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Armchair Analyst

26 September 3:45 pm

This is the first of a three-part series looking at the various moving parts that come together to create a long build-up and, eventually, a goal.

Thanks to our OPTA Chalkboards (and some hard work from Devin Pleuler, who writes the weekly Central Winger column), we've been able to chart every "possession" of 2012  from the squibbed goal kick to the methodical deconstruction of a pressing defense. For this feature, we've grabbed six of the longest build-ups of the season to date and are pulling them apart, trying to show you both how and why a given team was able to string 13, 14, 15 or more passes together.

Holding the ball that long is never an easy task, and no two long builds are the same. But they all have similarities, and identifying them can spark a deeper understanding of the game we all love.

Between the Lines: The Long Build Part 1

11 September 10:14 pm

"There's a nervousness about the USA just at the moment."
— Ian Darke, ESPN

That was the comment at the 84th minute, and I have to agree with him. The US national team was scattered throughout the end of the game on Tuesday night, and if they want to make it through the rest of qualifying unscathed, they'll have to rectify that.

But here's something: While the US as a whole were nervous and scattered — not a surprise since they were playing with three d-mids by that point, which as we've seen tends to have dire consequences — the back four looked just fine. For as cringe-inducing as the midfield and finishing can be, if the defense holds up (and it largely has since Geoff Cameron was given a starter's role), there's plenty of reason to be confident in US prospects.

Anyway, three more thoughts about the 1-0 win over Jamaica:

Playing with 2 or fewer d-mids sure makes a lot of sense

When Graham Zusi goes forward, he doesn't lose the ball. When Maurice Edu goes forward, he usually does.

Zusi was excellent for his entire shift, and deserves whatever plaudits are going to come his way (and there will be plenty). Edu is a very good player when used in the right spot. But they are not interchangeable.

The other change was playing Jose Torres at left mid (a risk) and Clint Dempsey in a free role underneath Herculez Gomez (common sense). Torres verged between "acceptable" and "pretty damn good" in his time on the pitch, generally performing well in traffic and opening space for Fabian Johnson on the overlap. It wasn't a "make the game yours" role — it was a "make it easier for someone else to make the game his" role. It's nice to see him used right.

Danny Williams did a lot of convincing at d-mid

Kyle Beckerman's taken a lot of undeserved stick over the past few days since Klinsmann put him in a no-win situation.

But the fact is, Beckerman is not a superior athlete. He's a d-mid that's very, very good when his team's in possession, but very, very susceptible to late challenges and being overwhelmed physically when his side's chasing the game. That's what happened Friday.

Williams isn't as polished, but his athleticism makes him a little more versatile, and a little better at snuffing out the screw-ups of others. Beckerman still has a spot, but Williams should probably be the starter at d-mid next month.

Our whole goal as a soccer culture has to be identifying guys like Gomez earlier

I tweeted this during the game, and professional skeptic Greg Lalas pointed out that maybe it's not a shortcoming in our development scheme. Instead, maybe it's a problem with other countries who are liable to give short shrift to late-developing players.

Greg's mostly wrong, of course. The reason being that in other countries, "late developing player" means 21, like Miroslav Klose, or 23, like Didier Drogba, or even 26 like Luca Toni (an outlier).

Gomez got his first look at age 25 — younger than Toni — but didn't get his first real shot until he was 28. And he's not an exception to the rule.

Consider that Geoff Cameron was 26 before he was moved to central defense full-time. Consider that Chris Wondolowski was 27 before he really got his shot in MLS. Consider that Zusi was an afterthought until the age of 25.

Obviously the development academy will help, as wil lthe rising tide (and profile) of the NASL and USL Pro and the expansion of the MLS Reserve League.

But it really can't come fast enough for me. If there's one thing I'm impatient for in US soccer, it's this.

07 September 10:02 pm

I said, quite a while back, that I was concerned about the US' ability to advance to the hexagonal. Obviously tonight's result in Kingston is a data point that shows I was within my rights to be concerned.

To put it into context: The US had not lost a qualifier that mattered to a Caribbean team since 1969 (credit to US soccer journalist emeritus Michael Lewis for that nugget). We hadn't walked on the moon yet. There was no such thing as "ESPN," let alone "beIn Sport." Jurgen Klinsmann was five years old.

This was a big deal. It doesn't mean the US is out, but it does mean we've got trouble.

If you can't possess, you shouldn't play narrow

And if you play narrow, you have to possess.

Klinsmann was handed the US job with the specific task of instituting a new, possession-oriented style. And for the most part, people have left him alone, taking a "wait and see" attitude as he tries to implement a transformation.

The main issue I have with this is that the results, thus far, have been unimpressive. Yeah, the US got those 1-0 wins at Italy and Mexico, but those wins had waaaay more to do with great goalkeeping and a few timely interventions than they did with keeping the ball. Even against Antigua & Barbuda, which was as unimpressive as a 3-1 win could be, the US were hardly dominant in stringing together long series of passes.

So the question is twofold: Does Klinsmann have the team to play a possession game? And if so, is he lining them up to do just that?

I'd say the answer to the second is "yes", but the answer to the first, with this squad, anyway, is "no." A US team that omits the most skillful midfielders in favor of multiple d-mids is not designed to hold the ball.

And, unfortunately, with the narrowness of the formation, they weren't designed to hit on the break, either. It's not a catch-22, it's just the wrong players.

Speaking of...

I still can't figure out what Jermaine Jones brings to the table

No one on the pitch was worse than him. No one.

Jones doesn't connect passes particularly well going forward, and he's not disciplined enough to play as a true d-mid. He's also poor in traffic, which means he's a turnover machine when two men run at him. Playing him as a true No. 8 (where he was played vs. Jamaica) is slow suicide.

The only thing Jones really adds is a fair share of simulation (blech) and effort tracking back in transition. But there are plenty of guys in the pool - younger, more skillful, more disciplined - who offer effort, as well.

Clint Dempsey is not a distributor

Deuce is one of the four most talented US field players in our history, but if you're relying on him to ignite the offense you're probably in trouble. He's a 9 1/2, not a No. 10, and that means he needs good service and someone to combine with right off his shoulder.

Playing him behind two true forwards can be done, but not if there's zero width and not if none of the three d-mids behind him can get him the ball where he needs it. This was ugly as sin.

And Tuesday is suddenly a must-win affair. Gird your loins.

06 September 2:34 pm

Doubtless, you've read about German-born American right back Timmy Chandler turning down yet another call from Jurgen Klinsmann ahead of the qualifiers against Jamaica. Doubtless, you've got some questions about where the young man's head and heart are.

According to Chandler himself, they're still in Nürnberg with his club team. That's according to this article from Franco Panizo:

"I wanted to show that Nürnberg is one of the bigger teams of the Bundesliga and it was a decision of the heart," Chandler told Panizo. "I wanted to show Nurnberg that I'm thankful for what I've achieved in my time with the team so far."

He goes on to explain that he's repeatedly turned down calls from Klinsmann – who he's in contact with on a regular basis – because he doesn't like the travel. But that he'd maybe play in October if Klinsmann called him for those qualifiers. And that he won't rule out playing for Germany. Who still haven't shown any interest in capping him (and aren't going to unless about five other guys fall off the face of the earth).

What's it mean for the US right now? Not a lot – hopefully they're locked in on the Reggae Boyz. But it's got to be at least a little bit galling to some of the guys in the hunt for a regular role that Klinsmann is so fixated on a player who keeps rebuffing him at every chance. These aren't friendlies, after all: These are must-win World Cup qualifiers. Hard to believe Chandler cares about the guys in the training room and/or the uniform he's wearing if he can't make time for that.

It also forces some (more) serious questions about the continued omission of Eric Lichaj, and the snail's-pace integration of guys like Steven Beitashour and Chance Myers. Chandler isn't a great enough talent to put everyone else on hold, after all. If he was, pretty clearly he'd already be representing Germany.

01 September 6:37 pm

I haven't found anything officially official yet, and I'm probably not going to because I don't read Swedish, but this guy was nice enough to tweet in English for us Yanks:

Brought to my attention by the always excellent Jonathan Tannenwald of Philly.com. Give him a follow on Twitter.

So... how should Americans feel about this? Our coach is leaving for a team that's a darkhorse candidate to win the 2015 Women's World Cup in Canada - Sweden haven't been a true contender for almost a decade, but are most definitely on the up.

My vote goes to "We should feel grateful to her and absolutely, positively understand this move." Sundhage's teams didn't always play beautiful soccer - ok, they freaking rarely played beautiful soccer - but they sure won a hell of a lot. They also gave us some of the most thrilling finishes in the history of the game and - hopefully, anyway - laid the groundwork for a sustainable top flight women's league in North America.

So good luck, Pia. You have our gratitude and best wishes.

See you in Canada.

29 August 2:00 pm

Do you like the Caleb Porter signing for Portland? Because I do.

Here are a couple of positives:

He'll likely keep Darlington Nagbe playing like this. Way back in February, everybody in Timbers camp assured me that Nagbe was one of the most talented players in the league. Then head coach John Spencer went so far as to say he's the most talented player in MLS.

I shook it off as a coach predictably trying to build the confidence of a youngster who'd shown flashes, but didn't seem to have the mindset (or a clear position) to be successful. Nagbe didn't score enough to play as a second forward, didn't pass aggressively enough to be a No. 10, and didn't work the flanks like a winger. Barring the Goal of the Year vs. Sporting KC, his 2011 season was, frankly, disappointing. He was a guy you'd want on your side in five-v-five keep-aways, but not in a game that counts.

GOAL: Nagbe puts the Timbers ahead

And that continued to be the story until about three weeks ago. Something clicked, and now Nagbe is a devastating force any time he's in the final third. Y.P. Lee doesn't get left on his rear too often, but that's exactly what happened this weekend when Nagbe scored the opener in the 2-1 win over the Whitecaps.

I'm happy about this not just because the Timbers deserve a bit of luck, but because Nagbe is in the process of getting his US citizenship (and is reportedly fairly close). And anyone who's playing this well, and is that tidy with the ball, will hopefully translate that to the international level.

Porter, of course, coached Nagbe at Akron, and brought the best out of him there. So purely from a "Selfish US Fan" perspective — yes, I like this hire.

I also like what Porter's done with Akron. Recruiting to northeast Ohio is, we'll say, just a bit harder than recruiting to Westwood or Chapel Hill. He had a vision for his program, and saw it out against fairly significant odds.

That success in the college ranks is actually a pretty good predictor of MLS success. It's something I had the chance to talk with Frankie Hejduk about last season, as he was riding the wave to his second Shield/Cup double with one of the great teams in MLS history. He'd done so before, back in 2008 with the Columbus Crew — one of the other great teams in MLS history.

To paraphrase, Hejduk felt that the biggest similarity between the 2011 Galaxy and 2008 Crew was the way the teams were managed. Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid — the two best managers in MLS history (apologies to Dom Kinnear) — had created an atmosphere that Hejduk compared to college, an atmosphere of competitiveness but unity that he said doesn't often exist at the professional level.

Coming from a guy who's played in the UEFA Champions League, the CONCACAF Champions League, a pair of World Cups and won the Supporters' Shield winners in three different decades, that observation has some weight.

Porter, by all accounts, is cut from the same cloth. A lot of people see a college background as a handicap, but Frankie and I see it as a plus.

And here are the negatives:

Porter's Under-23 Olympic qualifying team was lamentably rigid. He stayed with the 4-3-3 come hell or high water, and the US both burned and drowned. The Canadians exposed his squad badly, and then he failed to adjust for the group finale against El Salvador. You want to forget, but you remember.

It's a case of him failing to make the best use of his available resources. This past U-23 group was loaded with pacey wingers and fullbacks who can cross, and big, strong forwards who can finish those crosses. A 4-4-2 was called for given the personnel — imagine El Salvador trying to contain Terrence Boyd and Will Bruin, just for a moment if you would. It's laughable.

But the adjustment never came. It was 4-3-3 to the very end, and it was ugly. The good news for Timbers fans is that he hasn't been that rigid at Akron, so perhaps it wasn't really his call with the U-23s.

He gets cute and plays guys out of position far too often for my tastes. Sometimes the best bet is just to keep it simple, and he seems to be against doing that a bit too often. I don't know if it's because he's young or if it's just how he's wired, but it definitely puts a ceiling on my expectations from him.

Anybody who watched MLS in 2011 — anybody! — could've told you that Perry Kitchen (another Akron product) was going to struggle at central defense in Olympic qualifying. It was also fairly apparent even at that point that Amobi Okugo would end up being a backliner.

Yet Kitchen spent the tournament in the heart of defense, while Okugo played defensive mid. Five months later, that's practically inconceivable.

Not to sell the job short, but 90 percent of managing is keeping the players pointed in the right direction emotionally and then putting everyone in the right spots on the pitch. I have little doubt that Porter will be successful at the first (I can't stress this enough: Every single player I've talked to who's played for him at any level absolutely loves him).

For the second ... if I were a Timbers fan, that's where my worries would be.

27 August 7:05 pm

All 32 goals from Week 25 action. Three belong to Fredy Montero, three to Federico Higuain. Two each to Alan Gordon, Simon Dawkins... and Kei Kamara.

Ouch.

ALL GOALS FROM MLS Week 25

20 August 8:43 pm

A few weeks ago, I was pretty convinced that the Western Conference playoff race was over. Sure, Chivas USA were lurking around, and Colorado had some pieces in place, but neither really seemed threatening.

LA, meanwhile, were heating up, and Vancouver seemed rock-solid despite overhauling their roster.

Fast forward to this week. The 'Caps have lost two in a row, and are just 3-6-3 in their last 12. They're right there with the Galaxy on 37 points, and should be safe, but ... here come FC Dallas.

They've been a new team since David Ferreira has returned to fitness, and the reigning MLS Player of the Week just so happened to eviscerate the Whitecaps last Wednesday in a 2-0 win at BC Place. Brek Shea has come to life for club and country, while Fabián Castillo has started to look the part of a Designated Player thanks largely to the space Ferreira has created for him in attack.

They've just been missing one piece: center forward Blas Pérez. The big Panamanian was one of the stars of the early-going this year, but has missed much of the last several months with both injuries and personal tragedy when his father passed away.

It's been a long road back. Which probably made this tweet that much more satisfying:

15 August 10:14 pm

Well ... that was cathartic. Jurgen Klinsmann didn't do everything I'd have done, but he definitely got the formation and shape right. That's a big step in the right direction. Here are three things we learned from the US national team's first victory in Mexico in 75 years.

1. This is now Geoff Cameron's backline

We at MLSsoccer.com have been talking all week about how a generational shift in the center of defense has been needed.

Carlos Bocanegra has been a great captain and, at times, a great defender, but he's well past his prime. Oguchi Onyewu, meanwhile, simply hasn't ever recovered from that 2009 knee injury. We saw that much against Antigua and Barbuda. The other option recently has been Clarence Goodson, who is tissue-paper soft.

So that left first Bob Bradley, then Jurgen Klinsmann with the task of developing the next generation of central defenders, and to be honest, it didn't go as quickly as I'd have liked. I ripped Klinsmann in my column last Friday for sticking with the old guard for too long, and did the same to Bradley last summer after the Gold Cup disappointment.

The Antigua game, and the disappointing 1-1 draw with Guatemala that followed it, drove the point home, apparently. Klinsmann kicked "tried and true" to the curb in favor of Cameron and Maurice Edu, and was rewarded with one of the best defensive performances in years (this was miles better than the Italy game, in which the US were bailed out repeatedly by a flag-happy linesman).

Cameron was flawless for 80 minutes on the night, both in his distribution (expected) and positioning (a happy surprise). He'd struggled at times with Houston this year, playing more loosely than he should have. That was nowhere to be found against Mexico.

Edu was nearly as good, bar a couple of miscommunications in distribution. They both flagged down the final 10 minutes, but that's to be expected at the Azteca.

But man, was that a big step in the right direction.

The one concern now is that they both land with clubs that are only interested in playing them at midfield. Hopefully Stoke City and Valencia, or Ipswich Town, or whoever is going to sign Edu, watched this game and realized that these guys are defenders, not midfielders.

2. There may be no place to play Jose Torres against good competition

Look, he's gotten plenty of chances. On Wednesday he played 45 minutes with three defensive midfielders behind him, two pure attackers in front of him and a pair of fullbacks who could and would overlap if there was space. It was exactly what I asked for — a chance to see the guy playing his natural spot with plenty of support around him.

And Torres did nothing on either side of the ball. There is absolutely no reason to trust him against top competition at this point, especially if they're physical.

Would you want him out there against Jamaica next month when the games count?

Neither would I.

3. These aren't new tactics

When Klinsmann came aboard, he talked about playing a new, proactive style that would impose the game upon the opposition.

Those were his words. But his deeds have been the total opposite. His team stays deep, defends in numbers and punishes mistakes. They never hog the ball unless it happens to be against Scotland or the like.

That's been the recipe against top teams for 25 years (with a few exceptions). I recently rewatched the 0-0 draw from 1998 World Cup qualifying, and defensively it was pretty much a mirror image of this game.

So full credit to Klinsmann for realizing that, if he wants to write a new manual, he should at least master the old one first.

14 August 2:59 pm

You've probably heard by now that Maurice Edu is most likely going to get a start in central defense for the US against Mexico on Wednesday night.

Jurgen Klinsmann has his reasons. First and foremost is that none of the newcomers in the US central defensive player pool — including Geoff Cameron — have shown that they're ready to lock down a starting spot. So Klinsmann has to turn every card he can looking for an ace.

Secondly, though — and this is pure speculation on my part — this might be a chance for Valencia to see what Edu looks like on the backline against top competition.

Valencia have been the third-best team in Spain for about the past 15 years, meaning that their interest in Edu is a gigantic step up from Rangers, or whatever mid-table French side is pursuing him. And we know how Klinsmann feels about stepping up to the next level.

But there's virtually no chance that Edu can play in the midfield for a team of Valencia's caliber. He doesn't read the game well enough in 360 degrees, and is always more comfortable when things are playing out in front of him. We've also seen plenty of shanked 22-yard shots from him, enough to know that he's not going to add Michael Bradley-esque offense when pushing forward.

What Edu has the raw materials for, however, is the center of defense. I think Valencia see that much, and I also think that if he'd gone anywhere but Rangers he'd have been pushed into that spot after his great performance there in the 2008 Olympics.

So if you're a fan of both the US and La Liga, keep your fingers crossed that Edu has a blinder on Wednesday night. If he does, it could mean a move to the Mediterranean will soon follow.