If the U.S. men's national team ever wanted to know what life was like without its best forward, midfielder, defender and goalkeeper, it got a taste of just that Saturday.
The Americans are already coping without injured standouts Charlie Davies and Oguchi Onyewu, but played without Tim Howard and Landon Donovan against Slovakia on Saturday. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan did well to fill in for Howard, but the U.S. team were unable to replace the dynamic attacking qualities of Davies and Donovan. The result was a toothless offensive display in a 1-0 loss to Slovakia.
In an ugly match with little rhythm for either side, the Americans started out well and created some early chances, but the tone of the match changed after Slovakia converted the 27th-minute Marek Hamsik penalty kick. With a goal in hand, Slovakia defended tightly for the remainder of the match, allowing the Americans to control possession for much of the remainder of the match.
Unfortunately for the Americans, that edge in possession produced little in the way of quality scoring chances after the penalty . Forwards Jozy Altidore and Conor Casey failed to provide much of a threat, while Clint Dempsey and Robbie Rogers struggled to pick up the creative slack in Donovan's absence.
"I thought we had a good start to the match in the first 25 minutes. The penalty and going down 1-0 changed the game," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley in a press release. "Slovakia is very well-organized and has a lot of people behind the ball. We were not sharp enough with our ability in the attacking third to make a play and get through the defense."
"I knew they were going to be a tough -- I knew it was going to be a tough game. But I was kind of surprised, after they got the goal, at how much they did sit back," said Dempsey in a press release. "I thought they would go forward a little bit more but I guess they were playing for the win so they stayed back and kept it compact and tried to catch us on the counter.
"I thought we did well with keeping most of the possession and creating chances. We just weren't able to get that goal to open the game up more."
Slovakia deserves its share of credit for making the U.S. attack look flat by staying disciplined defensively and keeping numbers back, but the U.S. team still should have been able to create more chances than it did. Dempsey was more active than he had been for the national team since the Confederations Cup, but his impact was minimized by a forward tandem that never could get behind Slovakia's stingy defense.
Bradley took a look at four different forwards Saturday as he began his search for a replacement for Davies, and none of them came close to providing the type of spark that became Davies' trademark last summer. That shouldn't really come as a surprise, but it was still a sobering experience to watch Casey, Eddie Johnson and Jeff Cunningham try to partner with Altidore, who didn't have a good match either.
This is why Dempsey is likely to be the inevitable alternative to play up top. With Stuart Holden maturing rapidly and looking like a very good option on the right flank, Dempsey appears to be the likely choice to partner with Altidore.
The result of the friendly didn't mean as much to Bradley as the chance to see some new looks in his lineup did. While the overall team performance left something to be desired, there were bright spots for Bradley to take from the match:
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1. Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber worked well together. There have been games in the past when Bradley and Feilhaber haven't quite complemented each other well. They did so against Slovakia, moving the ball around well and forcing Slovakia to play over the top. Bradley was all over the field and his passing efficiency was stellar, while Feilhaber paired well with him.
2. Jonathan Spector is a quality centerback option. It took injuries to Onyewu, Jay DeMerit and Chad Marshall to see it, but Spector stepped into central defense Saturday and looked like he might be ready to spend more time there. His quality on the ball, passing ability out of the back, and ability to read the game make him a useful option, and having him in central defense means you can get both Spector and Steve Cherundolo in the same lineup.
"Jonathan Spector and Carlos Bocanegra played well together, and both showed good understanding. It's the first time we've used Spector as a center back," said Bob Bradley in a press release.
"I'm used to [being] back there. I played in that position throughout my career with youth national teams and club teams," said Spector in a press release. "I was comfortable back there, and playing next to Carlos and Steve made it easy. They're two experienced players and we had a lot of communication so that made it easier for me."
3. Brad Guzan is a beast. If there are any lingering concerns about the lack of a No. 2 goalkeeper in the U.S. pipeline, Guzan did his part to ease them. He has been stellar for Aston Villa when he gets playing time, and Saturday he made a pair of crucial saves on breakaway chances.
4. Robbie Rogers builds on his Costa Rica performance. Rogers was deployed on the right wing, not his natural position, but what he didn't provide in service he delivered in movement and defensive effort. With the pool lacking in true wing options, Rogers didn't hurt his chances of sticking around and seeing more time.
5. Dax McCarty made a promising debut. Central midfield is the U.S. team's deepest position, and he may not get another look for some time, but McCarty made good use of his minutes by looking confident and providing some bite in his defensive midfield role.
Those are the bright spots. There also were question marks and areas of concern. The two most glaring ones were the play of the starting forwards and the play of Jonathan Bornstein at left back. Casey was virtually invisible in his 45 minutes of action, while Altidore couldn't time his runs well enough, or find passes good enough, to help him get by Slovakia's center backs.
Johnson showed some flashes as a second-half substitute, but his impact was probably magnified when compared to Casey's effort in the first half. MLS goal-scoring leader Cunningham came on late and tried to make a mark, but managed only to draw a decent free-kick look for the team in his limited minutes.
Bornstein struggled to cope with the speed and shiftiness of Slovakian starlet Vladimir Weiss, and wound up giving up the penalty that produced the game-winning goal. He was beaten for pace a few times, and also fell victim to a surprising amount of Slovakian diving, which makes it even more likely that Bob Bradley will be giving someone else a look at left back in the team's next match, on Wednesday against Denmark. The job is still Bornstein's, but Saturday's performance does diminish his recent good form for the national team.
Ultimately, the U.S. team never could find the energy to its attack that Donovan usually provides, and Davies used to provide. With Donovan unavailable for Wednesday's Denmark match, Bradley will probably be turning to the likes of Stuart Holden, Jose Francisco Torres and potentially Edgar Castillo to come in and provide some new ingredients to an attacking recipe that was painfully bland Saturday.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
GK, Brad Guzan, 7 -- Came up with two clutch second-half saves on two wide-open looks by Slovakia. He's turning into a very solid No. 2.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- Steady and strong, provided a steady force in the middle of defense.
D, Jonathan Spector, 6 -- A superb performance in his first national team start in central defense. He kept Stanislav Sestak onside on a play that produced a stellar Guzan save, but there was little else negative out of Spector's performance.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 4.5 -- Gave up the game-winning penalty and struggled to deal with Weiss.
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D, Steve Cherundolo, 5.5 -- Another steady performance for the veteran, who won't mind seeing Spector stay in central defense.
M, Clint Dempsey, 5.5 -- Had some good moments, including a strong free kick that forced a diving save, and looked sharper than he has in recent national team matches. That said, he didn't have as much of an impact as the team needed him to have.
M, Michael Bradley, 6 -- He was all over the field today, delivering sharp passes and providing a steady outlet for U.S. defenders to pass to. Looked like a player very much in form.
M, Benny Feilhaber, 5.5 -- Moved well and passed well, but faded in the second half and never could crack the packed Slovakia defense with one of his trademark passes.
M, Robbie Rogers, 5 -- Was on the right wing so he wasn't able to provide his usual service from the wing, but he showed an improved defensive work rate and offered some flashes forward.
F, Jozy Altidore, 4.5 -- He never could get going and was never much of a threat against a strong Slovakia central defense. Part of the blame was lack of midfield service, but Altidore didn't do much to help his own cause.
F, Conor Casey, 4 -- The definition of invisible, Casey isn't a player who can create his own chances so he was doomed without much service to work with.
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F, Eddie Johnson, 5 -- Johnson looked confident and showed off his trademark speed, but he missed a good chance on a Dempsey pass that could have produced an equalizer.
M, Dax McCarty, 5 -- Provided some good bite and a nice touch. Had a few turnovers but still did enough to merit another look.
D, Clarence Goodson, 3 -- Looked a step slow from the start and was lucky not to be beaten for a second Slovakia goal. Looks to have fallen further down the center back depth chart.
F, Jeff Cunningham, 4.5 -- Drew a good free-kick opportunity but also gave up possession on a very promising surge forward. Wasn't as productive as Johnson in the forward auditions.
M, Sacha Kljestan, NR -- Some decent crosses in limited minutes.
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Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.