U.S. hangs tough with the Netherlands
AMSTERDAM, Netherlands -- The game was lost. But a lot was won.
A strong defensive performance by the U.S. was offset with lapses in concentration and moments of bad luck as the U.S. fell to the Netherlands 2-1.
Some positives can be drawn from this game, though, as the U.S. looked far from overmatched, even though the Dutch dominated possessions and the number of chances created. By clogging up the center of the field and closing down aggressively, the U.S. stifled the biggest Dutch strength, the distribution of playmaker Wesley Sneijder. Much of that was due to the excellent defensive input by central midfielder Michael Bradley, central defender Carlos Bocanegra and a sterling run-out by defensive stalwart Jay DeMerit, who took away the long-ball option for the Netherlands through his aerial dominance.
"It's very important when you play against players like Wesley Sneijder to close down collectively as a team," said U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "You've got to squeeze them, put them under pressure, because if they settle into an easy rhythm you can get overrun."
The undoing of the Yanks lay in an inability to connect on their passes for much of the game and poor execution of the details. The few real chances the Dutch created came from defensive lapses from the U.S., when too much room would be left up for grabs on the edge of the box.
"I think we played well," said Bradley. "But in moments it needs to be a little bit sharper, a little bit quicker, a little bit better -- that's still when we need to raise the bar. That's the area where we can improve the most."
One problem area that will need to be addressed if the U.S. is to impress in June is the wing backs. While the defense was disciplined, it lacked the ability to contain the darting runs of Dutch wingers Eljero Elia and Arjen Robben. Tormented throughout the first half, Jonathan Spector and Jonathan Bornstein allowed the Dutch to penetrate far too deep into American territory, looking downright foolish several times.
Bornstein suffered from a moment of bad luck too, when a shot by Klaas Jan Huntelaar, who had been left in a cozy vacuum at the edge of the box, allowing him to take aim at the U.S. goal for a second time, took a deflection off his chest and wrong-footed U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard for the 2-0. Bornstein was even more responsible for the first Dutch goal. He clutched onto the escaping Sneijder, prompting the latter to gratefully go to earth in the box for a penalty and the 1-0.
"Maybe another night that [shot] hits me and it goes away from the goal," Bornstein said about the second goal.
"He went down pretty easy," Bornstein said about the penalty call. "But they called it."
Aside from Michael Bradley's good defensive work, which had the shine taken off it by a string of errant passes by him when in possession, and DeMerit reaffirming his status as a reliable center back, Jozy Altidore was a bright spot, holding up well against the experienced Dutch defenders.
"I think I have to be more aggressive and get more shots off," said Altidore, who saw room for improvement. "I have a hard shot and I don't let it go often enough."
DaMarcus Beasley, who assisted on Bocanegra's goal, which made it 2-1 in the 88th minute, also helped his World Cup cause after coming on for the injured Stuart Holden, who left with what appears to be a bad bruise to his right shin. Running at the defense with purpose, Beasley brought the danger that Landon Donovan couldn't muster.
Not claiming enough of the ball and losing it too easily when he did, Donovan's game didn't acquire the moments of attacking clarity the U.S. expects from him. He was a virtual nonfactor until he was moved into the position of second striker (when Robbie Findley came off in the 63rd minute) -- an observation that couldn't have escaped Bradley. Just as Donovan began to pull play toward him, though, helping teammates with several good balls, he was taken off, making Donovan's night a dud.
One encouraging sign was the final 15 minutes of the game, in which Bocanegra scored and the U.S. created a slew of chances, suddenly wresting the momentum from the befuddled Dutch and taking advantage of its superior conditioning.
"That's one of the qualities we have," said Altidore. "The national team is a fit team. We stay in the game for however long it goes."
If the turnaround had been achieved earlier, an equalizer might well have been in the cards. "We absorbed some of their pressure but probably left it a little bit late for that final push unfortunately," conceded Spector. "We started playing a bit more and showed what we can do."
Perhaps the Yanks' biggest achievement on the night was to show that they could clog the passing lanes and disturb the offense of one of the best attacking teams in the world, relegating it to sending futile high balls in to its strikers. "It was a sturdy opponent, who organized well and played close together," Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk said of the U.S. "They didn't let us build our attack."
One person not so impressed with the U.S. was Netherlands and Real Madrid playmaker Rafael van der Vaart, who came on in the 60th minute. "A robust side," van der Vaart said in Dutch, when asked what he thought of his opponents. "But not great in terms of quality. Hard to play against though. They played compact, we had trouble getting through. Soccerwise they're not great but they're hard to beat."
The U.S. has a lot of respect to win yet.
Player ratings (scale of 1-10)
GK, Tim Howard, 7 -- Howard made several fine saves and had little to do with the goals the U.S. conceded. His defense was organized well.
D, Jonathan Bornstein, 2.5 -- Bornstein had a dreadfully unlucky game. The good: He got forward well on a few occasions. The bad: He had something to do with both Dutch goals and was torched time and again by Arjen Robben.
D, Jay DeMerit, 7.5 -- DeMerit was one of the strongest players for the U.S. on the day. He was superior in the air and simply denied Dutch attempts to reach the strikers with high balls after attempts to play them over the ground proved fruitless.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 7 -- Scored on a nice header and was composed in the back, keeping cool under prolonged periods of pressure.
D, Jonathan Spector, 5 -- While he did some good offensive work and didn't have a bad game, he was made to look foolish by Eljero Elia a number of times.
M, Michael Bradley, 6.5 -- Bradley really played two games. Defensively, he was instrumental in controlling the center of the field and keeping Sneijder from getting into a rhythm. Offensively, he had an off day, with pass after pass finding nothing but an opponent.
M, Jose Torres, 4.5 -- The game passed him by for large stretches of the first half. His offensive flair didn't show and he became a liability defensively.
M, Stuart Holden, 5 -- Playing for only 34 minutes, Holden made some nice moves out on the right, showing himself as a serious option there.
M, Landon Donovan, 5 -- Donovan did not do what one might reasonably expect of him: inject U.S. play with some offensive moxie and help distribute the ball. Isolated for much of the first half, Donovan lost the ball too easily. He was much better up top, getting teammates involved, but was taken off soon thereafter.
F, Robbie Findley, 4.5 -- Findley was slightly out of his depth, with little involvement in the play. He showed again that he doesn't have the physique or the savvy to find space against a quality opponent.
F, Jozy Altidore, 6.5 -- Showed more in the second half than in the first, when he started receiving the ball closer to the goal and unleashed a fierce shot. He was the only American consistently keeping the Dutch defense busy.
M, DaMarcus Beasley, 6.5 -- Beasley came on for Holden in the 34th minute and provided a spark. Contributing several dangerous runs on the wings, he also delivered a fine assist on Bocanegra's goal.
M, Maurice Edu, 6 -- Coming on for Torres at halftime, Edu proved an upgrade. He held his ground and did a good job distributing the ball.
M, Alejandro Bedoya, 5.5 -- A 63rd-minute entrance into play was a success. Bedoya was part of the U.S. resurgence near the end of the game with several good passes.
D, Heath Pearce, 6 -- A 70th-minute addition, Pearce showed that he is one of the better options on the left. Going forward, he hit a few dangerous crosses to the U.S. strikers.
F, Eddie Johnson, N/A -- While Johnson was on the field during the strongest attacking phase the U.S. had, his touches were limited after he came on in the 76th minute.
D, Clarence Goodson, N/A -- Another late addition, Goodson, who came on in the 86th, hardly got a whiff of the ball.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.