Jurgen Klinsmann took the job of “Boss CONCACAF” in August of 2011 with the mantra of creating a US style and dictating play.
His first year at the helm was hell-bent on a few principles: (1) investigating the player pool, specifically players with technical acumen who had been deemed not sturdy enough, appropriately, for Bob Bradley’s previous run-and-gun system, (2) solve the defensive woes that often saw turnovers for the States land with a discourteous swoosh in the back of the Yanks’ net and (3) seek to possess the ball–to what end at first was unclear–for stretches of the game.
The plan bore out with the US halting its penchant to give up goals of the exposure and line-gapping ilk–tallies by Asomoah Gyan for Ghana, Carlos Costly in the same stadium as Sunday’s final for Honduras in a June 2009 qualifier and Gio Dos Santos in the 2011 Gold Cup game were the stereotypical concessions that correctly dogged the US defense.
But Klinsmann’s plan–whether intentional, unimportant at the time, or neither–also kneecapped the Yanks’ scoring ability as the US’s swashbuckling attack style was frowned upon because of the risks it placed on a stretched defense. With a challenge of unlocking an opponent’s defense that retrenched behind the ball, the US stumbled something awful in attack and possession, refusing to compromise defensive integrity by plan and unable to find pockets of narrow space and exploit them. Fans were rightfully alarmed.
The style–revisionist it seems not–came to a head in February of this year when the US looked discombobulated and disillusioned in a loss at Honduras. Its 3-man central midfield dominated by a 2-man central midfield. It’s reluctance to push the attack and reliance on using two gallivanting fullbacks for its sole width horribly incongruous to creating scoring opportunities. A more specific–but not any less critical technical point–was the weakness of requiring a central target striker in a 4-3-3 who would remain static further compounded by this not being the skillset of the strongest attackers in the pool.
Klinsmann and company took a leap of faith on a blustery night in Colorado–perhaps the environs of the game providing adequate cover to scrap a plan that was continually being forced on the team, like struggling to push a beanbag through a mail slot.
The US would move to more of a 4-2-2-2 set-up of yesteryear; it would vacate the 3-man central midfield using Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones again as the double-pivot. The move along with some ill-timed injuries would see CB Geoff Cameron forced to RB–not only because he was more qualified, but because it kept another defender tethered to the rearguard.
The US may have given up its 3-man central midfield, but they wouldn’t lose that extra defender outright–they would just task that RB with the “stay home” designation.
The rest of course if positive history for the US as a Belgium friendly loss became the lone blemish at the US cruised to its Gold Cup draught on Sunday night. (See what I did there.)
Sunday’s 1-0 win over Panama encapsulated all the building blocks of the past two years and the aggressive learnings of this year.
Early on in the Final, the US poked at the bear of a Panama defense knowing full well the bear of a counterattack that might rage out of hibernation, but the States did so with a set of ready-to-fire Winchesters cocked and loaded.
The US knew that Panama would sit back–what they didn’t want was to risk the wrath of a counter by trying to manufacture chances against the Canaleros in field locations that would leave them caught out.
Instead of an overlapping DaMarcus Beasley which has been the Act One script in many of these Gold Cup games, Eddie Johnson was used to help overload the flanks.
In this way, the US could leave two wide players–Corona and Beasley for example–behind the play or have the threat of them going forward at least occupy Panama’s dangerous wide midfielders.
The US was even more cautious.
Frequently–Kyle Beckerman specifically–the US would have the option to make a long square/switchfield pass to the right to the feet of an advancing Parkhurst. There’s a low probability of Parkhurst in possession beating his man off the dribble and flinging in crosses into the box is not a strategy that typically works against Panama. Those two notions and that the Canaleros most dangerous attacker on the dribble–Alberto Quintero–would be ready to pounce on anything errant sent cross court ruled that pass difficult-to-dangerous.
Beckerman and company elected to ignore what would normally be the right pass and keep on working Panama’s right rearguard eluding the problems that a Quintero-Parkhurst 1v1 battle would present.
(In fact–as shown below and warned by Rapids coach Wilmer Cabrera in our preview–the one time Quintero got the ball in space the US immediately sent help–with Ale Bedoya the bodyguard–to help Parkhurst in battle).
More Cabrera commentary for you: The Rapids assistant belabored that the US must stay patient and that they did all through the first half–taking their chances without committing numbers and overlording the flanks to work over Panama and keep their dangerous pinching-in midfielders from finding space.
It was a shame–tactically and emotionally–that Stu Holden had to be recused from the proceedings because what made the Holden selection spot-on was his speed and his ability to read the play and know when appropriate to come forward–Holden knocked on a shot early and was a dangerous conduit on two other occasions–and when to cover the backline.
The second half showed the US following the script it has after the halftime whistle throughout the majority of 2013.
The US seems to edit its plan in a three-fold way in the final 45′: (1) possessing the ball slightly deeper to see if the opponent can be drawn out–in used-car-salesman-land this is called “taking the bait” (2a) pushing their RCM higher–the passing charts for where Mix Diskerud was distributing first half vs. the second half is stark (see below), (2b) bringing on a true winger, hugging the touchline on their stronger foot–Brek Shea’s introduction on Sunday and (3) upping the tempo for stretches to create chances.
Now the opponent–as Panama was on Sunday–was spread–and their wide midfielders were toast after playing Cristiano against Barcelona defense on the flanks in the first half. With the tempo increased, US tightened its possession noose asphyxiating the last gasps of attack Panama had hoped to breath into the game.
The US–gosh, thanks against Coach Wilmer Cabrera for the prescient comments on Friday–stretched the field horizontally and while the States didn’t bust down the doors and go Price-is-Right on the scoreboard they did create a series of half-chances and chances and also left Panama woefully in a defensive disposition that they could not break from.
Beasley could now overlap, Diskerud could find space centrally and at worst the US was not going to concede and at best they’d knock-on and get their game winner.
It was a match that was a microcosm of the US’s team development over the course of 2013.
The States entered the year having solved most of their past defensive foes–through both system and personnel. (The States are still woeful on set pieces and the in-form Alvaro Saborio should give the Yanks some scares down San Jose way in the next World Cup Qualifier, but that’s a problem for another day.)
After February’s Honduran attacking malaise, Klinsmann and his staff came to grips that possession maintenance with thrusts of attacking gusto here and there was there best chance for balance–it’s led to the emergence of DaMarcus Beasley with his wide (non-US-central-defense-threatening) runs on the left and also increased the importance of Eddie Johnson, a player who if used appropriately and given a chance or two in space, seems to be coming through.
Sprinkle in–or rather–empty an entire potato sack of Landon Donovan into the mix pinging passes on those coordinated attack forays and balance that with the positional expertise, counter-busting and tempo-management of a Kyle Beckerman and you have your US Gold Final win, another foundational block for 2014 and, finally, an appropriate hybrid style for the States that appears to be taking shape.
Can the US get
results wins against top CONCACAF competition and other top-tier opponents with this schematic?
That questions still needs answers and the second half of 2013 bears watching.