A vastly under-strength USA side went down 1-0 to Slovakia on Saturday, with only a 26th-minute Marek Hamsick penalty separating the two sides.
Although the Americans were missing first-choice players including Tim Howard and Landon Donovan, they were in no way disgraced and Bratislava, perhaps best known for horror movie Hostel, was not the scene of another butchery on Saturday.
Faced with a host of players unavailable through injury or other commitments (Donovan played – and scored – for Los Angeles Galaxy on Friday night) USA coach Bob Bradley was forced to move Jonathan Spector to central defence for the first time, and saw his son Michael break the deadlock after just two minutes – only for his effort to be ruled out.
Hamsik’s converted penalty, awarded after Jonathan Bornstein was adjudged to have pushed Vladimir Weiss inside the area, came in the middle of a spell of US dominance – during which America’s deputy goalkeeper Brad Guzan, of Aston Villa, was practically a spectator as Clint Dempsey, the visitor’s biggest threat in the absence of Donovan, twice went close to scoring.
Jan Mucha, Guzan’s opposite number in the Slovakian goal, also had to be at his best to later deny sub Sacha Kljestan and Eddie Johnson as the United States piled on the pressure.
“Tonight [was] a frustrating loss for us – we feel we at least deserved a draw tonight,” USA captain Carlos Bocanegra said.
“We created some good combinations in the first half, created some good opportunities, but they didn’t go in tonight.”
Bradley, nevertheless, will undoubtedly take heart from a gutsy performance from his troops. Instead of treating the friendly as an excuse to experiment with his charges, the United States chief instead took the opportunity to let his core squad play together for as long as possible – resisting wholesale changes for around three-quarters of the game.
That made all the difference, as the Americans started to pass the ball with slick cohesiveness and outscored their opponents, ranked 33rd in the world and preparing for their first World Cup as an independent nation in 2010, in terms of both shots at goal (8-5) and corners (5-1) – but couldn’t make their opportunities count.
“This match was on opportunity to see some different players,” said Bradley.
“I think the area tonight that let us down was the sharpness and execution in the attacking part of the field.”
Bradley can take a number of positives into Wednesday night’s friendly with Denmark, however – not least the return of Stuart Holden, Rico Clark, Edgar Castillo and Jose Torres. Guzen proved an able deputy to Howard’s undisputed grasp of the number one shirt, with a superb couple of stops in the second half to deny Erik Jendrisek. While he could do nothing to prevent Hamsick’s well-taken penalty, Guzen demonstrated the goalkeeping prowess that should keep the Everton goalkeeper on his toes when he recovers from his foot injury.
Dempsey, too, impressed – although whether or not this was because of Donovan’s absence cannot be known. With Donovan back in California, helping Galaxy to the Major League Cup final with a 2-0 ‘overtime’ win against Houston, Dempsey shouldered more responsibility – and was also afforded a lot more freedom going forward.
At the back, however, Bornstein attracted much criticism for his performance – not least his role in the game’s critical moment, the penalty. Whether or not it was a penalty – and TV replays suggested maybe not – Bornstein still allowed Weiss in behind him and Castillo may get his 2010 World Cup audition sooner than he thought on Wednesday night.
USA: Guzan; Cherundolo, Spector, Bocanegra, Bornstein; Rogers, Feilhaber, Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore, Casey.