Short of complete dominance of the Nelson Mandela Challenge, it's hard to image how yesterday's visit to South Africa could have been more successful for the United States Men's National Team. And complete dominance wasn't going to happen. Long trip, young team, raucous crowd - this match was destined to be close, and as one goal wins go, the States' 1-0 victory couldn't have been more productive.
Having said that, let me acknowledge a bias. I came up with the standard against which I'm measuring the team (yesterday's Five Questions piece), and while I didn't anticipate all five of my questions would be met with positive answers, the fact that they were makes this arguably the year's most meaningful result. At least, it was the most meaningful as it concerns the program's future.
Yes, there was the Algeria match, decided with that last second counter, and there was the England draw, elating because few (including myself) believed. Those were each historically significant results, but as it concerns the team going forward, the win over South Africa will prove more valuable.
And let's not forget: the U.S. had won only one of seven coming into yesterday's match.
But maybe I'm trying to justify my questions. Again, these are from yesterday's piece, giving us a chance to reflect on our pre-match expectations.
1. Is this match going to give us any useful information?
If the match was a walk-through, the U.S. would have gotten nothing from it, seeing its kids stroll through a glorified scrimmage. Yesterday's match was anything but, a realization you saw on Teal Bunbury's slightly overwhelmed face when he came on in the second half. Thankfully, neither Bunbury nor the U.S.'s other debutants succumbed to the occasion. Tim Ream recovered from a shaky start. Mikkel Diskerud had a "brilliant" (soccer usage) assist, and by now I'm sure you've heard about this Juan Agudelo kid.
Overall, Bob Bradley was able to get what he wanted: A chance to look at new faces in meaningful situations.
2. Will Bob Bradley continue to search for a better formation?
Until Agudelo was brought on for Robbie Rogers near the hour mark, Bradley played a version of the formation du moment. Robbie Rogers and Alejandro Bedoya started wide. Eddie Gaven played centrally in midfield above Brian Carroll and Logan Pause. Robbie Findley was alone up top. It's been described as 4-2-3-1, 4-4-1-1, and others have hinted a 4-3-3, all descriptions that highlight the problem with such notation.
The United States used a triangle midfield with two at it's base, a single striker, and two wingers. Numeric notation might not work, nor does it describe the most important aspect of the set-up: It wasn't Bradley's tried and not-so-true 4-4-2. Bob tried something different, just as he did in the first half against Colombia, and if you squinted your eyes and let your imagination roam, it wasn't hard to see Clint Dempsey, Stuart Holden and Landon Donovan lined up behind the striker.
3. Can the United States prevent goals?
The clean sheet says it all, the U.S.'s fourth in the last 21 matches, though the grade here is mixed. South Africa had their chances in the first half, and although the States deserve credit for improving their play as the first half went on, the Bafana could have had goals.
Still, South Africa is not that good, in the big picture, and the fact that the U.S. was giving them those chances needs to be remembered. Even in the second half, South Africa was able to get through the defense's left too easily, though by that time it had less to do with Ream (who had shaken off some early wobbles) than Jonathan Spector.
In the middle, Clarence Goodson's performance was very encouraging. He was the calming presence amidst that first half pressure, and with Oguchi Onyewu's knee, Jay DeMerit's lack of a club (until today), and Carlos Bocanegra's age (three years older than Goodson), the Bronby back needs to be in the mix for a starting spot.
It's unfortunate that the same can't be said for Brad Guzan, who was the States' best player, proving himself well deserving of the armband. Guzan will continue to be Tim Howard's understudy, and until he gets a starting job at club level, it will be difficult for him to make his case as the number one. But he did give the U.S. a rare clean sheet, and given the match's first 25 minutes, had he allowed a goal, nobody would have blamed him.
Perhaps Tim Howard would have also made those reads?
4. Can the United States develop forwards?
Before the match, I was skeptical. I liked Teal Bunbury and Juan Agudelo, but neither played a major role for their club last season. Bunbury's coming off his first professional season while Agudelo's only 17 years old.
Yesterday's match eliminated some of my skepticism, but it also highlighted the States' problems up top. The difference between Findley, who had a poor first half, and Bunbury was immediate and positive. And Bunbury's is a guy who didn't fully break into
the Kansas City Wizards' Sporting KC's starting XI. Agudelo wasn't a factor for New York until the playoffs. Yet these kids look miles ahead of Findley when it comes to potential impact on the team.
I couldn't help to wonder why the team has been killing time with Findley and, to a certain extent, been so patient with Jozy Altidore. With a day's reflection, I think those feelings are harsh. But that's what was on my mind during yesterday's match.
But let's reconsider the question. Whether the U.S. can develop forwards remains to be seen, but after yesterday, I have reason for hope. Both Bunbury and Agudelo had positive debuts, with the Red Bulls' prospect becoming the program's youngest ever goal scorer. No matter how their performance reflected on their competition, the duo's debut said positive things about the States' options.
5. Which kids can emerge before the Gold Cup?
The only prospect who looks unlikely to be a factor next June is Gale Agbossoumonde. He saw limited time, but with the strong performances from Goodson and Ream, "Boss" didn't see his stock improve.
The rest of the kids have to be in the picture for Gold Cup. Ream showed has has to be considered ahead of Chad Marshall (and for my liking, Omar Gonzalez). Given Steve Cherundolo's age, Eric Lichaj has to get a further look at right back. Bunbury and Agudelo should get time over Findley and Edson Buddle. Mikkel Diskerud showed more promise than Bedoya and Rogers.
When five of your six kids give reason to think they're ready national team time, that's a good day.