It turned out that the TSG corporate card is no good in New Jersey. Your correspondent had a long drive after finishing his work at New Meadowlands Stadium. An inglorious end to such a promising occassion, and many sleepless hours pondering where it could have all gone wrong. Not at all unlike our United States Men’s National Team who were flattered by being on the wrong end of a 2-0 scoreline.
Had Brazil been a bit more precise in their finishing, we could have been looking at a Mexican Gold Cup sized 5-0 home-field smackdown. That was of course Mexico’s bright young things against a varied MLS selection of veterans and youngsters. Brazil fielded a similar side, but the USA was nearly at full strength.
There were new faces in the starting line-up with big LA Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez making his first appearance and Orebro attacking midfielder Alejandro Bedoya making his first start. Eight of eleven US starters featured in South Africa. Spector returned to the fold in place of Cherundolo after seeing no pitch time in South Africa in 2010, though featuring in the 2009 Confederation’s Cup Final against Brazil. In Dani Alves, Thiago Silva, Ramires and Robinho, Brazil featured only four players who had made the trip to South Africa.
With an electric atmosphere created by the crowd of 77,223 fans, initial energy was high. The Yanks made a bright start and initially even seemed to have the upper hand early. Donovan had a glorious chance to open affairs in the second minute, receiving a nice reverse-pass from Buddle and touching it into space between Thiago Silva and David Luiz. If he’d hit it before the challenge came in and put it on frame, Landon would very likely scored. Had he gone down when his heals were clipped by Thiago Silva, there was a straightforward case for a penalty. But, setting the theme of indecision early in the evening, he did neither. A heavy touch while Donovan was unbalanced and the chance was gone.
No New Tactics
Bob Bradley’s line-up had initially promised to be something new, perhaps even a 4-2-3-1, but it became apparent that it was the same 4-4-2 we’ve used since Charlie Davies’s emergence at the Confederation’s Cup. Landon pushed on into the advanced position sometimes occupied by the absent Clint Dempsey. Alejandro Bedoya slotted into Landon’s accustomed spot on the right. On his starting debut he initially caused trouble with slashing runs into the box, as in the 11th minute when Bradley’s ball was just too long. He also did a solid defensive shift helping Spector to help deal with the threat on the left.
The defensive challenges for the USA were apparent in the 8th minute when Pato caused Gonzalez problems, spinning the big center back. Brazil’s movement and constant interchanging among their front four players caused the US back four serious problems. The 3 attacking midfield player’s are excellent at interchanging behind Pato and moving between defenders zones, overloading one, then another. Rather than keeping shape, the back four chased shadows. The fullbacks in particular were pulled in and out between defending central and wide areas. Johny-Yo-Yo in particular was getting pulled in and out.
For the first 25 minutes of the match the Americans did well to play out of Brazilian pressure in their own half and build attacks. Bradley in particular did well, combining in the 16th minute with Buddle under pressure to maintain possession and build from the back before trying to spring Bedoya again. Defensively, Bradley and Edu were strong in the center of the park, despite being outnumbered 3v2, and made it difficult for Brazil to pass through central midfield, shuffling their opponents attacks out to the wings.
As the US early verve began to fade, Brazil found more consistent joy coming down the left flank. This loosened the grip of Bradley and Edu on central midfield. Early in the match they had prevented the quick switch of flanks, that is until Dani Alves popped up to provide width in the final third, whipping in a low cross from the right flank. With both central defenders beaten, a better ball would have opened the scoring.
Trouble on the Flanks, Trouble in the Center
It was fitting that the first goal came soon after Robinho switched to the left in an effort to find more influence. He came deep and wide to get the ball from Lucas dragging Spector with him and creating space for Andre Santos on the overlap. Bedoya made a good covering run but Santos picked a perfect cross. Bornstein allowed Neymar to get the crucial yard of separation needed to get across him and head the ball into the corner. Brazil soon had the ball in the net again as Pato troubled Gonzalez again before clattering into Howard. The ball trickled over the line and the celebration began, only for it to be disallowed as a foul was called.
Coming in first half stoppage time, Brazil’s second demonstrated how their success on the left flank had loosened the grip of Bradley and Edu on the center. They dropped off Ganso giving him too much time and space to find a penetrative pass. Playing straight up the middle, Pato was slipped through by Ramirez, narrowly staying onside and rounding Howard. The play illustrated how much repetitions matter between center backs, with both players partially at fault.
While Bradley freshened things with Guzan, Kljestan and Altidore at the half for Howard, Feilhaber and Buddle, conceeding a late second took the sting out of the US. Many of the non-domestic players who made the trip to South Africa were still at preseason levels of fitness after extended breaks. Brazil, young and hungry, was pinging shots on goal, forcing a combined 9 saves from Howard and Guzan in addition to getting frisky with the woodwork on more than one occasion.
Everything So Slow
The USA’s attack in the second half was stodgy. Whereas Buddle had roamed from flank to flank, winning physical battles and chasing down lost causes on a slow pitch, Altidore took up a position on the inside right and was far less dynamic. Feilhaber had less freedom to roam than he’s normally given, but Kljestan seemed frozen to a spot on a tactical diagram (and too many of his give-aways came on simple passes, though the lack of movement was also a problem).
It appeared that Bradley asked Kljestan and Bedoya to push on and Donovan to play deeper, forming something more like a 4-2-3-1 but it was too late. There was simply not the same movement in possession as there had been to start the match. The move only left the US more exposed to the Brazilian counter. Bradley was in an offside position when Kljestan found him with a nice cross on a short corner. It wouldn’t be a USA match without a disallowed goal, but this decision was the correct one.
Despite some half-chances, problems worsened as Bob stuck square pegs into round holes with his next round of substitutions. Findley came on for Donovan and Herc Gomez was shuffled off to a right midfield position for Bedoya. Even with three ostensible strikers, there was no change of system. Nor was there evidence of anything but speed from Robbie Findley. Donovan was the one remaining moving part, and the USA looked a different side with his movement lacking. When Herc did manage to get into a position in the box, he had one of the USA’s best chances, and was only denied by Victor.
Goodson was a brighter spot and showed well in his 30 minute appearance coming on for Bocanegra, showing good composure to simply turn out of pressure with the ball instead of playing the anticipated back pass. He seemed to help settle an increasingly shambolic defense that relied on a series of great stops from Guzan and a number of near-misses from Brazil. But for all intents and purposes, the match had long been over as a competitive affair, with the visitors content with cruise control even with their fans baying for blood.
The Difference Told
The gulf between these two teams is not simply technical. The key difference is that every Brazilian player knows what he’s going to do with the ball when he receives it. The players around him know where they are going to move to find space to receive the ball. They are always thinking a few passes ahead. In contrast, too often a US player would receive the ball, control it, then try to look up to find a passing option, find themselves under pressure and make a poor choice. When your teammates are simply standing in their defender’s zone, there is no player in space to receive the ball. This speed of thought must improve before the US can compete in this rarefied air, rather than hoping to catch a top team on an off day.
While the result of the match wasn’t important, it was still a litmus test. Brazil could probably send multiple contending teams to the World Cup. In modern football it’s moving between the zones of defenders that is key to creating space. If you lack Brazil’s individual skill, the speed of the ball has to do the work instead (like Germany at the World Cup).
The US managed to give them a game for 30 minutes. In the end it was Brazil’s superior team play and decisiveness, not their individual qualities, that could have told a far more damning story while hanging the third loss on the US in two years to close out the 2010 cycle.