As any storyteller will confirm, metaphors can be dangerous territory.
But it was hard not to draw larger parallels when US national team captain Carlos Bocanegra (above) hobbled off lame barely a quarter of an hour into Wednesday’s friendly against Russia, wincing from a hamstring injury seemingly incurred as he scrambled to cover for his latest center back partner, Geoff Cameron.
US success has always been anchored on a solid defense, and the current team’s backline looks creaky as it enters a period of generational change.
The 2-2 draw in Krasnodar was a classic display of US resourcefulness, as Jurgen Klinsmann’s men weathered long stretches of disjointed play under Russian pressure, then managed to pull out a late result with an efficient use of their few scoring chances.
The scrambled, unfocused performance of a rearguard filled with veteran faces was quite uncharacteristic, however. Goalkeeper Tim Howard was repeatedly exposed and several of his eight saves were of the spectacular, game-saving variety.
Danny Williams has become a central part of the squad, but it didn’t look like it when his misplaced pass on a quickly-taken free kick in the US half gifted the home side a free run at goal, setting up Fedor Smolov’s ninth-minute opener.
“We have to be sharper and mentally fresher in those decisive moments,” Klinsmann said afterwards. “We can’t give away things like we did the first goal.”
A similar statement can be made about the second-half penalty kick clumsily conceded by Clarence Goodson, Bocanegra’s replacement.
Even after suffering under the slicing and dicing dished out by Russia’s counterattacking and precise combination play, the US hauled itself back into the contest and drew level on Michael Bradley’s thunderbolt of a volley in the 76th minute. But Goodson could not quite resist sticking a boot in from behind on Artem Dzyuba as the Spartak Moscow striker scampered after one of the many tantalizing through balls played into the USMNT box, even though the sharp Howard looked to have it covered.
Klinsmann’s postgame remarks were quite positive overall, and the plucky Americans do deserve praise for coming to grips with the substantial challenges presented to them in Krasnodar, a recovery capped by Mix Diskerud’s late equalizer.
“I think you saw we can compete with very good teams in the world,” Klinsmann said. “The way our team fought back twice after being down a goal was great. It showed a lot of personality. It showed a lot of character. This is a young team, and a team that is growing. We are pleased with the game overall, and to score in the last minute was great.”
Bradley underlined his world-class quality, Josh Gatt handled a tough international debut reasonably well and Howard’s best efforts remain superb enough to give his team a chance against almost anyone.
But the defense struggled, even with three natural defensive midfielders arrayed in front of it. It sounds inherently disparaging to mention Bocanegra’s age (33) but there’s no sense in denying the need to cultivate some options in the center of defense. Goodson was decent overall on Wednesday, yet has not always made a convincing case for a leading role. And when you compare his evening to the immaculate work he’s done in previous games this year, Cameron still resembles a work in progress.
The US begin the CONCACAF Hexagonal round with a harsh early schedule next year – an unsteady rearguard could make for an agonizing spring.