Fire up the hyperbole machines! USA v. Mexico
It’s El Tri v. The Yanks in the only spot it should be, Columbus Ohio.
Pre-game starting shortly.
If you missed the preview, hurry, catch up quickly.
Fire up the hyperbole machines! USA v. Mexico
It’s El Tri v. The Yanks in the only spot it should be, Columbus Ohio.
Pre-game starting shortly.
If you missed the preview, hurry, catch up quickly.
Let’s this out of the way. TSG has been authoring in-depth USMNT previews since 2010. The least confidence in this one.
The drama has returned to CONCACAF. The Hex, vexing.
Torrential downpours blanketed North and Central American CONCACAF games this past Friday somewhat fitting as the World Cup hopes for a few nations were left in muddy waters.
The United States and Mexico square off Tuesday in the most proper of places, Crew Stadium in Columbus–an arena rich in history, lore and symbolism for the States. The cries of Dos-A-Cero echo across American soccer media today as Columbus has been home to three 2-0 beatdowns of the Mexicans. The most recent, February 2009 in the front end of the Hex cycle series, saw Michael Bradley sling the team over his shoulder and erect a brace to carry the day.
Michael Bradley and Tim Howard shine for the USA in Columbus in a 2-0 win in February 2009
The States, of course, enter this game without Bradley–the Roma midfielder grotesquely rolling his ankle on the turf in San Jose. He’s been officially ruled out as have John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and Jozy Altidore. Brooks due to a club team callback and the rest due to yellow card accumulation.
It some ways the string of unavailable names will resemble the US’s trip to the Azteca in March, but that’s where the comparisons end.
This is a US home game, a match-up where the US holds a gaudy 23-0-1 home record. This is not a game for survival by attrition or eking out goals. These are statement games. And the pomp and circumstance–supporters groups, ESPN coverage and more–suggests that statement will be cheered and broadcast loudly.
But the States have a vexing problem on their hands.
The US’s does not want to get into an up-and-down game with El Tri, a team whose counterattack is as good and as pretty as any in the world.
When El Tri is steaming up the pitch, with interlaced off-ball runs that look like they’re being cut by a symphony conductor, they downright savage their opponent. The rushes come furiously and without warning–not unlike how MLS’s LA Galaxy play–and the US knows all too well what happens when they are not answered with an appropriate response.
In the 2009 Gold Cup, Mexico amassed “A” level talent in the final game, inserted a rested and motivated Carlos Vela after the break and rode he and Dos Santos to Cinco-a-cero victory.
In 2011, an early 2-0 scoreline by the Yanks backed El Tri up against the wall. El Tri sprung a response a little Bruce Lee like. Some unfortunate events–Clint Dempsey banging on the crossbar from distance–and the US fell 4-2.
So the States’ must possess the ball without fail Tuesday–a task that seemed more than plausible 45 minutes before kickoff last Friday. Now though, that task becomes a challenge with two of the US’s best deep ball handlers–Bradley and Matt Besler out and no Jozy Altidore to showcase his newfound target man game.
But, if you think the States have a difficult road to hoe on Tuesday than Mexico is up a Mississippi River-sized sh*t’s creek.
El Tri finally scored at home in 2013 in their World Cup qualifier Friday, a fifth minute goal a relief more than statement of intent. Whatever goodwill that created in the stands or faux confidence it built on the field, flooded out the door when their opponent Honduras answered with two in the second half to knock the Mexicans out cold on their home turf.
Just another Friday in a hectic CONCACAF qualifier date.
Mexico currently sit on eight points in the Hex and in fourth place.
Given their track record in the US and Panama potentially salvaging a point in Honduras, the green and red could find themselves tied with the Canaleros heading into a match-up with Blas Perez and company at home with a direct route to Brazil on the line. (The fourth place team in CONCACAF this year heads to New Zealand with the victor in a home-and-away series making Brazil.)
El Tri has a lifeline today though. They’re up that creek, but they’ve discarded an old ineffective paddle and brought in a new one, a potentially World Cup life-saving one.
Fernando Tena–who rescued El Tri back in 1991 after an awful Gold Cup, is in and Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre now chucked overboard.
It’s an immediate addition by subtraction; heck even Jim Rome as a replacement would likely see a better effort from El Tri Tuesday than if Chepo remained on the deck.
Mexico. Columbus. The Hex. This is one of those games fans remember and recount every four year cycle.
Can the States pave the way to victory Tuesday?
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview. It goes:
About The Opponent: Mexico
TSG What We’re Looking For
Keys To the Game for the Americans
11 At The Whistle
About The Opponent: Mexico
Whoa boy, a murky image Mexico presents itself as heading into this away qualifier.
Chepo out; it’s now a Fernandino Tena world. Logically that move is the first place to look for how Mexico will look to claw their way to at least a point in Ohio. What bag of tricks will a new manager spill out of the bag? Is there even enough time to make changes?
The key here may be from Tena’s words himself early Saturday after Chepo’s dismissal:
“El equipo mejorará de acuerdo a actuaciones de partidos anteriores, no podemos en tres días hacer grandes cambios ni creo que tengamos que hacerlos, tenemos una forma de pensar sobre la forma en que debe jugar esta selección.”
Paraphrased in English: “The team will improve performances to their previous games. In three days though we can not make major changes or nor think we need them. We have a way of thinking about how to play this selection.”
If you look at Tena’s recent track record–his run through the Olympic gauntlet with Mexico U-23′s team–and you look at the method that El Tri has used to put the hurt on the US in the last few matches, you arrive at two simple adjustments that may come on Tuesday:
» Improve the defense by making it more compact and defending a shade higher.
» Attempt to disorganize the US backline through counters and offball movement.
Addressing the defense first, El Tri had been downright non-fundamental under Chepo.
Sure El Tri’s defense has shipped less goals, four, in the Hex than any other team. (Note, they’re tied with Costa Rica for the lead.)
However, if you take a look at those performances, absolute sitters by Jobi McAnuff (for Jamaica in February), Joel Campbell (for Costa Rica in June..off the post) and Jerry Bengston (Friday for Honduras) should see that number unquestionably moved up by three.
There are further observations. A review of the 30′ to 36′ against Honduras last week showed a shocking oleo of defensive gaffes than went unpunished, from tracking runners, poor closeout angles, poor fouls and poor positioning. It was just a few months ago that Mexico was being talked about as being a favorite at the 2014 World Cup!
In interim manager Tena, Mexico has the right guy for the short-term–a pragmatic tactician who will demand El Tri’s defensive lines move in lockstep and who will likely elect to draw the line of confrontation against the Americans somewhere between the top-of-the-attacking third and the halfline. Improvement numero uno.
In attack, El Tri has lately been as dynamic and predictably poor as the NY Jets offense … hey wait a second.
No need to look further than the US’s gut-it-out draw in March. In that one, Mexico kept trying the same combinations over-and-over-and-over again–even with few signs of success. The pattern when Gio Dos Santos incut, Dos Santos incut, Chicharito over the top, Dos Santos Incut, Pablo Barrera round the corner, Dos Santos incut, Chicharito over the top, Barrera around the corner, Dos Santos…incut.
The bet here is that El Tri adjusts by coming out in a similar 4-2-2-2/4-3-3 that they used at home against Jamaica in the first final round qualifier, February 2013 (a 0-0 draw). They’ll look to push a bit further up the field to confront the Americans hoping to take pressure off their weak backline. And they’ll look to get out and run at the right times. They’ll still use the Dos Santos incut, but they won’t beat on it mercilessly if it’s unsuccessful.
Tena will likely employ Hernandez up top with Oribe Peralta in a non-traditional striker pairing. Hernandez may not have scored in the last three games he played against the Yanks (March 2013, August 2012, June 2011), but he causes the US backline fits in popping up like that annoying card in Classic Concentration.
Peralta is a Tena favorite having excelled under him at the London games last year. It’s hard pressed to see Tena leaving either on the bench when the whistle blows.
Gio Dos Santos will once again start wide right and look to incut seeking to find the movement off Hernandez and Peralta ahead.
Whereas in March, Dos Santos was expected to exclusively incut from the right–and continually failed (Preview – March 2013 – The Dos Santos Incut Option), the past two games has seen Dos Santos float more as he did against the American in Pasadena at that Gold Cup Final (Preview – July 2011 – The Dos Santos Swivel).
Dos Santos is absolutely vital to the Mexican attacking cause and much more so when coming in a la Ruiz, al Messi from the right.
Honduras so respected Dos Santos on Friday that they had Roger Espinoza–their best defender–man mark Dos Santos whenever he was on Mexico’s right flank.
Andres Guardado, in and out of form and favor this year and now playing leftback for Valencia in La Liga, likely comes in for Christian Gimenez on the left. Somehow, it says here, Chucho Gimenez whether he finds his way to a starting role or not, will factor in this game; he was one of the few El Tri midfielders actively moving offball and looking spritely on Friday.
Behind the front attacking four is where Mexico has some serious personnel challenges and should call in Cruz Azul’s Alejandro Castro before Tuesday.
Gerarado Torrado picked up a second yellow Friday and that is nothing short of a massive loss for El Tri. Torrado did the dirty work in central midfield, often protecting the central defense with a Mexican team that was rather ambivalent manning up Honduras.
Further, Torrado was Mexico’s Paul Scholes, continually dropping deep to receive passes and shuttling from left to right to make sure that Mexico always had his capable handling skills available to outlet.
The current thinking is that out-of-favor Jesus Zavala–recently lauded as a golden child of the Mexico midfield–deputizes. He had a solid game versus the Americans in March. Former Pachuca-now-Porto man, 22-year-old Hector Herrera will likely pair Zavala.
El Tri’s back four leave much to be desired defensively. Servero Meza at rightback is an accident waiting to happen every match–sometimes he skirts through, but often times he doesn’t. Worse, the book on Meza hasn’t changed–he’ll fall asleep at least once each game on an opposite field, far post run. Count. on. that.
At leftback is Carlos Salcido whose play has drawn the ire of the Mexican fans lately, but who looks reasonably sound by these eyes.
Salcido always has a few adventures defending, but he can be effective if El Tri uses him more in the attack. (Note: Freddy Adu should send half the money he made from the Union to Salcido, who was nursing an injury and got worked over by Adu at the 2011 Gold Cup.)
There is a very good chance, however, that Herrera in central midfield gives way to Salcido who paired Zavala there against the Yanks in March. If that’s the case then Jose Torres Nilo will deputize at leftback. That sound you heard was a collective groan south of El Paso.
At centerback the pairing will be the veteran Hector Moreno and the youngster Diego Reyes. Their positioning is not immediately strong and Reyes particularly can blow hot and cold–normal for a CB will few high pressure reps.
Joe Corona is the young keeper who shined in London last summer–unfortunately he’s been off form lately with fans and media clamoring for the bandana of Ochoa.
Mexico again will look to remain compact and sit their defense at the top of the attacking third. They’ll look for Chicharito testing the backline once the Americans have come up the field or Dos Santos finding pockets where Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones should roam in central midfield.
One they hit to the center of the US defensive body, El Tri will work the sides, especially with Guardada–a chance here that Angel Reyna is the call–looking to take on whoever the US rightback is. It has been Guardado’s creation responsible for many of the crosses that have found Chicharito with good chances.
TSG What We’re Looking For:
• Backline Lockstep
Major bulletpoint here; short, curt commentary.
Mexico 4 – USA 2
Mexico 5 – USA 0
The US got slaughtered in its two latest Gold Cup Finals for one reason and one reason alone–backline organization along with the deep CDM counterpart.
In that 2011 Final, Little Pea and Dos Santos wrecked
havoc sh*t on a US backline that looked like it had been cut with pinking shears.
In March at the Azteca, the US solved those woes, specifically the movement of Dos Santos.
Maurice Edu, Matt Besler and DeMarcus Beasley combined for 16 recoveries, 8 interceptions and 4 tackles won all in the vicinity of Dos Santos’s inward movement. Conversely, Dos Santos did not complete one incising pass or have a good shot all game.
With the absence of Michael Bradley, one would expect Kyle Beckerman to sit deep in the left central midfield channel, taking away that space and movement from Dos Santos. (Note: Mexico will probably flip Dos Santos over to the left a few times just to see if his one-v-one play can at least create one or two chances off the dribble).
What’s key for the US without Edu and Besler this time around is not only Beckerman’s positioning–expected to be solid–but also the positioning of the US left centerback in when to step forward. Besler in his first game under intense pressure in March was nothing short of masterful here. The US left centerback, be it Clay Goodson or Michael Orozco-Fiscal, will need to attempt to read the game effectively.
Progressively–because you can expect breakdowns with new parts–both Jermaine Jones and Omar Gonzalez will need to stand ready for layoffs or to close down if either Beckerman of the “US LCB” get beaten. Gonzalez is particularly quite good at this.
• Please Check-In For Your Flight.
Landon Donovan could not have returned sooner for the US. Though shut down on Friday in Costa Rica–the Ticos did a tremendous job of running defenders at him when the US was attempting outlet on the right in the beginning of the match–Donovan’s movement in picking up balls in the seams of the Mexican defense must have Tena worried for his central midfield pairing.
Whether it’s against a high line–the Charlie Davies assist in 2009–or against a withdrawn line–the Clint Dempsey assist at the 2011 Gold Cup final–Donovan should be able to find some joy on the pass or the dribble.
How much freedom that Klinsmann
gives can afford Donovan will be critical to Donovan poking at the El Tri defense.
Keys To the Game for the US:
» Defense: Mark Dos Santos out of the game, especially when he’s on the right.
This goes to Beckerman and Beasley primarily.
» Defense: Do not allow Peralta to set up shop centrally.
If Peralta plays he’s very good at turning and getting his own shot, usually to the left, but also dishing. The Americans cannot give him time on the ball centrally–goes without saying.
» Defense: Control the tempo of the game
Even with a weakened midfield corp, the American should be able to possess the ball at home. This is vital so that the game does not become vertical ping pong and present better chances for Mexico.
“If you kill the head, the body will die.”
With Michael Bradley pine-bound with an ice wrap on an ankle injured just moments before the game, the US took the field in San Jose, Costa Rica Friday in a somewhat traditional 4-4-2 with Geoff Cameron deputizing for the Roma man in central midfield.
Jozy Altidore was either not ready or held out, Landon Donovan entered and paired Clint Dempsey up top. Another change was Michael Orozco Fiscal at right fullback. The Fiscal plays rightback for his club, but has been almost exclusively featured as a centerback when in a US shirt.
Costa Rica came out in an extremely aggressive formation.
The Ticos deployed in a 3-4-3. The Ticos had not played a 3-man backline at home in more than a year, but it wasn’t the formation that was most telling. It was the personnel deployment that should have forewarned the US precisely what was to transpire upon the opening kick.
Bryan Ruiz was right central, Cristian Bolanos left central, both playing inverted. Alvaro Saborio was sacrificed for Joel Campbell, the change bringing much more pace to the striker role.
The personnel deployment should’ve screamed, “We’re coming! With numbers!” With both forwards inverted and a speedy striker looking to not play hold-up, but split the Yanks’ centerbacks, plenty of space would be created wide for the wingbacks to bomb up the pitch as they did.
One should give a bit of reprieve to Klinsmann and his staff to the insertion of Orozco-Fiscal. The move was probably with the intention that the US would maintain some semblance of possession with Michael Bradley hubbing the central midfield.
Whereas Bradley’s play off Jones to begin games is a little more piston-like, the insertion of Geoff Cameron meant a more traditional CDM role for the States. With Bradley out, Jermaine Jones needed to be more disciplined on defense and calm in possession. However, with Costa Rica pushing as many as five players attacking through the midfield, the US essentially countered with no more than four. Per Sun Tzo, “the battle was won before it was ever fought.”
Initiative, home field advantage, and speed conspired with the tactics to make the first 22 minutes a nightmare for the States.
Jones forward movement–ill-advised by this publication’s estimation–forced Graham Zusi and Fabian Johnson to pinch in to help track runners, further opening the flanks. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey stayed high–perhaps too high–and were marooned without service. It took 12 minutes for Jones to drop deeper to support possession and aid the defense and took another five for Dempsey and Donovan to drop and help out–entirely too long without the US’s best midfielder policing the center of the pitch.
Bradley’s absence–after his sterling positional play against Bosnia–could not have been more felt.
» The US sees three of their players on yellow card alert pick up a second and who will now miss the Mexico game in Columbus–Cameron, Matt Besler, and Jozy Altidore. Altidore’s yellow is inexcusable–both the nature of it and because the attack would’ve been built around him in Columbus.
» This was an unacceptable game for Jermaine Jones. No American player is going to replicate the balance of Michael Bradley. That said, it was Jones’s responsibility as senior man in the middle to understand the dip in midfield integrity against an aggressive Costa Rica side. Instead, Jones–who should’ve helped drive the US tempo–made it worse.
The Schalke man played bewildering long balls when he could’ve slowed the tempo, was often irresponsible in his own defensive positioning and failed to track back on counters–this from player held up on pedestal by Jurgen Klinsmann for his dedication and effort. With Jones pairing Cameron more as a true double-pivot and being more responsible with his decision-making, the US could have reduced the number of chances Costa Rica took in the first 35 minutes. When Jones settled, so did the US.
» Klinsmann and his staff probably should’ve made some initial adjustments once Bradley was ruled out, but you get the sense that by selecting Orozco-Fiscal at RB and playing no target striker that the manager thought his squad could maintain possession in the first half. That said, the onfield adjustments came extremely too slow as the challenge to the US midfield was all too clear.
Just about getting time for the bus to roll out.
Who starts? Who finishes? Who scores? Starting line-ups soon….
The US looks to put a long-elusive notch on its CONCACAF bedpost this Friday as it heads south to San Jose, Costa Rica for a showdown with the Ticos.
There is no question that this will be the hardest three points for the States to bed in 2013.
Whereas the Mexico qualifier on enemy grounds has long been the most challenging of the Hex gauntlet, this year’s Yanks squad had sufficient injuries and absences against El Tri to make that skirmish a quest to eek out a point. The US’s bend-to-just-about-the-point-of-breaking strategy against Chepo Nation was acceptable and the States, despite being on the wrong side of a lopsided shots on goal tally, were applauded for their valiant effort at the Azteca.
Friday’s game, however, will see a nearly fully fit US squad attempt to wrestle away its first point ever in San Jose. Or maybe just steal a goal from the run of play. The US hasn’t scored in that manner in Costa Rica in over 12 years.
The edict from skipper Jurgen Klinsmann appears clear:
“The Costa Rica game in San Jose is the biggest game in 2013 for all of us because we want to win there,” said Klinsmann. “We want to qualify as soon as possible for the World Cup in Brazil. We want to get the first ever three points in World Cup qualifying in Costa Rica.”
It’s a worthy goal and when the statement is considered within the progressions of the US team in 2013, it’s also the correct milestone to target.
The lineage of 2013 saw the US stay true to its defense-at-all-costs philosophy at the outset. Games in Honduras–a loss–and Mexico were exercises in maintaining shape and defensive continuity at the expense of attacking.
Jamaica away last series saw the US take a few more calculated forays up the field. What then flowed was a string of results by both the “A” team and “B” team where the US successfully managed its attempts at goal and numbers up the field, culminating in an excellent performance against a quality Bosnian side in August.
This Ticos date will be the first time–since a few Eddie Johnson bum-rushes to begin the second half in Honduras in February–that the States
will are expected to take the game to their CONCACAF opponent on the road in qualifying, if you believe the rhetoric.
Of course, the Ticos will enter the game beating their chests with national pride and with more motivation than Katie Holmes on Tom Cruise Independence Day. The Ticos currently sit second in the Hex; their 11 points just two shy of the Yanks’ leading 13. A combination of four points here from the US on Friday in tandem with Jamaica away on Tuesday puts the Ticos just a whisker away from a qualifying berth–a berth they fell short of by the same margin in 2009 when a late header from Jonathan Bornstein at RFK forced the Ticos into an ultimately heartbreaking playoff loss with Uruguay.
But that’s not the most acute prod in this one for the home side.
The US squad arrived late Tuesday in San Jose to chants of “No fair play USA,” a reference to the Blizzard Bowl back in March when the States heisted three points in a controversial home game played with snow pelting the sod.
The rhetoric has been non-stop this week and–with the mystique of Azteca-death-cauldron being seemingly vanquished with a win last year and draw this year–”Costa Rica – Away” elevates to the ultimate CONCACAF trophy win–that elusive “chick at the bar” that both scares and excites you. Moving on….
Do the Yanks got game? How’s that bedpost looking Saturday morning?
Without further Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview. It goes:
» About the Opponent: Costa Rica
» TSG What We’re Looking For
» Keys To the Game for the Americans
» 11 At the Whistle.
About The Opponent: Costa Rica
This is about as cut-and-dry as a USMNT opponent can get. And the Yanks have faced the Ticos twice this year on home soil; both times the interlopers came out in an exceedingly defensive shell with as much offensive intent as an episode of Sesame Street.
The Ticos bunkered in Denver in The Throwaway/Blizzard/Ice Bowl and then, faced with a talented US junior varsity, was downright negative in the Gold Cup. The Ticos gave the US their best or at least second best Gold Cup test. A little late-game razzle dazzle from Landon Donovan the necessary incision in an otherwise concrete defensive wall effort.
However, when the Ticos are back home, they display a more aggressive and somewhat looser attacking behavior, primarily using their central mid pairing to push the ball up to an attack quadrumvirate that can can match any in the region.
Expect the Ticos to maintain defensive integrity at the back. Like CONCACAF brethren Panama, the Costa Ricans excel at defending centrally in the run of play in their defensive third. The Ticos have given up four goals in qualifying in the past year–two throw 50/50-ball-producing broken plays in the box (Panama, February 2013) an d two via corners (Mexico, September 2012).
Across the back five, the Ticos will probably stay true to their most recent home WCQ, a 2-0 win over Panama in June, with one exception: The squad player Junior Diaz will give way at LB to Everton prospect Brian Oviedo who is expected to see a decent minutes increase at Goodison this year under Roberto Martinez.
Oviedo will play like DaMarcus Beasley will for the States–tasked with possession, pushing forward, and being aggressive in the attack. Centerbacks Michael Umaña and Giancarlo González are strong, disciplined defenders, but both are prone to losing marks on service into the box. Gonzalez as well has a penchant to foul in or near the box–can you say Clinton D.e.m.p.s.e.y.
The front six will be business usual as well. (Note: This is all good news for the Ticos who appear to have finally settled on a reduced rotation of players through the squad, breeding improved chemistry.)
Ariel Rodriguez and Celso Borges will form the double-pivot. Borges is on-form and the one to watch. An average defender at the best, the Swedish leaguer has been instrumental in many of the Costa Ricans chances this qualifying series. He likes to ghost in late after the opponent’s flank has been compromised and gather at the top of the box with a shoot-first mentality. He’s not wholly accurate, but he is wholly able.
The front four will be standard. From the point, Alvaro Saborio will get things going. US players and fans know him well from his time at Real Salt Lake. To use a Panama comparison again, Saborio is the Ticos’ Blas Perez. The home midfield will look for him at all times once across the halfline, both on the floor and through the air. Saborio is equally apt to put a header or volley on frame and he’s well skilled–as RSL man Javi Morales can attest–at receiving and dropping to an oncoming attacker.
Joel Campbell, Bryan Ruiz and Christian Bolanos form the midfield three. Bolanos is the Ticos’s Old Faithful, providing pace and a decent amount of shake-and-bake out right.
As US fans can attest, Ruiz has been the lynchpin of the Tico attack for the past half decade. However, it may become a little more Batman-Robin like on Friday.
The Fulham man has been little used by manager Martin Jol for no clearcut reason in the Prem’s early going. Meanwhile, Arsenal asset Joel Campbell is thriving in his second consecutive loan stint. Last campaign saw the speedy attacker fare well at Real Betis.
This year, Campbell finds himself in-form, already starting, and a critical member of Greek superclub Olympiakos. He plays LFW in a 4-3-3. Campbell is adept at gaining the corner and has improved his service game.
Expect the Ticos to attempt to look for Ruiz early incutting off the *right flank and hope that the US’s defense collapses to help. If the Ticos can manufacture this phenomena then they can get Campbell wide on the left and in space for 1v1 situations. If that fails, you’ll see the two switch (the pattern and tactical progression may be reversed, but you get the picture) sometime in the first half. Regardless of the success here, any chance the Costa Ricans get to find Saborio in space on the floor or in the box through the air will likely be taken.
DEF: Gamboa, Umana, Gonzalez, Oviedo
CM: Rodriguez, Borges
RMF/CAM/LMF: Bolanos, Ruiz, Campbell
TSG What Are We Looking For
» Firehosing Costa Rica’s Left Flank
Once again, Graham Zusi is a pivotal midfielder for the Americans and his fitness–or lack thereof–will be a key tactical piece of Friday’s match.
The US again…going up the left side through the feet of Beasley and Dempsey.
Costa Rica? Many signs point to the Ticos storming down the US’s right and more conservative flank whether it’s Campbell or Ruiz.
Accompanying Campbell will be the forward forays of left fullback Brian Oveida forming the one-two punch.
With the US rightback situation, the best way to provide cover will be through a midfielder–like Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya–who aggressively tracks back.
Steve Fenn with analysis of who can shoot the rock and who can’t.
What’s more important:
» The “moment of truth” when a striker tries to score and the opposing keeper tries to stop him….
» ….or the contributions and failures of everyone on the pitch that conspired to determine the quality of the striker’s opportunity?
A single match’s shots–and whether they are saved–determines the outcome, but the quality of shots earned and allowed is a more reliable barometer of the team as a whole.
It’s a base paradox of observing this game. Because that final moment is so dramatically important, everyone’s memory clings to strikes and saves, lessening the relative value of myriad brilliances and mistakes which create and allow chances in promising situations.
Right now 14 MLS teams are bunched so closely together in the race for 10 playoff spots that it’s difficult to tell many of them apart if you scale their ranking based on points per game.
As Zach Slaton pointed out this week in Forbes, narrow point leads are unreliable markers of relative team quality, so in the present MLS situation we need a better way to gauge clubs’ strengths.
Thanks to shot location data patiently catalogued by American Soccer Analysis, we can see every 2013 MLS club’s shots and shots allowed broken down into 6 zones.
From the data, it’s not hard to get a scoring expectation (xG) from shots in every zone. This is based on the overall MLS averages and the number of shots-for and shots-against in each zone.
So far this season, players score on 32.6% of shots taken inside the 6-yard box (1 in the diagram below), while those attempting their best Gareth Bale impersonation from 25-plus yards away from goal (5) find the net on a measly 2.23% of such shots.
Attempts from inside the box but wide, and those from a little beyond the box are scoring 6.5% and 5.1% of the time, respectively.
Really wide shots have a low 3.64% strike rate, but this is the most troublesome region since it is often hard for stat keepers to tell a bad cross that got closer than intended to the keeper from an audacious shot. 2011 Brek Shea will take it though. Thankfully, this region features the fewest shots this season, lessening its impact on analysis.
Comparing overall xG to each club’s goals and goals allowed quantifies which clubs are likely hovering above their most likely level, and who’s most likely underrated based on points and goals.
Below we have a visualization of all this, with square sizes based on shots per game. The coloring for MLS averages is pretty straightforward with purpleness indicating likelihood of scoring per shot, but the club-level data can be tricky. On offense, the blueness of a square conveys how much it’s strikers have exceeded the expectation for that zone, while the depth of an orange hue signifying how much worse they’ve been versus the MLS average.
On defense it’s the same for the opposing strikers, so a club whose strikers & keepers have over-performed will have some blue squares on offense and orange on defense. This is usually most striking in zone 2, where the average takes 3.9 shots per match, and 17.81% of them have been goals.
A quick note on the predictive value of xG. Splitting the season between March-May and June-present, expected goal differential (xGD) from the first half correlates to Points Per Game and GD in the second at R² of .2504 and .4316, respectively.
For comparison, PPG predicted at .0131 (PPG) and .0430 (GD) and GD yielded R² of .0332 (PPG) and .0509.
For the math-averse who have made it this far: points and goal differential in the first three months of the season have been almost entirely unrelated to results since, but xGD has been immensely more predictive. Since fans and pundits tend to, consciously or subconsciously, use recent points and goal differential as main drivers of their expectations, this has big implications for how would should be observing the game. But don’t go running to the nearest sport book just yet. This is still a relatively small sample and there are certainly other factors at play, but shot location does gives us a better picture of teams’ levels.
As you can see, LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City far and away come out best in xGD.
Their offenses regularly shoot from promising positions (mores so for LA Robbie Keane thank you very much), and both of their defenses prevent the same.
In LA’s case, their scoring is very much in line with xG, but they have allowed far more than shot locations would predict. Galaxy optimists would probably dub this The Cudicini Effect, now that Jaime Penedo has sent the shaky Italian to the bench. (Editor’s note: Love Jaime Penedo. See: June 11, 2011)
On the other end of the spectrum are some of the usual suspects in DC United and Chivas USA, but not far above them lurks a couple surprises. The playoff-contending Vancouver Whitecaps and the much-vaunted Real Salt Lake have been surpassing the expectation of their shot locations for & against.
RSL leads the league in scoring, but this data presents a quandary. Are they excelling in every part of scoring that this model doesn’t capture, or are they due for some harsh regression to the mean?
Because it has to be noted that data on the positioning of the opposing keeper and his defenders isn’t available publicly right now. Obviously, that would be a vital ingredient to shot quality, as would be information on whether the strike comes from a set piece, or is struck with the preferred foot or the head.
Specifically, penalty kicks which have a greater xG than even zone 1 shots haven’t been weeded out yet. Also, if we had more detailed shot locations at our disposal it is almost certain we would see further xG variation within each of these 6 zones.
For now though, the most relevant findings of this study are that Los Angeles and Kansas City have been underperforming and Real Salt Lake & Vancouver are flying higher than they deserve.
Some faults and strengths are certainly beyond the scope of this study, but it seems quite likely that the true level of each club is probably closer their xGD than to their points or raw GD. After all, shot locations are determined in small and large ways by many different players on both sides of the ball, while the resultant “moments of truth” are subject to the fickle skills of finishing and keeping, where chaotic bounces and spins of the ball rule the day.