This is one of those nights that sports fans endure. Whether it's baseball, football, basketball ... whatever. At some point, your team plays so badly that you become physically ill. Or near enough, anyway.
That's what Jurgen Klinsmann's team just did down in Antigua with their ugly 2-1 win on Friday night. And the painful part is that it's not really a surprise.
Klinsmann is, quite possibly, a great "big picture" coach. He might be the right guy to shake up the USSF and institute a more progressive, enjoyable style. He might be the guy who destroys what remains of the "old boy network." He may be the guy who can write a curriculum that turns the US into the Brazil of the northern hemisphere.
He is not the guy to coach a team through qualifying. Period.
Carlos Bocanegra is still a liability at left back
Hey, Boca's been a fantastic servant for US soccer. He's relentless, responsible and has a knack for timely goals.
He's also a giveaway machine when he plays wide. Bruce Arena learned that to his detriment in the 2006 World Cup — anybody remember that "clearance" vs. Ghana? — and Bob Bradley had his own trip down that path from 2007 through 2009.
CORRECTION: D.C. United has not yet clinched Carolina Challenge Cup championship. I apologize for the confusion. #MLS
— Andrew Wiebe (@AndrewWiebe_MLS) March 3, 2012
Somehow, it's 2012 and we're still learning that lesson. Yes, Klinsmann was handicapped by the injuries to Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, but a good coach compensates by finding the right solution, not any solution.
Klinsmann, on the other hand, compensates by putting Bocanegra in a position to fail. And that's exactly what he did on the turnover that led to the Antigua goal.
Possession doesn't necessarily mean chances
Throughout the game, we were treated to analysis highlighting the US dominance in possession. Problem was, that possession wasn't leading to chances. It wasn't even leading to half-chances.
The US put one shot on goal from the run of play over 90 minutes against Antigua & Barbuda. Anyone who's making reservations for Brazil two summers from now needs to internalize that, understand it and choose a second favorite team right now.
It's not because the US lacks creators, certainly — just look at how the game opened up once Sacha Kljestan came on. Quite simply, it's because the creative attacking players we have are, for some undisclosed reason, in Klinsmann's doghouse.
For years many of us have railed against the perception of the US as a "defense only" team, pointing to games like the 2002 World Cup vs. Germany, the 2009 Confederations Cup vs. Egypt (and Brazil) and the entire run of the 2010 World Cup.
But under Klinsmann, the US are defense only. The possession they hold in midfield isn't used to create chances, and as a result, the only time they're consistently dangerous is on set pieces.
Eddie Johnson has a place in the roster ... and so does Alan Gordon
I questioned EJ's inclusion despite his great production for the Sounders. And truth be told, he was more of a liability in possession than any of the other midfielders.
However, he gets open on set pieces, and he finished two of his three looks (of the five total looks the US had on the night, which kind of makes me want to die). There's a place for that, especially against minnows. I still don't think he's the answer long term because he takes too long on the ball in the run of play, but hell, beggars can't be choosers.
CORRECTION: D.C. United has not yet clinched Carolina Challenge Cup championship. I apologize for the confusion. #MLS
— Andrew Wiebe (@AndrewWiebe_MLS) March 3, 2012
As for Gordon, he's the best-passing big man in or around his prime in the US national team pool. I've been pointing this out for quite a long while, and he vindicated me on Friday.
Center forwards, like d-mids and goalkeepers, tend to develop later in their careers (Gordon is the age Brian McBride was when he transferred to Fulham). It's very, very nice to see a guy like Gordon stick with it as long as he has and, eventually, find his moment in the sun.
And it's a reminder: Over the past three cycles, MLS players have done the bulk of the heavy lifting for the US national team. Klinsmann would be wise, on Tuesday and — hopefully — in 2013, to remember that much.
Here's the third and final part of our series on the long build-up, looking at how teams use long sequences of passes to break down an opponent's defense.
In this video, we examine the gaps that are created by horizontal and lateral ball movement, respectively, and why ball-playing central defenders are at such a premium these days.
It's been the year of the center forward in MLS, and that's trickled down to the North American second flight as well.
The NASL on Tuesday announced its Best XI for the 2012 season, and at its head was Golden Boot winner Pablo Campos. The big Brazilian No. 9 had a career year, knocking home 20 goals in leading expansion side San Antonio Scorpions to the best regular-season record and No. 1 playoff seed.
Campos, who turns 29 this week, had four goals in 41 appearances with RSL and San Jose in 2009 and 2010.
Other former MLS players featured in the Best XI were winger Nick Zimmerman, who had stints with both Philadelphia and New York; and central defender Ryan Cochrane, who spent eight years in MLS and won two MLS Cups with Houston.
Here is the complete Best XI list:
Forwards: Mark Anderson (Ft. Lauderdale Strikers), Pablo Campos (San Antonio Scorpions)
Midfielders: Luke Mulholland (Tampa Bay Rowdies), Walter Ramírez (San Antonio Scorpions), Walter Restrepo (Ft. Lauderdale Strikers), Nick Zimmerman (Carolina RailHawks)
Defenders: Kyle Altman (Minnesota Stars FC), Ryan Cochrane (San Antonio Scorpions), Paul Hamilton (FC Edmonton), Takuya Yamada (Tampa Bay Rowdies)
Goalkeeper: Jeff Attinella (Tampa Bay Rowdies)
The US roster was released, and the Twittersphere exploded — as per usual. To quote a noted philospher, "It is what it is."
And what "it is" is the inclusion of Alan Gordon over a host of other, "more deserving" candidates.
Please read those as air quotes, because that's what they are.
On a per-minute basis over the past two years, Gordon has actually been the most productive scorer in MLS. Better than teammate Chris Wondolowski (who was controversially left off), better than Eddie Johnson, better than almost anyone over any two-year stretch in league history. The only thing that's impeded him are the injuries he's had to deal with.
But even if he was less productive than he has been, he'd still be a good invite.
Gordon, you see, is a specialist. With so many players today we talk about versatility and flexibility, but that's often code for "he's a tweener." There's none of that with Gordon.
He's a No. 9. He's a forward who's going to get into the final third, put his back into a defender — or defenders — and hold the ball. Then, when he holds the ball, he'll make either an attacking, or possession-positive play with it.
It's not sexy, but it's effective, and it's crucial for Jurgen Klinsmann's scheme. It's about holding the ball in the final third and building chances, not about forcing turnovers and hitting on the break. Gordon gives him a better chance to implement his plan than pretty much anyone in the pool — not only because he can make plays, but because he makes it significantly easier for the guys around him to make plays. When he occupies a defender, that defender stays occupied.
Consider: For years, the US played better with Brian Ching or Conor Casey on the field than they did without, in spite of what can be accurately described as "shoddy finishing." Those two guys largely have the same skillsets as Gordon, who is both bigger and a better finisher.
Here's how Klinsmann put it in his conference call:
"That's more tactical related," he told reporters on Monday. "...That's the reason we brought in Eddie [Johnson] and Alan, two guys that are good in the air, they can lay balls off."
Translation: They can take a beating, hold the ball, and bring our attacking midfielders — guys like Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Graham Zusi, maybe even Herculez Gomez — into the play. They give the US a better chance at combining and building a goal (I still don't think Johnson does, but whatever — I can live with it).
The invite for Gordon makes perfect sense. As for the Twittersphere explosion ... well, it is what it is.
This is Part 2 of our three-part series examining long build-ups that lead to goals, and both the "how" and the "why" they happen.
In Part 1 we took a look at the role pressure - or the lack of it - plays in the long build. Now we're going to swap from what the defense is doing wrong to what the attack is doing right, with a spotlight on the role the center forward plays.
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
"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.
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.
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.
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.
Jurgen Klinsmann has had some pretty good luck importing dual-nationality Yanks from around the globe. Save for the occasional Timmy Chandler swing-and-a-miss, his main squad-building technique seems to be roping in as many "possibly maybes" as he can.
And now he'll have a new target:
Just spoke with Aron Johannsson, leading scorer in Danish Superliga. Born in Alabama, playing for Iceland U21s, open to USA. More to come
— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) September 5, 2012
Johannsson's a big guy, standing just a shade over 6-foot, but is actually more of a winger than a center forward. And he looks a lot like Kevin Bacon. Google him if you dare.