By Greg Lalas
BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa—In their pre-match press conference on Tuesday afternoon here in the capital of Free State, the Spanish coach and players were asked several times what they knew about their Confederations Cup semifinals opponents, the United States. It felt as if the media were trying to trap them into saying they knew very little about the US, as if the US were such an unimportant side made up of relative nobodies that the likes of Xavi and Sergio Ramos would be ignorant of them.
But the Spaniards are complete pros, meaning they not only take care of business on the field, but also in the media room. They were quick to compliment the US team, singling out the American offense.
“They have improved their attacking skill,” Xavi said. “They have talented players, especially in the midfield and going forward.”
Spain manager Vincente del Bosque echoed his little general’s sentiments. “In the midfield and in the attack, they have strong players,” he said. “They don’t try to be very elaborate in the way they play. They go straight to the goal. [Landon] Donovan is very fast, and he makes good passes. [Clint] Demspey is also good. He is dangerous on headers and on set pieces. And the other day this player we did not know, [Charlie] Davies, played a very good match. They can be dangerous.”
There was not one mention of the US defense. Yet, arguably, the American backline—Jonathan Bornstein on the left, Oguchi Onyewu and Jay Demerit in the middle, and Jonathan Spector on the right—has been the most solid and consistent component of the US team here in South Africa.
“I think if you look at the kind of goals [we’ve conceded], you would still give credit to the fact that they have been solid in the back,” US coach Bob Bradley told Goal.com this week.
The US gave up three goals each to Italy and Brazil in their first two games. However, the majority of the blame on all three goals against Italy could be put on the midfield, while the same could be said for two of the goals against Brazil.
In the crucial match against Egypt, the US back four were as solid and intimidating as the thick security walls one sees around many of the houses in South Africa. Spector had his best game in a US jersey, and Demerit continued his fine form. All four had a fire and a venom that helped inspire the rest of the side. Two indicative moments stick out in my mind:
1) About a third of the way through the first half, after Egypt has narrowly missed taking an early lead, Onyewu challenged for a defensive header in the US goal area. He muscled his way past the striker, leapt and thumped his headed clearance about 30 yards out of danger.
2) In the second half, a long ball down the Egyptian left side found striker Ahmed Abdelghani in some space behind the defense. He looked ready to mount a dagger run toward goal, when suddenly Demerit came across from the middle and slid with the precision and power of a guided missile. As I wrote in a previous column, he got the ball, he got the man, and he made his case for more playing time in the future.
“It’s been challenging and at the same time we’ve seen some good effort,” Bradley said. “On a night like [the Egypt game], the pure competitiveness of both Jay and Gooch showed.”
For any backline, of course, cohesion is the key. I watched the Italian back four training last week, and they did shadow drills nearly the entire time, moving as a unit, communicating with each other, reading each other. This takes time. But the US defense hasn’t had much time to work on that.
“It’s always difficult when the back four is pieced together so quickly,” US goalkeeper Tim Howard told me the other day. “But I think they’ve done a good job trying to gain some cohesiveness quickly, and trying to communicate and read each other’s body language. This inevitably all takes time, but the guys have done it very quickly. That’s been good.”
Over the past year or so, the backline has relied on the well-developed partnership between Onyewu and captain Carlos Bocanegra. The latter is here in South Africa, but a hamstring injury has kept him out of the competition so far. Most likely, he won’t be involved against Spain, either. And with Demerit’s fine performance here, there have been calls from some quarters for Bocanegra to shift to left back, the position he plays with his club, Rennes.
However, to my mind, the Bocanegra-Onyewu combo is the most cohesive centerback pairing the US has seen since the 1994 World Cup. It should remain intact. (Sidebar: Iraq coach Bora Milutinovic, who managed that 1994 US side, mentioned to me the other day that if Iraq’s backline included a duo similar to Marcelo Balboa and Alexi Lalas, they would’ve made the semifinals here.)
Furthermore, even though he’s had a fine tournament so far, we need to see Demerit in a few more pressure situations. But there is reason to be optimistic about the options and depth in the center.
“The understanding between Jay and Gooch at times, one will drop too far off, and they’re not always perfectly in sync,” Bradley explained. “You can see their understanding getting better.”
Against Spain’s vaunted attack, which features two of the best strikers in the world today, Fernando Torres and David Villa, that understanding will have to be even better if the US is to have any chance of pulling off a massive upset. Then, maybe, the Spanish team will be speaking about the U.S. backline rather than just the attack.
Greg Lalas is editor of Goal.com Magazine.