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Friday, July 6, 2007
U.S. ends Copa America on a low note

Jeff Carlisle, ESPNsoccernet

BARQUISIMETO, Venezuela -- When the United States was eliminated from the Copa America prior to Thursday's game against Colombia, it meant that its last group match would be a glorified audition for players who had received scant playing time up to that point. But rather than seize the moment, this undermanned U.S. team bowed out meekly with a 1-0 defeat that capped off a disappointing tournament.

Simply put, there was little to no spark shown by the U.S. on Thursday night, which is surprising given the rare opportunity that was handed to some players. From the game's first moments, it seemed like they couldn't wait to find the plane that would take them home. Only when Colombian goalkeeper Robinson Zapata was comically sent off for time wasting in the 87th minute did any sense of drama creep into the proceedings. Even then, with nominal forward Hugo Rodallega manning the nets and turning every cross into an adventure, the U.S. barely threatened the Colombian goal.

The Americans' offensive struggles can be traced directly to the sheer lack of creativity in their lineup. While the opportunity to give other players some experience is understandable, the decision by U.S. head coach Bob Bradley to sit Benny Feilhaber for this match meant that there was no dynamic presence in the middle part of the field. In his absence, the Americans' ability to possess the ball and play their way out of pressure was seriously compromised, and on those occasions when they did get a hold of the ball, their passing was predictable.

That was by no means the only problem the team faced, as the U.S. players were not at all sharp, especially in the first half. Whether one chalks it up to nerves, a lack of familiarity with teammates or a shortage of motivation, the technical aspects of their game were well below par. This was true in midfield and especially up top, where the failure of forwards Eddie Johnson and Herculez Gomez to keep the ball handed the early initiative to Colombia.

It was an advantage the Colombians maintained throughout the first half, and their dominance was rewarded when Jaime Castrillon headed home the game-winner in the 14th minute. Colombia then should have gone two up in the 36th minute, but U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan's save from Rodallega's penalty kept the Americans in the game.

Bradley tried to shake things up at halftime by bringing on Eddie Gaven for the woeful Gomez and shifting his formation to a 4-3-3, the better to pressure Colombia in its half and to minimize the influence of midfielder Macnelly Torres. The moves did bring some life to the American attack, but Bradley admitted the team's improvement wasn't just due to tactics.

"It was probably more mentality," Bradley said of his team's second-half improvement. "Just understanding that you have to keep the ball better, you have to move faster and you have to sharpen things up, and it seemed that we got a little more confidence from that."

But as much as the team improved in the second half, it wasn't enough to really trouble the opposition; Colombia came closest to scoring and looked to catch the U.S. on the break.

Such a tepid display begs the question of what the U.S. learned from this game, and the answer is: not much. While Bradley hailed the play of Guzan, there were no head-turning performances that moved anyone up the U.S. depth chart. In fact, Feilhaber, by not playing, proved just how important he is to the team going forward. And for a player like Gomez, it showed just how unprepared he is for the rigors of international play, but given his already low standing in the forward pecking order, his position probably didn't change all that much.

In the end, like much of the team's Copa experience, this match is one that is best forgotten.

Player ratings (scale of 1-10):

Brad Guzan, 5 -- Made a poor choice to go to ground on Rodallega's breakaway attempt, and while he made up for it by saving the ensuing penalty, next time it's likely he won't be as lucky. Commanded his area fairly well, but his goal kicks were inconsistent.

Heath Pearce, 5 -- Made some good runs forward that were wasted due to no one getting him the ball. On the few occasions he was found, his teammates seemed reluctant to attack his crosses. Pearce was troubled by Jhon Viafara's pace at times and was forced to grab, but he battled well on the physical end.

Bobby Boswell, 5 -- He lacks pace and struggled with the speed of Rodallega early, but he seemed to cope better in the second half. He came through with some key clearances from service out wide.

Danny Califf, 5 -- Had some well-timed tackles but also conceded a lot of free kicks. His quick thinking allowed him to clear Guzan's penalty save.

Drew Moor, 3 -- Had a miserable first half and was badly beaten by Castrillon for the goal. Did decently in attack and was involved in some good buildup play. But overall he struggled with his defending, despite a key clearance in the 18th minute.

Justin Mapp, 4 -- On a day when he was counted on to provide the creative spark, he simply didn't do enough. Mapp did deliver some quality crosses, but most of these came from set pieces. From open play, he needed to be more dangerous, and defensively he was lackadaisical at times.

Ricardo Clark, 4 -- A below average follow-up to the Paraguay match; he wasn't influential enough in the middle of the field, and at times didn't track his man. Clark definitely has a future at the international level, but he needs a creative presence like a Feilhaber beside him.

Kyle Beckerman, 4 -- Seems to be too similar to Clark, and at times they played too close to each other. Lost the ball in some bad spots in the first half but improved in the second. The U.S. needed more from Beckerman (among others) to get a good result.

Sacha Kljestan, 4 -- Kljestan was continually beaten by Colombia's Javier Arizala, and while the switch to a 4-3-3 helped combat this, he continued to struggle defensively. In attack, he finished the game with some momentum, but his creativity wasn't consistent.

Herculez Gomez, 2 -- Gomez was completely out of his depth. His poor touch and abysmal hold-up play made it impossible for the U.S. to sustain any kind of attack. He also showed a surprising lack of energy at the start. It should be a while before he's called in again.

Eddie Johnson, 3 -- So much for using this game as confidence builder; it caps a miserable tournament for Johnson. The next time the team convenes, if Bradley has his first-choice forwards available, it's difficult to see how Johnson will get a game.

Subs:

Eddie Gaven, 4 -- At least he made some tackles in this game. Overall he looked sharper, but it seemed like every time he contributed, he'd make a mistake to spoil his hard work. Case in point was a run in the 64th minute that he capped off with a horrible cross.

Charlie Davies, 4 -- Provided the kind of energy off the ball that Gomez should have, but despite his electric pace, he needs to refine his game and find a way to fend off opponents more consistently.

Lee Nguyen, 4 -- Another game in which he was physically overmatched; he has looked very slow in both of his Copa appearances. He did have a fantastic hustle play late when his clearance saved an almost certain goal.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.


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