So if the US beats Ghana in the Round of 16 at World Cup 2014 will the end justify the means?
The US players walked off the field on Tuesday night in Red Bull Arena with the fat kid on the other side of the see-saw as US manager Jurgen Klinsmann saw his match record drop, while the US dropped a 1-0 decision to Ecuador. Two goals for through five matches, four goals conceded. One win.
Ask yourself this question–an unfair one perhaps to the last manager–would you rather see Tuesday’s performance against Ecuador where the US dominated possession and statistically measured out far ahead of their opponent or would you rather see a draw against mighty Argentina with forward long balls raining down like misguided tailgate footballs?
There is no right answer and that really is an unfair question really as former manager Bob Bradley was never given carte blanche to reform the program while that is the edict–one of many success metrics that are unknown–of the new manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
If the perspective is taken that it is still a year away from World Cup qualifying then this was a positive performance.
This was a difficult match to review, but a succinct one to pick out some of the positive and negatives.
• The US defense came through with strong marks. Yes, Ecuador treated opportunities on goal like jelly beans at Easter. Yes, Tim Ream made a rookie mistake and was embarrassingly beaten for a header that should have never happened. [Hey Tim, mistakes happen, but when you thrust your arms down to the side and act like a kid who just had his baseball cards stolen, it doesn't scream "future leader."]
However, beyond that, the US was stout. Oguchi Onyewu ran with forwards and covered when Steve Cherundolo lacked some pace. Carlos Bocanegra played clean-up on the scraps that somehow got passed Timmy Chandler. It may not have been the strongest effort from Bocanegra, but the US backline was more cohesive and working in unison. If blame is shouldered by captain when the defense is disorganized, then credit must come on the reverse.
All-stop! Tim Chandler, only received one sheet of gloss.
Take a step back and realize the Timmy Chandler has contained Antonio Valencia and Eden Hazard over the past month plus for the States–on the inverse flank nonetheless! That’s special–whether you’re playing in Red Bull Arena or the Red Bull Arena parking lot.
On the right flank, Steve Cherundolo was challenged at times, but once again was flawless in his mental focus. Cherundolo is older and has been off-form and he like Bocanegra will give way to youth shortly, but consider this. “If you’re trying to learn to build possession an offense from the back, do you really want a leaky defense compromising that?”
• Cries that Brek Shea should be converting more opportunities or still has ways to go are bunk.
Shea is a player developing right now. It’s exciting to watch. What’s perhaps more exciting is how Shea is reading the game, understanding when to attack and when to create width. It was no coincidence that after an initial look-off early from Clint Dempsey in the left corner, that the Fulham veteran started playing more and more balls to the active Dallas winger.
Shea’s impact was missed in the second half as DaMarcus Beasley arrived on the scene thinking he was a central midfielder thought he was tracking back like he was Frankie Hedjuk on speed. Sorry about that digression.
• Holding the pattern
32 of 40 passing for Kyle Beckerman who was precise in his positioning. Beckerman didn’t miss a tackle all night and only had three giveaways in his own half, all under duress.
The sentiment on Beckerman doesn’t seem to be shared by many and fans will lament a poorly placed pass set to go to Clint Dempsey in the 2nd half, but Beckerman continually made himself available in the right locations when his counterparts did not.
• Jozy Altidore, doing what a target striker is supposed to do. Because Altidore made himself available, Dempsey was allowed to find the match repeatedly in the 1st half. Inconsistency continues to dote on Altidore, but last night may have been his best performance in a US shirt since…since….anyone?
• The US offball movement once Shea and Altidore left was an abomination. As Dempsey started to get denied the ball, Beckerman slowed down and Beasley went walkbout and walkout, the US offense turned into a colloidal mess in the attacking half.
Part of that can be attributable to Klinsmann moving to a two center midfield set in the midfield in the 2nd half.
With Beckerman–who took his pitstops on the attack–and Bradley revolving around a central fulcrum rather than one playing in front of the other, only DaMarcus Beasley seemed to be the linking option to higher up on the pitch. Remember when your soccer ball got run over by car when it caromed into the street that one time? That was Beasley driving that car.
Juan Agudelo came back, but all too often looked like a young player trying to figure out the offense in prime time. Wait, that’s exactly what he is.
Agudelo’s passing was off and he didn’t create the vertical spacing needed to open up the midfield.
• The “other” central midfielder: The US central midfield spot opposite Beckerman’s holding role seems to be trouble spot right now. Maurice Edu was all over in the first half. Perhaps it was by design but all too often Danny Williams and Steve Cherundolo found themselves in a two-man game on the right flank in the first half.
Finally by the end of the first, Beckerman took the initiative to come up and provide an outlet. Perhaps Edu was tasked with remaining upfield, but he didn’t look comfortable in that role either.
As for Michael Bradley, it’s going to take some time to essentially reform the player who was once considered “core” and employed as the primary ball handler to more of a complementary role at least for now. This is the main reason why Bradley is a reliever right now.
That said, Bradley’s improvement from Saturday to Tuesday was noticeable.
The Chievo man’s free kicks were solid–in fact his second spot up bender from the left hash in the second half may be the best free kick the US went to put a head on this year.
Next, he moved off the ball more and made runs. Third he looked up the field more in possession; not enough, but more.
On defense, Bradley still took some wrong angles (you get the sense that Klinsmann favors positioning and containment). On the attack, Bradley had those moments of reverting to his former Tom Brady role–dropping extremely deep to pick up the ball or playing the safe pass when the US were down and Klinsmann was clearly urging the States to take chances.
In Klinsmann’s system, Bradley is a work in progress, but it’s nearly all mental–with the exception of needing to move quicker in possession–and if Bradley can inhabit that role with the right mindset and focus the States will be better for it and he’ll easily notch his way up to the top of the depth chart again.
• Tactics: Hard to call this a negative because only Klinsmann and perhaps Sunil Gulati know the success metrics, but Klinsmann’s tactics were off in this one. If this were a critical tournament game, he should be held accountable.
The first half saw the selection of Edu in the second central midfielder role. Klinsmann pushed him so far up the pitch that Williams and Cherundolo were often left to fend for themselves on that flank. In the second, employing Beasley as an internal playmaker has never worked for any manager on any club.
Klinsmann’s insertions of Bradley and Beckerman as rotating point guards and Agudelo and Edson Buddle as target man up, and even down, the pitch did little to free up Dempsey who had to be relied on to be the lone creative force after Shea and Altidore departed.
And finally had this been a proper game, the States would have been
The US looked solid defensively for the most part on Tuesday with little true opportunities by Ecuador. Their positioning was better. Yet their attack was continually thwarted in the offensive third.
Another possible rendezvous with Ghana at the Cup is far away.
And quick aside:
Anyone catch that moment in the first half when Danny Williams played a ball from the deep central midfield back to Tim Howard; only he put it on Howard’s left foot.
Howard took a heavy touch and just got it away before the onrushing Ecuadorian player could deflect it.
The cameras cut a half-frustrated, half-grinning Howard pointing to Williams to the put the ball on his right foot. Great image.