The US U-23 squad took the field Monday night in Nashville with their proverbial backs to the wall.
They left with a valiant effort behind them, but their heads ultimately down.
Needing a win against El Salvador to advance out of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying group stage, the US players acted their age and put on an “immature performance” replete with wild momentum swings, a frenetic comeback and mental lapses at the worse moments to see their bid to play for a berth in Kansas City denied.
The US players will be airborne tomorrow, back to their clubs instead of Missouri (save Teal Bunbury of course.)
The crushing blow for the United States was as cruel as it was–objectively–deserved.
With the US holding serve in stoppage time, an errant pass by Brek Shea proved beyond costly as El Salvador gathered the turnover.
Now-villian Jamie Alas split two over-zealous defenders, cut across the grain in the center of the pitch to the left and fired a shot off Ike Opara and into what are typically Sean Johnson’s goal-retardant arms.
Only the ball did one of those squirmy things. Johnson met it a tad to late in flight and it short-hopped off the keeper’s snuff attempt looping into the goal tearing up the US boarding pass to London and ripping the heart out of his teammates on and off the pitch.
The story up to that point had been one of both resolve and uneven play.
After the US brandished a Terrence Boyd volley in the opening minute to seize the initiative in the match, El Salvador notched two goals two minutes apart late in the first as the US defense was playing at “tournament-level”–which was not very good for this crew this month.
Making matters worse, down 2-1, Caleb Porter had to call to his bench…for the aforementioned Johnson. Bill Hamid was injured–replays would show he probably should have been pulled before the second goal–and the US would have to use one of it’s sub rations in the wrong place, early in the match.
The second half began with El Salvador displaying one of their best traits, time management La Selecta put six players in their defensive third and went to the ground often under minimal contact to milk the clock. The US had other ideas though as Freddy Adu seized the match and told it what to do.
Adu played in Terrence Boyd to make it 2-2 and then moments hooked in a cross that Joe Corona “Dempsey’d” off his head to put the US, temporarily, on top.
however, as the US lost the initiative to go goal-seeking, their shape and discipline fell apart. Balls were hucked up the field and/or misplayed. Tackles were missed and assignments neglected.
The final sequence saw three errors in defense before the ball made its way to the Chicago Fire keeper and it made the US Olympic aspirations history. It was a microcosm of the tournament.
The U-23’s and its identity are/were in transition.
A team’s identity is one of those conceptual, glob-like thinks that’s hard to define. To use our most aggressive analogy to date on TSG, a team identity is similar to Potter Stewart’s threshold test for pornography. Stewart in the famous Supreme Court pornography cased defined it as, “I know it when I see it.”
Identity is a feeling or even a repetition of one or two things the team does well that forces the opponent to play reactivly instead of proactively.
It’s that last sentiment–one or two things done well–that the US desperately searched for in this match, but game up empty.
US fans “never knew it because they didn’t see it.”
That the US controlled possession all tourney is a good thing; however it’s tempered by the quality of the competition it faced and what it did with that possession. The US is in transition.
The US didn’t do enough things well and did enough things poorly–defensive integrity–that it had no positive identity. Sure Joe Corona, Brek Shea and Freddy Adu took over games from time to time, but nothing was established in a YOU-MUST-DEFEND-THIS way.
Coach Caleb Porter could even feel that in the Cuba game expressing displeasure at the way his team moved on the attack despite the scoreline.
At the most basic level, the US was caught in some half-formed state–that eventually made it irrelevant in this tournament despite building hope for the next.
The players didn’t and don’t have enough reps to grasp the nuances of Porter’s system. They were not collectively good enough for other teams to react to their formation. And when that broke they relied on the familiar–counter-attacking–which exposed a defense that was designed to play chase-and-retrieve not stand-and-defend.
Freddy Adu is best as an attacker–not as a captain….and that’s not a knock on him.
Did you ever think you’d see Freddy Adu compared to….Jack Jewsbury? You could consider these players totally different and you can consider Jewsbury the better for the captain *given the system (4-3-3) that both are/were deployed in.
Adu was the best offender on the pitch for the States in totality throughout this tournament. He “led” them back against El Salvador.
But captains on the field drive the tempo and play of their team and the armband both shackled Adu in the attack and almost uncomfortably channeled too much of that attack through him.
Players deferred to Adu.
One major problem.
Adu was deployed way out on the right flank where it was not always easy in the tournament to get him the ball. It wasn’t a coincidence that Adu’s best work was done when he came inside and found space–Monday night that was when Okugo played well behind him and gave him that space.
Adu needed someone and it was Okugo and Sakodie who got him going in half two in Nashville.
Contrast this to Jack Jewsbury who will never be mistaken for Adu of for even Diego Chara.
Jewsbury is centrally-rooted.
His role bears a responsibility to both the attack and the defense. It is Jewsbury who–through being a linking and distributing conduit–decides when to speed the attack, slow the attack and when to switch the field.
Consider the relationship between Jewsbury and Kalif Alhassan in Timberville.
It’s Jewbury who goads or slows Alhassan. It’s Jewbury who can push Alhassan to stay focused and keep pushing. Jewsbury very legitimately controls this relationship by choosing whether or not to pass to Alhassan and how and where to pass it to him.
It was a tactical error by Porter to give Adu the armband and to insist he played wide. It compromised the attack. The proof is in the data that Adu was a whirling dervish when he came centrally and dominated the ball.
That Adu tends to ebb and flow over as a player over the course of the match only magnified the mistake. Perhaps it was Mix Diskerud who could have or should have tugged on the armband?
• Before you judge Ike Opara and Perry Kitchen in central defense, ask yourself this: Just how challenged has the senior team’s centerbacks looked under Jurgen Klinsmann.
As a whole the United States has played better defense under the German at the top level, but US fans have born witness to some highly tense 1-v-1 moments against the likes of Goodson, Bocanegra, Orozco-Fiscal and more.
The US pressing style puts more pressure on the centerbacks. Neither Kitchen (by position and formation) or Opara (by formation and team defensive disposition) are schooled in playing in a system that forces then to choose their line in nanoseconds and make player marking calls on-the-fly.
It showed and was not accounted for by Porter, especially with two novice-by-definition keepers in the back.
• If the central defense was an eye sore, the same cannot be said when looking at the forwards in aggregate. Juan Agudelo looked spry and in control in his single runout and the team stumbled to check to a forward against Canada without him. Agudelo was the youngest player on the squad.
Post-injury, the future remains bright.
Terrence “The Body” Boyd was everything you could ask in a fulcrum forward on Monday night. Boyd dutifully chased on defense and consistently made himself available coming back for an outlet or going forward. Up the depth charts.
The US found some striker depth to work from during the tournament. (Note: Teal Bunbury needs to work on his hold-up and distribution game before getting another call.)
• Okay, let’s finish up with some Twitter True-or-False
@iliketuesday: “Brek Shea just doesn’t do enough, even at this level.”
FALSE: Shea surely should have done more, but take a look at many of the plays he was involved in. Shea was consistently double-teamed or at least encounter a marker with a shadow lurking. Continually Shea was played into positions–through formation and midfield passing–without a shot to create an opportunity.
This tweet pairs with….
» @pckilgore: “Formations aren’t absolutely good or bad, but situationally good or bad. This situation screams 4-4-2.”
TRUE: The US attempted to dictate play through flank work, possession and pressure. Both Canada and El Salvador countered with defensive resolved and out-numbered the States in the central pitch. With Porter’s crew unable to grab how to break down the opposing defenses outwide, a tactical change–to any formation that created more interplay in the center of the pitch–was vital, was necessary.
It didn’t happen and the States were worse for it.
@shinguardian: Sean Johnson can deliver babies with those hands. Fact.”
TRUE: Dude, that Twitter account is a JINX!
Sean Johnson is perhaps the most even-keeled youth player we’ve ever spoken to at TSG. The Fire man will “bounce” back. A terrible gaffe, but many comment on “missed sitters” or “howlers”–Johnson’s save should have been made, but it was not a simple, automatic one.
The US should be commended for attempting to dictate tempo in this tournament. Some of the attack was scintillating at times. That said, if you are going to state that your goal is to play in the Olympics and you face Cuba, Canada and El Salvador at home in group play of the qualifying tournament, you need to advance.
But should anything be changed or amended to the program, coaching staff or players because of this? That question takes more time.