The United States went south to Panama Wednesday night and came away with a win against a CONCACAF up-and-comer and little else.
The small margin of victory came early in the contest as Zach Loyd lofted a ball into the box. Chris Wondolowski challenged his defender for it as it skipped (or grazed) past their heads.
The marble caromed of the unsuspecting heal of Teal Bunbury into the waiting path of Bunbury’s Sporting KC teammate Graham Zusi (“Encino Man”) who slotted it past Luis Meija for the difference in the match. Zusi was open as the result of a defensive gaffe by Panama, one of their few stumbles of the evening for the opponent defensively. Their attack was another story.
There was little else to cheer Wednesday as the States’ struggled to generate attacking opportunity with probably the incorrect formation to break down Julio Dely Valdes’s team.
The US came out in a 4-4-2, with CAM Benny Feilhaber sacrificed from the Saturday Venezuela line-up for Wondolowski, but the States struggled to link successfully up to the two forwards as Panama came out and elected to challenge Jurgen Klinsmann’s men in the midfield instead of playing pack-and-counter. The gambit left the States weak–personnel-wise and numbers-wise–and the imbalance only excaserbated as the US’s lone psuedo-creative midfielder Jermaine Jones tired from his second game on short rest after what has been a long club hiatus from him.
In fact, that’s a good point to lead off our observations:
• The Ghosts of Clubs Past
A common criticism of US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was an alleged complete lack of tactical nous. Today’s display would support that argument.
Klinsmann–as did TSG–expected Panama to bunker a bit and play on the counter. Panama had shown this hand during the Gold Gup in two matches against the States–playing counter ball in the game one group stage match and playing outright bunker ball in the elimination game.
Panama, however, came prepared and pushed a higher defensive line while compressing their forward and midfield bands.
This had two negating effects that choked the US attack.
First with more clogging in the center of the pitch, it stymied the US opportunities to link up with Wondolowski and Bunbury.
Second, the compression of players allowed Panama to play a wider defensive game, essentially crowding out Brek Shea and suffocating the Great Mane forward with direct pressure as soon as he received the ball. The defender thrown at Shea was further re-inforced by another one playing right behind him.
There are a few customary tactics to break down this type of defense. One is to piston forwards to and from the ball and switch field aggressively–the US generally failed in this approach due to personnel and reactive play.
The second is to take chances through or over the top to drop the defensive line. The US was adequate with this approach with Jermaine Jones slinging the ball over top on occasion, alas Wondolowski and Bunbury were not up to the task.
Back to the former, with the US’s lack of expert off-ball movement–not just in this game–it left ballhandlers typcially stranded unless Jermaine Jones came to rescue them. Supporting CDM Ricardo Clark was a nightmare in the holding role, but we’ll get to that.
Klinsmann seemed ill-prepared or unwanting to amend his plan in-game. With neither Bunbury or Wondolowski adept at dropping deep and distributing, attacks died before they started. Perhaps Bunbury–who was the more frequent midfielder visitor–was tasked with this role and utterly failed. If that was the case, though, there should have been an adjustment or substitution earlier than CJ Sapong with less than a half hour less.
A smart early tactical move would have been to either sacrifice a forward for Benny Feilhaber or to drop Graham Zusi–hardly a threat off the corner–into the middle.
The few times that Zusi came central the US moved the ball well in the half.
» There were also a number of positive Klinsmann moves he showcased tactically.
First, Klinsmann’s subtle change to move his central defenders more narrow has improved both the inside communication and where the back four draw the line and accounted for the dangerous central runs that marred the US under the last regime. By playing narrow, theoretically it pushes the forward off-center and allows the other center back an opportunity to recover if the first defender falters.
There were more challenges Wednesday night as Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst dealt with savvier forwards but in general the few times that the US gave up dangerous were on turnovers in the midfield where the line had little time to react.
» At the outset, Klinsmann introduced Zach Loyd and Chris Wondolowski for Heath Pearce and Benny Feilhaber respectively. TSG pointed out that Pearce was negligent in defensive fundamentals on Saturday while Feilhaber was repeatedly prone to defending his actions to the ref instead of “just defending.”
While Pearce made an appearance for a much-to-overzealous Loyd, Feilhaber was a DNP. Has Klinsmann already grown tired of Feilhaber’s on-field antics and defensive petulance? Don’t be surprised if come World Cup Qualifying time if Feilhaber’s name is not in the 18 for that squad.
In fact, somewhat incredulously, with Jermaine Jones’s performance it would seem they were both vying for perhaps what is one central midfield spot and Jones clearly showed better.
» Ricardo Clark was installed as the holder and looked absolutely lost. Clark did make a few nice runs and tackles, but in general on offense the Bundesliga midfielder was late to support and nearly always choose the wrong continuing option in passing sequences. Clark’s performance Wednesday makes it easier to understand how his role has been minimal and Eintracht Frankfurt and why they’ve tried him in central defene.
» Another challenging day at the office for Teal Bunbury. Bunbury looked completely flummoxed by what he was supposed to do in the offense. The Sporting KC forward was late, reactive and-or tentative coming back to provide hold-up play. he was more comfortable making forward runs, but never took an angle on them that was quite so dangerous. And repeatedly, Bunbury drove the ball into poor positioning in possession, one time losing the ball in his defensive third in a precarious position.
The juxtaposition of what Juan Agudelo could do in that role and what Bunbury did was stark.
Continually–heading back to Kansas City for the season–one has to wonder if the veteran tutelage that Bunbury clearly needs is available at the club to help him grow. MLS fans should watch for that in-season.
» While Michael Parkhurst showed very well positionally in defense, there were moments when Dynamo wunderman Geoff–(the Coporal? The General?) Cameron showed his inexperience. Rest easy Dynamo fans, these were situations in terms of holding the line and passing the attacker down the line to the outside back on a diagonal run.
Another area where Cameron needs to work on his game is not telegraphing when he’s going to turn up and outside with the ball when he’s recovering possession with his back to an attacker. he’ll get there also.
Red cards happen–and that was one. The 52nd minute one that Cameron received is not a big stain.
» Though his partnership with Bunbury was a failure, Wondolowski still popped up here and there in dangerous places. The San Jose man deserves to get a few more looks.
» Zach Loyd had a difficult game. Ironically, it was a very similar game to the one that his defensive mate Ricardo Clark had against Ghana. Loyd had a nice early ball for the score and his 13th minute yellow card a necessity in order to thwart what could have been Luis Renteria skating in on Nick Rimando, but generally Loyd couldn’t calm his aggression and his game suffered. The FC Dallas man will need more international seasoning before actively becoming part of the “A” team depth chart.
» Speaking of Nick Rimando, an excellent game for the Real Salt Lake keeper. Rimando was likely chosen coming out of the gates due to his Central American resume and his part in RSL playing out of the back–as Klinsmann likes to play. Where he truly excelled was in keeping low to the ground and forcing difficult shots the one or two times an attacker got through. Well done.
» Brek Shea looked to be both pressing and still suffering from a cold. Shea was delayed in his movements, but in fairness this was a game where he was expected to carry the offense perhaps and he had little help in the way of support or players running off the ball of him. He should play just fine when a player like Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan is taking some of the attacking weight off his shoulders.
» Solids 2nd halves from both Sean Johnson and CJ Sapong. What I really liked about Johnson–who TSG prefers to Bill hamid for USMNT goalie up-and-comer–was his assertiveness in the 78th minute. Shea failed to close down a cross and Johnson let him know about it.
Johnson is a very reserved keeper, almost aloof. The disposition serves him well because it must be frustrating for opponents to see him act “business-as-usual” after a fantastic save. Must also give the defense confidence. That said, he was spot on and took the lead in telling Shea about his gaffe. Perhaps a coming of age moment.
As for Sapong, it was a short trial and Sapong shows the innate “target striker” tools that the US desperately needs. If Sapong can make another leap in his sophomore year–always a challenge for a second year forward– then his name will move up the depth chart accordingly.