U.S. tunes up for World Cup with victory
A warm and sunny afternoon on the South African high veldt. Dry brown hills topped by dark green trees. A yellow-brown dirt road running downhill from the skyline, the pathway patrolled by police on horseback.
At the bottom of the slope, Roodepoort Athletics Stadium, a small track and field facility with an emerald soccer pitch set inside its rust-red oval track. Beyond the fence, bare fields and a muddy dam, fringed by bulrushes.
The prevailing sound: the ear-splitting buzz of the vuvuzelas, the plastic horns blown with enthusiasm by fans but drowning out all else.
That was the setting Saturday for the U.S. World Cup team as it played Australia in its final tuneup one week before taking on England, when reality replaces simulation.
The result was of little importance, but in the end the Americans were 3-1, winners, the first two goals coming courtesy of Edson Buddle and the third from Herculez Gomez.
Of greater import was how Coach Bob Bradley’s walking wounded would perform, if at all; whether the U.S. would be able to plug the holes in its defense that were apparent in recent games against the Czech Republic and Turkey, and how the new-look attack would do.
The answers were soon forthcoming.
Forward Jozy Altidore did not play, his “mild ankle sprain” being enough to see him rested ahead of the June 12 opener against Wayne Rooney and the rest of England’s high-octane lineup.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu did not start, which means that if he plays against England he would go into that match not having played a full 90 minutes of soccer for eight months, or since the U.S. defeated Honduras to clinch its place in South Africa.
Onyewu underwent surgery to repair a ruptured tendon in his left knee in October and has been on the mend ever since. He has yet to prove that he has regained full mobility and match sharpness, but on Saturday he came on for the final half-hour and seemed more or less fine.
“I’m feeling good,” Onyewu said. “This is the third game back since my injury, and I’m progressively feeling better.”
Defensively, in fact, the U.S. appeared more organized than it had in the 4-2 loss to the Czechs and even in the 2-1 victory over the Turks.
Bradley used Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra as his outside backs, right and left, respectively, with Jay DeMerit and Clarence Goodson in the center. Onyewu later replaced Goodson.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard came away satisfied with the performance.
“We can always get better at everything,” he said. “I can’t pinpoint just one thing, but things are starting to click. We’re feeling good about our last two results, coming from behind against Turkey and in this one, where we kind of controlled things.”
Bocanegra, the U.S. captain, said he believes the defense is coming together.
“Today I thought in the first half our lines were better,” he said. “We were more compact as a team in general. So I think that was a big improvement from the games against the Czech Republic and Turkey.”
Cherundolo, who set up Buddle’s second goal with a surging run down the left flank and a pinpoint cross that Buddle banged in with a sharp downward header, echoed the sentiment.
“I think we took another step in the right direction this afternoon,” he said. “I think the tactical discipline was there, over a longer period of time today as opposed to the last two games.”
Bradley, who has a week left to figure out who to play up front, on Saturday opted for Buddle and Robbie Findley. Buddle rewarded him with a fourth-minute goal on a stinging 17-yard shot before his headed goal in the 31st minute.
The two strikes were the first for the national team by the Galaxy forward, but Bradley is not tipping his hand. “Edson continues to get more comfortable within the group,” was all he would say.
Altidore probably will be back in time for the England game, Gomez’s goal in injury time just before the final whistle was his second in three games. Findley played the full 90 minutes, opened up the Aussie defense but wasted two clear scoring chances by shooting wide.
“We still have a few things to work out,” Cherundolo said.