JOHANNESBURG — The United States needs a complete and radical makeover before the next match, the test against Slovenia at Ellis Park. There’s no doubt about it.
But it’s not the formation nor the personnel choices that need the knobs and dials adjusted. It’s the mental approach.
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And that’s not a reproach for the mentality of Saturday’s worthy draw against England. It’s just that this match deserves something altogether different.
Anyone who believes the major US tweaking between games one and two in Group C will be about adjustments on the field, they are missing the boat. They aren’t even at the right port.
Yes, there are elements that need polishing; the speed of play and thought with the two US frontrunners needs more pep, for instance. And yes there are tactical tweaks that will be required.
But the more important makeover to be managed is in mental approach and attitude toward Friday’s match. Bob Bradley’s boys must now transition from underdog status to favored flavor. That’s difficult in itself.
Complicating that bid, they are now negotiating the tricky, cliff-strewn curves of success. While teams surely prefer a good result in the opener—let’s not kid ourselves, a draw with England was a dandy outcome from the US perspective—good grades in the opener presents their own little entanglements.
Tactically, they now face a team that prefers low pressure. That in itself does require some toggling, and perhaps even something new in the midfield mix. But that low pressure MO just as surely changes the US mental approach to matters. Whereas the match against England was all about being mentally tough, managing the moment and not losing nerve or backing down against some of the game’s most decorated stars, Friday’s contest at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park will need patience and prudence.
Slovenia are sure to sit and sit, absorbing pressure like a sponge, mitigating danger instead of eliminating it—and then wait for the right chance to strike like a deadly viper.
Sound familiar? It is if you saw how Slovenia-Algerian match unfolded, where the little known Eastern Europeans seized control of Group C with a 1-0 win in exactly that pattern.
As for the other mental adjustments, Bradley’s time studying the ways of coaches in other sports is about to pay off. Because managing success is an art, and certainly not one limited to any single sport. A good result can be wiped away in the time it takes to honk your vuvuzela. If the Americans drop their hands even for a second in this fight, a Slovenian round house will put a second round appearance in sure jeopardy.
The American team under Bradley (and before him for that matter) has always been better under the weight of duress. When things start going sideways, the adrenalin rush and fight response kick in and always seem to serve the Americans well. All those old clichés about the US doing the job through will and winning mentality started wearing off as more skill and sophistication began to characterize the American way. But at some point, it’s still a game of grit, grime and get-dirty. That dogged mentality can still come in handy, and still needs to be part of the mix. When the Americans concede that edge, they just aren’t as good—and this is the point where it’s most likely misplaced.
We saw it in last year’s Confederations Cup, when the Americans finally got dog tired of hearing how crappy they looked and got mad enough to put a major beat down on Egypt. From there, they kept that chip firmly attached to their shoulder and used the underdog status as a motivational weapon in displacing Spain from its throne of global regard, at least temporarily so.
In the final round of World Cup qualifying, the Americans fell behind in 6 of 10 matches, but generally found their feet once on the business end of the deficit.
And, of course, there was England. It took just four minutes for the Americans to drive the whole campaign into a ditch. Oguchi Onyewu bounded toward Wayne Rooney too early, exposing a gap. Ricardo Clark and Carlos Bocanegra were a slow to react, failing to properly track Steven Gerrard and Jay DeMerit couldn’t get close enough to Emile Heskey to quash the killer little layoff. Just like that, the US resolve in the face of adversity was about to get another test.
Test passed, the Americans now face a side that simply can’t match England in terms of regard or “wow” factor. The entire mental approach in the run-up to England was something like that of soldiers awaiting the fierce attack. So they dig their holes, careful and deep, and wait to hold their ground through bravery and resolution.
But what if the other team is in their holes, too? It takes a different kind of determination to charge rather than to defend. And again, if it’s not a managed charge of attack, bad things are ahead.
Bradley said Sunday that players have “emptied their tanks” after a match, emotionally and physically. He said it’s pointless and maybe even counterproductive to begin transitioning from looking back to looking forward too early.
“Then you start turning it fully toward the next opponent with a rehearsed way of showing video, pointing out a few things, doing some things on the training field and getting ready,” he said.
They have three full days to transition from hunted status to hunter.
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