Scruff of the neck stuff it was not. Nor was it Algeria. Cathartic for Eddie Johnson; anything but for the nation he represented.
The United States is going through the reps in Kansas City today, preparing for the final game of this World Cup qualifying series….and that work is perhaps just a tad less intense following Eddie Johnson’s late game winner on a saturated pitch in Antigua & Barbuda Friday. US fans exhaled, the States suctioned themselves to the top of their CONCACAF group qualifying table.
Let’s begin at Sticky Wickets in Antigua & Barbuda.
The USMNT is out of whack. In short it’s some sort of a makeover-in-progress–one that likely spans more than this cycle.
The USMNT struggled mightily to earn quality chances on goal Friday while its improved defense under Jurgen Klinsmann faltered and was just as much an eyesore.
The US managed just a single shot on goal while the Benna Boys looked downright El Salvador-like in making fans sweat out a victory on the road. While El Salvador-like? Because they always make the States work for it, but typically come up short.
How out of whack is the US or was the US in this one?
» A mid-30-year-old veteran was asked to move to a position he hadn’t played in over two years–a positioned that demanded speed and fitness and whose foil merely superior speed, not skill, of the opponent.
TSG told you in the preview it would be a poor move and it turned out to be as Carlos Bocanegra was often unsure whether to be tethered in parallel to the central defenders or take up an advanced position. It was Bocanegra who made the turnover that resulted in A&B’s lone goal. (Mind you, this was the same position and opponent who the US played at home in June and the manager proclaimed that “anyone could play leftback.” He then penciled in Jose Francisco Torres much to the detriment of the Primerican’s ankle.)
» The renaissance forward brought in from the Pacific Northwest–the one that feasted on crosses and lead passes–was tasked with playing left midfielder in a 4-4-1-1. Now, the role did allow Eddie Johnson to float in on the back post for good angles and chances, but it also saw him drop deep–too deep–and fail to create, turnover the ball or worse compromise space for his buddy Clint Dempsey. Also, it didn’t help that his cover over leftback wasn’t the strongest.
» A central defender who was last seen being subbed out against Guatemala due to quality of play was re-inserted into the line-up, even though his club form has been wanting all season and another player who was heralded as a potential central defender (Maurice Edu) remained on the bench. Not that Edu deserved a start here, but he also did pair somewhat effectively with Cameron against Mexico six weeks ago.
Sadly, there’s more.
The US started out the game with Michael Bradley on the ball. That notion is fine, but launching diagonal balls into the opponent’s right rearguard as a first order of attack before even trying to breakdown the opponent with less risky passes is not.
Let’s stick with Michael Bradley here–because again as the TSG preview cited–Bradley would be needed/required/essential to the US threading any passes through a buckled-up back eight for the Benna Boys.
Bradley got on the ball and he was excellent in the conditions; a shine to his game that no other player possessed on the field.
However, as the Benna Boys retreated Bradley found himself unchallenged in possession and thus Danny Williams became an innocence bystander in a tactical mess as sloppy as the field itself. Williams was caught; surplus requirements to manning the CDM space that Bradley had free movement in, conflicted in going forward and joining the attack from the #6 position.
TSG had that one in the preview too. (Klinsmann-Velasquez appeared to realize this gaffe by inserting Jermaine Jones just after halftime.)
More broadly, the US players seem at odds with themselves on the field, unsure whether to push the tempo or maintain possession.
The States–as had been known under American coaches Arena and Bradley for the past decade–have been temporarily castrated.
The fitness superiority and counter-attacking ability that were hallmarks of the past generation have been gashed from the attack by Klinsmann in favor of driving at a more balanced team that can morph based upon both personnel and tactical tweaks based upon its opponents strengths and weaknesses.
It’s an ambitious goal and Klinsmann–in name, prestige, German-ness–may have been the only one that could do it, but the drive towards that goal–much like the US attack–is like riding in a pick-up on a gravel and rock-laden road. Oh, you’ll make it to the end of the road, but the journey will be uncomfortable and it will be bumps-and-bruises galore.
The US hasn’t mastered it’s possession game and it has gotten rusty on the counter.
Don’t worry folks, we’re entering even ground here before the next climb. Take a breather and grab a sit-upon.
Friday’s game wasn’t a rude awakening, nor was it a warning. It was status quo for an era and coach who are trying coax victories, by inspiration or trial-and-error, out of revolving pieces.
C’mon fans, you’re no stranger to this. Just the expectations.
Without further Freddy Adu, let’s get to our TSG preview. It goes:
TSG What Are We Looking For
11 At The Whistle
TSG What Are We Looking For
• Why Alan Gordon of course!
You knew it the moment the roster was announced. As certain as Jermaine Jones’s voluminous and distinguished yellow card collection.
The US battled for the first 30 minutes on the road in Guatemala a few months back trying desperately to use Herculez Gomez with his back to the basket to hold up the ball.
The US found no joy and, as the 65th minute dawned, Jozy Altidore was inserted into one of his more regrettable performances of the 2012 campaign to take over the banging on Guatemala’s central defenders. Altidore ended up looking for fouls and looking plain unfocused.
The US desperately needed someone to hold-up the ball instead of racing up and down with a Guatemala team that could at times have been mistaken for Argentina with its upfield pressure. Yes, it was that good–a tribute to their coach Hugo Almeida.
Enter Alan Gordon–a player whose first call-up brought questions and whose second call-up brought proof. Terrence Boyd isn’t there yet and Altidore may never excel in the role. Gordon is the target man–for now.
Bruce Arena had Brian McBride. Bob Bradley, Brian Ching–who probably would have made the 2010 World Cup roster if not for his balky hamstring. (Ching turned over into Edson Buddle who was first on Jurgen Klinsmann’s list when he started).
Klinsmann tried Buddle early on and that led to quick bat of the eye at Teal Bunbury and next extending a stepladder to Terrence Boyd’s senior campaign, still a work in progress.
When you watch Gordon up top, you can’t help but notice how dedicated he is to his trade and role–almost like a boxer who knows that he’s trying to win a 12-round decision by punching to the body rather than cocking a haymaker and going for the knockout to the head.
Gordon is physical.
He is big.
His elbows puncture defenders’ ribs like that boxer; ask any MLS central defender about his
He works defenders knowing that it may not be the first ball played to him or maybe the fifth or the 10th, but at some point his defender is going to either foul him–a relief cry from the constant barrage–or make a mistake. (Good observation on Gordon? June at Buck Shaw Stadium as Gordon’s Quakes faced off against Real Salt Lake. Jamison Olave, no defensive slouch, was worked over by Gordon, leaving Olave securing a yellow, griping at the refs and soundly beaten on the day. Pride department as well as scoreline.)
Now the question is: Can the big man stay healthy and can he play at international soccer speed?
Guatemala will give us another peek at Gordon. If Los Chapines sit, then Gordon will be used to wreak havoc in the box for a trailing attacker. If they push up the field then Gordon will attempt to go Olave on Guatemala’s second-string central defenders. (Los Chapines first-stringers are out on account of injury or match-fixing scandal–ah Central American football.)
• And what of Clint Dempsey
Perhaps no player may, may, benefit more than Clint Dempsey from the addition of Gordon. Dempsey has sputtered as a trequartista, lacking the passing acumen and disposition necessary to exploit the role.
Something has to give, because with a US attack that likes to compress its midfield and use its fullbacks for width, Dempsey is physically being squeezed out of space making his job as a withdrawn forward/attacking midfielder that much harder.
Look for Dempsey to get more space Tuesday as the width of the pitch and likely an edict to Eddie Johnson to stay high and wide (“the Brek Shea role”) will likely be handed down.
• Less than 30 games left, time to settle…
Amazing to think that World Cup 2014 is less than two years away, a shade over 600 days to be precise.
The States–friendlies and presumably qualifiers–have a little more than two dozen games left until that time.
It sure is looking like Steve Cherundolo is fixing to be Brazil’s Giovanni van Bronckhorst; GvB was the oldest starting fullback in South Africa 2010.
Centrally, Geoff Cameron has a bead on one spot, but the other? Bocanegra at 35-years-old come ’14 seemed like a stretch a few months ago, but no clear challenger has emergend. Leftback incredulously perhaps seems to the be the lone somewhat settled position as a healthy Fabian Johnson backed up by the improving Edgar Castillo seems to be commanding the depth chart.
Yet another observation against a tricky Guatemala side featuring thoroughbred Marco Pappa and wiley attack jockey Carlos Ruiz.
» Graham Zusi was percolating on the field on Friday, zigging in crosses and corners packing some heat. If he knocks long-distance on Tuesday or dazzles in another way, the crowd is going to go off the rails with applause. Good stuff for another one of Peter Vermes’s diamond finds.
» Had the US won or drawn in Jamaica a month ago, this could have been the game to get Brad Guzan an international rep that he hasn’t seen under Klinsmann. No can happens now.
» This publication has been harsh on Michael Bradley from time-to-time, but it’s clear to see that Bradley right now is perhaps playing the best true midfield of any player that’s ever worn the shirt, including Ricky Davis, Tab and Reyna. You want to know why Klinsmann and Bradley wanted players to go abroad and play? Speed of game. Bradley is playing perhaps on the most frenetic team in Serie A and his ability to cope and decision-make at pace is having a calming impact on the team.
11 At The Whistle
You won’t see Bocanegra at leftback this time, will you? Les Chapines are not quite as fast, but they bring a better concoction of speed, attacking verve and finishing than the Benna Boys
And Jermaine Jones will be in a collared sheet and not allowed to tackle anyone. Fabian Johnson has been ruled out.
Guatemala will bring their customary 3-5-2 with their two wingbacks making it a 5-3-2 if they go up a goal or are being extra conservative. While Los Chapines initiative is that of the States, that is, “get the hell out of here with at least a draw,” they also don’t possess the disciplined ability to move the ball in circles against what will be a strong US defense.
So up-and-downs will occur, although not with the same frequency they did in Estadio Nacional Mateo Flores back in June.
A study of the line-up above shows Danny Williams in the same role near Mike Bradley that he wasn’t successful in down in the islands.
How come? The difference here is threefold: (a) The LIVESTRONG–why are you screaming at me?!–field is wider and bigger, (b) Eddie Johnson will inevitably be pushed a little higher into that space and (c) Williams can slot out left–maybe he even starts there–and provide cover for the next Johnny Leftback. Someone tell Heath Pearce to get off the assembly line for his bow ties and make a guest appearance in a tuxedo suit of another kind.
Clint Dempsey should find room and Graham Zusi and Steve Cherundolo should combine better on the right.
Carlos Bocanegra slots back inside to help Geoff Cameron manage the veteran Carlos Ruiz whose scoring
more than nearly as much as Ryan Gosling these days.
Oh, and raise your hands if you had a pairing of Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson as the USMNT’s starting forwards in a World Cup qualifier back when bets were taken in January. Hello? Anyone?