Take one look at the scoreline from the United States' 3-1 defeat by Denmark, and it's tempting to assume that the more inexperienced elements of manager Bob Bradley's lineup were to blame. But closer inspection reveals that some veteran performers should bear most of the responsibility.
Granted, it was day on which the Americans were missing some of their most important attacking elements. Club considerations rendered Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey unavailable and injury did the same to Charlie Davies. Yet it was also a lineup featuring many players who have been heavily relied upon by Bradley. Of the 11 starters, only Stuart Holden and Jeff Cunningham are relatively recent additions.
And midway through the first half, one of those new players made a huge impact. Cunningham, one of the players auditioning to be Davies' replacement, pounced on an errant outlet pass from Danish goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen to score in the 26th minute. It was enough to make one think the U.S. might be able to survive the aforementioned absences.
What wasn't expected was a second-half capitulation in which a defense that had looked largely composed in the first half fell apart. That it came against a Denmark side missing even more of its first-choice attackers made the development even more sobering.
Defender Frankie Hejduk looked at sea for most of the match. And just 65 seconds into the second half, his inability to spot half-time substitute Johan Absalonsen lurking along the back line allowed the Dane to latch on to Simon Kjaer's long ball and score from close range.
Just five minutes later, Jonathan Spector's failed clearing attempt saw Absalonsen break into the clear to feed Soren Rieks at the far post, and Rieks' easy finish put Denmark ahead.
The game then ceased to be a contest in the 55th minute when a poor pass from Michael Bradley sparked a counterattack that ended with Martin Bernburg beating U.S. keeper Brad Guzan from the top of the box.
Hejduk's certainly was alarming, and Bradley's decision to include him in the lineup after some equally shaky displays in the MLS playoffs was bewildering. Including Hejduk also prevented Bradley from seeing whether other options in central defense exist besides Spector and Carlos Bocanegra. Jimmy Conrad and Clarence Goodson were introduced only after the game was essentially over.
But responsibility also must be shared by the central midfield tandem of Michael Bradley and Ricardo Clark. Their wayward passing contributed mightily to the Americans' inability to generate much of an attack, this on a day when Benny Feilhaber and Holden delivered decent performances. As a result, forwards Jozy Altidore and Cunningham were left starved of service for most of the match.
That said, Cunningham showed enough with his limited opportunities to warrant another look. Although his goal could be classified as nothing more than an early Christmas gift, he did finish it well, and the FC Dallas striker also showed an ability to link up with teammates. In particular, a flowing move in the 31st minute saw him release Holden down the right wing, which allowed Holden to set the table for Clark. Had Clark gotten his subsequent shot on target, the game might have turned out differently, but the chance was squandered, setting the stage for Denmark's second-half revival.
Of course, if Cunningham's encouraging performance is the only thing Bradley takes away from this match, that counts as progress of a sort. But it's also becoming clear that next summer, the U.S. will progress only as far as the midfield allows. And the U.S. needs to play faster and more accurately if the Americans are to make some noise in South Africa.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
GK, Brad Guzan, 5 -- Was hung out to dry by his defense, but looked as if he could have done better on Absalonsen's opener. Otherwise, he was sharp in his handling and secure in the air. The No. 2 job behind Tim Howard is still Guzan's to lose.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 4.5 -- A better performance than the one he delivered against Slovakia, but he still had his struggles. Was beaten cleanly by Jesper Gronkjaer in the first half and should have pinched in centrally on Denmark's third goal. His hold on the left back spot is still not secure.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 5 -- Tried to hold the back line together, but to no avail.
D, Jonathan Spector, 4.5 -- Spector's passing out of the back brings a unique element to the back line, but he wasn't always in sync with his teammates. He seemed unduly troubled by balls over the top, although he wasn't alone. His inability to win a physical battle with Absalonsen led to the second goal.
D, Frankie Hejduk, 3 -- Continued his poor form from the MLS playoffs. Was caught ball watching just two minutes in when Gronkjaer should have scored, and his failure to mark Absalonsen led to the Danish equalizer.
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M. Benny Feilhaber, 5.5 -- The Aarhus man clearly was up for this match, and he delivered some telling passes from the left side of midfield. But his influence faded as the match went on.
M, Ricardo Clark, 4 -- Put himself about the field, but this was one of those days when his passing was not sharp. His failure to convert a decent chance in the first half might have totally changed the game.
M, Michael Bradley, 4 -- Brought his usual amount of energy to the match, but his passing was even more ragged than Clark's. His poor attempted ball to Holden sparked Rieks' eventual winner.
M, Stuart Holden, 5 -- He had his moments, and his perfect feed to Clark in the 31st minute deserved better than a shot into the cheap seats.
F, Jozy Altidore, 4.5 -- Struggled with Denmark's physical defending in the opening minutes, but eventually got more into the game, with his holdup play improving. Another game in which service was almost nonexistent, but he still needs to find ways to get more involved.
F, Jeff Cunningham, 6 -- The FC Dallas striker was quiet early on, but the goal sparked his confidence, and he was soon linking up well in the attacking third. Like many U.S. players, his influence faded, but he definitely deserves another look
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F, Eddie Johnson, 5 -- The Fulham striker didn't really stand out.
M, Edgar Castillo, 5 -- He hardly touched the ball, but that wasn't necessarily his fault. With the game all but decided, the decision to play him in midfield was a head-scratcher.
M. Robbie Rogers, 5 -- Had one telling shot from distance that was saved well by Sorensen, but that was the extent of his contribution.
D, Jimmy Conrad, 5.5 -- Seemed to settle things down in the back for the U.S., but the game was essentially over by the time he came on.
D, Clarence Goodson, 5.5 -- Looked comfortable in the back and had a key clearance on a cross from the left wing.
M, Dax McCarty, NR -- Late cameo for the FC Dallas midfielder.
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Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.