Oct 8, 2012

October Call Ups Yield some Surprises Up Top

U.S. Men's National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced his squad for the final matches in this round of World Cup Qualifying.  With the next two games away to Antigua & Barbuda and home to Guatamala having massive importance, the squad yielded some interesting surprises up top--in the form of Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson and the snubs of Jozy Altidore, Terrance Boyd and Chris Wondolowski.
Tthe U.S., Jamaica and Guatamala all have the same number of points (7) in this round with the U.S. tied with Guatamala a the top of the group on goal difference (+2).  The U.S. holds their destiny in their hands, win out and  they are in the Hexagonal.  The best results of match day 5 would be a solid win over Antigua and a Jamaica/Guatamala win by either team.  

But you have to wonder--what the hell is Klinsmann thinking?  Altidore, Boyd and Wondolowski have been in form and Altidore and Wondo lead their respective leagues in goal scoring.  Boyd has been finding the back the net regularly as well.  So, the the "whaaa..." question will be answered later.

Here is the full roster:

GOALKEEPERS (3) : Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
       Seriously---this section is getting to be a snoozer.  Howard will start unless injured.  Guzan could get the nod against Guatamala if the U.S. demolish Antigua and Jamaica and Guatamala end in a win for either side. Don't be surprised if Rimando does not travel to Antigua.  

DEFENDERS (8) : Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), Maurice Edu (Stoke City), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland)

         No surprises here.  All these players are playing on good form and this is shaping up to be Klinsmann's go to squad of defenders.  

MIDFIELDERS (8) : Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Roma), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

         Apparently, Sacha Kljestan is no longer in the doghouse.  It is very, very, very good to see Bradley back--the U.S. always seem to play much better with him on the pitch.  I like Zusi getting another call, but I don't expect him to be in the game day squad, but who knows.

FORWARDS (5): Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Herculez Gomez (Santos), Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)

         Dempsey?  Check.  Donovan?  Check.  Gomez?  Check.  And then the head scratching begins.  Gomez and Demspey have been scoring goals for the U.S. and so it is not a surprise.  Donovan is the talisman who often steps up big in important matches.  But why Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson.

First the positives on both.  Domestically, there is probably no better off-the-bench striker in MLS than Alan Gordon (although fellow Earthquakes striker Steven Lenhart could make a case).  Gordon has scored 13 times this season, mostly off the bench, and is scoring almost one goal for every 90 minutes on the field.  But here is the key stat, Gordon is converting almost 3 out of every 10 chances he has to score.  He has 25 shots on goal (out of 43 taken) and scored 13.  That is a conversion ratio that probably can't be ignored.  Gordon is a big guy, has a high work rate when coming on with 25-30 minutes left in the match, and has shown that he will take the abuse that a fox in the box has to take while holding the ball.  I would call Gordon a poor man's Brian Ching, but I am not sure the comparison holds up beyond the physical toughness.

Eddie "Grown-Ass Man" Johnson got lost for a few years in Europe, but has found form with the Seattle Sounders.  Johnson has 14 goals on 69 shots with 24 on goal.  That is giving Johnson a 20.2% conversion rate as well.  Johnson and teammate Fredy Montero are the league's best strike duo on any team not from San Jose.  What Johnson needed was an ego that matched his own and a partner with creative skills that Johnson lacks, but a partner who does have the raw physical talent that Johnson possesses.  

But is not all about stats is it?  Surely Klinsmann is not just looking at goals and minutes and conversion ratios, right?  Well, maybe not. What do Altidore, Wondolowski and Boyd have at their club teams, that they don't have at the national team level?  Yep, a midfield full of guys who can feed them the ball.  

What the U.S. has lacked with the big stable of defensive midfielders occupying the midfield slots, are creative passers and ball handlers who can get the ball into the final third and find guys like Wondo, Altidore and Boyd.  Add to that fact that those three players are far better at going at players rather than playing with their back to goal.  Johnson and Gordon are better with their back to the goal than Wondolowski, Boyd and Altidore.  I seriously don't expect Gordon or Johnson to get a start, and at most will get 20 minutes if Klinsmann needs to get a goal to put a game out of reach or to equalize in the latter stages (please avoid this situation).  

But what does this do to the U.S. tactically?  I expect to see Klinsmann field a squad that will put a lot of pressure on Steve Cherundolo to provide width on the right.  I would expect to see an asymmetric 4-4-2 or even a 4-3-3.  

Here is what I expect against Antigua

Cherundolo ------Cameron--------Bocanegra-----Castillo


Now that is a weird set up, and again puts a big burden on Cherundolo to provide width on the right and to a lesser extent Castillo on the left.  But here is where things can be itneresting if the U.S. can make the communication work.  Michael Bradley is the best box-to-box midfielder I think the U.S. has produced in years.  Klinsmann should give him free rein to create, to move around and spray passes around like he can, to get the ball wide and to follow up attacks with his late runs into the box.  Let Donovan, Dempsey and Gomez buzz around the back line and in the hole just in front of the back line and drive the defense crazy with movement.  But the three of them have to be on the same page to make sure at least two of them are crashing the goal area on every cross.  

Let Danny Williams do the holding, he did very well versus Jamaica, and let Bradley and Jones create a little.  Yes, Antigua and Guatamala are going to bunker in these games, the U.S. will have to use the movement of Bradley, Donovan, Dempsey and Gomez to defeat that.  

Having said all that, congrats to Alan Gordon for the call-up.  I bet he thought someone was pranking him when Klinsmann called.

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