US National Team
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.
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.