By Andrew Winner
In Freddy Adu, the United States found the spark it needed to overcome a lackluster Canadian squad and qualify for the Olympic Games. But to say the victory was easy, as some reports have inferred, is to drastically underestimate the impact of team’s unquestioned star. Without Adu, this could have been a 0-0 game, decided in a shootout.
To quickly recap the game, the U.S. controlled possession for much of the game but once again struggled to score in the run of play, a problem that dogged them through the group stages.
The Americans scored their first two goals in a similar manner – Jozy Altidore drawing a foul in an advanced position and Adu following with a free kick that found the net. (Sacha Kljestan added another late as the United States won 3-0.)
Without Adu’s heroics, the score would have been 0-0 well into the second half. In that case, Kljestan’s goal, which came with the Canadians pushing numbers forward, wouldn’t have happened either. And although the Canadians failed to notch a single shot on goal, soccer fans know that games that go well into the second half without a goal can swing either way.
Those who pin the recent shortcomings of the full national team on the failure to produce a game-changing striker would do well to recognize the importance of another player – the free-kick assassin. In Adu, the United States may have found a Beckham-like game changer for the future.
The free kick in soccer has the chance to change the game like no other play in sports. When playing against a team with a lethal free kick specialist, defenders must be extra cautious of committing a foul in front of their own goal, allowing attackers just a bit more space to operate. Sometimes, a well-placed free kick seems like the only way to breach a stalwart defense. In the blink of an eye, the entire complexion of a game can change. With respect to Tab Ramos, the United States hasn’t ever had a transcendent kick taker. (Wynalda did score on a free kick in the World Cup, but wasn’t the consistent threat he could have been during his career.)
Recently, the conversations have revolved around Altidore and his potential to carry the Yanks to international glory. After all, his potential represents the world-class striker the United States has never produced. However, coupled with a free kick taker like Adu, the United States has a two-pronged offensive attack.
Granted, Adu is still a ways off from becoming Riquelme or Ronaldo. And perhaps the U.S. – Canada match isn’t the greatest barometer – the Canadians never looked likely to win the game. But as long as Adu continues to learn the trade from the Maestro Rui Costa over at Benfica, he may have more of an impact in the next ten years than any striker, including Altidore.
At the end of the day, two 18-year olds dominated their U-23 competition – a promising sign for the Americans indeed. Besides Adu and Altidore, two other players impressed over the course of the tournament: Stuart Holden and Michael Orozco.
Holden, who is perhaps most known for a severe beating he suffered while playing for Sunderland, displayed tireless energy throughout the tournament. Additionally, he showed himself to be a dangerous player going forward, a quality that separated him from fellow midfield destroyers Maurice Edu and Dax McCarty (both of whom found a spot on the tournament’s Best XI). His free kicks caused Panama worry and he swung in some dangerous crosses while playing wide. The Houston Dynamo will miss him when the Olympic Games roll around.
Joining McCarty and Edu on the Best XI was Orozco, who was a revelation in defense. Orozco, who plays in Mexico for San Luis, outplayed Patrick Ianni to take his rightful place in the center of the defense. His communication with Jonathan Spector was spot-on in the Canada game and added solid distribution from the back. Despite his play, though, I’ll be shocked if the United States does not use one of its three player exceptions on a central defender, with Carlos Bocanegra or Oguchi Onyewu the obvious choices. However, he will likely earn a spot on the roster and represent the United States in China.
Finally, Peter Nowak deserves kudos for keeping the continuity in the team. The differences between Adu and Nowak were apparently set aside early and if you can believe the internet rumors, Nowak dismissed Benny Feilhaber from camp to keep the team chemistry. Bob Bradley tasked him with qualifying for the Olympic Games and he succeeded. The fact that the team looked less than convincing at times against competition that they should dominate is now relegated to the history books. Now is the time to look forward and speculate on which three senior players will be added to augment the squad…
Barring conflicts, I predict the three players to bring in would be Landon Donovan, Bocanegra, and Tim Howard. A defender is a must – in fact, two might be more likely, with Onyewu and Bocanegra playing in the middle and pushing Spector wide. Donovan, for all the criticism he takes, is the country’s best player by a long shot and Howard is arguably one of the best goalkeepers in the world. On paper, having those three players in camp would drastically improve the United States chances of earning a medal.
Andrew Winner is a freelance soccer writer based in Seattle, Washington. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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