Central Winger: Picture's worth 1,000 words -- and 3 points
If the third round of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF were structured as a round-robin instead of a home-and-home format, the United States would be clinging to the final qualification spot, entrenched in a merciless tie-break with Guatemala. And as we know, "mercy" is not something often seen in international soccer.
As it turns out, the US may just be in that exact same spot despite the format, with all signs pointing to the fickle god of "goal differential" eventually playing a role in which Group A team – the US, Guatemala or Jamaica – will miss the Hex. And while three out of the four goals that the United States have conceded came via well-taken or unluckily-deflected free kicks, they haven't exactly threatened to put enough insurance tallies on the board. So that stress and pressure you're probably feeling today? That's warranted.
Usually this column dives deep into the numbers and game context to tease out underlying factors, but today the case can easily be made aesthetically. Here are the passing network diagrams for the group stage World Cup qualifying matches against Antigua and Barbuda and Jamaica.
If we look at the Antigua and Barbuda match – which the US won 3-1 and dominated possession by nearly a three-to-one margin – and then glance at the Jamaica match ... well, a picture's worth a thousand words.
A common criticism of the Yanks during the Jamaica game was the lack of attacking width. And it was warranted, as aside from the fullbacks, every single player's average position was no more than 15 yards from the middle of the pitch.
Contrast that with the Antigua and Barbuda match. The US' wide players managed to connect with the attacking players at a very high rate, creating balance and angles that simply weren't there against the Reggae Boyz. An injured Landon Donovan isn't a good enough excuse for your attacking targets to suddenly become invisible.
Also, the pure volume of passes is night and day – the lines on the A&B graph are thicker and darker for a reason. The midfield trio of Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones (later, Danny Williams) combined for 104 completed passes against Jamaica.
Edu, Jones and Michael Bradley combined for 210 against A&B – 117 of them in the first half. Just as an injured Donovan isn't a good enough excuse for attacking avenues to disappear, an injured Bradley isn't a good enough excuse for your passing volume to be cut in half.
Yes, Jamaica are better than Antigua and Barbuda, but no, they're not good enough to play toe-to-toe against a US side that's lined up in a sensible formation. They are a lesser side, and the US must assert its dominance against lesser sides. That begins and ends with midfield dominance.
During Tuesday night's Jamaica rematch, take a close look at the US' central players. If the midfield manages to dictate the pace of the game and efficiently connect wide attacking players to the rest of the system, Jamaica stand no chance.