Brutal loss by US U23 to HON. US now has to beat loser of MEX-CAN Tuesday & win 1-game playoff vs Colombia in Rio in March to make Olympics.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 10, 2015
That's the logistical consequence of the United States U-23's 2-0 loss to Honduras at Rio Tinto Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The back door to Olympic qualification is still open, and the talent is there to bust through it. I'm not certain the coaching is, but according to Jurgen Klinsmann, "It's a player's game."
He's kind of right, but the players have to be put into spots where they can succeed. Coaches have to make sure teams are balanced and cohesive, and have to identify the difference between potential and production. Coaches have to understand a team's weaknesses and how to smooth them over by doubling down on strengths, and how to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Andi Herzog, Klinsmann's hand-picked coach of the US U-23s, did not manage that against Honduras. Here's a sample of what went wrong:
1. Potential Over Production
Cameron Carter-Vickers may someday be the best defender in the USMNT pool, but right now he's a 17-year-old kid with zero first-team experience. The fact that he's been the subject of breathless reporting on both sides of the Atlantic seems to have had an undue effect on Herzog's selection decisions, because it was clear as early as Game 1 against Canada (thank goodness we didn't have to face Cyle Larin) that this level was a bridge too far for CCV.
His reactions are slow in the box when faced with clever movement, and his reads in help defense are exactly what you'd expect of a 17-year-old. That former fault was readily apparent on the first goal by Alberth Elis
And the latter was there for all to see on the second:
Carter-Vickers caught ball-watching on the second Honduras goal. Shocker developing for all 12 people in attendance. #USYNT— Thomas Floyd (@thomasfloyd10) October 10, 2015
CCV was thrown into the deep end with these instructions: "Don't drown!"
He drowned, and now the Olympics are a distant, fading dream.
Blame the kid all you want. Blame the system that prizes these kind of high-handed, insane risks from the coaches more.
2. Midfield Muddle
The strength of this team was supposed to be in the midfield, which was a blend of relative experienced pros from home (Wil Trapp, Luis Gil, Matt Polster) and abroad (Emerson Hyndman, Gedion Zelalem). You'll notice there are no real wide midfielders in that equation.
This was part of a commitment to the 4-4-2 diamond, in which "wide" is a nominal descriptive tag and the tactical imperative is upon pairwise rotation to fill gaps, rather than delineated channels to run. It's a complex system that's traditionally more effective at the club level since it calls for familiarity and repetition.
Sixty minutes into this game, here was my colleage Andrew Wiebe's take:
The US never move the ball quickly enough to create space.
That's a problem in any formation. In the diamond it is fatal, since rapid and precise ball movement is how you compensate for the formation's lack of width. Without that type of ball movement, there's no chance to get the fullbacks forward, and the central midfield turns into a mosh pit.
To Herzog's credit, he switched to the 4-3-3 at halftime and things improved. Not enough, though.
And the diamond's lack of width, for what it's worth, was killer defnsively as well. Go back and watch that first Elis goal again, and you'll see how slow Emerson Hyndman is to get out and shut down service. A different formation, with different roles, would've put the US in a better stance there.
This is another example of where I think Klinsmann's "It's a player's game" is more excuse than ethos. Better coaching would have put the players in a better position to succeed.
3. No. 9
Everyone loves Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter for their open-field pace and ability on the break, and I think both guys have great futures. Kiesewetter is clearly a winger on the next level, maybe an Ethan Finlay-type of player.
Morris continues to look like a second forward. He stretches the field with his speed, he's willing to make really unselfish runs, his first touch when facing goal is often exceptional, and he's proved to be an able finisher with the U-23s.
Neither Morris nor Kiesewetter can do a damn thing with their back to goal, though. And while that's fine if you're playing in front of Spain's midfield, it's not so great if you're playing for the US. At any level.
The lack of hold-up play, the lack of any sort of combining between the forwards and the midfielders, is cause for serious concern. The best forwards in the world of any size can all play with their backs to the goal, can all receive the ball with a defender on their back, can all complete useful passes. Many of them - the best of them - can and do complete dangerous passes.
This US group was without that kind of forward, as were the U-20s back in May. As were the US last summer in the World Cup, once Jozy Altidore (who's really more of a hybrid than a target forward, but whatever) was hurt.
We now have what appears to be an institutionalized distaste for classic center forward play even though good, classic center forward play makes the game easier for the rest of the attackers. And we need the game to be easier for the rest of the attackers because our midfield - like the midfields of 99 percent of the world's national teams, including major ones like Argentina, Italy and France - isn't good enough to compensate.
And please understand this: "Classic center forward play" is not a synonym for "bad, regressive soccer." Watch Carlos Tevez with Boca Juniors or Karim Benzema with France, or Graziano Pelle with Southampton. These guys get in the trenches and take a beating in order to make the game more beautiful, and succeed. Look at how many time Elis and Anthony Lozano were able to receive the ball with their back to goal today, retain possession, and allow Honduras to advance en masse.
The US had nothing comparable to offer.
It's a skillset, both mental and physical, that has not been properly valued in this U-23 cycle, which focused much more on open-field speed than any other attacking attribute.
And that's not enough. It never has been for the US.
A few more thoughts:
9. Morris had a perfectly good goal ruled out:
Even with his limitations, he's still an A+ talent with a huge future.
8. The sparse crowd was disappointing. I reached out to RSL for comment:
"Average ticket price is $75, set by US Soccer, who are local organizer on behalf of CONCACAF. We pushed back on multiple occasions, especially after USA-Mexico was moved to same day."
EDIT: In an email sent on Sunday afternoon, a USSF spokesperson disputed RSL's account:
The average ticket price was not $75. It was $42.
7. Wil Trapp. Second goal.
Wil Trapp was nowhere near strong enough there. Dude's an experienced pro - he's GOT TO stop that. No excuses. #USAvHON— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) October 10, 2015
I've praised Trapp up & down for his vision & quality on the ball, but always said caveat emptor b/c he's soft defensively. And there it was— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) October 10, 2015
His lack of physicality when it needs to be applied remains his biggest hurdle.
6. Down 2-0 over the last quarter-hour, our solution was to push a central defender higher and ping long-balls at his head. This is not a real solution, and it's certainly not progress.
5. Hyndman's lack of in-game sharpness showed. He needs to start getting minutes, and it'll be interesting to see where he lands in the January window.
4. Dillon Serna is a left back. Dillon Serna is a left back. Dillon Serna is a left back. Somebody please send this note to Commerce City.
3. Luis Gil had several opportunities to make plays, and didn't. He's not an instinctive chance creator around the box, and I suspect that - wherever he is next year - he begins a transition to wide midfield, or maybe even fullback. But that "No. 10" on his shirt is not accurate.
2. Matt Polster is a warrior. When the US switched to the 4-3-3 he was moved to right back (not his natural position) and provided the steadiest and most incisive attacking threat, while avoiding a second yellow.
And yeah, Polster takes some yellows and is borderline "too physical!" at times. But the US could use more of that, especially in midfield.
1. Elis - who is just 19 - needs to be in MLS next year. We just saw what he can do in age group, but he's also a starter for Olimpia who scores domestically, and internationally (ask Seattle about that).
I'll also add Bryan Acosta, the No. 6 who did most of the work when Honduras wanted to string plays together and is a starter for the full Honduran national team, and right back Kevin Alvarez, who may have been the best non-Elis player on the field.
Alvarez, who's 19 like Elis, also has a ton of international experience:
My final takeaway is this:
Every well-argued defense of Klinsmann to date is about him as technical director. 10 minutes from that disintegrating.— Any1CanPlayLeftBack (@nwblackmon) October 10, 2015
Gulati said at PPL Park 2 months ago that "we don't make judgments on one game." What about the colossal failure of a stated objective?— Any1CanPlayLeftBack (@nwblackmon) October 10, 2015
This is the second straight time Klinsmann's hand-picked coach has failed in Olympic qualifying.
Where does the buck stop?