Aug 12, 2011

USA 1:1 Mexico--Some Thoughts

The USMNT Wednesday night did prevent a 4 game losing streak to the Mexicans, something that hasn't happened in about 40 years, but that is cold comfort.  The game ended up a draw and considering the U.S. performance in the first half, that is a pretty good result.  I am sure that Jurgen Klinsmann will take with a smile.

Speaking of Klinsmann, he was in a no lose situation.  If the U.S. came into the match and got hammered, Klinsmann would be able to point to the fact that he had only been on the job for 10 days and just a little over a month ago, the U.S. blew a two goal lead to this same team minus Chicharito.  But a draw is the best result for Klinsmann, it puts him in good stead with the fans ("at least we didn't lose to Mexico again") but avoids the unrealistice expectations that would come from a win.

Here are my conclusions about the game, such as it was.

1.  The Back Line and Playing Out of the Back.  It was clear from the effort and energy that everyone was putting out defending that Klinsmann wants this team to defend as a unit.  He also clearly wanted them attacking as a unit but that didn't happen because the U.S. featured a make-shift back line.  Bocanegra is still a good centerback--not great, but good, solid, dependable.  But what was missing for Klinsmann's attack as a unit/defend as a unit mentality was the ability to play the ball out of the back.  Orozco-Fiscal and Castillo can't do it.  I counted at least 6 times in the second half where Orozco-Fiscal just hoofed the ball foward toward Buddle and later Agudelo despite the presence of Beckerman, Cherundolo or Bradley within 15-20 yards for a simple, possession oriented pass, the kind of pass that Tim Ream or Clarence Goodson are excellent at making and confident enough in their own ability to make.  Goodson can claim experience, but Ream has as much or even less expereince than Orozco-Fiscal and will make the simple, high percentage pass.

By the same token, Edgar Castillo might be a fine attacking left back, but he appeared only comfortable doing so when the ball was in the U.S. attacking half.  Castillo didn't seem adept at moving the ball from the defensive third to the midfield third.  Some people will chalk this up to nerves and I might give Castillo the benefit of the doubt in the first half, but by the second half a professional player has to get past the nerves.

Tim Ream, Clarence Goodson and to a slightly lesser extent Carlos Bocanegra (of the players brought into camp) are far more comfortable with the ball at their feet, under pressure, and have the confidence to play the pass.  If the U.S. is to advance beyond its current level, our back lines has to be better with the ball at their feet.  The development of soccer playing centerbacks (as opposed to strapping, strong, hard men) is likely to take time and that is where Ream and Goodson have an advantage.  But until Klinsmann gets a back line capable of playing with the ball at their feet, the attack as a unit/defend as a unit is going to be lacking in the former department.

2.  Landon Donovan and the Strikers.  Edson Buddle is a decent striker--not world class, but serviceable.  The problem is that to be effective, he cannot operate alone, that much was obvious in the first half.  When Buddle was lighting it up in MLS a couple years ago, what did he have to help him?  Landon Donovan and Mike Magee to work off of him and several good midfielders to feed him him the ball.  Stuck on the right wing, Donovan did not have the freedom to burst through to Buddle holding the ball.  The central midfield triangle of Jones, Bradley and Beckerman left too much space (as Jorge Ramos noted last night, almost 30-35 yards at times) between them and Buddle to allow them to move through in transition for the few seconds that Buddle was able to hold the ball against three defenders.

What Wednesday proved is that Landon Donovan is most dangerous as a withdrawn striker.  Donovan's effectiveness as a player is diminished when tied to a position like left wing, but his skills, speed, vision and creativity are best used when he can move around.  Donovan's unpredictablity is the U.S. side's greatest asset.  When Juan Agudelo came on last night, his movement created problems for the Mexicans, left the Mexican back line a little disorganized (more so when Rafa Marquez left the game), and opened up opportunities for Donovan.  Agudelo's movement, combined with Donovan's movement made it impossible to predict where Donovan was going to pop up.  Since both players have pace and the ability to strike from anywhere, the U.S. was far more dangerous.  If Klinsmann wants Donovan on the left or right flank, then Klinsi will need to free Donovan to move around and to let a player like Steve Cherundolo to provide the width from the back.  This may call for a asymmetrical formation, but that may be what is needed.

Which brings me to Jozy Altidore.  Think back to 2009 and the Confederations Cup Semifinal against Spain and Final against Brazil.  How was Jozy most effective?  When he and Charlies Davies were working as a dual striker, even Spain's normally rock solid defense couldn't keep track of them.  Jozy and Charlie did not play a target striker/off striker set up, but when both were moving around the field, inside out or oustide in, somewhat independently, but aware of each other, they could pry open a defense either by themselves or opening the space for Donovan or Dempsey to do it.   People have looked at Jozy and thought that he has the size to be a target striker.  But while Jozy can do that, he is not best at it.  Since Brian McBride and Brian Ching, the U.S. has not had a truly effective target striker.  So I hope Klinsman will look at what happened last night, look at Jozy's performance two years ago and look for a way to exploit the things Donovan, Dempsey, Davies, Altidore and Agudelo do best---move.

3.  Three Players Who Improved their Stock.  Wednesday night, three players really made a solid case for continued inclusion in the Player Pool:  Kyle Beckerman, Brek Shea and Jose Torres.  I couldn't believe what I was seeing on my Twitter feed when people were saying Beckerman was the worst player on the field.  I couldn't disagree more, Beckerman was doing the job he was put in there to do...clean up in front of the (shaky) back line and serve as a conduit for transition.  He did the first part of his job superbly and the second part better than Jones and almost as good as Bradley.  Beckerman is, in my opinion, the best defensive/holding midfielder in MLS and very underrated by Bob Bradley.  Bradley could have put Beckerman in a holding role and freed up Michael Bradley or Stuart Holden to attack, knowing that there was someone in the hole to watch their back. Beckerman can do by himself, what Bob Bradley needed two players to accomplish--to do the dirty work in midfield.

Brek Shea was a revelation Wednesday and after several abortive attempts under Bob Bradley, Shea was probably in the minds of many people, going to be a fringe national teamer at best.  But his club coach, Schellas Hyndman has helped mature a promising young man into a professional.  With nine MLS goals this year, Shea is confident and has learned the game.  Shea's season with FC Dallas is impressive, but I always wondered if he could take the step to the national team.  Wednesday gave me hope.  He muscled his way to that assist on the U.S. goal, showing his strength.  He has pace and deft ball control and at 6'5" can dominate in the air.  He has always had these attributes, but the mental side of things was lacking; confidence was lacking.  Wednesday Shea was finding the open space and more importantly, literally screaming for the ball. Shea was not content to have the ball moved around to him, he was demanding the ball, being assertive.  That is the mark of confidence and that is what Shea's national team game was missing--a belief that he belonged on the pitch and had something to contribute.

Jose Torres is wasted on the left flank.  There, I said it.  He doesn't have the pace to play a winger and his close control and short passing cannot be put to use on the flank.  When, in the second half, he moved inside as Shea moved outside, Torres showed what he can do---play football.  With Torres helping to direct traffic, the U.S. was making shorter, faster, one-touch, two-touch, crisp passes that caused the Mexicans to back off.  Most of the time it was Torres at the center of those exchanges and that is what makes him valuable to Klinsmann and not so to Bob Bradley.  To play a unit style of soccer, there has to be a couple of players in the middle of the park to link everything together; think Xavi and Iniesta.  Without that, attacking and defending as unit will not work--one line or the other is going to get isolated.  Torres is one of those players and I think Stuart Holden is the other that could be the midfield glue.

4. Having Fun and Playing for Fun.  In the post game interview, Klinsmann said he is having fun.  To be honest, I think that is what I missed under Bob Bradley, a sense that the players and Bradley were having fun.  In the first half, it looked like the U.S. was not having any fun.  Maybe it was Bradley's personality, I don't know, but the U.S. rarely looked like they were having fun.

As a coach of young players (U7s and U8s) my job is to make sure they have fun while learning the game of soccer.  As they get older, I think professional players sometimes forget that they are getting paid to play A GAME.  Yes it is their job, but it should be fun too.

But in the second half, the whole half, it looked like the U.S. was having fun.  Maybe that is what Klinsmann said in the dressing room, "Come on boys, this is a game first--have fun!"  The last 25 minutes or so was not just the U.S. playing better football but playing for fun.  That energy, enthusiasm and the feeling of fun was almost palpable through the TV.  The players seemed more relaxed and more energetic.  They played beautiful football.  But most of all, they were playing a game--a game that should be fun first.  Maybe the change in ethos among the U.S. Team with Klinsmann at the helm will be a reminder that yes, you may be playing for national pride, but have some fun.  It looked like fun, they played like the were having fun and particularly in the last 25 minutes it was FUN TO WATCH.

As a fan, that is what I want, an enjoyable, FUN experience.

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