In the blogoshpere, the US team has often been compared to Slovakia when trying to assess America's international soccer. Optimists argued the US was far superior to Slovakia, while critics of the UMNT often argued that the U.S. wasn't even close to the Slovaks. Slovakia is exactly the type of second tier squad that the US will have to get a result against in the World Cup. So this friendly with Slovakia was a very good yard marker for assessing the progress of the US squad.
The scoreline -- a 1-0 win for Slovakia -- would seem to poor cold water on the optimists and raise the cred of the pessimists. I think that would be wrong. In assessing a game it can be hard to get past the scoreline. This is a results driven business, after all. But friendlies are not always about results and the US fans can take away a lot of positives from this performance and should feel good about the team.
The US completely dominated possession in this game and controlled the central midfield. Despite the compact and defensive play from the Slovaks, the US did create chances and put them under pressure throughout the match. The US was also very solid defensively, giving the Slovaks few chances until the end. Furthermore, the penalty was a dive or at the very least a very, very soft penalty that should never have been given. While the US wasn't able to recover and tie the game, one wonders if that would have been the case had the squad not been so reshuffled in the second half. Also, if it weren't for Altidore blocking Steve Cherendolo's scrambled shot off a corner in the 2nd minute -- a shot that was going in the back of the net -- the US would have been ahead.
However, Ives Galarcep in his recap story described the US as "toothless" and "an ugly match with little rhythm." The predictably pessimistic Kartik of MLS Talk rightly credited the US with a great defensive display, but insisted that Slovakia simply played badly or it would have been worse.
While I agree with much of what both write, I think their overall tack on the game is off -- Ives understates the defensive capabilities of the Slovaks, while Kartik overstates their overall quality and underestimates the US. For Ives, I would say the US wasn't toothless but found it hard to create much clear cut scoring because Slovakia played deep defensively, stayed very compact, and had one of the best defenders in the world -- Martin Skrtel -- mark Jozy out of the game. Sure, Donovan would have made a huge difference, but I highly doubt Ives would be so negative if the US was suddenly gifted an irrelevant late goal. For Kartik, Slovakia looked bad because they got owned in the midfield. Slovakia may have "looked better" in previous games, but they were likely playing crappier teams: i.e., the teams in their qualifying group. The US made Slovakia look bad and did so missing some crucial players (Donovan, Holden, Torres), while Slovakia put out their "A squad."
There were some negatives in this game -- none of Altidore's strike partners looked particularly good and Altidore failed to make his mark. But there were many more positives. The biggest of which, and which both overlook, was that the U.S. -- a team that has frequently struggled to hold on to possession and string passes together -- kept possession and held the ball like a top tier squad.
Slovakia is a good team by which to judge the US. Despite the harsh scoreline, the US looked the better side against a European side that won their qualifying group.