Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon
Landon Donovan smiling. That’s the primary takeaway from the US 6-1 rout over Belize, a team so outmatched it was bribed by match-fixers to make things look even worse than they inevitably were going to be Tuesday night in Portland. The fact that the Belize players, who are essentially amateurs, turned down the money, is a great testament to their character, as Jake Catanese wrote here at The Bent Musket. The smiling Donovan was a far cry from the mumbling, exhausted, sad-looking Landon we interviewed following the US demolition of Scotland(after a hat trick no less) in Jacksonville just over a year ago. Even though it was just a friendly, that night in Jacksonville had all the makings of a memorable night for soccer in the US, and the south, it should be said. A huge, loud, proud crowd. Beautiful weather. A dominant, American side that played the style Klinsmann had promised. Yet it wasn’t complete, not in the slightest, not with Landon Donovan, the greatest field player in the history of the US Soccer federation, quietly trying to assure everyone who already knew better that “it was not a matter of want to” and that “his heart was still on the field.” Anyone who interviewed Donovan knew better. His heart might have been on the field, but by and large, it was in other places too. And he needed a break. And when you’re Landon Donovan, and every move you’ve made since you burst onto the scene just prior to the 2002 World Cup has been scrutinized, criticized and overanalyzed, you’ve earned a break. And that’s true even if Jurgen Klinsmann disagrees. And Donovan, who scored yet another goal for his country and dished out an assist in the 6-1 win in front of another loud and soccer-crazed crowd in Portland Tuesday night, is now playing every bit the role of Gladiator in responding to Klinsmann’s (and large portion of the fan base’s) doubts. Except it isn’t an angry “Are you not entertained?” It’s an ear-to-ear smile. And that, maybe more than Stu Holden’s “the comeback is real” goal, is the primary takeaway from the Yanks’ Gold Cup opening victory.
There are certainly a few other takeaways too, and Neil W. Blackmon will join this preview piece and discuss those in his “What to Watch from the US” section, but it is now time for the US to move forward in this competition, and they’ll do so Saturday afternoon in Salt Lake City at what we’ve previously mentioned could quickly become the American “Theatre of Dreams”, the Rio Tinto. They’ll play a Cuban team desperate for a result coming off a lopsided defeat vs. an MLS-heavy Costa Rican “B” team, and as we all know, a Cuban side that has to battle political issues like defections at this tournament almost as aggressively as they battle the actual opposition. Sounds like a recipe for American success, no?
Let’s offer the usuals and kick the particulars.
The Series: Tenth Meeting. The United States lead 7-1-1. The last time Cuba earned a result against the United States was 1949, when Cuba was a free country not ruled by a member of the Castro family. That’s intense. They have met in four Gold Cup matches, with the US winning those games by a combined score of 13-1.
Venue/Weather: Rio Tinto, just outside Salt Lake City, Utah. 90 degrees and sunny at kick. Hot, but not as hot as it was for the Honduras qualifier.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
The US has come a long way since starting what seemed like eleven defensive midfielders in the first match of the World Cup Qualifying hexagonal group at Honduras. This Gold Cup lineup only features one true DMF, and that Kyle Beckerman, who’s coming home to Rio Tinto a conquering hero. But the Gold Cup roster isn’t some misguided overcorrection by Jurgen Klinsmann– it’s the collection of the best fringe players, young players, and guys trying to make a USMNT comeback that we all knew the manager would select. And it’s been great so far, scoring twelve goals evenly split between the warm up against Guatemala and the first tournament match against Belize. This proportion of attack-minded players may not ever be the reality of the “real” US Men’s National Team which is more balanced, but we get to enjoy it this summer.
More importantly, these players have found the incisive ball movement in the attacking third that’s been missing for over a year and a half. This isn’t me criticizing the recent positive play of the World Cup Qualifying squad, because they’ve been unlocking defenses as well, but that skill was on display in a big way against Guatemala and Belize. Look for Landon Donovan and his boys to keep up the momentum.
The questions from the Belize match are largely “feel good” questions, with a couple of exceptions. Let’s start with the “exceptions.” Michael Parkhurst didn’t have a great night against Belize, looking uncomfortable playing as high up the pitch as he was and not delivering quick, accurate distributions to Mix Diskerud, who was constantly trying to push tempo. Parkhurst then was caught flat-footed in no-man’s land on the Belize goal, and even though he delivered an assist nearly immediately in its aftermath, the goal and his culpability for it will be a huge takeaway for Jurgen Klinsmann moving forward. That’s a shame too, because it isn’t as if the United States is comfortable at that fullback position as they inch closer to Brazil. It may be time to get Eric Lichaj back in the mix, among others.
Clarence Goodson was good but wasn’t tasked with doing a great deal against Belize Tuesday evening. Goodson keeps getting looks because the US still are direly short on centerback depth. Omar Gonzalez should have a stranglehold on the starting spot, but he doesn’t- he’s too error-prone and loses focus too often at this point to ink in to the starting eleven. So we’re stuck with Clarence Goodson, whose shortage of high-level international quality has been evident for quite some time. It’s a precarious position for the newly-minted Earthquakes defender.
Finally, there is the good and the bad with Chris Wondolowski scoring three goals. Yes, it is great that he finally scored against Guatemala and followed that performance up with an awe-inspiring first half hat trick against Belize. Yes, he scored “vintage” Wondolowski goals, moving off the ball to get himself in prime poaching positions that have made him a dynamic scoring talent in MLS. Yes, there is nothing quite as important to a goal-scorer than confidence. That said, Wondolowski is still a very limited player internationally, and at 30, he’s not on the bright side of his career. None of this should be read to mean that he can’t contribute– he can– but the US has better options and should rely on them until the point that Wondolowski demonstrates that he can be influential and effective against quality opponents. Scoring three goals against Belize likely affords him that opportunity– now what will he do with it?
The rest of the Belize stories that will carry over into Saturday afternoon are positive. Stu Holden insists he is “90 minute fit.” It will be interesting to see how long Klinsmann can hold him out of the US starting eleven, given what he’s shown the ability to do thus far in the Guatemala match and against Belize. Holden without question offers the Americans a new attacking dynamic. His skill on the ball and his ability to weight passes from somewhat deep positions that are still in the attacking zone means Klinsmann can slot him in a spot and play without a classic “6.” It is true that Bolton did drop Holden deep at times when he was fit, but he’s certainly not a Kyle Beckerman “defensive midfielder.” (And, as explained here- no, there is nothing wrong with Kyle Beckerman. He’s outstanding.) But Holden offers dynamism in the US center, and an ability to weigh and distribute more ambitious passes from all over the field (whereas Torres, who, slotted wide but constantly drifting centrally, had another effective match, and Beckerman, are anchored centrally). This is a tactical shift that Klinsmann would love to install to give teams more to think about as they prepare for the US next summer, and it is one he can’t continue to utilize as simply a substitute/halftime tactics shift as Holden gets more and more comfortable. Or can he?
As noted above, Jose Torres was effective yet again. There is a narrative going that he hasn’t helped state his case for next summer in this tournament. I don’t know what else he could do. In the Guatemala match, he completed nearly 95 percent of his passes, and, to prove his value as a “hub”, his teammates then completed 91 percent of their passes after receiving a Torres pass. That’s remarkable, and it shows you that he reads the field well and makes thoughtful distributions. In the Belize match, he was slotted wide, drifted central to find the ball, received it, and again completed a high rate of passes (around 85 percent at 26 of 32). He garnered another assist as well. Yes, the USMNT midfield is deep, but Klinsmann values Torres ability to play three-touch (or we think he does), and it isn’t difficult to see him on this team instead of Danny Williams or even Maurice Edu, who might be battling Kyle Beckerman, not Torres.)
Either way, expect some combination of Torres, Beckerman, Mix and Holden to start against Cuba and don’t be surprised if again, all play. We also think Herculez Gomez returns to the starting lineup despite Wondolowski’s brilliant evening against Belize. We’re still chalking Gomez’ absence to the Portland turf and the opponent, not to any particular depth chart pecking order. Oguchi Onyewu may benefit from the Rio Tinto’s natural grass as well, and Real Salt Lake man Tony Beltran might get a look on his home field in lieu of the struggling Michael Parkhurst.
Cuba will certainly play a bit more openly in space than Belize, and the US will have less possession in the opposing half than they did Tuesday or even against Guatemala, but they should still dictate the lion’s share of the play, and chances will be plentiful.
And what will we see out of Cuba?
Bunker defense, plain and simple, with a bit more counterattacking impulse and a bit more possession than we saw from Belize.. Cuba just gave up three goals to a Costa Rica team that was far from scintillating in attack, and now the Lions of the Caribbean are set to take on the US. Not just a US team that brought better attacking talent than Mexico (or anyone else) to this tournament, but a US team that’s so high on goals they were busting out tricks and back-heels late against Belize that would have had Bruce Arena and Bobbo throwing water bottles at their own players.
Cuba’s gonna need to take a minute. In this case, that means putting everyone behind the ball early, making the Yanks show their cards, and counterpunching when and where the USMNT shows weaknesses. It’s not that bad a plan actually. Really, it’s the only plan.
Cuban Player to Watch: Yuriorkis Gamboa
He’s got the hand speed, the Olympic pedigree, big-time punching power, and he’s on the verge of putting it all together to devastating effect. But who will El Ciclon de Guantánamo fight next? Wait. My bad, let’s try this again…
Cuban Player to Watch: Odelin Molina
Cuba’s veteran keeper is 38 years old. That’s old, even for a shot stopper. And now he’s up against what seems to be an insatiable US attack; hungry for goals, and apparently it’s always feeding time. There are probably teams in thie 2013 Gold Cup that can compete with the Yanks for possession and keep the American attack off their backline and goalkeeper. Cuba should not be one of those teams.
This isn’t me telling you Landon and his boys will cut through the Cuban defense like a hot knife through butter, but it’s almost inconceivable that Saturday won’t be a busy day for Molina. Against the US he’ll have to be active in controlling the whole eighteen yard box, not just his six yarder, if Cuba hopes to get a result out of this match. Odelin did hold the Yanks to just the Clint Dempsey game winner in the one-nil loss to the US in a qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup. You may remember that match being played on an incredibly poorly lit excuse for a soccer field. The visibility and terrain should both be much better for everyone involved at Rio Tinto on Saturday.
US Player to Watch: José Francisco Torres
Keeping with the Klinsmann “midfield choices theme”…In the space of two years “Gringo” Torres has gone from assumed centerpiece in Klinsmann’s Mexican-American revolution, to the USMNT’s forgotten man. While I’ve always believed that most fans needed to temper their JFT enthusiasm, he really is a usefully player. Notice how I said “useful player,” and not “the Latino Frank Lampard.” But now, another American who USMNT fans want to be Frank Lampard, Stuart Holden, is finally healthy, linking well with Landon Donovan, and overshadowing Torres’ solid play. The excitement over Holden is well deserved, but keep your eyes on Gringo as well. On a team that only brought one true defensive midfielder (Beckerman), and whose wingers tend to drift centrally, Torres is a guy who can play box-to-box through the middle of the field and out on the flanks. And oh by the way, to remind you again, he’s playing well!
Prediction: USA 2 – 0 Cuba
This isn’t just me being conservative with my prediction, and this would be a great result for the USMNT. Don’t get too spoiled with back-to-back six goal performances, especially since the Cubans were a bit unlucky to concede three against Costa Rica in their first match. But do count on Landon Donovan getting back on the score sheet.
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Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon are Co-Founders and Co-Editors of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt and @TYAC_Jon, or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com