Archive for June, 2011

Snap Judgements: Mexico Roars Back, Knocks Out US, 4-2

A busy day for Tim Howard and the Yanks in the back...

The United States came out like the real banditos Saturday night, but left instead as their victims.

Guns blazing, with the pride of Nike Soccer (Freddy Adu, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey) all taking turns leading the line, the States took it Mexico with their best of-ball movement yet of the Gold Cup tournament early in the first half.

Twenty minutes in it was 2-0 Yanks with Michael Bradley skipping a header off his bald pate on a Freddy Adu corner and Landon Donovan slicing horizontal across the goal face to deposit an Adu-Dempsey 1-2 set up dish. The pro-Mexico Rose Bowl crowd? Muffled.

Little did Bob Bradley know that the States fate was sealed before their second goal. Rock steady Steve Cherundolo went down with an ankle injury and Bradley made a critical decision on his replacement that he probably wishes he could take back.

Bradley reached into the hat and pulled out Jonathan Bornstein. He wasn’t the same rabbit that Freddy Adu was against Panama.

With Bornstein inserted, youthful Eric Lichaj was moved over the right flank and the United States went with two players at new positions the rest of the way in the Final; three actually if you count that Carlos Bocanegra started the Gold Cup at left fullback.

With the US backline disorganized, Mexico quickly turned the tables and struck for two goals to even up the match.

New sub Jonathan Bornstein was culpable on the first playing too narrow and giving up a lead pass to Pablo Barrera who mowed the grass pass Tim Howard on the left.

Moments later Andrew Guardado lit the lamp as Gio Dos Santos drove in and fired across the goal. Eric Lichaj made the block, but looked like he was trying to tap back for a Tim Howard clearance. Instead the marble found Andrew Guardado and Mexico had clawed their way back. The half would end deadlocked in a thriller at 2-2.

The drama soon became a tragedy for the Yanks in the second.

The US central midfield got stretched frequently in the first half and the leak became a full blown incident in the second stanza. First, Giovanni Dos Santos–who had an electrifying match–dinked in a lead pass for Barrera who sliced a gorgeous ball past a diving Howard and into the right corner pocket, 3-2 Mexico on Barrera’s second.

El Tri stretched it to 4-2 in the 70th decade as a dancing Gio Dos Santos controlled and retreated against Tim Howard who had come out of goal. Howard’s backline failed to contest Dos Santos and he fluttered a gorgeous chip into the top left corner.

The US would have their chances in the second–a Clint Dempsey bender off the bar and a Clarence Goodson toe poke–but it wasn’t to be as the States skidded out of the Gold Cup tournament and lost an invitation to avenge their Confederation’s Cup final meltdown of 2011 in Brazil in 2013.

Your snap judgements:

The US, confused in the back...

Lack of true depth–and a questionable call by the manager–does in the US backline.

Hard not emphasize Bob Bradley’s selection of Jonathan Bornstein at leftback twelve minutes in when steady Steve Cherundolo went down–and not just because of the personnel choice.

To understand the peculiar decision, the past month’s history needs to be investigated. As the US roster came out for the Gold Cup, the name of nascent Timmy Chandler was left off the roster. It was felt by Bob Bradley that bringing in Chandler–arguably the Yanks most promising prospect for Cherundolo’s successor–was not a dire necessity as Chandler’s club team, FC Nurnberg, protested the call-up due to the youngster’s heavy 2011 workload.

The US would enter the tourney with Jonathan Spector , Jonathan Bornstein and Eric Lichaj instead as their flank back-ups.

Once Tim Ream proved too unseasoned for a permanent role centrally, Carlos Bocanegra slid to the middle. In his stead went Eric Lichaj, who spent the last quarter of his club time at Leeds playing the left back role. With a backline of Cherundolo-Goodson-Bocanegra-Lichaj, the States reeled off three straight shutouts to enter the final Saturday in Pasadena. The US backline appeared stout.

With Cherundolo coming out Saturday, Bradley summoned Jonathan Bornstein–arguably the more experienced to Jonathan Spector with two World Cup starts under his belt–to come in on the left. Lichaj would move to the right.

The decision proved catastrophic. With Bornstein showing well behind game speed and Lichaj disoriented on the right the States couldn’t work together in the back. The chances for El Tri started coming in abundance. With US midfielders either hustling to get back in position late or failing to pressure on Mexico’s servicemen, the US backline was bombarded and could not withstand the onslaught.

Instead of being a force as it was the past three matches, the back four for the States were reactive and slow. Getting forward in the attack? Rarely consuming their minds.

Getting back to Bradley’s decision, it was an exceedingly curious one in that in flew in the face of a conventional coaching axiom of, “Solving Peter’s problem by creating one for Paul,” so to speak.

The US manager had a young Lichaj on the left getting very comfortable with his position.

He moved the youngster across the field to a role he had not played previously for the Yanks in the tournament. As Lichaj told TSG previously, defending on the left versus the right is very different at fullback.

Second, Lichaj had proved adept at closing down attackers on the left in the tourney, even if he was trailing them and especially if they dribbled horizontally across the top of the box. With Mexico’s Dos Santos adept at cutting in on his stronger left foot from the right, it would be thought that having Lichaj’s strong right foot to deal with that an advantage.

Bornstein as well was an interesting call. The former Tigris player had played little for his club in 2011 and had not featured for the Yanks since March, however back-up rightback  Jonathan Spector at least played a few weeks earlier against a team of similar (or more impressive) speed in Spain.

Bradley, it would show, weakened both positions.

With Bornstein unfamiliar with his teammates on the pitch and Lichaj unfamiliar in his role, the US backline seemed unsure about whether they should come up and press Mexican’s attackers–risking a run behind from Chicharito–or sit deep and compact. The confusion both personally and as a whole wreaked havoc on the Yanks shape and the States paid dearly.

A younger US central midfield did not pressure their elder counterparts.

A brief signal of strength from Bradley on the day...

After a grueling path to the finals for both teams, it was the thought the United States would have an advantage in central midfield where Michael Bradley (23 years old) and Jermaine Jones (29) were matched up with El Tri’s Israel Castro (30) and Gerardo Torrado (32).

The question TSG posed in the preview: Can the USMNT central midfield tandem of Michael Bradley-Jermaine Jones hold up for one more game and find the hold-up player?

The answer? A resounding no.

After an early goal by Michael Bradley signaled differently, both he and Jones had a rough evening. Their play exascerbated more by the fact the tandem was supposed to outperform their opposite numbers.

Both players were sluggish on defense, Jones resorting to his early tourney defensive lapses both centrally and in helping to cover for the inserted Bornstein.

Bradley showed signs of fatigue early and had himself a stinker after having several solid performances throughout the lead-up games. The coach’s son was guilty in giving away possession on multiple occasions, frequently trailed the play, and was left ball-watching on goal number two as his mark Guardado swept a ball away from Howard.

The signs, to this writer, were of a player who had not been given adequate rest to perform against a team that played at a higher speed.

The duo of Jones and Bradley failed to boss their zone and left gaps that a backline already challenged in synchronicity didn’t need.

Advantage, Mexico.

The Yanks mixtures of forwards with no true strikes showcased their best off-ball movement and attack….with an asterisk.

The States best offball movement and offensive harmony of Gold Cup 2011 came in the first twenty minutes on Saturday.

With Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan interchanging and Freddy Adu holding up the ball in a very Rafael Van Der Vaart way on the fight flank, the United States manufactured a host of early chances against Mexico.

With that said, the lack of a true striker–one that is distinctly a target man or distinctly challenges the opponents back four–left much more on the table both Saturday and during the tournament for the States.

The Yanks are at their best when Donovan and Dempsey are given space centrally to attack the goal. On Saturday, a striker to drag central defenders to the flank–as Chicharito did ad nauseum with US captain Carlos Bocanegra–would have proved invaluable in making the flow of opportunities a steady one.

Instead the Yanks tried Donovan up top to little success in a striker role and then tried Clint Dempsey but his teammates couldn’t provide him service. US teenager Juan Agudelo would enter halfway through the 2nd half, but looked more–to use a baseball analogy–like a pitcher aiming his pitches instead of “just throwing.”

The US early movement is to be commended, but beyond regressing to protect its defense, the Yanks stagnated without a true striker doing work ahead of its forwards.

The silver lining: Is the “comeback” for Freddy Adu complete?

Nothing short of amazing the work that Freddy Adu in this game. It was Adu–who looks bigger physically than last time he sported the Yanks jersey in 2009–that held up the ball or challenged a defender as the match dictated better than any other attacker for the Yanks.

What makes this impressive is that this was only Adu’s second game on the pitch during the Gold Cup and he was playing the fastest team in the tournament. Adu at times looked almost nonchalantly with how well he held or moved the ball.

If Saturday’s match had any glimmer of excitement when over for US fans, it was the re-emergence of US soccer’s prodigal son Freddy Adu as a possible long-term difference maker.

USA vs. Mexico: Live Commentary

Captain Carlos will need to old school today because he's on Chicharito Patrol.

Update: 

Freddy Adu starts for Juan Agudelo…

Your US line-up: Howard; Cherundolo, Goodson, Bocanegra, Lichaj; Bradley, Jones; Donovan, Adu, Bedoya; Dempsey.

It’s the United States.

It’s the Mexico.

Both clubs come in today looking for that golden ticket to the 2013 Confederation’s Cup.

No more is to be said.

The Rose Bowl in Pasadena is filling up.

Starting line-ups around the ben in just a few hours here.

Winner: 2011 Gold Cup Don’t Tread Challenge

The winner–by popular vote–of the TSG 2011 Don’t Tread Video Challenge. Mike Brienz we’ve got a Jay DeMerit Story DVD for ya!

Orange Slices: USA vs. Mexico

Orange Slices is our game day, catch-all post that we update during the day before the match. Don’t accept substitutes, imitators or copycats! Ask for fresh, wholesome Orange Slices by name.

Orange Slices! US vs. Mexico

Hello and welcome to game day! That is, the final game for the States at Gold Cup 2011 and….the final meaningful game until World Cup 2014 qualifying kicks off. Wow.

The United States finds themselves in Pasadena, CA today against familiar opponents, Mexico and are looking to punch a ticket to the 2013 Confederation’s Cup, the dress rehearsal for the real thing the following year.

While nothing may be more American than California, the crowd today? Decidedly Mexican. It’s just the way it goes.

Moving on.

TSG’s Official Preview: USA vs. Mexico, Been There, Done That

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Broadcast:

Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. PT.

English TV Broadcast: Fox Soccer (Kyle Martino with analysis) —  Spanish TV Broadcast: Univision, Web: Concacaf.com or Univsion.com

Live Commentary: Right here at TSG!

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Supporting Material:

• That’s On Point: Border Warz: A video history of the US-Mexico rivalry (very worth it)

• USA10Kit says Alejandro Bedoya is making the most of his chance Gold Cup call-in. We concur.

• TSG’s review of the last US-Mexico game at the Azteca. TSG the only publication that thought Cherundolo did well. A lot of points here that became quite popular.

•  Matt from Soccer Over There with some very interesting data indeed on Carlos Bocanegra positionally.

• Eric Wynalda says prior to Donovan’s benching he was “just going through the motions.

Viewing?:

American Outlaws members gather here.

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Intermission:

(Benny Feilhaber with a golazo for the United States to win the 2007 Gold Cup. The US fell to Mexico 5-0 in 2009.)

Weather forecast:

The weather? Down right, cough, rosy. 75, sunny, clouds running for their lives.

Surf forecast:

It’s California.

Too many to list. Let’s just go to place named El Porto just north of Manhattan Beach or to the locals, Shitpipe.

Looks like typical summer knee-slappers. Now, if you were going to head south to San Diego, out to sea about 100 miles, and it were the winter, well that would be a different story.

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Beer Forecast: 

What to eat and drink if you’re going to the game or not. How to celebrate appropriately or be a, cough again, gracious loser.

Miscellaneous

As We Tweeted: Only sure thing about today’s match? Clarence Goodson will have a better Gold Cup than 2009. Has to be on his mind.

Sensing A Trend here: The U.S. back line of Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra and Eric Lichaj has played three consecutive games together as a starting unit, the first time Bob Bradley has used the same starting defensive unit in three straight games since the group stage of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup.

Preview Lite: USA vs. Mexico: Been There, Done That

Yee-Haw Lichaj? This will be the biggest game yet for the USMNT's newly annointed leftback

It’s Germany. It’s Argentina? Let’s get it on….

Okay, not quite, that’s the look the US (Germany) and Mexico (Argentina) are going to give you. However, as is well known, these two neighbors battling it out for CONCACAF supremacy–much more so in the wake of Jack Warner’s demise–are very familiar with each other.

This Saturday the prize? The Gold Cup trophy and a trip to the World Cup 2014 warm-up tourney the year before.

As the two favored nations to reach the Final before the tournament started, both teams took decidedly different, but also dramatic, paths to Pasadena.

The United States played, and dreadfully lost, an ill-advised pre-tournament friendly against the world’s number one team Spain.

They followed it up with an uneven group stage that saw their first ever loss–to a well-organized Panama side–in group play.

Coming off that monumental match, the States swapped out their backline–which has now been their key to their organization and defense–made it through the group stage, dismantled an overmatched though on-form Jamaican side, survived a war of field position against Panama and…now here they sit.

Oh, manager Bob Bradley–as is now custom during any camp or tournament of more than two matches–again came under the fire and the US sat their all-time caps, goal leader, and flag boy Landon Donovan on the bench.

Had enough?

Mexico arrives in the final with no less a dramatic drive. Hard to figure what was the bigger headline for El Tri in their group stage?Their tainted-chicken-steroid-player suspension situation–five players are no longer with the team but were replaced–or their overall attack dominance. El Tri lit the lamp 14 times in the group stage. 14 times!

More drama? FIFA is investigating irregularities in some of those matches early-on.

A younger Dempsey takes on Mexico in 2007. What will the mature one do?

As the US neighbor headed through the knockouts they looked decidedly more earthbound, however that was merely because of better competition and tiring legs.

Make no mistake in this one, Mexico is and should be favored going in.

Let’s get to our customary preview. It goes:

About the Opponent: Mexico

TSG What We’re Looking At

11 At The Whistle

Disclaimers

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About the Opponent: Mexico

Nothing unfamiliar here for the States. Discussion of whether Mexico is running a 4-3-3 or a 4-4-1-1 here is mere semantics. Mexico plays a very adaptable game with players interchanging frequently.

One quick note here, the speedy and on-form Andres Guardado is questionable for the match having received an ankle knock in Wednesday’s match against Honduras. If he can’t go–as is presumed–manager José Manuel de la Torre will insert Aldo de Nigris in his place. We’re not talking a big drop-off at the position because De Nigris himself has been solid in June. (Saturday update: Guardado is now expected to play.)

The Dos Santos Swivel: No matter what "formation" it's considered, Mexico interchanges well. Dos Santos will slide across the field depending on the match-up and Mexico's midfield will support accordingly.

Up top, the Mexican attack will feature Manchester United frontman Chicharito–he of the supreme poaching skills and six Gold Cup 2011 goals–in the center of the pitch.

Off him, Gio Dos Santos (who notoriously always seems like the anti-Donovan to the Yanks despite his big club team failures) will pick his spots and flip from one flank to the other depending on the match-up advantage.

Mexico uses their two wide midfielders Barrera and, Saturday, De Nigris to provide support if they are sharing the flank with Dos Santos or out wide if they are on the opposite flank from Gio.

Next, Israel Castro pushes up to fill in the center with Gerardo Torrado providing Castro with support as well as another option centrally or with Torrado staying home–effectively forming a 3-man backline up the pitch with central defenders Rafa Marquez and Hector Moreno–the fullbacks advancing. Castro and Torrado have been maligned for their speed, but they are smart players who know where to be on the field and that makes up for it.

Carlos Salcido–a teammate last year of Clint Dempsey’s at Fulham–mans the left with Efraín Juárez, Celtic, to the right.

Most folks and media previews will focus on Chicharito in this one, but it’s the 18-yard box-extended and the flanks where Mexico initiates its attack.

Supporting Dos Santos, Barrera and De Nigris well, El Tri likes to push wide and when a help central defender moves to provide cover either issue a cross or play it back on the floor to a trailing midfielder. That is the bigger battle in our opinion.

Mexico is very fluid and very good in tight spaces, so a disciplined shape from the Yanks is essential.

One more note, I’ve been somewhat surprised by just how frequently Mexico is issuing crosses in the air this tournament, perhaps a result of their confidence in Chicharito.

The Yanks have had one notorious breakdown–against Panama in the group stage–on a set piece cross and Saturday, if Mexico chooses that route, Clarence Goodson and Carlos Bocanegra–both very able aerially–will need to be on their games here.

TSG What We’re Looking For

MB90 like never before?

Can the USMNT central midfield tandem of Michael Bradley-Jermaine Jones hold up for one more game and find the hold-up player?

For US fans, this is the biggest question.

A long-running criticism of Coach Bob Bradley is his insistence on keeping son Michael on the pitch for the full ninety minutes. In fact, it’s earned midfielder the nickname “MB90″ for Bradley’s son as much as the midfielder’s aggressive, never-say-die style of play.

For the States, of course, this will be the grueling fifth game in 15 days. (And remember, no team has a homestand in this tournament. The US went Detroit, Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Washington DC, Houston and now Pasadena–that’s brutal).

Towards the 70th minute of the last two matches, Bradley The Son tired.

For the United States, Bradley is critical as the defensive funnel and as the lead ball distributor from the back.

Mexico will flood centrally when the ball is on the flank, Bradley will have to do yoeman track-back work–he typically sits ahead of Jermaine Jones on defense–and will have to find the high-pressure outlet–and this is perhaps the most key point of this preview–after the US wins possession in its end.

If not? The States will play huck-it-up ball to a teenager against a seasoned backline and it could be a long afternoon.

Key match-up: Chicharito vs. Clarence Goodson-Carlos Bocanegra

Both the US centerbacks will be tasked with minding the off-ball work of Chicharito. Whether this means holding a disciplined line, following an angled run or dueling in the air, the communication between the veteran and the up-and-comer in central defense will need to spot on.

Can the US get its flankers up the pitch?

Mexico love to attack the gaps between the wide defenders and the centerback. That will often mean many times–more so than in any other game in this tournament–that Eric Lichaj and Steve Cherundolo will have to be narrow with the centerbacks on defense. Can they make their way up and wide on the pitch to provide support?

Remember it’s the Yanks wide fullback play that has been more key to their width than their midfielders in Summer 2011.

Um, might be nice to have Charlie Daves or Robbie Findley hanging around.

El Tri has been playing a highline for a bulk of the tournament using their front six pressure to create nightmares on a change in turnover. As their opponents have looked for joy up the field to alleviate pressure, they’ve been introduced to the Mexican backline playing far up the field.

The US will have to ping the ball on the floor to get out of the back, but as soon as a Clint Dempsey or Alejandro Bedoya has the ball up field they’ll need another outlet further up the field or risk being closed down by Mex’s “last line” defenders.”

Will Agudelo find the spots and does anyone on the States have enough speed to worry Moreno and Marquez for Mexico and force them to sit deeper?

11 At The Whistle:

The skinny: Two basic questions:

» How does Bob Bradley get his best, in-form players on the pitch together in a cohesive line-up all at one time?

» How does Bradley address the Mexican attack–the toughest one of the tourney–in terms of a defensive posture?

Gut feeling here is that Bradley with the below line-up.

Defensive posture from the Yanks in the line-up that Bradley may use... *amended with help of the TSG community...

Beyond the regular starters this Gold Cup, Alejandro Bedoya will be used to help Steve Cherundolo over the right flank or Eric Lichaj over the left flank. Only concern about putting Bedoya on the left flank is both he and Lichaj are new to the Mexican rivalry on the same side.

*Thanks to the TSG community for the commentary on the US line-up.

G: Tim Howard

The skinny: Mexico loves the cutback ball, in the air or on the ground. Howard’s going to be challenged on when to come out and when to stay put in this one. Oh not only on the wide balls played-in, but on the counters when the US may be caught out. It’s going to happen.

DEF: Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra, Eric Lichaj

The skinny: No surprises here, biggest game of Lichaj’s short tenure manning the left fullback spot.

Will the industrious Bedoya get yet another start?

MID: Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones,  Landon Donovan

The skinny: Can Bedoya continue his all out up-down play that’s been the hallmark of a very positive Gold Cup for him. He’s going to need to help Dolo and get ahead in the attack.

On Donovan: If he’s healthy he plays.

FW: Clint Dempsey

The skinny: (Edit from TSG community) Dempsey will play a roving forward and hold-up role. Makes sense.

STR: Juan Agudelo

The skinny: This ain’t gym class; but it’s also not Panama’s Felipe Baloy. This games sets up much better for Agudelo’s skillset. Can he take advantage.

Disclaimers:

» Maurice Edu for Donovan or Bedoya (with Donovan moving to his flank)

Odds: 45%

The skinny: Very possible. You don’t think Bradley was perhaps trying out a potential Mexico defensive line-up against the similar Argentina

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Oh, and can’t leave this question unattended. Will there be another late game Freddy Adu sighting accompanied by heroics?

Is the writing in the stands?

USWNT Countdown: Part II: About That Midfield

Editors’s Note:  The US Women are on the ground in Germany, TSG guest columnist Maura Gladys is taking a look at each positional group. Today, the midfield.

Part I:  Defense: USWNT positioning more core US backline success than experience.

Carli Lloyd manages the middle for the USWNT

The midfield is both the strongest and weakest aspect of the United States’ game. There are no personnel issues, as the starting midfield will almost undoubtedly be Megan Rapinoe on the left wing, Heather O’Reilly on the right, and Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd in the middle with Boxx playing a holding midfield position and Lloyd creating more of the attack.

Despite knowing the likely lineup, there are still several kinks that need to be worked out, and not where you would think.

Heather O’Reilly and Megan Rapinoe are thriving on the wings, while the central midfield tandem of Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd are struggling to click, leaving the middle of the field dangerously vulnerable.

Rapinoe and O’Reilly’s play in the three warm up matches before the squad left for Austria confirmed the notion that the wings are the team’s strongest component. The two are playing like true wingers, sending in mouth-watering crosses, running at defenders and charging into the box when the moment calls for it. O’Reilly’s play in the friendly against Japan on May 18 is textbook for how a winger should play. She set up the U.S.’s first goal by working the wing, then finding Lloyd at the top of the box for an easy slot in. Then, she created a goal for herself, finding space and ripping a shot past the goalkeeper. While she hasn’t showed up on the scoreline lately, Rapinoe has been just as effective. She worked well with left back Amy LePeilbet against Mexico, and sent in several great services to Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez. She did flub a few chances in front of the goal, but seriously, who didn’t in that match.

In those warm-up games, a lot of the attack stemmed from the wings, so Rapinoe and O’Reilly will be expected to shoulder a lot of the offensive load in creating opportunities for their teammates and themselves.

One of the reasons that a lot of that offense will be funneled down the wings is because of the struggles of Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd to establish a strong presence in the middle.  Lloyd and Boxx have enough caps between them to merit full veteran status. Yet, they just haven’t clicked the way you would think two players of their stature would this close to the World Cup.

They both have their strong and weak points. Boxx is a gritty, scrappy defensive mid, but she will often leave her position and get pulled up into the play, leaving the center of the midfield weak, and sometimes, (especially when a fullback has pushed up) hanging the defense out to dry. Lloyd excels at creating scoring chances for herself, but she struggles to distribute from the midfield effectively and often loses possession.

That said, the central midfield isn’t a mess. It’s just that not as much offense flows from it and it isn’t as tight as you would expect from two veterans with so much experience.

Substitute-wise, Lori Lindsay often relieves Boxx, while Tobin Heath and Kelly O’Hara pitch in on the wings. Forward Lauren Cheney can also sometimes drop back and play a midfielder roll, like she did in the game against Mexico. But, it’s not likely that many of them will see much time.

Snap Judgements: USA Outlasts Panama, 1-0

Prodigal son Freddy Adu finally made his first 2011 Gold Cup appearance. He didn't disappoint.

And this one was about the coaches.

Arriving on the pitch Wednesday night at Reliant Stadium, both Bob Bradley and Jorge Dely Valdes accompanied two teams determined to get to the Gold Cup Final in Pasadena on Saturday evening.

However both their squads had just sauntered through four exhausting matches–three in the group stage and their first knockout game–in summer heat and with very little respite in between.

What transpired in Houston Saturday was a supreme tactical battle as neither sides fatigued legs wanted to lose defensive shape and neither side wanted to get caught out on the counter–the easiest, relative, ticket to score.

For the US, Landon Donovan incredulously started on the bench again but his teammates still mustered an attack against Panama in the first stanza.

The United States midfield stoutly manned up on Panama’s attackers high in offensive half and were able to convert some of the created into opportunities.

Were in not for some poor touches by Sacha Kljestan and some last minute defending by the opponent’s back four, the United States may have found pay dirt. In fact, a sequence of Alejandro Bedoya to Steve Cherundolo to Juan Agudelo’s head found the woodwork early on.

The second half started with a decidedly different flavor as the United States moved up the field, but were largely boxed in when attempting to move beyond Panama’s amoeba-like band of five mifielders.

As the half wore on the war of fatigue and attrition saw now Panama make a push upfield and threaten the States.

Donovan's through-the-wickets assist? Ridiculous...

When it looked like the siege might bear fruit, the Yanks turned the tables, skipped a pass to Freddy Adu–yes, you read the right, who curled a left-footed lead pass to a streaking Landon Donovan. The Yanks’s #10 measured his approached to the box and slotted a ball through a stationary defender’s legs to Clint Dempsey at the back post.

A score, the only score, and it would hold up. Oh what the hell, for one solitary moment the Yanks front three were nearly, say, Barca-like. Quite a compliment given much of the Yanks stagnation during the second half.

Let’s get to our snap judgements.

• This was a fascinating tactical battle between US Coach Bob Bradley and Panama coach Jorge Dely Valdes.

Can’t make this point enough.

Going back to game one, in hindsight, you might suggest that Bradley’s tactics played right into Valdes hand. With the USA holding the skill advantage, the thinking behind the States group stage deployment was that they could own possession, pick their spots, push up the field and find joy against a sagging Panama defense.

Didn’t work. The United States wide midfielders of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey got way too deep and often left the Yanks midfield defending 4-v-2 and 3-v-2 in the center of the pitch. Again, in hindsight, I imagine Bob Bradley would have preferred to sit a little deeper and play “My counter is better than yours” instead.

The United States would come out with the same 4-2-3-1 that punished a disorganized Jamaican side thinking that an extra central midfielder would stem counter attacks and provide more possession against a bunkered in Panama.

However, Dely Valdes countered this effectively by showing a 4-5-1 line-up that actually played more like a 3-4-3.

Instead of sitting very deep, Panama elected to challenge the United States at the top of their defensive third. For good measure they threw their best defender Felipe Baloy on the inexperienced Juan Agudelo to give the US little vertical depth to create space ahead of their delineated battleground.

This tactic worked well as the US would work its way up the field, but then find itself cut off from service and passing space; the attack, DOA.

Halftime came and while the States had the better of the run of play, one couldn’t argue definitely that they were exceedingly better in creating true chances.

The second half saw a handful of moves by both coaches. Bob Bradley inserted Landon Donovan for the ineffective Kljestan and give Panama more of a almost a true 4-4-2 look. Panama countered by playing deeper up the flanks and starting to move the possession fight up field.

As the 60th decade progressed, Panama began finding more and more chances in the US’s defensive kitchen, both because the States’ central midfielders began to fatigue and through wide possession.

However as the Red Tide their forays up the field, their defense also got stretched.

Enter the Bob Bradley’s unlikely, but crucial, substitution of Freddy Adu.

With the US needing possession and hold-up ability in the midfield. Adu made himself available for the quick outlets that the US defense increasingly needed under duress.

Working without a true striker, the US stretched Panama’s back-three wide and started to create a few opportunities through space. The key moment saw Michael Bradley find Freddy Adu in the middle of the field, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey filled on either side and suddenly Panama was experiencing the nightmare they wanted to inflict in reverse: caught up the field and under a counter attack.

Adu bent a ball to Donovan in stride. Donovan guided a ball to Dempsey at the back post and the US beat Panama and their game plan, a counter attack goal that would be the only difference needed.

• For the bulk of the game, the US defense kept their defensive integrity.

Howard & Company: Up to the task...

For the second straight game–and save some frantic 11th hour defending–Bob Bradley’s side was prescient with its positioning and man-on defense. In fact, the difference between the group stage US team defense and their knockout stage defense is eye-popping.

Led by the industrious Alejandro Bedoya, who put in Herculean efforts of shutting down would-be attackers behind the half line while sprinting ahead to gain field possession when the ball was hucked up the field, the midfield solved their early Gold Cup challenge against Panama of shutting down Panamas passers in the defensive half. Gone were the free looks and passing channels that led to the States lone group stage loss.

In the back, Eric Lichaj had a phenomenal game. The early moments saw Lichaj challenged in possession as Panama closed much faster than Sunday’s Jamaica. However, once the early jitters were out of the way, Lichaj was a force on defense and played so confidently that we was often winning balls much further up the field than he probably should of.

The result of Lichaj’s, Bedoya’s and Howard’s, et all’s efforts? The first trifecta of US clean sheets since the Summer of 2008. (Credit as well to Carlos Bocanegra’s backline marshaling).

• Speaking of clean sheets, the Yanks attack needs to improve or hope for another one from Team Timmy.

The Yanks offense? Still a work in progress.

Here’s a laundry list of probably what’s on Bob Bradley’s clipboard over the next few days and months.

__  Find another midfielder who can maintain possession and run at defenders besides Clint. Note: What Freddy Adu did was promising here, but that’s a single observation (and we know what TSG says about single observations.)

__  Move off the ball! Especially in the second half, the US looked like its attackers were fitted with cement cleats. While Michael Bradley will never be confused with Luka Modric or even Raul Meireles, many of the giveaways Bradley had this game where when Panama directed him to a flank and then no teammate made himself available to the coach’s son.

__  Move the ball faster. It just needs to happen.

__ Get Juan Agudelo some reps. Hard to argue that US movement up top wasn’t better with Agudelo on the field instead of Altidore. Where Agudelo needs to improve is taking it to his defender before the defender sets–sort of like when Tim Duncan gets it in the post and is beginning his move before the ball even arrives. Agudelo, very promising though and good game in building on his Jamaican performance.

Now with Mexico in the final, the US will need to improve some of these items in order to counter a Mexican attack that boasts Dos Santos, Barrera, Guardado and Hernandez.

Miscellaneous:

The most coveted US Soccer award goes to...Lichaj

» Golden Shinguard: Eric Lichaj

It was a main point lat match, but should be emphasized again. Lichaj’s impact on the overall team game has been astounding. The US now needs to cover less on the left flank and they’re also a viable threat through Lichaj’s speed and physical play going forward. Some mistakes due to lack of reps and inexperience, but his impact far outweighed those.

Honorable mentions: Tim Howard, Alejandro Bedoya and Clint Dempsey

» Whiter Landon?

Better from Landon Donovan, but not dynamic. Is something ailing him? The question persists.

» Sidenote: The Ghost of Guatemala 2008 is abolished

Had to put this side note in. During an August 2008 road qualifier in Guatemala, Tim Howard came out to cover up on a through ball to Carlos Ruiz. Howard won the battle, but got a Ruiz boot to the head.

No US defender came to his defense. Encouraging to see Bocanegra and Bradley quickly intercede when Howard was involved in some hand bags in the first half.

» And…can the States muster one more crucial effort?

Saturday, it’s El Tri at the Rose Bowl in the Pasadena, can Steve Cherundolo, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley recover in time to dominate their respective positions?

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