Monday Postgame: USMNT offense improves, D still needs fine-tuning ahead of World Cup qualifiers

Between the start of US Open Cup play for MLS teams, the Amway Canadian Championship final, a slate of international friendlies (including two for the USMNT), and nine MLS matches, this was the busiest week of the 2013 season.

In MLS, the Montreal Impact nailed down the biggest victory of the round, winning 2-1 at Sporting Kansas City to reclaim first place in the East, while the New England Revolution scored the gaudiest win of the week, scoring three late goals to steamroll the defending champions LA Galaxy 5-0 in Foxborough, Mass. – and cause lots of stateside fans to Google "Diego Fagundez US citizenship?"

There were other high points, too, such as the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas combining for four goals in an electric 10-minute span during their 2-2 draw at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, and Real Salt Lake turning on the jets for three in 30 minutes en route to a 3-0 blanking of the San Jose Earthquakes.

At the other end of the spectrum, the New York Red Bulls collapsed in the second half of their home game against the undermanned Vancouver Whitecaps, backing into their upcoming three-week break from MLS action on a losing note, and – speaking of losing notes, or entire concertos – Chivas USA, D.C. United and Toronto FC all extended lengthy winless streaks in what are turning out to be very difficult seasons.

But despite the excitement of Week 14, many MLS fans were focused on the United States’ two friendlies – games that involved several MLSers and functioned as tune-ups for a pivotal stretch of three World Cup qualifiers that starts with Friday’s visit to Jamaica (9:30 pm ET, beIN Sport).

On Wednesday, the US faced a high-powered Belgian team and were clearly outplayed, losing 4-2, while on Sunday the Yanks took on a German "B" team and jumped out to a 4-1 lead before holding on for a 4-3 win.

With Friday’s qualifier looming, it’s time for the real US team to stand up. So which is it? The punchless group from Wednesday, or the proactive side that celebrated U.S. Soccer’s centennial with a high-scoring win over Jurgen Klinsmann’s native country and former team?

Let’s take a look.

Passing Standards

The discouraging result in Cleveland last Wednesday made it easy to forget that for the last 20 minutes of the first half, the US possessed the ball for long stretches, stringing together many skillful passing sequences.

The wheels came off with several defensive breakdowns in the second half, but the team did show some initiative and some ability to keep the ball against a very good Belgian side – one that’s currently leading its UEFA World Cup qualifying group and was preparing for a qualifier against Serbia on Friday. In other words, a good team that was definitely not in the US on vacation.

Four days in later in D.C., the Americans took the game to Germany from the opening whistle, passing the ball fluidly and getting forward consistently. The Yanks also pressured die Mannschaft in their own end, helping force a comical own goal in the 16th minute.

But how much of their ability to dictate the game on Sunday had to do with Germany’s makeup and motivation coming into the game?

This was not coach Joachim Low’s first-choice side, and they weren’t preparing for a World Cup qualifier. They began the game in a decidedly low gear, possibly in an effort to pace themselves on a hot day, possibly because the US put them on the back foot – and possibly because they were thinking of their summer vacations, which began right after the final whistle on Sunday.

Offense on Track

The US did have a positive stretch against Belgium in the first half, but even during their best moments, they failed to generate much offense. During the entire 90 minutes of the Belgium match, the US didn’t produce a single shot on goal from the run of play, and mustered just two shots on frame, period – one of which was a dubious penalty, while the other was Geoff Cameron’s header created when he pushed off a defender during a US set piece.

Against Germany, the Yanks translated their possession into offense – and plenty of it. They generated 16 shots, seven of them on frame, and scored three quality goals in addition to German 'keeper Marc-André ter Stegen’s blooper-reel own-goal.

Jozy Altidore, a player whom many fans had been clamoring to see replaced for his lack of productivity with the USMNT, was especially effective, nailing a spectacular opener and setting up the first of Clint Dempsey’s two goals with some excellent hold-up play and a quality cross.

Backline Blunders

If there was one consistency between these two vastly different tuneup matches, it was the inconsistency of the US backline.

On Wednesday, center backs Clarence Goodson and Omar Gonzalez were out of sync and error prone, while right back Geoff Cameron looked … like a center back shoehorned into an outside back position. Left back DaMarcus Beasley, a converted winger, was up-and-down as well.

The results were as ugly as the Belgian uniforms, with unforced errors and mental lapses contributing to all four of the visitors’ goals.

Klinsmann fielded a reshuffled back four against Germany, swapping 2012 MLS Defender of the Year Matt Besler in for Goodson and, in a surprise move, bringing Seattle utilityman Brad Evans in for Cameron on the right.

While Evans put in an unexpectedly solid shift, and Besler proved once again that he can compete at the international level, Gonzalez kept up his average of at least one defensive howler per game for the US. That’s a worrying thought with the three CONCACAF qualifiers looming from June 7 to June 18.

Beasley was serviceable, and better than that going forward, but his second-half replacement, Edgar Castillo, gave his man plenty of room to cut inside on the play that led to Germany’s third goal and did not look like a player who can improve the US defense.

Showtime

A 4-1 lead with 13 minutes to play should be safe – against any team – but the US made it dangerous against Germany as their inexperienced, patchwork defense gave up two late goals, running its two-game total to seven.

The offense woke up, with the midfield improved dramatically by the return of Michael Bradley alongside Jermaine Jones. And the team should get a confidence boost from the result. But if the US are going to get the points they need in June, the defense needs to undergo a similar dramatic improvement.

The dress rehearsals are over.