After one hundred and twenty minutes (not counting added time) of exciting soccer played in front of millions of adoring fans worldwide, the US Men's National team is heading home from Brazil defeated by Belgium in the knockout stages of the tournament. 2-1 is a scoreline that fails to capture the true drama of the match, nor does it adequately convey the margins of the loss. While traditionalists would argue there is no pride in defeat, the USMNT has nothing to be ashamed of, having proven to so many doubters and critics that they did indeed deserve to be there. But regardless, to the victor belong the spoils. The US for all their valiant play, grit and determination came up on the short side of the scorecard.
While the team performed well above standards that most anyone could have predicted, there were three players of note that stood out for their individual contributions. As such, I have created three unique awards for them.
1: The "Makes-me-proud-to-be-an-American" award goes to:
One of America's greatest exports since muscle cars and CocaCola has been goalkeepers. Believe it or not, the good old USA has produced some of the finest world class keepers over the past twenty or so years.
Some argue this is because Americans are just better with our hands than our feet (and therefore naturals in the net) because we prefer sports with hands over here. I have a theory though, that it's because we produce such horrid defenses that keepers get loads of work and therefore practice. But regardless we've had some pretty big names leave these shores to pastures greener and compete at the highest levels of world football.
Even prior to the World Cup, Tim Howard had established himself as a World Class stopper. From his time at Manchester United, where he won the FA cup, his wonderful saves and assist to Landon Donovan in the South Africa World Cup four years ago, his 2009 shutout of top ranked Spain in the Gold Cup - which lead to his earning the Golden Glove of that tournament, Tim Howard has steadily built a name for himself along with a fairly impressive trophy cabinet. Since his transfer from Manchester United in 2006-2007, he has established himself as Everton's #1 between the sticks, and shows no signs of slowing down.
In the game last night, Howard was undeniably the USA's best player. His saves kept the team in the game, his ice cold nerves kept his defense calm and organized, and his presence allowed the team to build from the back time and time again. While his Man of the Match award is well deserved, it is a pity that a world record breaking performance such as that should end with his team's elimination from the tournament.
But such is the drama of the World Cup.
2: The "Most Mercurial Yankee" Award goes to:
Dictionary.com defines the term 'Mercurial' as:
changeable; volatile; fickle; flighty; erratic:
Nothing could describe Bradley's performances better than the word Mercurial. Well maybe that's not exactly true. Bi-polar would also do it justice. Or Schizophrenic maybe?
If there was a killer pass to be dispatched in the middle of the pitch, that would split right through the defense to a striker making a run, it was almost assuredly coming from Bradley. While most of the USA team can be credited with hustling and pushing themselves, they cannot often be called the most excellent of passers. Bradley was just about the sole spark of creativity on the team that had a much more direct and straightforward attack that you see on the world stage these days.
But then again...
If there was a bad trap, ball to loose, pass to kick away or player to let run past you, Bradley was also more often than not the culprit. There is no doubt that he had big shoes to fill as the main replacement for Landon Donovan as the sole creative player on the field, but surely he is good enough to trap a ball at his feet better than your average twelve year old kid. I have never seen so many passes roll past a player of his caliber in my life. Every other time the ball came to him it was a crap shoot as to whether or not he would actually control the pass and move the ball forward or simply fumble it and give it away.
He played the split personality Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde game of a man that had been paid by the mafia to throw the game, only to be stabbed by a guilty conscience by his duplicity and pass to setup a teammate to win the game.
For all his talent (and he is talented) Bradley is not the finished article.
3: The "Best prospect of a brighter future for the USMNT" award goes to:
There is no doubt that Julian Green's fantastic goal in extra time is a harbinger of exciting things to come. At only 19 years of age, he came into an incredibly pressured situation, made a great run into the box and put away a difficult volley to launch his team back into the game. This demonstration of cool composure cannot be denied. While he scored 21 goals on Bayern Munich's reserve team and credit to him for that, careers are not made on the back of an impressive 20 minutes or so of soccer.
Fabian Johnson on the other hand had an impressive tournament all around. Despite his position as right back, he was frequently the only potent attacking force the USA had during long stretches of games against Ghana, Portugal and Germany. He displayed blistering speed, ball control, positioning and endurance over the course of the four matches he was involved in.
It is true that at times, his attacking prowess came at the expense of better defensive positioning, but regardless, his forays into attack were exciting to watch as the rest of the team foundered or lacked the confidence to get forward with attacking runs. Or during those times Bradley's bi-polar meds failed him and he was off chasing shadows only he could see.
Sadly for Johnson, at 26, this might be the last chance he has to play in the World Cup. But I wouldn't be surprised to see him move up the Bundesliga, switch to the Premier League, or join La-Liga sometime soon. A move like that can only help the aspirations of the USMNT team's development.