EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (Sunday, June 8, 2008) -- In a somewhat strange match, the United States men played good defense and received a terrific seven-save performance from goalkeeper Tim Howard in holding much superior Argentina to a 0-0 draw before a sell-out crowd of 78,682 at Giants Stadium tonight.
The match was really about the first 45 minutes as the two teams, tired from midweek friendlies and subsequent travel, faded after intermission. The Argentines, led by Barcelona superstar striker Lionel Messi, showed the kind of form they displayed last week in a 4-1 waltz over Mexico Wednesday in San Diego. Their passing was crisp and, while the U.S. defended bravely, it was Howard that kept the U.S. in the match.
The second half was a much different affair. The stifling heat and humidity took its toll on both sides and both coaches substituted liberally in the second half. With Messi out, the Argentine offense became disjointed, but the Americans could take little advantage, especially after going a man down in the final 20 minutes. Then, a lightning storm broke out and the match degraded considerably.
"I think we're getting stronger," U.S. coach Bob Bardley said after his team went scoreless for a third straight match after falling 2-0 at England May 28 and 1-0 at Spain Wednesday. "We're understanding how to play together as a team, we feel good about the depth that we have and these are things that we are building to put us in the right direction."
The U.S. created a number of scoring chances, including one where Oguchi Onyewu hit the crossbar and another where fellow defender Heath Pearce's powerful blast in the 35th minute forced Argentine keeper Roberto Abbondanzieri to make his only difficult save of the night at his right post.
Late in the second half, the U.S. had a series of three corner kicks with the Argentine defense only able to clear the first two over its end-line. By that time, Onyewu had left the match and the U.S. had no one in the center of the penalty area capable of getting a head on the ball.
The Americans were reduced to 10 players in the 70th minute on a grievous error by Salvadoran referee Joel Aguilar. On a harsh foul committed by Maurice Edu, wearing jersey number 26, Aguilar instead booked another U.S. midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, number 25. That became Mastroeni's second yellow card and he was ejected, despite his protests.
The U.S. was left to defend like crazy until Argentina also had a man sent off, Javier Mascherano in the 86th minute.
Argentina is difficult to play because it employs an unusual style. "Most other teams play a certain style and you can watch them or watch tape and see what they do and prepare how to counter it. But with Argentina, they really have no specific style and you can't do it," Bradley said.
Argentina started with a solid, veteran defense, one of the best in the world, but the key is its three world-class forwards -- Messi, Sergio Aguero and Julio Cruz -- who are allowed to go where they want, when the want. They are constantly on the move and attack from any side, initiated by any of the three. Their unpredictability makes it hard to counter.
Tonight, Cruz was most problematic, being fed by Messi. Howard was forced to make five saves on him.
Several players did very well for the U.S., but overall its attack struggled while its defense, though scrappy, was certainly far from elegant. Considering the caliber of the opponent, and the oppressive heat and humidity, and the obvious fatigue of the Americans after three matches in 11 days against Top 10 opponents, the result was not so bad.
"Argentina is totally different (from its two previous games), especially when Messi is on the field," Bradley said, "The first half, we had to deal with a lot tactically and Tim Howard, of course, made some very big saves .The second half, we showed some real resolve, both handling the red card and adjusting to different things tactically at different times. It means that, at the end, we feel very good about getting a result tonight."
The U.S. heads into its first round of World Cup qualifying with a home-and-home series with Barbados, beginning Sunday at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calf.
U.S. Player Ratings
Goalkeeper Tim Howard - 8: His seven saves (all in the first half) were heroic in what was his best U.S. performance in a stunning 45 minutes.
Defender Heath Pearce - 7: Sewed up the starter's role at left back with a bravado performance. He defended well, worked some terrific combinations with DaMarcus Beasley ahead of him and produced the best U.S. effort on the Argentine goal.
Defender Steve Cherundolo - 5.5: Cruz ran him ragged in the first half, but for the most part he was up to the test.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu - 6: Was a tower of strength in the middle in his best performance over this stretch of three matches
Defender Danny Califf - 5.5: Did fine in his first appearance in awhile. Took him a few minutes to settle in, but worked well with Onyewu.
Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni - 5.5: Had some really great moments in as challenging a situation as a defensive midfielder could find himself with Messi and Aguero running at him. At times, he lacked consistency, but overall a brave performance.
Midfielder Michael Bradley - 5: Started out brightly, but faded toward the end of the first half, looking like a tired player.
Midfielder DaMarcus Beasley - 6.5: The most dangerous American. Looks to be gaining match fitness after a long injury layoff and his pace caused Argentina all kinds of trouble.
Midfielder Clint Dempsey - 5.5: His best effort in the three recent matches. Has looked tired, but appeared to catch a second wind tonight and defended well while helping create a few chances.
Forward Landon Donovan - 5 Had not played in three weeks because of injury, but went 90 minutes tonight. Had flashes of brilliance, but against a great back four, could not break through..
Forward Eddie Johnson - 4.5: Was eaten up by the Argentine defense. Did not really get much quality service, but had a few openings which he simply could not exploit.
Midfielder Maurice Edu (46th minute for Bradley) - 4.5: Was overmatched. Could not make plays fast enough and gave up the ball on too many occasions. Must pick up his game several notches to play against top international opposition.
Defender Jay DeMerit (61st minute for Onyewu) - 5.5: The veteran defender settled in quickly and did well, but was not put under the kind of pressure the U.S. back-line faced in the first half..
Midfielder Freddy Adu (61st minute for Dempsey) - 5: Was squelched by the Argentine, often facing double marking, and never could get into gear.
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan (74th minute for Johnson) 5: Came in to add to the defense with the U.S. a man short. Had a golden late opportunity in front of the Argentine goal, but could not finish.
Defender Eddie Lewis (78th minute for Pearce) 5.5: In his short appearance, managed a couple of good crosses and defended well.
Defender Frankie Hejduk (90th+ minute for Beasley) - no rating: Earned an appearance check after a lot of work over the last two weeks. Played for the Columbus Crew in Major League Soccer last night.
SoccerTimes U.S. Player of the Match: Tim Howard.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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