On raw talent, Belgium are one of the six or eight best teams in the world right now. And if you’re going to take down one of the six or eight best teams in the world, you have to be able to play as more than the sum of your parts.
The US didn’t, and so Belgium’s individual talent differential eventually won out over any collective strengths Jurgen Klinsmann’s side was able to impose upon the game on Wednesday night in Cleveland.
Of course, it’s easy to just say, “The US need to play as more than the sum of their parts.” It’s a bit harder to figure out just how that’s done.
Good thing I have a plan:
Invert the wingers
Everybody remembers the wide-open teams of the last two years of the Bob Bradley era, the ones that stomped Egypt, won the Hexagonal, then generated a boatload of chances at the World Cup and – to a lesser extent – the 2011 Gold Cup.
Forgotten is the malaise of 2008 when a dislocation between the midfield and forwards saw the US attack dry up much the way it has under Klinsmann. And the US have been barren under Jurgen, as the numbers show.
The temptation is to blame this on individual players. Jozy Altidore is a frequent target, and of course he’s played more than 1,000 minutes at center forward for the new regime without scoring from the run of play. But Terrence Boyd is at nearly 200 scoreless minutes there himself. Chris Wondolowski had a forgettable, goal-less couple of games as a center forward, and Eddie Johnson has been invisible when played as a No. 9.
Herculez Gomez, of the current A-list options, is the only one who’s been remotely effective at that spot, and he hasn’t exactly scored at a van Basten-like clip there.
The guys who play the game always need to shoulder their share the blame. I’m not absolving any of the above of that. But when results are so uniform across a group that combined to score more than 100 goals in their last league season, chances are the system holds its share of the blame.
When Bradley’s attack went dry, he did the counterintuitive thing: He pulled his two best players, his two best finishers, farther from goal. He put Clint Dempsey on the left side of midfield – where Deuce was going to cut in and attack goal at every opportunity no matter what his tactical instructions were – and Landon Donovan on the other.
Donovan would start wide and playmake from there if that’s where space was. If it was elsewhere, then he’d slip inside, find space, and pick the game apart from there, functionally a modern No. 10 on offense and a winger defensively (see above video).
Obviously, Donovan isn’t in the mix at the moment, but Graham Zusi is. So is Joe Corona, and both those guys have similar inside-outside/outside-inside inclinations for their respective club teams. Give one of them the call at on the right, and put Dempsey on the left. Against all but the very best teams, that will fix the dislocation (which is my way of saying, “Don’t expect it to work vs. Germany, but it should be enough vs. CONCACAF teams”).
Make Jermaine Jones know he's a No. 6
Jones seems almost as difficult to play with as he must be to play against, largely because you never know where he’s going to pop up on the pitch.
The Daily 5/30 - USA falls to Belgium
But, for whatever reason, we saw an admirably disciplined display from him in defensive midfield against Belgium. The visitors didn’t complete a single pass into the box from a central position on Wednesday until the subs had been made and the game was a tactical mess. That was Jones’ territory, and he was very, very good not only defensively, but also finding lanes to switch the field of play and distribute to the flanks.
Putting Jones into that spot on a somewhat permanent basis also frees up Michael Bradley to play a bit higher and combine a little more with the likes of Dempsey and Zusi/Coronoa/ZombieDonovan/Gomez/whoever. Bradley isn’t a creative genius, but he never wastes a pass, and his clever off the ball movement will pull defenders away from the spots where the US attackers want to operate.
Settle on a central defense
We had a very brief discussion in the office: If you had to start a team with any one player from Belgium, who would you pick?
We reached unanimity quickly: Vincent Kompany. Always start building from the back no matter how spectacular your other options are.
Cohesion starts in the center of defense, and the US have had a rotating cast of characters there over the past 20 months. It’s got to stop, and to be perfectly honest, it should have stopped with the Azteca game. If there was ever a defensive result that should have made a US coach double down, that’s the one.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler are as individually talented as anybody in the central defensive pool save for maybe Geoff Cameron (who doesn’t play there for his club team, which in my eyes more or less rules him out except as an emergency measure). Give them every chance to be the foundation now, rather than learning painful lessons when the games really matter.
What will that all add up to for the US? Wins and points, I think. Shots from the run of play at the very least, is what I would bet on.
Will it be enough to advance out of the group at next year’s World Cup?
Right now, I don’t care. The important part is getting there first.