Op-Ed: Pass The Damn Ball!

The USMNT need more players like Holden. Players who are comfortable and safe with the ball.

Guest contributor John Nyen, wrote an interesting piece that TSG published on why one should be more excited about Tim Ream and Eric Lichaj versus Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury.

He maintained that the USMNT needed to shore up their defense in order for them to win more games. Though the US scored 5 goals, they also let in 5 and ultimately went home, earlier then expected.

Where as I do agree that the best form of offense is defense, I think the number one problem for the USMNT is not offense or defense, age or youth or formations. It’s the ability to complete a pass on a consistent basis.

If one looks at passing stats from the past World Cup, the USMNT ranks second lowest in passes completed out of the teams that made it into the group stage (1175) and out of the 32 teams, ranked 26th in percentage of pass’s completed at 67%.

Basically a third of the passes made by the USMNT went astray or were intercepted. They did have a better percentage with their shorter and medium length passes at 72% and 73% respectively, but that didn’t put them in the top of half of the teams that went to South Africa.

Ball possession is one of those overblown stats. We’ve all seen many matches, when the team who had the majority of ball, leaves the pitch as losers (Spain against both the US and Switzerland come to mind). There is a difference though between not possessing the ball, but playing good bend not break defense and losing the ball when in possession a third of the time.

When you get caught in possession or gift the ball to an opponent with a bad pass, your team gets caught out of position. This enables the offense to take advantage of space and can attack more freely and create goals. Obvious huh! but it’s the reason the USMNT give up so many goals (first goal against Ghana for example). If it wasn’t for Howard, who saves the USMNT time and time again, there would be many more goals being let in.

Also, the majority of the USMNT’s goals, are scored on quick breakaways where only a few passes are required or long/longish balls in a route one style (Bradley’s goal against Slovenia). This method is effective as a counter punch, but the lack of consistent passing would explain why no US striker has scored in a World Cup in a long while.

The USMNT’s best passers of the ball are also their most dangerous players. Donovan and Dempsey and now Holden are comfortable on the ball and rarely give it away cheaply. Problem is their team mates do, so a goal in which the USMNT works the ball around for a minute or so, looking for a hole in their opponents defense is a rarity.

Still needs to work on his passing and distribution before he becomes an elite full back.

In my opinion, all US players, especially the ones going to the camp need to work on their ball control and passing. Even players playing in the EPL like Lichaj and Spector, give the ball away too easily and for a defender especially, that’s a cardinal sin.

If the USMNT can hold the ball up and pass it around with ease and accuracy (doesn’t have to be Tika Taka), their chances at the next World Cup dramatically improve, because one thing is certain. If their opponents don’t have the ball, they cannot score.

Pass completion….something I’ll be looking at this Saturday when the USMNT face off against Chile.

Associated from the archives:

• Paging Bob Bradley: Let’s Get Holden & Feilhaber More Run!

39 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Scott Frisina on 2011/01/20 at 6:03 AM

    Thank you!!! I’ve been saying this for a long time.


  2. Posted by Nicholas on 2011/01/20 at 6:59 AM

    Yes…this is a must for future US teams. I’m not sure it’s really the midfield as much as the backline doesn’t link up with the midfield as well. In order to get things going from a possession standpoint, it seems like our midfielders typically have to drop way deep which allows the defense to outnumber us in the middle of the pitch.

    I think this will be obvious if we still have trouble in possession when we get our first choice midfielders (Donovan, Dempsey, Holden, Jones, Bradley) and we still have trouble completing passes.


    • Posted by Nicholas on 2011/01/20 at 7:03 AM

      Also, I think committing to the 4-5-1 (with Stu in the middle) will help mitigate our deficiencies in the above regard.


  3. Posted by Courtney on 2011/01/20 at 8:03 AM

    I think a critical issue that’s often overlooked is our players movement off the ball. It’s hard to be confident on the ball if you constantly have to go into 1 v 1 situations. While I am not trying to compare the US players skills to Spain’s or any of the other top teams in the world, you rarely see their players taking opponents on unless it’s in the attacking third of the field. Most of the time they are creating triangles all over the pitch and using a maximum of 1 to 2 touches per possession. To me this equates more to movement without the ball than to confidence on the ball. Obviously you want a guy like Holden/Donovan/Dempsey who can turn and run at a defense and make that incisive pass, but more often than not those passes are high risk/high reward and can’t be relied on for a consistent attack. So my thought is the US’ struggles to connect passes has more to do with the fact that we often do not provide the proper support for our attackers and leave them to attempt difficult passes or to take a defender 1 v 1.

    I was never the biggest Claudio Reyna fan, but to me he was always a guy who was in the right spot, providing easy outlets for his teammates. At his best, MBradley seems to do a good job of this, but it seems he is often left spraying balls to the corners rather than having another easy option to knock it around with. Let’s hope the inclusion of Jones and development of Edu and Holden (and the exclusion of Rico Clark) improve this going forward.

    To me, the guys we really to have develop their confidence on the ball are our central defenders. If you look around the world, most teams with a consistent possession attack have very strong central defenders who are very confident on the ball. To me these are the guys that need to resist the temptation to blast an aimless ball up the pitch at the first sign of pressure and find either an outside back or central midfielder. And to me this has been, one of our central defenders biggest deficiencies over the last two World Cup cycles. I could go on for a while with this but I don’t want to bore anyone anymore than I already have.


    • Posted by sfshwebb on 2011/01/20 at 8:08 AM

      Great comment(s) Courtney. Never be afraid to bore anyone on this site!


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/20 at 8:38 AM

      I agree 100% Courtney. Drives me mad when you see defenders hoofing the ball out of ‘their zone’ when there’s no danger (i.e gifting possession back to the opponent to start all over again). When you watch the best teams, everybody on their team wants the ball and is comfortable on the ball. Ball retention is what is needed, even if that means a sideways or backwards pass, rather than trying to play those extremely low percentage, (and more often than not) telegraphed through balls. So, like you said, that means players moving as to give the player on the ball an option.

      Also, in the final third, how many players on the US team / squad do you ‘trust’ to recieved the ball to feet when their being marked?


    • Posted by Russ on 2011/01/20 at 9:42 AM

      Re: The Defenders. I think we saw the tip of the ice berg in Cape Town in November in terms of a new generation knowing the smart/composed way of playing the ball out of the back.

      Hopefully it’s not just an anomaly and we see the same type of intelligence on Saturday night.


  4. Posted by John on 2011/01/20 at 8:45 AM

    I like it. Good commentary here as well. As someone who has routinely watched Jaime Carragher, Paul Konchesky and Soto Kyrgiakos hoof the ball for half a season, I can assure you that this it gets really really really old.


  5. Posted by dikranovich on 2011/01/20 at 9:35 AM

    i tell you what though, id much rather have these defenders hoof the ball out of the back rather than make a silly little pass that give the ball back to the other team in the wrong third of the field. i dont know if anybody saw titus bramble just make a stupid pass this weekend, but i could not help but think what a raw deal gooch got being teamed with this clown at newcastle.

    the usa is built for hitting the long ball out of the back to strikers who are big and can control the ball and dish it off to dempsey or donovan. americans should embrace the style usa plays, rather than talking about some tiki taki like its the be all end all.


    • Posted by Russ on 2011/01/20 at 9:44 AM

      It is the be-all end-all. It’s the proper way to play football.


    • Posted by John on 2011/01/20 at 9:49 AM

      Titus Bramble is absolutely fascinating to watch, he can play extremely well for 89 minutes and then have a string of consistent screw ups in a one minute time frame that loses the game for his team.


    • Posted by sfshwebb on 2011/01/20 at 9:54 AM

      Which strikers are these? Ball control is a big issue with the USMNT strikers.


      • Posted by dikranovich on 2011/01/20 at 12:29 PM

        brian mcbride was never going to excell in a system that required super ball control. but if it came down to headers and winning headers, that was mcbrides game. ching probably could have been used this summer and he is a similar player to mcbride. jozy, teal, braun, these guys are too, the type of forwrds usa is producing.

        we have really only had a glimpse of charlie davies and i would say when he is doing his thing, usa look like a very dangerous team and it was not because of possession game that made him dangerous, it was his ability to use his speed.

        someone says that total football is the way football should be played should really be shot, metephorically speaking of course. i mean spain finally wins a world cup and now all of a sudden, they play football the way it should be played. give me a break. soccer should be played in a way that allows the team the best chance at victory, thats really the way soccer should be played.


        • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/20 at 2:58 PM

          Erm, Spain. Plays. Great. Football. Should everybody try to replicate them? No, of course not. Why? Because not many teams have the players to do so. They make what is very hard, look very easy.

          But, you’re right – a (national) coach is going to pick a strategy on a game by game basis, right – horses for course if you like. But any given strategy is going to be governed by the players at his disposal. And Bradley doesn’t have the players to try to play like Spain. I don’t think any national team manager is working on the finesse aspect of the game in the few days they get to train before an international game…

          But if you were given a carte blanche to choose a style of play, what would you choose? A 2010-Spanish-style or a kick-and-rush or long-ball or anything else?


        • Posted by chazcar2 on 2011/01/20 at 3:11 PM

          Spain had a pretty big advantage over the other teams this cycle. Most of their team plays year round together at Barcelona. I think that made the biggest difference between them and the other teams.

          As for the US, our main attacking weapon will always be a quick counter. We are fast and fit without super ball skills. There is nothing wrong with playing that way. The key point for me is not that the ball needs to be possessed all the time, but that once it is won the passes forward need to be completed effectively. That is done by actually aiming the ball and playing it to a player in stride.

          We often will kick it out of the back towards a player. Playing the long ball means a PASS that is actually TO someone. That will be option 1 for US teams. Option 2 should be possession and “Total” football. Improvement in that area is definitely needed.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/20 at 9:59 AM

      Of course I’d rather the defenders to hoof the ball up field IF the alternative was for them to lose possession in their own final third. That goes without saying. But there’s a big difference between hoofing the ball up field because you can’t play it out from the back. Nothing wrong with the long ball as *one* option [when circumstances dictate], but surely it shouldn’t be the only option because of a limited skill set.

      I’d expect to see the ‘when in doubt, give it a clout’ bridgade on Hackney Marshes, not consistently at International level.


    • Regardless of whether you want the US to be Spain-lite, the Clockwork Oranje of the 70’s, Brazil’s samba boys, England of the 60’s, , the fact remains that that these teams (likely in the case of 60’s England, I’ve never seen or read much on them) were still able to complete passes. Be it 100 or more from a midfielder, or just 50 from a winger, they had better completion percentages than we’re seeing out of our team at this point. I don’t believe that an American needs to be making the same passes that Xavi does, but I do believe that our players need to be a bit more interchangeable in order to unlock a defense if the situation calls for. Call me a Total-Football enthusiast if you want, but that’s my view on the game, and one of the reasons I follow it; fluidity of play and players.

      I do agree with you that teams need to mold their style around what allows them to play to their potential and thus win, but to constantly bash the Spainish style (call it tiki taka or total football) is a bit off. That style of play has resulted in only 7 losses for Spain since post-WC 2006, a European Championship and a World Cup Title. And simply because half of the starting 11 for Spain play for Barcelona you can throw most of those achievements onto the Tiki Taka style of play. So you can’t argue the results; Tiki Taka and Total-Football are currently reigning supreme.


  6. Posted by Courtney on 2011/01/20 at 10:10 AM

    Also, do we have any defenders outside of Cherundolo (and Spector of 2009) that can play a decent long ball out of the back? Gooch and Demerit struggled mightily with this and with Altidore just not there yet as a striker (although I think this has been one of his biggest improvements over the last year or so), I don’t see this long ball strategy fitting our personnel at this point.


    • Posted by Andy_4Lakes on 2011/01/20 at 10:44 AM

      Speaking of Jozy, did anyone else watch the Copa match this weekend between Villa and Sevilla? Jozy showed me some good things there, nice skill that I hadn’t really remembered seeing out of him. Some nice passes, good touches, and creating space. Too bad on his one really good chance he pulled a Findley and put the ball well clear of the the crossbar…


  7. Posted by Faith on 2011/01/20 at 10:15 AM

    Couldn’t agree more.


  8. […] a very significant improvement. Soccer is a simple game and one of the most important things is passing and retaining the ball, which has been a fairly significant problem for us recently. Many reports have said that, at least […]


  9. Posted by KP on 2011/01/20 at 3:34 PM

    Totally off topic, but has anyone else noticed in the US Soccer videos that Coach Bradley is on crutches. I think I’ve seen it at least twice. Any idea what happened? Hope its nothing serious. I would think its hard coaching soccer on crutches. Just curious…


  10. Posted by dikranovich on 2011/01/20 at 3:58 PM

    i am reading a lot about styles and tiki taki and this and that and im wondering what actually is the style. the usa do have a style, i wonder what effect the american sports landscape has on soccer, in terms of style, if any at all? are americans better tacklers of the ball because many kids grew up playing baseball and learning to slide into second base, and as such have a good understanding of how to slide into a ball. and yes, sir cross, before you chime in, it might also be that little american league baseballers are to quick to leave their feet and go in on a rash tackle, that may well play into it as well, but im just wondering.

    its obvious usa is not very far away from total greatness. just driving down my little neighborhood street and seeing soccer jerseys from everywhere from man u to timbuktu, or at least marthon to gabon, or really ghana. but you see all these jerseys and many more and you did not so twenty years ago. so i say take the tiki taki and go have a siesta, id much rather see usa playing like brasil and italy, two teams that play the greatest football, hands down.


    • Posted by GeorgeCross on 2011/01/20 at 4:23 PM

      Maybe DeJong goes into those bone-crunching tackles, because as a child, the opponents were wearing clogs?


  11. Posted by Mark F on 2011/01/20 at 4:51 PM

    Great read………Stu Holden is a saint!


  12. Posted by Brian on 2011/01/20 at 4:53 PM

    “If it wasn’t for Howard, who saves the USMNT time and time again, there would be many more goals being let in.”

    I agree with this statement, especially if you look back to the England game or the Confederations Semi Final against Spain and many others, but in the video here Timmy clearly lets one in that he shouldn’t have.


  13. Posted by craig on 2011/01/20 at 7:25 PM

    Good call chazcar2… whose to say that spains dominance is due to their style of play so much as their comfort with eachother. I think you touched on a variable that isn’t often discussed. We talk about spain’s dominance due to tiki taki play, but would they still be so dominant if their core players didn’t have such a high number of playing hours together?


  14. Posted by Nicholas on 2011/01/20 at 7:38 PM

    As an aside: One thing I was thinking about today was purposeful passing, and I do think the US has done pretty well in that regard. I’m specifically thinking of our dominance vs. Mexico. They typically carry the possession and we carry the scoreboard because we’ve made purposeful passes and played some direct football as the situation has dictated.


  15. Posted by PS on 2011/01/20 at 9:17 PM

    If you wanted to make the point that Howard has saved us numerous times from bad give aways why did you immediately follow that with a video of Howard’s bad play on the Ghana goal?


    • Posted by sfshwebb on 2011/01/20 at 10:08 PM

      It had more to do with giving up the ball way too easily in midfield then Howards play. In fact, that was a fantastic play by Prince Boateng. Could Howard have positioned himself better? Sure, but hindsight is 20/20. His defenders were ABSOLUTELY useless on that play, and SHOULD have done more. The defender was guarding no one and in no mans land. Blaming Howard is harsh. First blame should go to whomever gave up the ball way too easily, second should go to the center backs who really did nothing and left it all to Howard to do everything.


      • Posted by swedust on 2011/01/21 at 9:16 AM

        as critical as I was of our central defenders during WC2010 I think this one was a case where they had just started to switch from marking roles to supporting roles as the ball advanced up the field and got caught a few jogging steps out of place. But yes, in the end they were of no use.


      • Posted by PS on 2011/01/21 at 4:42 PM

        Sorry but when I look at the highlight I am mystified by Howard’s positioning. When Demerit is pushing Boateng to the near post why does Howard look surprised when the shot goes near post? The bigger point though is that the highlight is shown right after this remark – “If it wasn’t for Howard, who saves the USMNT time and time again, there would be many more goals being let in.” Obviously Howard didn’t save us this time.


  16. That Bradley highlight may be the only ball I’ve ever seen Jozy win in the air😉


  17. Posted by Soccer Soap Box on 2011/01/21 at 9:08 PM

    Interesting article. It is pretty hard to argue that the US needs improved ball composure and passing. We could add shooting and trapping too. (AKA, we need to continually improve our most of our players’ soccer skills all around to reach the next level.)

    I must admit, though, the line I read over and over… “Where as I do agree that the best form of offense is defense” … that sounds like a throw-away line that people feel the need to say to keep soccer street cred. Sounds like an outtake of the “Offense wins games, Defense wins championships.” (Which seems oddly nonsensical as well.)

    Am I the only one who no longer sees the need for this? I like the rest of your premise better, and figure the real answer could be more like… the best form of offense is creative players who are comfortable on the ball making incisive passes that lead to goal scoring opportunities.


  18. Posted by Bob Bradley 4 Eva on 2011/01/22 at 2:16 PM

    Very nice piece…

    1. Not sure why the quick counter-attacking style should explain our forwards’ failure to score at the world cup. With quality strikers, this style might favor goals by forwards.

    2. The statistic about passes completed gets at the heart of the matter.

    3. Right after the world cup various media outlets were touting Michael Bradley’s splendid performance — based on the fact that he was recorded as covering as much ground as almost any other player in South Africa.

    4. We all know good play requires lots of running off the ball when your team is in possession. But from where I stand, a Michael Bradley gets about so much partly because we give the ball away so much.

    5. Mikey Bradley is very good. Fully deserved his starting spot. But for a national team with any kind of serious aspirations — you need central midfielders who can maintain possession and pass with intelligence in ways Michael does not. Personally, not convinced he will ever acquire the required combination of technique and spatial intelligence.

    6. So nice to see Holden blossom.

    7. As for weaknesses in tactics, movement off the ball, and all that? At least Sunil got us the best possible coach.


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