Soccer America
Friday June 19th, 2009

He went with his veterans against two of the best teams in the world and they let him, and the country, down with a crashing thud.

All along, we can surmise, U.S. head coach Bob Bradley's plan was to take his strongest squad to the Confederations Cup and tinker at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, assuming he could juggle the schedules and commitments of domestic and international players without too many complications by injuries. The presence of the injured Brian Ching, Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hedjuk might not have changed the outcomes, but the score lines could have been a bit brighter.

After a 3-0 thrashing by Brazil on Thursday, during which not enough players -- overmatched in talent, skill and experience -- bothered to show any pride or fight, the U.S. faces a final group game against Egypt on Sunday (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, TeleFutura) with at least one eye on the future, as in next month, and next year.

Can there be a "next time" for Sacha Kljestan, Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley, just to name a few? Yes, but only if they bring more than a token minimum when they pull on the U.S. jersey. Whether disinterested, distracted or just plan distressed, those three and others should be put on double-secret probation, if there is such a thing for talented young soccer players with their heads in the wrong place.

Consistent club play would certainly sharpen the form of American players, but putting in a solid season for Fulham hardly honed Dempsey to a razor's edge. Twice he missed the target on headers from good positions and late in the match attempted a ridiculous trick pass that went straight to an opponent. Has he reverted to his final year with New England as a dude just too cool for school? For the U.S.? If he's drained or dragging, he shouldn't be on the field.

Conor Casey has been scoring goals consistently for Colorado, and he did hit the crossbar with a header Thursday and played a decent return pass to Jozy Altidore, whose shot sailed high. Although he so seldom saw the ball, he did well to be aware of those two situations. He's a solid MLS forward who needs to get a lot better to win a return trip to South Africa, but he's doing what he can with what he's got.

Had Beasley's horrendous mis-trap that launched Brazil's blitz counterattack for the second goal been his only major transgression in a performance of guile and grit, so be it. But it was anything but. He wandered and lost the ball, and the rare occasion in which he won a tackle didn't faze the Brazilians. If this was a reality show, he'd be the second one voted off the island after Kljestan, who offered so little in the attack and defended so flimsily, he probably should have been replaced at halftime along with Beasley.

Often accused of going invisible at the wrong moments, Landon Donovan cut through the Brazilians a few times on the dribble and delivered probably his best array of set plays in quite a while. Opponents know he's the main danger man, and so his path to goal is usually stippled with obstacles. Yet even moderate cohesion with two or three teammates can provide him more cracks at goal than he's had the past few games. He needs options, not black holes.

Both outside backs, Jonathan Spector and Jonathan Bornstein, pushed up the flanks to get in crosses, and though inconsistent, both delivered balls that provided a good chance. Dempsey headed Bornstein's looping cross over the bar, and substitute Benny Feilhaber smacked a service -- that bounced up just a bit -- from Spector off the same part of the frame.

The U.S. can salvage some pride Sunday by beating the team that took Brazil to the limit and knocked off the world champion. Yet Egypt hasn't been magical or otherworldly; its players have simply plunged ahead fearlessly, skillfully and brimming with honor at the jerseys they wear. They have utter faith in their coach and in each other; how many of the Americans feel that way?

Jay DeMerit plays every second as if he might never get another chance. He's not the only one, but the U.S. needs that from every player, all the time, no exceptions.

Strangely enough, the loss didn't eliminate the 0-2 U.S., since Egypt -- which certainly hasn't soiled its shorts while terrifying Brazil in a 4-3 loss and bopping Italy 1-0 -- kept every team's hopes alive. But if Bradley uses that infinitesimal shred as justification for fielding the same old same old, much must change.

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