the situation with a goal line clearance. Some other concentration lapses almost cost the Americans.

Steve Cherundolo, 4 -- One of those players who were just not sharp. A poor back pass nearly gifted Sweden an opportunity in the 17th minute, and his overall defending did not inspire much confidence.

Michael Bradley, 4 -- His late header in the 88th minute nearly stole a result for the U.S., but his passing was poor for most of the night. There were several occasions where he needed to switch the point of attack, but instead just played the ball back into pressure.

Pablo Mastroeni, 5 -- Played decently, and stepped in to break up a few attacks, but with Bradley struggling the U.S. needed Mastroeni to play a bigger role.

Benny Feilhaber, 5 -- A great run in the third minute created the Americans' best chance of the night, and he had some good touches when positioned out wide. His lack of match fitness was evident however, and he faded badly in the second half.

DaMarcus Beasley, 5 -- Many quarters are raving about his play, but I thought he was average at best. Blew a glorious chance in the 3rd minute when teed up by Feilhaber, and got caught in possession numerous times early in the game. His play did improve markedly in the second half, creating a few good chances.

Clint Dempsey, 5 -- Was given the unenviable role of target man, and the poor service he received left him little chance to excel. Had a few dangerous touches including one glorious chance in the 51st minute in which he should have done better, but he really needs a true target forward around him.

Landon Donovan, 5 -- Another player who had some good touches, but struggled without his bodyguard, a.k.a. Ching, in the match. Against a tall lineup like this at international level and without a target man, a place on the wing is a better fit.

Subs:

Bobby Convey, 4 -- Took up some great positions out wide, only to waste his hard work with some miserable crossing. Looked like a guy who hasn't played a competitive match in a while, which is exactly what he is.

Jonathan Spector, 4 -- Got forward well, and added a bit of stability on the left side, but didn't cross the ball much better than Convey did.

Kamani Hill, 5 -- Wasn't shy about taking guys on, and showed a bit more field awareness than in his previous national team stint against China.

Jay DeMerit, 6 -- When will this guy get an extended run? Had some vital clearances and was dominant in the air, although to be fair, Ibrahimovic had left the field by the time DeMerit entered the match. Still, he looks more composed than either Bocanegra or Onyewu.

Sal Zizzo, NR -- UCLA product earns his first cap.

Charlie Davies, NR -- Bradley throws Davies a bone with a brief cameo.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.