"If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, then you don't know what you're doing." – W. Edwards Deming
There were two specific things that happened in the USMNT's 1-0 win over Jamaica on Friday night that eased what are the otherwise perpetually jangled nerves of a fan whose team has struggled out of the gate in World Cup qualifying.
One was obviously the goal, scored by Jordan Morris. It was well-taken, which is what you want to see from a forward. More to the point, though, is that it was designed aforethought. The US had been trying to batter Jamaica down by using the flanks through most of the first hour, or by having Benny Feilhaber pull the strings from deep, as is his wont. Credit to the Reggae Boyz for meeting every overload, or for sniffing out every early run, or for shutting down every long-distance attempt.
What was necessary was for Feilhaber to get higher into the attack, and to trust Dax McCarty to hit the pass that could split an ever-so-slightly spread out defense:
This is a "hey we have to trust each other, trust our team's balance and figure it out" goal. This was purposeful and smart, and an adjustment that needed to be made was, in fact, made.
It also came after 15 minutes of pretty relentless overlapping from the fullbacks, which is something we hadn't seen all that much of through the first three halves of this new Bruce Arena era. If you're playing against a team in banks of four, you have to force them to defend from touchline to touchline – something Serbia never really bothered with last Sunday, and something Jamaica didn't have to do much of in the first half tonight (though Jorge Villafana gave them fits a few times in the first 45 minutes).
Getting Villafana and Graham Zusi forward, even when it wasn't to immediate effect, changed the shape of the game and opened spots like that for Feilhaber.
Again: This was a purposeful adjustment from Arena. This wasn't "man, the things we've tried haven't worked, so let's throw it all out and start over." This was "our structure is good, but here are a few places where we need to improve."
And so they did. It wasn't overwhelming and I'm not 100 percent at ease with everything I've seen, but I think I know where we're heading, and I think that's a positive.
A few other points:
• I wasn't as high on Walker Zimmerman as the broadcast team of Landon Donovan and Stu Holden was. His emergency defense was good, but his distribution was a beat too slow and several times he charged into moments too aggressively, turning percentage plays into make-or-break gambles. Steve Birnbaum was the more impressive of the pair to me, though I think it's pretty clear the US need a veteran leader in the center of defense.
• The US were able to string together a million passes in the attacking third in search of that one moment of brilliance. This can be frustrating to watch, but it also tends to be predictive:
Last year the #USMNT had six games with 70% or more successful pass% in the final third. They were 6-0 with +18 goal differential.— Harrison Crow (@Harrison_Crow) February 4, 2017
Keep pounding on the door like that with in-season players, including a creative talent like Christian Pulisic on the wing and overlapping threats like DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson, and I'm pretty sure we're in good shape for getting out of the Hexagonal. Obviously that doesn't mean as much against the Argentinas or Germanys of the world, but we don't have to play those teams just yet.
• The group of players who, I think, helped themselves the most this camp: Feilhaber, Villafana, Birnbaum, McCarty, Sebastian Lletget and Darlington Nagbe. I could see several of them starting against Honduras and/or Panama next month.
• Lletget instinctively tucked inside to protect the central defense when the US were on the back foot and the central midfield was stacked, rather than parallel. It's a subtle bit of defensive nous that is absolutely necessary for any version of the 4-4-2 to work in the modern game, and it'll serve him well for club and country.
I wish we'd gotten to see more of Nagbe in that role, though.
• Zusi struggled to keep up at right back. The experiment was a worthwhile one, but I wouldn't feel great about seeing him on the field there for the US in a must-win game. Given the presence of Yedlin in the pool and hopefully the return of Eric Lichaj, I don't think we'll have to go that far down the depth chart unless there's a rash of injuries.
• Juan Agudelo's target forward play for the first hour was rugged, and his movement was good. Most of the best US chances came through him before he ran out of gas.
Because of the differing skillsets of US forwards, I have Agudelo on the depth chart as Jozy Altidore's back-up, while Morris is Bobby Wood's back-up. Gyasi Zardes and a few others could potentially work their way into the mix, but I'm pretty convinced we'll see the Altidore/Wood pairing against the Catrachos.
• Yes, a frontline "pairing." The US played a 4132 tonight that looked like this:
That's a network passing graph made using Opta data. Each circle represent's each player's aggregate position, while the thickness of the lines connecting them represents the volume of passes they exchanged.
McCarty is No. 20, the defensive midfielder. You can see how central he is to everything the US did against Jamaica, and you can surmise from that the life-or-death importance of his defensive presence. It'll be Michael Bradley in that role next month, and that means whoever the No. 10 is has to strike the right balance (knowing when to check back and help defensively), and if Pulisic is one of the wide midfielders then the other has to be more of a defensive presence.
Nagbe? Lletget? Alejandro Bedoya? Even Jermaine Jones played out of position on the right? None of it's out of the question, and I'm a little queasy about the fact that I don't know what, exactly, the answer is.
Bear in mind, though, that a 4-1-3-2 can turn into a deadly, counterattacking 4-3-1-2 pretty easily, especially with a good target forward and a push-the-line speedster.
• The US were better on set pieces than they've been in a long time.
• And... that's it for now. I really do think we've seen progress over the last 180 minutes, and much of it stemmed from the process that now seems to be in place. The tricky part will be taking about seven new faces – by that I mean guys who weren't at this camp – plugging them into the lineup, and hoping they're able to figure things out in a must-win game.
So my nerves are at least a little bit eased, but they're not yet steady. The US have to climb out of a hole and they now have the tools to do so, but the hardest part is yet to come.