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Armchair Analyst: Three things we learned from a balmy night in Krasnodar

14 November 12:57 pm

Armchair Analyst: Three things we learned from a balmy night in Krasnodar

By Matthew Doyle

When it comes to friendlies, Tim Howard may be the greatest 'keeper in the world. He's the hero of Wednesday's 2-2 draw.

And when it comes to soccer, the US are still better playing direct, simple stuff than trying to be Spain. No, you're not going to get many results if you rely primarily on running volleys from outside the 18. But at least that's a club the US have in the bag. Tika-taka isn't.

Anyway, here's what we learned in order of importance:

Jurgen Klinsmann's message got through to Jozy Altidore loud and clear

He wasn't Pelé out there, but he didn't need to be. What the US forwards have done well since the days of Wynalda (and probably before) is work damn hard on both sides of the ball. Even Jozy's done that well at times in his career — notably the summers of 2009 and 2010, and as recently as as last year against Slovenia when his pressure led to Edson Buddle's goal.

That Jozy was back against the Russians. There was little combination play to speak of in the final third — something we'll get to in point No. 2 — but Altidore can't be blamed for that. What he should get credit for is pressuring the Russian backs and checking to midfield constantly, offering a largely outskilled and creatively bereft midfield an outlet when they got in trouble.

And again, he wasn't perfect in that. But he was really good, won a ton of possession-positive headers, found space a few times to let rip, and made a bunch of unselfish runs off the ball. If there was any justice, he'd have gotten a better touch on that Fabian Johnson pass in the 70th minute.

You can have two of Danny Williams, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones on the field at the same time

Any more than two and you get a midfield that plays like ... well, like what we saw today. I don't know how many times we have to see that during Klinsmann's tenure, but let's add a "+1" after Wednesday's draw.

The slightly mitigating factor is that the Williams/Bradley/Jones trio looked a bit more useful when Klinsmann switched away from the 4-3-3 to a lopsided 4-4-2 with 25 minutes to go (with Williams eventually coming off for the effective Mo Edu, which is a like-for-like switch).

The improvement makes sense since the US, as a whole, were much better in 1-v-1 situations than they were in combination play — a bizarre thing to say/think about a team with such strong Bundesliga influences. And, of course, because it opened up space for Bradley to move forward. Without that switch he's nowhere near Juan Agudelo's knock-back header to find the equalizer.

The 4-3-3 can still work with this team, but it needs a midfield trio that can hold the ball and build chances. Williams/Bradley/Jones ain't it.

Josh Gatt is still more athlete than soccer player

I've been harping on this a lot, as I often do with Youtube heroes. And I'm not going to stop.

The player Gatt reminds me of most is Dane Richards. He's got a ton of speed — both at the start and the top end — and can make things happen in the open field pretty damn well. He also attacks the back post ferociously, a prerequisite for any winger in a 4-3-3 (which is what Gatt is for his club team in Molde, and was on Wednesday as well).

However, at this point, he's unable to make decisions in possession, and defensively he's an absolute nightmare. Any simple one-two left him undone (witness his last action of the game, in the 62nd minute), and the Russians went at him incessantly during the game's first 20-odd minutes.

He got better as the half went on, but right now he's a significantly inferior soccer player — and national team prospect — to guys like Chris Pontius, Nick DeLeon and, quite obviously, Graham Zusi.

But figuring out stuff like that is what friendlies are for.

Bonus thought: Once again, the US played better when Sacha Kljestan came on

Other than Landon Donovan, no one in the US pool sees the game quicker. And he's become much, much stronger on the ball in the past two years. If it were my call, his name would be on the starting XI in pen.