Neil W. Blackmon
As good a time as any to begin what will be your author’s daily countdown diary to the United States and Ghana kicking off the Yanks 2014 World Cup campaign in Natal. As this is the beginning of this feature, all I can suggest is that each day I’ll address certain things related to the US side, sometimes with laser focus and other times with a more potpourri look at various topics and topical stories. Today, I’d like to focus on my takeaways from the US and Mexico match late Wednesday night.
Let’s start with the obvious and quickly move on: Yes, it was a tale of two halves. Jeff Carlisle wrote that here. That’s a sufficient summations.
All I’d “add” is this: El Tri deserve credit for flipping the tactical script on the United States. The Americans exploited a very narrow Mexican side in the first half and MB 90, who is fairly quick but by no means a burner, looked extraordinarily fast against a Mexican midfield that truly suffers from a lack of pace. Couple that lack of footspeed with youth and you had the perfect recipe for a brilliant US performance if the Americans executed, which they did in the first half. In the second half, for whatever reason, it was the Americans who were too narrow, and the Mexicans exploited that by finally getting players to the wings to give Raul Jimenez and Alan Pulido room to operate centrally. Throw in the cheapie set piece goal the Americans conceded (It was way more about Omar Gonzalez failing to stop the pick than it was a credit to either the El Tri service or execution!!), and you get your draw. The Yanks can be angry about the (wrong) offside call on Eddie Johnson’s goal or the (half-right) no-call on Julian Green in/just out of the area all they’d like, but both Mexico goals were preventable. I think the US probably wins 2-1 with Run DMB playing– the decision to play Beltran, not Yedlin, was an extraordinarily odd one by Jurgen Klinsmann. Best guess into Jurgen’s logic: Beltran had an entire summer and Klinsmann trusted him more than Yedlin precisely because it was a pop-up (flight and two night) camp; it mattered less than Beltran was the last guy into the pop-up camp and was called in, presumably, because his normal choice for that spot was injured.
Second, it’s possible the US found a tactical solution in the classic diamond, but don’t get overexcited.
Yes, the Americans looked immensely better on this night than they did in Glasgow, Vienna or Cyprus. And yes, the Yanks returned to the more classic 4-4-2 diamond that is met with player familiarity (though not under Klinsmann) and certainly seems to suit the skillset of the Yanks best player, Michael Bradley. Certainly, the diamond allows MB 90 the freedom to maraud forward and lead forays through the middle, which is going to be a positive thing. And having Kyle Beckerman, the most underrated American performer in this World Cup cycle, behind him playing the role he plays for Real Salt Lake, doubles down on MB 90’s ability to dictate matches. When Jermaine Jones is Bradley’s midfield partner, MB 90 is often caught checking back, because not only does Jermaine Jones tend to go “rogue” from time to time and get caught too far in the final third, Jones does it in such an unpredictable way that Bradley has to reign in his aggression getting forward. That’s to the detriment of the US and it is so regardless of who the Yanks are playing. With Beckerman, MB 90 clearly has a level of trust that, purely based on empirics, is not present when the partner is Jones.
The latest and
greatest weakest argument for Jones over Beckerman at this point seems to be about opponent strength. It goes something like this “Well, Jones has been paired with Michael against better teams and he’s the man we need in a World Cup group with better teams!!” The argument is farcical: Beckerman has lacked looks against better teams precisely because of Jones. There’s no comparative data, only what we saw Wednesday night, and the return on the diamond Wednesday night was positive. Liviu Bird explores this in more depth in the link at the top of this section, but regardless of partner, the diamond works best because it lets Michael Bradley play the most on the ball and facing forward. Any amount of time MB 90 has to drop back or turn away from the opposing half to either defend, or more important, cover for Jones’ forays forward, is a time when the US attack is not operating at a premium clip.
That said, here is where you get your cautionary warning and you can take from it what you will. Whatever you want to call El Tri’s formation: it certainly functions like a 3-5-2– it is unique to anything the Americans will see in their World Cup group. The Yanks will not see a three man back at the World Cup and even supposing for a moment they did, all three opponents- Ghana, especially, if Essien is healthy– would have the CDM to pull it off. Mexico doesn’t and if they think Jesus Zavala is that player they might not be in Brazil too long.
Regardless, it is remarkable that Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones are competing for a starting job when the US 30 man camp gathers in May. Remarkable. For more on that, read this piece by Brian Straus.
Finally, about those roster battles, starting with the US defense.
I tweeted this yesterday:
More later, but main thought from last night: #USMNT defense at impasse. Need to play great team D given talent issue; this not Omar's deal.
— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) April 3, 2014
Longer explanation: Gonzalez is a very good 1 v. 1 MLS defender. Give him an aerial battle, tell him to stand a guy up- he’ll likely do it. The thing is that the US needs to play compact in the back and essentially play very conservative, sound positional defense. This means that while Geoff Cameron is probably a center half at the international level (Jon Levy and I have been writing this for ages), Klinsmann’s probably going with Gonzalez and trusting that he’ll wake up, stay at home and in-position, and let the fullbacks and whoever ends up playing behind MB 90 worry about turnover defense. Ghana is most similar in terms of their defensive set-up in the US World Cup group, but they zonal mark even less than the States and if you can exploit gaps from width you can exploit the Black Stars. The Americans will have to remain compact and rely on great help defense out wide.
Clarence Goodson will probably get a Send-Off Series start to win the job- that’s how poor Gonzalez was for swaths of the action in Glendale, and it really makes Jon Levy look pretty bright in the preview when he wrote that Michael Orozco was the biggest loser Wednesday night simply because Puebla refused to let him play. Pound for pound, Orozco has performed better than Gonzalez this World Cup cycle, though it is unfair to Gonzalez to suggest that given how much more Omar has played.
And what about forward?
A really, really, really good night for both Chris Wondolowski and Eddie Johnson.
Starting with Wondolowski, it’s two words: movement and deployment. Playing him out of a traditional target role makes him so much more comfortable– with Clint Dempsey joining him up top he’s much more free to move and find gaps and run a marker ragged. Yes, MB 90’s flick on the Wondolowski goal– and Clint Dempsey pass in traffic, by the way– were brilliant on the Yanks’ second goal, but watch the video. This is as perfect a run by Chris Wondolowski as one can make. And if he’s a second late or a second early, it isn’t dos a cero at the end of it.
The thinking here now is that Wondolowski is going to make the team and he ought to, if only because he’s not a starter for the Yanks in Brazil, he’s the guy that can change zero points to one point or one point to three points in a 20 minute spurt. “Hey, Chris, go out there, they are tired, run around, make them chase you, find some space, poach a goal.” Simple as that. And his performances since the Gold Cup, all against progressively better competition, merit inclusion.
As for Eddie Johnson, I’ve been confused by the recent suggestions that he’s not going to make the team. There’s merit in metrics but also in empirics- and history shows us that Eddie Johnson has been Jurgen Klinsmann’s preferred backup to Jozy Altidore the entire World Cup cycle and there’s no real reason that has changed. Johnson showed his sometimes terrible first touch early in his appearance on Wednesday night, but he also showed why he was able to revive his career when he
scored buried a chance and had his goal disallowed later in the match. Johnson can do certain things no other US player other than Altidore has been able to do, and for that reason, he’s safe. Whether he plays much is up to him.
And I don’t think, even with Aron Johannsson and now Julian Green, it has to be “either-or”. As I wrote when the USA vs. Mexico roster was announced, the flexibility of the Americans in the back, despite concerns about the quality, probably frees Klinsmann up to select an additional midfielder or forward. There’s no need to be conservative and bring the extra defender when at least three of the defenders you’re certain to bring can play any position in the back.
As for Julian Green…
It was fun. It was exciting. It wasn’t a bad debut. Once he got his feet under him, he showed a flash of the technical skill and athleticism that have him so valued by the greatest club in the world. Franck Ribery says nice things about him. Andy Herzog compares him to Ribery. He’s talented. He’ll be in the 30 man group in May. He should be. He’s not the US savior. They don’t need one. So let’s just enjoy him. What will be more interesting is if he manages to make the team.
More tomorrow. 73 days until revenge is served how it’s best served- freezer cold.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt and e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org