Archive for June, 2011

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?

USA vs. Panama: Live Commentary

Jamaica couldn't see Clint Dempsey, will Panama?

Update:

No Donovan in the starting 11

USA lineup: Howard; Cherundolo, Goodson, Bocanegra, Lichaj; Bradley, Jones; Bedoya, Kljestan, Dempsey; Agudelo

It’s the United States.

It’s Panama.

All over again.

Probably for the right to play Mexico in front of 90,000 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

The States will attempt to keep their midfield from being stretched while Panama will look to bunker more than counter in this one.

Most expect a big States win. 1-0, 2-0 after Panama starts pressing, perhaps?

Starting line-ups coming up.

Orange Slices: USA vs. Panama, Again

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. Panama

Hello and welcome to game day!

The United States Men’s National finds itself one game away from a possible Gold Cup final showdown against Mexico.

Standing in their way? Group stage foil Panama, who adhered to a disciplined game plan in their 4-4-2 deployment last time and sent the United States to their first ever Gold Cup group stage loss.

What a difference a week makes. The US are coming off a strong showing against the Reggae Boyz of Jamaica while Panama needed penalty kicks to reach the sequel here today.

Reset Button: TSG’s Official USA vs. Panama Preview

Broadcast:

Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m. CT.

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:

• Unrelated: Simon Kuper looks at a statistical revolution underway in football. (TSG says it’s always in the numbers also.)

• Anthony Mannino of USA10Kit highlights the keys to the States five man midfield.

•  John Levy, The Yanks Are Coming is thinks the Yanks will roll big in the rematch.

•  Podcast: The Girls In The Cheap Seats, hailing from the Lone Star State, talk US Men’s National Team from a woman’s perspective as they follow around the team during Gold Cup 2011.

Viewing?:

American Outlaws members gather here.

Weather forecast:

T-Storms bearing down on H-town. Alas, the US will be facing off with Panama in the Reliant Stadium….dome.

Surf forecast:

There’s no surfing in Houston….you bet there is!

In fact Galveston, Texas–and tanker surfing!–was profiled in probably the best surfing documentary of the 2000’s, Step Into Liquid. We couldn’t find a clip of that, but there is no shortage of southeast Texas–read: Galveston Bay–surfing on YouTube (below) and …. even directions on how you can surf one of those tankers.

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When In Houston:

Shoutout to some Houston locals and TSG community members:

Chris Figat: Chris has been coming to TSG since it’s inception. He’s a hell of a graphic designer. He authored TSG’s holiday card andsome USMNT wallpaper before last year’s World Cup. Thanks Chris.

Kevin, Forever Orange: Kevin is youngster who’s been coming to TSG as well since we opened the doors–I believe one of his first comments was pleading for some face time for Bobby Boswell on the USMNT (Sorry Kev, not going to happen :>).

He’s always the first to nominate TSG for best US Soccer Blog at US Soccer. Thanks Kevin. And Kevin, I changed it from “Orange Wedges” to “Orange Slices” because the word “wedges” just annoys me for some reason.

Miscellaneous:

Dempsey, playing at heights never achieved before by a US outfielder...

Nachodelicious!: US forward extraordinaire Clint Dempsey hails from tiny Nacogdoches, TX, a mere two-and-a-half hours north from Houston. Dempsey is likely to have quite an entourage at Reliant tomorrow. Couldn’t find anything official on Clint and Nacogdoches, but I did find that the urban dictionary actually labels a “Clint Dempsey Day.”

Timmy Terrific: Tim Howard is moving up the goalkeeper record charts, and with 35 wins he is third all-time and two behind Tony Meola. With 23 shutouts he is in fourth place, one behind Brad Friedel.

Why Start Now?:  The U.S. has never been eliminated at the semifinal stage of the Gold Cup by a CONCACAF opponent…

….However: The U.S. has made three appearances in Houston and has a 0-1-2 record, losing to Ecuador on June 10, 1988, in the first ever appearance there.

The two U.S. ties in Houston came against Mexico in friendly matches in 2003 (0-0 on May 8, 2003, and 2-2 on Feb. 6, 2008). Jozy Altidore and Oguchi Onyewu scored the goals in the 2008 appearance.

Blas Perez who?: Group stage terror and Panama striker Blas Perez is out this game after receiving a red card against El Salvador. However, his partner-in-crime-Luis Tejada’s three goals in the 2011 Gold Cup have made him Panama’s all-time leading scorer in the tournament with eight career goals. Perez is next with seven career Gold Cup goals, including one in the 2011 opener.

And this is of course….Panama!

Reset: TSG’s Official USA vs. Panama Preview

The States will likely have to do better than just a Goodson header--the lone tally in game one--to knock off Panama..

The United States heads into Wednesday night’s Gold Cup semifinal game with quite a bit of familiarity of their opponent, still brandishing the bruises of playing them in the group stage and now with the ability to hit the reset button on a FIFA game gone wrong.

The States foil for a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena this weekend to contend for the Gold Cup championship? That would be Panama of course, the lone pothole thus far on a meandering road to CONCACAF supremacy and a date with Confederation’s Cup in 2013.

Is Landon Donovan refreshed and ready to go vs. Panama this time? (Another phenomenal shot from Matt Mathai here)

Last time out, the United States were done in by a midfield that got stretched as Panama sat deep, played possum and waited for the States to get caught up the field on a change of possession and head the other way. Unfamiliar and always challenged on breaking down teams that play on the counter, the US attack got caught out of shape and lost the ball with with little quality opportunities in the early going.

Upon a turnover–with the ball at their feet on the turn and quick movement out of their own defensive end–Panama, near the triple digits in FIFA’s team rankings, consistently threatened the Yanks overstretched midfield and its relatively junior centerback pairing. A night to forget for Tim Ream specifically ensued.

This time out it will be fascinating to see how Bob Bradley changes things up as the euphoria around an excellent team outing–and a well coached victory–against Jamaic subsides.

Will Bradley employ the same or similar 4-2-3-1 that he did against Jamaica? Landon Donovan can’t possibly start on the bench again, can he? (Don’t expect that.)

For their part, Les Marea Roja enter the fray with less than confidence one would think from having beaten their opponent. A lengthy struggle in Sunday’s second game, led to extra time–not what weary legs need at this time of the Gold Cup–and to their dominant striker who challenged the US repeatedly, Blas Perez, receiving a red card. He is, of course, unavailable for this one.

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

About The Opponent: Panama

TSG, What We’re Looking For

11 At The Whistle

Disclaimers

About The Opponent: Panama

For more on Panama, see here as well.

The tried-and-true Panama 4-4-2....how they will likely deploy against the States...

Expect much the same for Panama in this one as they showed the Yanks in the first group stage meeting.

The starters all remain the same with the exception of Luis Renteria replacing Blas Perez in the starting line-up.

Coach Julio Dely Valdés must expect that Bob Bradley will be more careful with his forward wing deployment in this one and not have the same gaps that were provided to his team last time for the quick outside-inside counter.

Expect Panama to sit deep again again and let the States take it to them, both because it worked last time with their disciplined defense and also because coming off 120 minutes of up-and-down action Sunday,Dely Valdés will not want to see his team get into a foot race with a slightly fresher side.

Armando Cooper started making central runs when the Yanks pushed up the right flank in their 2nd half 4-2-3-1 last time. Expect more of that this time...

The small wrinkle–and the States saw some of it in the second half when Panama was looking to do anything to relieve pressure after the Yanks went 4-2-3-1–is that Panama will likely use right winger Armand0 Cooper--a one time target of MLS’s New York Red Bulls–on central runs both to provide an outlet from pressure and to create a numbers mismatch on the counter in the middle of the field.

Whereas Panama looked to go outside to link in the first half of the first match to Cooper and left wing Nelson Baronha–with the States employing a wider look–Dely Valdez will call on this tactic to try to create a mismatch centrally when the Yanks are pressed up.

Panama will also–as they did in Game 1–look to bring Luis Tejada back to hold up the ball and find the onrushing Cooper or Baronha overlapping wide or Luis Renteria splitting down the right flank.

TSG What Are We Looking For:

• With Jozy Altidore ailing, the decision on who starts up top is both critical and complex?

Quite a conundrum for Bob Bradley here. Quite a conundrum.

Wondo rues his missed sitter to tie in the group stage match against Panama...

With the US having but three true strikers on its depth chart and now likely down to two with Altidore ailing, who Bradley calls on out of the ‘pen and for how long they go are critical to the Yanks’ tournament success.

On form and talent, Juan Agudelo is probably the likely choice in a single striker set. That said, the youngster put in some challenging and thankless minutes Sunday by his lonesome at RFK. If Bradley goes Agudelo here in a single striker set, he’s certainly risking the effectiveness of a player that will be counted on against Mexico in the final if Altidore is unavailable.

The US could go with Chris Wondolowski and Juan Agudelo up top–however if the last game against Panama proved anything, it’s that a two striker set–given how deep Panama sits and little space there is to operate–is probably not a strong deployment.

And finally, the US could go with Chris Wondolowski by as its lone man up top. Allowing a fresh Wondolowski to absorb some of the punishment in the early going knowing that breaking down the Panama defense will stand a better chance as players tire may be a better option for Bradley.

•Will Bradley’s formation force Dempsey and Donovan to do countless shuttle runs?

One thing that Bob Bradley preaches is to “run as little as possible within the team concept on defense.”

What is meant by this, for example, is if the to strikers up top criss-cross one another, they remain on their respective sides or take up the nearest defensive position of the group. In this way, a team doesn’t get stretched and a player is cognizant of where he is on the field rather than rushing back to a position he’ll never get back to.

 

 

Continue reading

Video: Mens & Womens Going Off

Two vids for you. The first? Abby Wambach, not kicking any copiers. (Question: Couldn’t ESPN have used a different star here for a change? Maybe Heather O’Reilly or Alex Morgan? Just a thought.

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…and men’s…US Soccer’s Behind the Crest series.

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