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.
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?