U.S. soccer upgrade must start in back

Ah, defense. No, it’s not the Breakfast of Champions, but it’s the essence of champions, the sine qua non, which loosely translates as without it you hit the golf courses early.
We remember Michael Jordan, scoring champion, dunker, unstoppable offensive force.
Too often we forget Michael Jordan, six-time All-NBA First-Team All-Defense, one-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, the guy who clinched one title by stripping the ball from Karl Malone.
And when we review the USA World Cup soccer team, and then last week’s 2-0 loss against Brazil (it could have been much worse) in an exhibition match — a “friendly,” in the international parlance — we probably remember our lads’ offensive woes.
After all, none of the American strikers — not Jozy Altidore, Edson Buddle or even Herculez Gomez — scored a goal in the World Cup. Midfielders, notably Landon Donovan, of course, did all the heavy lifting — with help from that poor England goalie who failed to pick the Jabulani ball up off the turf.
In fact, the U.S. has a strong midfield, with Donovan, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey et al. (Hey two Latin phrases and counting. Who says it’s a dead language?)
America seems also to have produced world-class goalkeepers. Starter Tim Howard plays in England’s top league and excelled in the World Cup, and reserve Brad Guzan had the Brazilians talking to themselves after three or four saves in last week’s second half. Granted, Guzan should also have packed those gracious goalposts and carted them to his next gig.
And yes, it would be helpful if someone emerged up front who could actually find and fill what ESPN World Cup radio color guy Tommy Smyth liked to call “the old onion bag.”
But I would argue that is not our team’s biggest problem. Where’s the defense?
A team that finds it a challenge to score simply cannot suffer the early-game lapses in concentration that led to early opponents’ goals three times in the World Cup.
Nor in a Round of 16 game vs. Ghana can it allow opposing forward Asamoah Gyan to waltz through two central defenders for the winning goal.
Nor can it mark opponents so poorly that, as si.com columnist Steve Davis noted, one Brazil first-half goal last week was preceded by 18 consecutive completed passes.
Guzan’s best second-half save vs. Brazil came when a pass came to an unmarked player on Brazil’s left flank. He sent the ball across the box to a teammate just inside the 18 directly out from the right post. The nearest defender stood about 10 feet away. The Brazilian controlled and sent the ball back across the goalmouth to another forward, this one about 10 yards out from the left post. Again, no defender was close enough to attempt even a sliding tackle.
The Brazilian shot and Guzan dove, miraculously knocking the ball wide left. The announcers heaped praise on Brazil’s beautiful ball movement, leaving those who understand something about defense to wonder where the World Cup announcers were.
You know, the ones like Smyth, who would have said, “The Americans look tired, slow and dispirited. They’re playing like a beaten side, and simply must buckle down in the back, or Brazil will run them off the field.” I missed those guys last week.
I also understand the best American athletes play basketball and football. LeBron James and Adrian Peterson aren’t walking through the soccer door. Still, the U.S. defenders made the Brazilian forwards look like a pack of Usain Bolts.
Job No. 1 for U.S. Coach Bob Bradley — if he stays, something rumored to be decided in the next week or so (some European reports say he’s already gone; his agent denies it, but not that Bradley is talking to a foreign team) — or his successor is to upgrade the athleticism and consistency of the U.S. back line before 2014.
For the record, there is hope. Recently, the U.S. under-20 team convincingly won something called the Milk Cup. Not to be confused with anything awarded at Thunder Road or Field Days, the Milk Cup was contested in Northern Ireland, and on the way to the title the Americans defeated Denmark, China and, in the final, the host nation, 3-0.
And the captain of that team, Gale Agbossoumonde, plays central defense. He even scored in the championship game.
 Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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