By Neil W. Blackmon
Two friendlies with nearly all the “A” team regulars and there is a great deal to analyze and flesh out. Let’s dive right in with five final thoughts and lingering questions after the USMNT’s 1-1 draw with Argentina and 1-0 defeat at the hands of a visually painful but mercilessly effective Paraguay side.
First, there is a healthy debate about what to make of last night’s performance against Paraguay, with two schools of thought prevalent. On the one hand, there are those who want to emphasize the improved, and at times, even stylistic, pleasing to watch play of the United States. On the other hand, there are those who think the result is what matters in the end, and losing 1-0 at home is a poor result. I lean towards the latter.
Why? Quite simple really—it’s a sum of all parts question. Take our football, for example. Not frequently, but ever so often, a college or (more likely) professional football team will have an outstanding game plan, execute well for large stretches of the game, avoid silly mistakes, and still lose. This type of defeat is almost always a close defeat and is typically suffered against an opponent with superior personnel. In nearly all of these cases, one or two small, quite correctable errors are the difference between a win and a loss. Oregon’s loss to Auburn in this year’s BCS Championship is a recent concrete example. While it is even rarer for these losses to occur on the loser’s home field, it can happen: the Eagles loss to the Packers this January comes to mind. In soccer, the United States’ loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup Final is another fine example. The important thing to note in all of these is that as a whole—each loser played well—well-enough to win in many instances. They also made errors or failed to execute once or twice in ways that cost them the game or match. If you look at the result as the “sum of all parts”, the result you want is one where the sum of all your parts performing at a high level is enough to secure victory.
For the USMNT last night, it was not. It is at least the view of this writer that the failure to secure a win last night means that the game was a poor result, regardless of some fine individual and collective moments. The fact that the opponent was Paraguay, hardly a side that has a personnel advantage over the Americans, further bolsters this tale of failure. Yes, Paraguay were World Cup quarterfinalists. Yes, they are brutally effective in their style of play—a ruthless, ugly organization-first negative style of football that would make David Moyes blush. Yes, the goal was a bit unlucky and the Americans dominated for large stretches. Still, the Yanks lost 1-0 against a team they ought to at least draw, particularly on home soil. That means, sum of all parts—the Yanks weren’t good enough last night. As Grant Wahl wrote, quoting the incomparable John Wooden- “never mistake activity for achievement.”
Second, the lack of a healthy Stu Holden suggests the Americans may want to stick with four in the midfield, or at the very least, play a “fake five” where Dempsey is pinched in at an advanced position in a way that effectively impacts the game.
The American 4-2-3-1 experiment is by no means futile at this point, but the United States played its worst game in midfield in recent memory Saturday night at the New Meadowlands and the 4-4-2 was far more effective. Bob Bradley should be praised for experimenting with the five man unit, particularly given the Americans depth and class at that position, but fans should also be realistic. Maurice Edu looks terribly uncomfortable in the advanced central mid role that Holden was most certainly going to play. Jozy Altidore wasn’t good last night—his movements were lacking and he appeared rattled by having to come back so far to receive the ball (not his fault entirely), but in his defense he was better Saturday night up top after the addition of Agudelo for Jermaine Jones, and the interplay between the two deserves a longer look. You could also argue that as good as the American movement of the ball was at times Tuesday night, the attacking thrusts against Argentina in the second half were actually more dangerous in terms of threatening the goal mouth.
One final observation on this point: if the Americans do stick with the five man midfield—they need a player in the advanced central role who can distribute effectively and exploit opponents at width. Timmy Chandler certainly provides this type of option and could do so effectively spelling Steve Cherundolo for thirty minute shifts this summer. MB 90’s game last evening was promising, but it would be nice if he were playing regularly at Aston Villa—if for no other reason than repetition and stamina—it was odd seeing MB 90 look gassed after sixty minutes last evening. Also, it should be noted that while MB 90 played well (easily the best American central midfielder in the first game as well), he is creatively limited and that, as our friends at The Shin Guardian have written n greater depth—is precisely what the Americans needed last evening. And therein lies the rub: Sacha Kljestan is the best other option, for now, despite the rage he seems to induce from American fans who bought into the Sacha the scapegoat hype after a couple of poor matches in 2009. He played only fifteen minutes (with one nice cross). If that is how he was going to be utilized (not utilized), then why call him across the pond? And why not invite Jose Torres into the next camp—he’s exactly the type of skill-set the Americans need if they want to keep experimenting with this formation.
Third, Clint Dempsey deserves our praise; Landon Donovan deserves our questions.
Duece’s performances in both games were (as usual) a flashpoint of USMNT journalist and fan conflict. Against Argentina, he was a focal point of the defense. While this isn’t surprising given the year he’s had at Fulham, what was surprising was how visibly frustrated Dempsey was on the field, both in body language and in his imploring indignation towards the referee. He did, however, grow stronger as the game went on and his relentless movements and ability to find space should be applauded. I was as surprised as all of you were that his touch let him down after he carved the space necessary to secure a winner late in the match.
Last night, two moments were indicative of both “the new Clint Dempsey” and the reason he’s such a firestorm for journalist and fan debate. In one instance, Deuce made a nice run into space on the left flank, just outside the area, but he was indecisive, held the ball too long and those extra seconds of indecision and senseless dribbling created a situation where he was surrounded by four defenders instead of the one present when he received the ball. Paraguay regained possession and the threat was lost. To many, that moment was indicative of an ineffective or indecisive Dempsey. To me, that was indicative of Dempsey doing the right thing: seeking out the game instead of waiting for it to come to him, but executing poorly in the aftermath. It appeared that Dempsey was pressing, trying to do too much by himself and that was a moment where a pass to an available Agudelo would have been a better decision, likely resulting in a sustained American attack. In another instance, later in the game when Dempsey was visibly tired, he received a lovely ball from MB 90 and immediately recognized he was outnumbered five to two by Paraguayan defenders. Instead of pressing forward, he waited for his teammates, creatively dribbling past one defender and then holding the ball an extra three seconds to allow support to arrive. A pass led to an American corner, which Landon Donovan promptly sailed over the entirety of both teams. That pass leads me to Landon Donovan.
It is hard to say whether Donovan’s (much-deserved) vacation resulted in a nice tan and a good deal of rust or whether Donovan is simply experiencing a natural lull in form in the wake of a banner 2010. This writer believes the issue to be the former, but what is certain is that Donovan played a rather pedestrian pair of matches for the red, white and blue. He looked menacing at times in the second half against Argentina, but other than one spectacular run where he flubbed an easy finish off the side of the net, he was ineffective against Paraguay. More concerning was his set piece delivery, which was atypically poor in both matches. He also made several very uncharacteristic giveaways on dangerous, unnecessary passes in both matches—things that will have Bruce Arena, at the very least, concerned in the short term.
Fourth, Tim Howard is one of the ten (FIVE?) best goalkeepers in the universe—just ask Argentina.
For the second consecutive match against the Argentines, Tim Howard delivered a super human performance. Maybe he just likes the biggest stage, or perhaps he just enjoys playing at home in New Jersey. There had been questions in the first half of his campaign at Everton about whether or not had slipped a bit. Those had mostly been answered in the second half of Everton’s campaign, but any lingering doubts were put to rest Saturday evening.
His one-on-one save against Messi at the beginning of the second half Saturday night was a thing of beauty, as was a You Tube “are you kidding me” save on Angel Di Maria. While the American defense deserves some credit for keeping most the shots straight at him as Argentina dominated early, so does Howard’s impeccable positioning, particularly on set pieces. He had no chance on the goal, and is the reason the Yanks secured a fantastic result. Messi’s comments that Howard is one of the “best goalkeepers in the world” are the ultimate vindication.
Finally, Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream are the real deal.
Agudelo has now delivered three consecutive class performances, and as The Shin Guardian pointed out—one possible impact we didn’t expect from that is a level of self-reflection and motivation visible in Jozy Altidore. As mentioned above, Altidore struggled immensely last night after an “okay” performance against the Argentines. What’s fascinating is that Jozy seems to know it. His twitter feed revealed the following message last night.That’s a really good sign. It isn’t fun to beat up on Freddy Adu, but the comparison here is necessary. Altidore is 21 and has started a World Cup and been a first eleven mainstay since early in qualifying for the last cycle. Self-reflection can be hard when achievement and comfort have been the trend. Agudelo’s class seems to be pushing Jozy, and for him to openly admit that he needs to improve is massive for the United States when coupled with promising moments of interplay between the two strikers and the now on-the-radar specter of Charlie Davies in Washington, DC.
As for Juan Agudelo the boy wonder—color me more impressed with last night than Argentina. Why? Because last night was precisely the type of game that can overwhelm a young striker—an organized defense, an absence of space, and a startling lack of distribution from the midfield. Were the Americans more effective at holding possession last night? Of course. But remember that last ball has to hit your boy in space—and those final passes were behind American runners all night long. Agudelo and Altidore, as such, were both tasked with coming far back to seek out the ball, and then making threatening movements to get back forward and draw defenders. Only Agudelo seemed consistently capable of doing so. Agudelo proved he could go to the game and not force it to come to him, and he won several free kicks with his fine dribbling ability and decision to challenge defenders. His best movement of the night nearly (likely should have) resulted in a penalty as well. All in all, that’s what you need from a striker when the game has detached itself from him—and that’s what Agudelo delivered. He was all over the place, looking very much like a kid who has spent a great deal of time discussing how to get better with a striker who, at his peak, played a similar style of soccer—I can’t remember his name….oh…Thierry Henry.
We close with another Red Bull: Tim Ream. Bottom line– he is pure class, and he’s class of a nature the United States has yet to see in a central defender. Yes, his marker scored the winning goal last night—but a replay clearly shows he was fouled and the referees missed it (that happens in melees in the box—for the most part, that was a well-officiated match). Once you acknowledge that, you can dissect what he offers the Americans, which, to be honest, is a great deal. A tweet from a longtime reader this morning lamented that the Yanks don’t have a defender like Fulham’s Brede Hangeland who is steady in the center but also trustworthy on the ball. Ah contraire—Ream is exactly that player—he’s just not developed yet.
Ream was efficient in his passing, made only one noticeably poor pass, moved forward to help the central midfield build possession from the back (a novel concept for the USMNT, particularly BECAUSE they’ve lacked the center backs to pull it off), and seemed like a guy whose teammates trusted with the all, even when Paraguayan attackers lurked nearby. Ream is extraordinarily composed, which isn’t just a buzz phrase writers like—it’s a visible thing—last night visible when his positioning (a little too mechanical at times) as exploited momentarily only to have Ream recover nearly immediately in all instances. Those little things make it fun to imagine what he’ll look like when experience teaches him tactical lessons about positioning and when it’s safe to aid the link-up play even more than he decided to do last evening. Bright, bright future for a man who looks like he’s playing his final campaign in the United States. Chicharito—America has answered, and we’ve answered with vigor.
Player ratings combining both friendlies to come. We welcome your comments, as always.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him and his Tim Ream man-crush on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.