Armchair Analyst: Three things we learned from a reassuring USMNT win in Jamaica
Is this the type of soccer that was promised when Jurgen Klinsmann took over the US national team two years ago?
Probably not. "Get it wide and cross it on a dime" wasn't mentioned in that initial press conference, and not in any subsequent press conference that I've seen. But there was clearly a come to Jesus moment for Klinsmann at some point, and the fruit of that epiphany was a fairly strong attacking display in Friday night's reassuring 2-1 win at Jamaica.
1. The Yanks are better when they embrace who they are
Putting two forwards up top – yeah, I know it was listed as a 4-2-3-1, but that was a 4-4-2 – and getting the ball wide early is still the US' best bet for generating consistent offense. And considering how much they have to scramble when they don't have the ball, said consistent offense is also the best American defense.
Here's the thing, though: Going 4-4-2 with one real winger (Graham Zusi) and one outside-in playmaker (Fabian Johnson) didn't just play to our strengths – it actually played to the inherent weaknesses in Jamaica's 4-1-4-1 because it forced the fullbacks to give Zusi space.
Clint Dempsey didn't have his best game, but even when he's not heavily involved he draws attention, and guys like Zusi and Jozy Altidore are showing increased understanding of how to take advantage of that. On Altidore's goal, Deuce drifted between the lines of midfield and defense, and since Jamaica only had one d-mid, that meant left back O'Brien Woodbine had to pinch inside farther than he wanted and track him. In a 4-2-3-1, he could have stayed wide and probably turned Zusi back.
But that's not what happened. With Woodbine pinching, Zusi drifted higher up the field and eventually got the ball in isolation. He torched a recovering Woodbine while Dempsey made a somewhat lazy, but still dangerous run to the near post.
Altidore goal celebration is that of a goalscorer thanking the provider and cross coming with BOTH Clint and Jozy making runs! #JAMvUSA
— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) June 8, 2013
And since Dempsey has 10 goals in his last 13 US caps, even a lazy run means the defense is going to zero in on him. Altidore didn't even really have to move to put home his second back-post goal in two games.
It's not tika-taka, and it's not how Bayern Munich beat Borussia Dortmund last month. But it's still what the US do best.
2. Besler and Gonzalez are at their best when scrambling
It actually feels a lot like the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, because Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu (later Jay DeMerit) were expert scramblers. On Friday, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez did the same – they didn't stop a whole lot of fires before things got hot, but they certainly figured out how to put 'em out more often than not.
You can see what I mean in the graphic at right, which is a map of their clearances. That's not an Alessandro Nesta-type evening.
While that's frustrating (because who wants to watch that much emergency defense?), there's some pretty solid evidence that the Gonzalez-Besler pairing has a bit more upside because they're such good complementary pieces. Gonzalez does the bulk of the clean-up work while Besler handles runners out of midfield. Against a team like Jamaica, and like Mexico in March, that is proving to be enough to get the job done.
Problems will come when facing a team like Belgium or Germany, who throw hordes of runners into attack from odd angles. But that's a bridge to be crossed in 2014 – and for the first time in this cycle, I'm convinced that 2014 will include a trip to Brazil.
3. The US are a medium-pressure team
The high pressure that so many are fond of nattering on about is a bluff for the Yanks these days, something used primarily in the first 20 minutes of games then scrapped as a rhythm builds. The nasty truth about high pressure is that you can't play it if you're not superior in possession, and a US team that's superior in possession probably won't be a thing until the 2022 cycle at the earliest.
Full credit to Klinsmann: He's figured that out, and also figured out a way to maximize the talent at his disposal. Michael Bradley is the metronome and sweeper in central midfield while Jermaine Jones pushes high to destroy and switch the field of play. Johnson pinches in to help defensively and in possession, while Altidore – because of the deeper line of confrontation – can now move off the ball towards goal instead of having to check deep into midfield.
I think it can be very pretty, and will only get prettier as the US gets more cohesion. That 10-pass sequence leading to Altidore's goal vs. Germany was a "medium pressure" goal, as was the opener tonight.
Will it work with Jones sidelined, as he probably will be on Tuesday? No guarantees. But it has a better chance of success than anything else Klinsmann has tried thus far.