Well, you can’t say you didn’t see this one coming.
If you’re Jurgen Klinsmann that is.
The US finished up their pre-World Cup qualifying friendly series with a sluggish display north of the border in Toronto, drawing the Canadians on their home turf in a battle of scoring futility. The final a titillating 0-0.
What was unsurprising about this one is that Canada’s senior side deployed in the precise defense that it’s U-23 side used to thwart the US U-23’s march through qualifying to the Olympics this year.
Canada defended just below the halfline and sent pairs and triplets of defenders at the US player who crossed the halfline in possession. Somewhere, Caleb Porter was cringing.
The Canadian defense stymied the attack before it started. A quick check of the match data doesn’t show altogether terrible collective passing stats for Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones–the US’s two primary ball handlers in the middle of the pitch. However, a deeper look reveals a solid neutral and negative passing percentages for the Jones-Bradley combo, but a sub-50% completion record on advancing balls.
This isolated observation was indicative of a night of futility for the States.
Whether it was heavy legs from their third match in eight days or perhaps taking the opponent too lightly after beating them less than a year ago in Gold Cup group play, it was the Canadians who bent the visiting US to their will. Not the opposite.
On to our snap judgements….
• Tactics gone wrong
Oh where to begin.
It’s often difficult–especially in friendlies–to gauge the effectiveness of tactics. Maybe the coach was forcing a game plan? Maybe the team was instructed to not blast the ball of field? Questions of how the friendly was meant to be used always serve as colossal asterisk on the play and the result.
That said, it very quite easy to question some of the coaching decisions made by Jurgen Klinsmann and it can be somewhat justified given that the US manager is considering this stretch of games as a proverbial “five-game tournament.”
First, let’s summarize–including the above–what Canada’s game plan was.
» Clog the midfield at the half-line and force the US to go over the top of play quickly on the floor.
» Keep the back four extremely narrow, lay off wide pursuit and dare the United States wingers to round the corners on you.
» Get out on the counter when you can, but make sure to get behind the ball when the opportunity turns into a turnover.
On the opposite side, the States deployed in a 4-3-3 (4-2-3-1 if you prefer) using Clint Dempsey in more of a free role ahead of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley. Ahead of a traditional back four, Landon Donovan and Jose Torres played on the touchline in the wide forward roles with Herculez Gomez spearheading the attack.
Here were some of the issues:
US wide forward deployment
Both Jose Torres and Landon Donovan could be found hugging the touchline like it had just beaten Algeria at the death.
Problem one? Neither player is adroit at taking on fullbacks in possession; precisely Canada’s defensive allowance. Torres prefers to distribute, while Donovan is better moving against the grain or in space on the counter.
Neither player focused on beating his man; both resorted to lobbing crosses into the box. Problem #2. Dempsey had to make his way in there. Dempsey is a drop above 6′. Gomez was already there, but is not typically strong in the air. Dempsey and Gomez were of course going up against 6’2” Houston Dynamo defender Andre Hainault and 6’3” Kevin McKenna–both strong in the air for their club teams.
Ironically where Donovan and Torres could have succeeded–and aided in the problems breaking down the central midfield….AND enable fullbacks Edgar Castillo and Steve Cherundolo to overlap–was in pinching into the middle. Donovan rarely ventured inward and had–by any standards–a shocker on the outside (56% passing, 17 times tackled in possession with the ball lost). Torres slid in a little more frequently. In fact, some of the best chances for the US came when he made himself available. Why he wasn’t asked to play more central is an excellent question for the interview pool. (More on Torres later.)
And speaking to crossing the ball here….
NBC Sports sideline man Kyle Martino asked Jurgen Klinsmann what tweaks were made at halftime to open up the States attack. His response–paraphrased–“the team didn’t get their fullbacks up enough (fair) and the team would be looking to push the flanks and send it crosses.”
While, yes, this is the hallmark of German success, the focus on the cross continued to be a faulty pursuit. In-swingers and out-swingers were met successfully nearly every time by the Canadian defense and without player substitution there was little reason to expect the result of balls in the box would change.
So what did Klinsmann do as the second half progressed and the data showed outside service was futile? He dropped Donovan (fair, given his performance) and inserted Oguchi Onyewu, turning the back four into three (with Michael Bradley dropping deep) and pushed his flank defenders up the pitch. The goal? More overlapping and lobs into the box.
US fans must have really cringed as time expired and Michael Parkhurst–entering for the sacrificed Steve Cherundolo–was found on an island asked to break down a defender. Parkhurst shot a duck of a cross into the box that didn’t make it even close to the near post.
The single US service chance came on a set piece late in the match off the dome of Clarence Goodson; Goodson would be hard tasked to get in the box if it wasn’t a stopped ball situation.
No central help
With Torres and Donovan failing to pinch in, Klinsmann left Herculez Gomez as the lone striker and kept the Santos player high. It was Dempsey or bust ahead of Jones and Bradley to make things happen.
Klinsmann did push Jones up the pitch as the second half wore on, but, by that time, the movement ahead was even more stagnant and the US had little time to get into a rhythm with Jones in an advanced role.
• Dwayne De Rosario is terrific on the ball.
Not a US observation, but one has to wonder what De Rosario could have accomplished on a better national team or in European soccer or even if he had matured professionally earlier in his career. De Rosario was a constant threat to the US displaying silky ball movement usually befitting a player much smaller in frame.
More impressive is that De Rosario always seems to forecast the play correctly. See player cutting to the near post and De Rosario will draw out his defender and open up the lane and feather in a lead pass. Drop off and De Rosario drives authoritatively to the hole.
Simply, a joy to watch.
• The US defense keeps chugging.
Klinsmann continues to pull some clever misdirection on the “new direction of the USMNT.” Heading back as far his inaugural press conference, Klinsmann led the American populace to believe that he wanted a more possession-oriented, more attacking oriented team.
However, nearly every decision Klinsmann has made has kept inline with the onus on defense first–whether it be starting three central midfielders, reducing the reliance on the counterattack or continuing to move Jose Torres up the pitch to hide his defensive inefficiencies.
The US defense in this one continued its strong play save for some late game, heavy leg situations. They generally moved as one and the collecting spacing of the players, vertically, is vastly improved from a few years ago.
» Addressing some misconceptions…. Saw some banter that alluded to “Michael Bradley playing further up the field.” One misguided comment concluded that Michael Bradley could play a #10 role.
The reality is Bradley has always been best when he’s face-up to the basket, not turning in possession or carrying in traffic. Bradley prefers the one or two-touch sequence and excels as such unless he is sizing up the situation from a little bit less congested (deeper) role.
Bradley is effective going forward because he outworks his mark into the box. Bradley’s best attacking act is when he is trailing quickly behind.
It seems Bradley has continually almost suffered from his big goal season (20 in all competitions for Eredivisie side SC Heerenveen in the 2007-08 season). Bradley’s best, and self-admitted as well, is a box-to-box midfielder or defensive foil, not advanced.
» This was not a good night of observing Jose Torres. First, it is somewhat perplexing that Klinsmann would deploy Torres on the touchline and not ask him to in-cut to receive and dish the ball.
That said, Torres looked extremely tentative in the attack, losing possession 13 times. Often cited as the man to “unlock” a defense, Torres had 33 completed passes. Only 2 of these were forward, another 12 going forward didn’t find their appropriate destination.
Worse, Torres looked absolutely befuddled on defense. When he wasn’t getting beat up physically in one-vs-one duels, he was chasing balls played in triangles like a Keystone Cop. Torres needs a good game here soon. This was Canada as well; not Brazil.
» Solid marks for Clarence Goodson and Edgar Castillo in the back. The former became the States’s third different US starting right centerback this series and he held up well. Goodson is always solid in the air and has vastly improved in one-on-one situation in and around the box. Goodson continues to suffer on holding the line against better opponents and will need to prove his mettle there.
As for Castillo, the US got the best of all worlds when it was learned Fab Johnson couldn’t go with a bum hamstring. What more do you want from a back-up left back than a player who is ready on a moment’s notice and displays some attacking verve. It wasn’t all pristine for the Primera man as Castillo’s disregard for elementary fundamentals should have cost the US a goal.
The linesman bailed him out though.
The US face Antigua and Barbuda Friday in Tampa as World Cup qualifying gets underway. 737 days until fandemonium.