US National Team
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.
If you somehow missed it in the USA's 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Jamaica last month, Clint Dempsey's – how shall we put it – mocking scowl, has quickly become the next great American soccer meme.
And though it is already well-preserved in the annals of the Internet, you can now take it with you wherever you go. The Deuce face will make its debut with a group of intrepid US fans traveling to Antigua & Barbuda for Friday night's World Cup qualifier, who have done an excellent job capturing one of the iconic American soccer photos of 2012 and putting it into poster form:
Deuce Face has arrived.twitpic.com/b3i1ks
— M. (@melly2508) October 12, 2012
Though it's unlikely we'll see another facial expression quite as great as Dempsey's from a US national team player, it does beg the question, what if we could do this for the whole team? Now THAT could be pretty cool to see in the stands at the USA's next game.
Accéder au dernier tour des éliminatoires de la Coupe du monde, et donc faire partie des six meilleures nations de la zone, est un must pour tout pays de la Concacaf le moindrement ambitieux. C’est un objectif que le Canada tentera d’atteindre pour la première fois depuis 16 ans.
Pour cela, il faudra commencer par battre Cuba ce vendredi. À en croire les diverses déclarations, les membres de l’équipe nationale canadienne ne sont pas stressés. Stephen Hart se dit très serein tout en insistant sur le fait que les joueurs sont concentrés sur ce duel, plutôt que sur le déplacement au Honduras de mardi. Olivier Occean ajoute que la pression, les joueurs la ressentent aussi dans leur club.
Les Canadiens récupéreront le jeune papa Will Johnson, de retour de suspension. À l’image de Terry Dunfield, ils sont nombreux à se rendre compte que c’est leur dernière chance de participer à la Coupe du monde.
Alors que les observateurs les voient déjà au Brésil, les États-Unis font preuve d’une inquiétude inhabituelle. Le choix Jurgen Klinsmann de ne pas sélectionner Jozy Altidore a ouvert un bal d’autres défections, pour raisons de santé celles-là. Ils n’étaient que 11 sur le terrain pour l’entraînement ce mercredi, et l’équipe, déjà privée de Landon Donovan et Brek Shea, a dû partir pour Antigua-et-Barbuda sans arrière gauche.
On s’affaire aussi beaucoup en haut lieu. Pendant que Don Garber participe à des conférences en Angleterre, les dirigeants de la MLS ont officiellement ouvert les discussions pour l’arrivée d’une deuxième équipe à New York en 2016.
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.
Jurgen Klinsmann has spent much of his year-plus at the head of the US national team talking about big ideas and expansive long-term goals.
A few gritty rounds of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying seem to have brought out the flinty realist in him, however.
The German-American coach shared his thoughts on the qualifying grinder and his team’s overall progress in a Q&A with ussoccer.com on Thursday. And while he claimed that the rigors of regional competition have been “pretty much what I expected,” and largely adhered to his optimistic outlook, it’s hard not to believe that he’s adapting his ambitious outlook to his current circumstances.
“They are very difficult games going into countries in the Caribbean and Central America,” said Klinsmann. “You have to adjust to the environments there. You have the crowd’s influence. You have refereeing that here and there may not be the way you want it. It’s difficult. It’s very physical and tough.
“You have to respond to it with the right attitude. You have to have respect for those teams. You have to battle them. You have to win your battles first before you play nice football.”
Remember, this is the same coach who proclaimed his desire to play flowing, “proactive” soccer and stand toe to toe with world powers. A week after suggesting in an ESPN.com interview that he would even “send a tall center back up front” and go Route-1 style if the US somehow found themselves chasing the game against Antigua and Barbuda next week, Klinsmann acknowledged his own on-the-job educational process.
“From a coaching perspective, I learned a lot about having games in Jamaica and Guatemala, so I know what to expect the next time I go in there,” he said. “Every coach goes through those learning curves. At the end of the day, we are here for points. We need to qualify for the World Cup, so we need to make sure the players understand the urgency of doing things.
“Going into these last two qualifying matches of the first group stage, it’s really important that the players understand from the first second on that we have a sense of urgency in everything we do.”
Comparing CONCACAF’s underdogs to the awkward UEFA minnows his German national team wrestled past during qualification efforts in his own playing career – including a tight home victory over Wales that nearly kept Die Mannschaft out of the 1990 World Cup that they eventually won – Klinsmann acknowledged the underrated challenges that US teams perennially encounter in their own backyard.
“You have to explain to people that even if you are on paper the big favorite, for your opponent the game against the United States is the game of the year, and maybe the game of the decade,” he said.
“If you take just five percent off the gas, you will struggle. They will come away with a tie, they might beat you. It is important that the players must understand there is no easy game on the agenda. There is no such thing. Soccer is unpredictable. You can mess up again with one set piece, and then they bunker themselves in and you do not find a way through that wall and you lose 1-0 and wonder why afterwards.”
US fans can only hope that Klinsmann and his squad make sure that feeling, which befell them after last month’s upset loss to Jamaica, doesn’t return any time soon.
If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire... Jozy Altidore.
You've seen it. And if you haven't seen it, you've heard about it. And if you haven't heard about it then, well, you are in for a treat, my friend.
Here it is. The first known sighting of the "Dempsey Face." Drink it in in all its glory, US fans.
Photo courtesy of SB Nation
"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.
We’ve seen plenty of CONCACAF matches just like that USMNT loss in Jamaica on Friday night: physical, scrappy, disjointed rough-and-tumble affairs.
And those are the games where you need the magical play. Those are the scrums where you need the player who can stand out and make something out of nothing.
Right now the US doesn’t have that go-to guy. Especially when Landon Donovan is not on the field (he’s missing out on the Jamaica home-and-home due to a hamstring injury). Donnie Moore's phonebook-tearing techniques can only take you so far.
Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT was exposed in Kingston for what it really is: a collection of solid role players who ply their trade in Europe and Mexico. Good overall pros who are not even the undisputed stars of their own club teams. Each does some things better than others, but there’s not one field player who excels at a single facet of the game. No one without gloves who can decide a match with a dominant skill.
Who’s the expert dribbler on the team? Who’s the explosive speedster who can at least draw a foul when he can’t run by someone? Who’s the master free-kick taker? Who’s the head-ball specialist feared by opposing defenders? A passing maestro anyone? How about a pinpoint crosser of the ball?
The USMNT needed someone to pull a rabbit out of a hat against Jamaica becase the team game just wasn’t there. The passing and the movement were not synced up. It wasn’t happening. And they had no one to turn to. The man in which the USA usually confides in moments of despair was watching from home.
Maybe we have taken him for granted. Maybe we thought the golden boy would always be a boy. But injuries are slowly eating away at Landon Donovan’s career. The passing of the years have eroded his exuberant presence on the field. Even Donovan has hinted at it: A future without LD is closer than you think.
Despite their glaring deficiency, the USMNT and Klinsmann will keep on truckin'. Their heart and optimism, courage and fight, is praised around the world. They’ll show that never-say-die spirit even when the scoreline is unforgiving (see Brazil). They’ll punch above their weight sometimes and gut out a win (see Italy). They’ll hammer the inferior teams (see Scotland).
But all the other stuff in the middle – those evenly matched mucks – will continue to produce results like Kingston, Jamaica every so often. It’s just the reality when you don’t have the one player who can tip the balance of a match.
However, that sold-out Columbus Crew Stadium crowd on Tuesday – that might just be enough to take the stars-and-stripes over the top in the scrappy rematch that ensues. More importantly, home field could be enough to sway a key referee call or even win a penalty kick that decides the match.
All is not lost. Even without a superstar.