Just like Tuesday's loss to Morocco, Friday's 2-0 triumph by the U.S. over Venezuela was less about the result, and more about that always-elusive metric, "how the team played." On that count, the Americans can walk away from Cleveland Browns Stadium feeling better about themselves. Despite some shaky moments in defense, Bruce Arena's side kept their vow to be more dangerous in attack. But more importantly, the team played with other intangibles like passion and grit. In fact, these attributes were the platform for their success.
Players like Ben Olsen were throwing themselves into tackles, Brian Ching was challenging for every ball in the air, and Bobby Convey was taking players on with a confidence that bordered on arrogance. That's not to say they were perfect. Both Convey and Ching looked totally gassed in the second half and their play suffered somewhat as a result. Olsen meanwhile had his share of wayward passes. Still, the trio should be commended for delivering a badly needed dose of attitude to the match.
Of course, before anyone gets too carried away, it should be noted that this performance came against a Venezuela squad that, while improved, can still be counted among the minnows of the international game. Still, the play of the U.S. was indicative of a team that looked like it had something to prove, as opposed to last Tuesday, when they appeared to be playing it safe.
But aside from giving various reserve players a full 90 minutes, did the performance against Venezuela do anything to threaten the established hierarchy within the U.S. team? In most cases the answer is "no", although there were a few players competing for starting spots, with the aforementioned Convey doing the most to help his cause.
The Reading midfielder made an immediate impact in the match, not only with his slashing runs, but with his crossing ability as well. However, Convey's performance gives Arena an interesting problem. Namely, how does he get the former D.C. United man on the field?
As of right now, it appears that Convey and DaMarcus Beasley are competing for the same position on the left flank. Convey is the better offensive player at present, while Beasley is more accomplished on the defensive side of the ball. Both players have had stints in the center of midfield where they weren't terribly effective, so now it seems a case of choosing one over the other.
Will Arena do the unthinkable and sit Beasley? One only has to think back to the last World Cup, when Arena started both Beasley and Landon Donovan to realize that the U.S. coach isn't afraid to go against convention. But Arena has also shown a tendency to remain loyal to out-of-form players, as was the case last summer with Eddie Pope.
My guess is that Beasley hangs onto his spot come June 12, especially since the Czech Republic have two attacking fullbacks in Marek Jankulovski and Zdenek Grygera, who love to bomb forward. That means Beasley's stellar defensive work will be in higher demand.
Another player making his case for a starting spot is Clint Dempsey, and he certainly staked his claim on Friday by heading home Eddie Johnson's cross for the second U.S. goal. But while Dempsey was solid in attack, his defense was at times suspect, especially in the 78th minute when he failed to track back with Jonay Hernandez, allowing the Venezuelan to deliver a dangerous cross that nearly resulted in a goal. That kind of lapse is bound to give Arena pause when he decides who will play right midfield.
On the defensive side of things, Carlos Bocanegra's performance will give Arena confidence that he has cover at left back, especially in light of Cory Gibbs' right knee injury that forced his removal from the roster. The Fulham defender had some timely interceptions, although he did spoil his performance by picking up a silly second yellow card. And for those who would claim that leading with his elbow into a 50-50 challenge should not have warranted such a punishment, it should be noted that referee Mauricio Morales booked Venezuela's Jesus Gomez for the exact same infraction in the 58th minute. It may have been only a friendly, but Bocanegra will need to be much more disciplined when he's in Germany.
Otherwise, there wasn't much else to take away from this game. The U.S. performance will give them a shot of confidence, but that will only last until Sunday's encounter with Latvia. And in order for that confidence to carry over, they'll need to bring with them the same intangibles they displayed on Friday night.
Tim Howard, 6.5 -- Didn't have much to do, but made the save of the night when he tipped Juan Arango's 64th-minute free kick over the bar. Howard did show a bit of rust when he flapped at a first half cross, but otherwise enjoyed a very capable performance.
Chris Albright, 5.5 -- Got forward well, and his overlapping run in the 54th minute saw him deliver an excellent cross that was one-timed by Ching, but well-saved by Venezuelan keeper Javier Toyo. Defended well for the most part, but struggled with his positioning at times, especially in the 63rd minute when he allowed Jorge Rojas to get in behind him, forcing Albright to concede a dangerous free kick.
Oguchi Onyewu, 6 -- Delivered a fairly composed performance, although he was caught square in the 12th minute, allowing Jose Torrealba to go in on a clear breakaway that wasn't converted. His passing was a bit off early on, but improved as the game progressed. He also had some vital clearances late in the match.
Jimmy Conrad, 7 -- Hardly put a foot wrong, although his failure to mark Oswaldo Vizcarrondo tightly on a corner kick gifted the Venezuelan a free header that went wide. Otherwise, he delivered a solid performance, and his distribution was excellent.
Carlos Bocanegra, 5 -- It seemed like every player on the back line had one horrendous defensive gaffe, and Bocanegra's occurred in the 60th minute, when his failure to step up with the rest of the defense kept Giancarlo Maldonado onside, allowing him a clean look at goal. But the Fulham defender also saved the day in the 78th minute when he cut out a dangerous cross with plenty of attackers lurking nearby. Even though Bocanegra was sent off for a second yellow card, Arena will be confident of the cover he now has at left back.
Bobby Convey, 7 -- Yes, he faded from the game, and his service from the wings could have had a bit more accuracy. But Convey's inspired first half, in which he was constantly taking defenders on, and hitting dangerous crosses, set the tone for the rest of the team. He had a great assist on Ching's goal, and with a little luck, would have had a few more.
Ben Olsen, 6 -- Did his job, and brought some tenacity to the team. He also succeeded in getting under the skin of his opponents, as witnessed by Edgard Jiminez throwing Olsen to the ground in the 65th minute.
Josh Wolff, 5 -- Did some useful work in midfield, and was involved in the buildup to Ching's goal, but when is this guy going to finish a chance? With goals in the World Cup being so hard to come by, can the U.S afford to have this guy on the field?
Clint Dempsey, 6 -- Took his goal well, but doesn't seem to be having the same impact throughout the game that he had earlier in the year. His defensive slip-ups will no doubt earn him a gentle reminder from the coaching staff.
Eddie Johnson, 5 -- A vastly improved performance from Johnson, and his sublime cross that led to Dempsey's goal will remind people of the impact that he can have. But his touch with his back to goal was oftentimes poor, and he'll need to clean up that part of his game if he's to earn a significant playing time in June.
Brian Ching, 7 -- Took his goal well, but given the number of loose balls lying around the Venezuelan penalty area, one gets the sense he should have had a few more. Still, Ching's holdup play, willingness to contest every head ball, and his ability to win free kicks showed the various ways he can contribute.
DaMarcus Beasley, 5 -- Still seems short of his best, although per usual, his work rate is unquestioned. An excellent performance against Latvia will help him hold off Convey's challenge for the left midfield spot.
Landon Donovan, 5 -- It's hard to determine what was more notable, his assist in the buildup to Dempsey's goal, or the fact that in the 87th minute, he finally had a decent set piece delivery, that was unfortunately headed wide by Ching. That effort aside, he still hit some poor free kicks, leading one to wonder why he's still being asked to take them.
Eddie Lewis, NR -- Brief cameo still saw Lewis make two excellent defensive plays.
Michael Bradley, NR -- Arena gives a parting gift to a player who looks set to be a major contributor in qualifying for 2010.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at email@example.com