US National Team
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.
US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has never been shy to let his opinion be known on soccer matters.
While on a scouting trip in England ahead of the USA's Wednesday friendly in Russia, he stopped to visit with the BBC's Gary Lineker, who asked Klinsmann for his views on diving and technology in soccer (WATCH THE INTERVIEW HERE).
Klinsmann has apparently given this more than some thought. Here's his plan:
"Use specific elements right away," Klinsmann said. "You have a fourth referee already out there. So if he has a a television screen, he can tell you like in American basketball or in football. Within 10 seconds he tells you if it was behind the line or it wasn't. It was a penalty or it wasn't. Give [the fourth official] the final shot real quick. They're connected with the ear phones already on the field. Give it a go.
"Give him the signal right away, the main ref, and he can make his call. I would use it."
The former Tottenham Hotspur star also provided Lineker some insight into what he believes to be his mission at the helm of the US national team.
"[Americans] are obviously looking for a national team that they can identify with and that maybe one day goes a little bit further in the World Cup," Klinsmann said. "That's the locomotive of the whole game in the country because their pride is huge when the national team plays. And that's kind of a little bit down to me to hopefully guide them to Brazil 2014 and do well there."
A month ago against Jamaica, with the US holding on to a 1-0 lead for dear life, it was the defense that looked just fine while the midfield and attack — for the last 25 minutes, anyway — looked like total strangers.
This time through, even with the result decided, it was the defense that caused the US fans all sorts of indigestion. Carlos Bocanegra, goal aside, played one of his worst games in the US shirt. And with that in mind, we'll take a look at the three things we learned in the 3-1 US win that secured passage into the Hexagonal...
The US need a new answer in central defense
Giving up such a rudimentary goal to as predictable and banal a side as Los Chapines is cause for concern. Michael Bradley's midfield turnover was needless and the dislocation between the central defenders — Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron — was reason to worry with more dynamic, better teams waiting in the Hexagonal.
It's beyond time to get Matt Besler or Omar Gonzalez some serious run alongside Cameron. They've been the two best US defenders in the league this year, and both among the four best, along with Víctor Bernárdez and Carlos Valdés — who are starters for Honduras and Colombia, respectively. Hanging onto the old guard was the original sin of Bruce Arena, and Jurgen Klinsmann would be wise to learn that lesson before it dooms him in a game that matters.
And they're going to start to matter — a lot — come February.
Where's the killer instinct in the attack?
"Job done" is what Ian Darke said just over a minute into stoppage time, and mathematically there's no real argument with him since the the US qualified, after all.
But compare the US job to what Honduras did to Canada earlier in the day. Klinsmann's side had every chance to lay a 5-1 or 6-1 hurting on a Guatemala team that was missing their top three central defenders, and lacked either the ability or the desire to do so.
To put it into perspective: one of Guatemala's starting central defenders was 20. The other plays in the Guatemalan second division. This was not a Hexagonal-level backline.
And this US wasn't ruthless or relentless; it was haphazard and ad hoc. That'd be the reason Klinsmann's side has scored more than one goal in just five of 20 games.
Is it disappointing on an "I hate Guatemala" level? Absolutely. But it's even more disappointing on an "I'd much rather face Jamaica than Guatemala in the next round" level. The US could have knocked Los Chapines out, and didn't do it. Jamaica did it.
Needs more nasty in the box, not in the tackle.
"We need him"
That's what Clint Dempsey said about Landon Donovan, and Deuce is absolutely right.
But even more important is finding whoever Donovan's heir is, and finding him soon. As the last 18 months have shown, Landon's not 25 anymore. He'll be an injury-prone 31-year-old by the time the Hex starts, capable of breathtaking moments only in short bursts. Someone else needs to be the creative hub come February.
It's the existential crisis US fans have been dreading since 2001, and Klinsmann needs to take a longer view with it than he has with the defense. And it needs to start with the next camp.
One final thought...
That may be the last time I ever watch Carlos Ruiz play soccer. Can't say I'll miss him in the slightest.
Guatemala-based website selecciondeguatemala.net reported on Tuesday morning that influential winger Marco Pappa will be dropped from Guatemala’s starting lineup against the US national team at Livestrong Sporting Park this evening (7 pm ET, ESPN2/TeleFutura, LIVE chat on MLSsoccer.com).
The site claims that Los Chapines’ veteran Uruguayan manager Ever Almeida will “sacrifice” Pappa, who has been struggling to find his best form for both club and country since his summer transfer from the Chicago Fire to Dutch side Heerenveen, in order to pack the midfield against the heavily favored Yanks. That would likely leave former MLS striker Carlos Ruiz alone up top in either a 4-5-1 or 5-4-1 formation.
While unconfirmed and uncorroborated, the report does jibe with the “park-the-bus” tactical approach expected from the canny Almeida, whose team needs only a draw in Kansas City, Kan., to book their place in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Pappa started on the bench in these teams’ previous meeting in this round, a 1-1 draw in Guatemala City on June 12. But he changed the game when he entered as a second-half substitute, sparking Guatemala’s attack and blasting a free kick past US goalkeeper Tim Howard in the dying moments to snatch a point for his team.
Some of that "Goonies never say die!" magic rubbed off on the US national team on Friday night. Alan Gordon, one of the lead protagonists in San Jose's run to what looks like a certain Supporters' Shield, put it on a plate for Eddie Johnson in second half stoppage time as the US beat a stubborn Antigua & Barbuda side 2-1:
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.