While soccer is a team game, sometimes one player is all that is needed to make the difference between defeat and victory.
Take, for example, today's 3-1 victory for the United States men's national team against Ecuador in front of 31,457 people in Tampa, Florida. While many people will point to Landon Donovan's hat trick as the key performance in the game, the true change came at the start of the second half, when interim coach Bob Bradley replaced forward Eddie Johnson with Bradley's son, midfielder Michael Bradley.
Don't get me wrong, Donovan was clearly the best player on the field for either team. He was dangerous virtually every time he touched the ball going forward, and anybody who scores a hat trick deserves to be named the Man Of The Match. But Bradley's insertion into the game single-handedly allowed the U.S. to dictate the game in the second half.
It looked like it was going to be a cakewalk for the U.S. when, only 40 seconds into the match, Donovan pounced on a poor clearance by veteran defender Ivan Hurtado and fired a rocket inside the far post to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead.
But Ecuador, who had 11 players on the squad who appeared at last summer's World Cup, had plenty of weapons of their own, and ten minutes later, they tied the game. Luis Caicedo weaved into box, shook off challenges by Oguchi Onyewu and Benny Feilhaber, and expertly placed the ball in the back of the net.
The American defense looked disorganized throughout the first half, and only last-gasp clearances and some good saves by Tim Howard kept Ecuador from taking the lead. A lot of this is the result of the inexperience of Feilhaber, who made his first appearance with the national team.
Often in soccer, a lot of the defensive work done by the midfield takes place off the ball, reading the passing lanes and positioning yourself in a way to force the offense to making bad decisions. As a defensive midfielder, this was Feilhaber's prime responsibility. He was fine in performing his other tasks. He made smart decisions with his passes and made some nice runs forward, but he was ill-equipped to deal with the Ecuadorians' skill and speed. His yellow card in the 22nd minute for a late challenge was further proof that it was not his day. Of course, it didn't help that he got little support from right wing Clint Dempsey, who is not known for his defensive play.
So at halftime, Bob Bradley decided to make a change. Johnson, who has now gone 11 games without a goal after scoring nine goals in his first 12, was removed in favor of Michael Bradley, who had only eight prior minutes of national team experience, both coming in garbage time of friendlies before the World Cup.
This accomplished everything the Americans needed to do. With Bradley, also a defensive midfielder, in the game, Feilhaber had less of the field to worry about. It allowed left wing DaMarcus Beasley, who was covering for Feilhaber a lot, to get more involved in the attack, and it moved Donovan into a withdrawn forward role with Brian Ching, the strike partnership that resulted in MLS Cup victories for the San Jose Earthquakes in 2001 and 2003.
The old axiom about the best defense being a good offense was reversed, as Ecuador now had difficulty getting the ball to their dangerous forwards, Caicedo and Carlos Tenorio, and the Americans began to dictate the pace of the game.
The strategy paid off 20 minutes later. Ching laid the ball off into open space at midfield, allowing Donovan to run onto it and get behind the defense, coolly slotting it underneath goalkeeper Rorys Aragon for a 2-1 lead. Despite the nice play, with only four goals in 21 matches, Ching still has not shown himself to be capable of playing at the international level. He works hard, but he doesn't have the speed or the predatory instincts to be a world-class striker. He also doesn't seem to partner well with anyone but Donovan, whose best position is as a midfielder, not as a forward.
A minute later, Beasley ran down the left, took on Ulises de la Cruz one-on-one, found Donovan running down the center, and sent a perfect pass to him 22 yards out. Donovan's one-time rocket into the upper 90 should make highlight reels around the world. It was Donovan's second hat trick for the national team, and he is now tied with Brian McBride for second on the U.S.' all-time goals scored list with 30. Donovan, who turned 25 earlier this month, could possibly break Eric Wynalda's record of 34 by the end of the year.
Donovan's goal iced the game for the U.S., and for the remaining 23 minutes, it was little more than a kickabout for both teams, and Bob Bradley got the chance to bleed in some more new players, like Jonathan Spector and Justin Mapp. While Bradley's detractors will undoubtedly say that the final score was the result of Donovan's genius, it should be noted that it was a tactical decision by Bradley that allowed Donovan the chance to shine. Bradley has now won his first three games as interim coach, with another friendly against Guatemala in Dallas this Wednesday. Another victory for the U.S. should go a long way towards him proving that he deserves the job permanently.