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Nov 14, 2009

New faces in U.S. team's offense fail to mesh

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia -- A U.S. makeover on the back line was easy on the eyes. The American attack? Not so pretty.

Saturday's 1-0 loss to Slovakia in the Yanks' first tuneup for next summer's World Cup showed that even without injured starting center backs Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit, the American defense is solid.

Captain Carlos Bocanegra and Jonathan Spector, the starting outside backs for much of the summer, deftly patrolled the interior against the counterattacking Slovaks, and looked comfortable both clearing the ball and launching attacks the other way. U.S. coach Bob Bradley singled out the duo for praise, especially Spector, who made his first start for the national team as a center back. "Carlos and Jonathan worked well together, and showed good understanding," said Bradley, who also praised Clarence Goodson, who came on for Bocanegra in the 72nd minute.

Meanwhile, outside backs Steve Cherundolo and Jonathan Bornstein worked hard getting forward and put frequent pressure on Slovakia with well-timed runs.

U.S. men's schedule
Wednesday
U.S. vs. Denmark
NRGi Park; Aarhus, Denmark
2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ ESPN Classic, ESPN360.com

The same couldn't be said on the other end, which last night was without Landon Donovan (busy with the L.A. Galaxy in the MLS playoffs) and Charlie Davies (out indefinitely with injuries sustained last month in a car accident).

While the U.S. dictated the pace and maintained possession for much of the match, the team never finished a play. "The area that let us down was the sharpness and execution in the attacking third of the field," Bradley said.

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He received no argument from forward Jozy Altidore. "It's extremely frustrating," Altidore said. "We know what we're supposed to do. It was just a bad game."

Nobody expected the match to be a thriller, with two well-organized teams that make it tough for most opponents to score. Only 7,200 fans showed up to see two World Cup finalists, and the atmosphere in Slovan Stadium was as clammy as the 36-degree weather. Once Slovakia's Vladimir Weiss Jr. drew a foul in the box on Bornstein -- "kind of soft," Bornstein said -- leading to Marek Hamsik's penalty kick goal in the 26th minute, the home team packed in the defense even more. "They sat back -- that's their game," Bocanegra said. "Still, I think we created some good chances."

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The first came in the match's second minute, when Conor Casey headed a Robbie Rogers corner kick that bounced around in the box before Michael Bradley nodded it home. In between, though, Altidore was called for a hand ball, and the U.S. never found the back of the net again.

Three different frontline combinations -- first Altidore and Casey, then Altidore and Eddie Johnson, and finally Johnson and MLS scoring titlist Jeff Cunningham -- all failed to ignite the offense. Of the four, Cunningham came closest, missing a header wide right in the 86th minute.

And there wasn't a lot of help from the midfielders. Benny Feilhaber's diving header off a Bornstein cross was saved by Jan Mucha, but it was one of the few dangerous chances created by the midfielders.

The game took on a familiar pattern: a U.S. foray stopped by the Slovaks, a counterattack nicely turned away by the Yanks, a push upfield, and then ... a missed pass, a lumpy first touch, a slip on the muddy field, and ultimately, nothing.

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The Americans now travel to Aarhus, Denmark, to face a more attack-oriented Danish team in a friendly on Wednesday, and perhaps a better chance to score some goals.

Bradley, who used five of his six allotted substitutions, hinted there will be more lineup changes to come against the Danes. "We will assess the possibility of bringing in some different players," he said. In addition to players who could fall out of the MLS playoffs, like Donovan and Houston Dynamo players Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark and Brian Ching, Bradley may call on Mexican leaguers Edgar Castillo and Jose Francisco Torres.

In the meantime, the American attackers will be glad to see Bradislava in the rearview mirror. "It was just one of those games, you know, where you put it behind you," Altidore said. "You play these games to get it out of your system now, hopefully, so when the World Cup comes around, it's not there."

Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Mag.

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