Neil W. Blackmon
It was fitting that on a night where a steady rain made the Raymond James Pirate ship appear to be moving in the mist, the United States got off to a foggy, turbulent start to World Cup qualifying, winning a game 3-1 but also getting a stern warning as to just how tenuous and tricky CONCACAF World Cup qualifying can be. As expected, the United States controlled play throughout, but there were moments of attacking stasis and more than a few moments where the door should have been shut on an opponent thoroughly outclassed and outmanned. Indeed, when Oguchi Onyewu committed yet another (the final, for him?) gaffe in the 65th minute, allowing Peter Byers to sneak the ball past a diving and helpless Tim Howard, the result itself was cast briefly into doubt, and a crowd of 25,000 who braved a lightning delay and the lingering elements were on edge. Fortunately, Herculez Gomez restored the two goal lead seven minutes later, and the Americans were able to hang on (without padding their goal differential) in the game’s final minutes.
It was, in some respects, a very dissatisfying three point haul. But three points is three points in the tricky world of CONCACAF qualifying, and for all the talk about a blueprint to defeat the United States (deploy five men in the midfield, sit back and make them unlock you, allow them to gobble up possession but force them to beat you on the cross, etc.), the Americans sit exactly where they wanted to sit- holders of three points headed into tonight’s affair at the Estadio Mateo Flores in Guatemala- an altogether different proposition. In two years, the rainy night in Tampa might be remembered most as the night that Terrence Boyd became cap-tied in the red, white and blue, and later tweeted about how happy he was about the fact. And Jose Torres, the victim of a scary fall in the second half, escaped without a broken ankle. Those two things might be all we remember. Still, there has been hefty criticism surrounding the USMNT performance in Tampa, and a bit of that is worth exploring before this evening’s match. Here are our final three thoughts, with player postgame commentary.
First, the Americans had some excellent buildups, and questions about the chemistry between Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey were mostly answered. That said, the Yanks need to play faster, be more decisive, and could stand to be less predictable in attack (again).
As expected, the Americans attacked from the outset and for most of the first half hour, the match was played in the Benna Boys’ final third. Deploying a 4-3-3 that functioned much more like a 3-5-2 (with Jose Torres a left back in name only, mostly encamped on the left wing, and Clint Dempsey playing more centrally than wide throughout the evening), the Americans had some excellent build ups and pressured the Benna Boys defense to the breaking point. The pressure paid off inside ten minutes, when Herculez Gomez headed a Landon Donovan corner kick towards the net, which was saved by Antigua and Barbuda keeper Molvin James. The rebound, however, was not controlled and Carlos Bocanegra headed it home near the right corner to give the Americans a 1-0 lead. It wasn’t the prettiest thing- but it was a lead, and a well-deserved one.
The next twenty minutes were a perfect demonstration, however, of where the Americans need to improve heading into the Guatemala match tonight and as qualifying continues this fall. The Americans controlled the ball, and the run of play, and even when Antigua and Barbuda did take possession, the Yanks deeper lying midfielders, led on this night by Maurice Edu, who read the game extremely well and played with great poise on and off the ball, gobbled possession back up. Landon Donovan and Steve Cherundolo also did a nice job of bottling up efforts by the Benna Boys to counter with pace, harassing speedster Quinton Griffith every time he got a touch and giving him very little time to make decisions with the ball that could facilitate the counterattack.
The problem for the Americans, however, was two-fold. First, the Yanks were unable, or, it seemed, just unwilling to push play or play quickly enough to capitalize, and as a result allowed Antigua and Barbuda to reorganize themselves time and time again as the Americans hurled bodies forward. Making matters worse, it wasn’t like the Americans were just being selfish, keeping the ball and firing it at the goalkeeper. They weren’t shooting it either. This combination was startling, and it needs to be quickly addressed.
Second, the Americans were extraordinarily predictable in their channels of attack: at one point in the match we counted 13 consecutive forays down Landon Donovan’s side– which meant very little attacking involvement for anyone on the other flank– a problem compounded by the Americans odd willingness to not make decisions with the ball until their Antigua and Barbuda markers had squared them up or recovered to favorable defensive positions.
The issue with problem number one was not lost on the manager, and it would be foolhardy to suggest Jurgen Klinsmann’s tactical plans are to blame. The players knew as much in the postgame, and the lack of ball circulation and quick, decisive passing in the area that would have better unlocked a rather flat Antigua and Barbuda backline was not lost on the gaffer at halftime.
“We have to step it up a lot, heading to Guatemala, which we will do,” Klinsmann said. “We need to be quicker moving the ball, from the back forward. If you watch our training sessions, there’s speed, there’s constant movement off the ball, there’s one-two touches– we just didn’t see it the first half hour. If we translate that from training into the game, there would be more chances,” Klinsmann said, indicating he had implored them to be more quick and too stretch the game out vertically in the second half with more movement. “The guys know they can do that, they know they can step it up and they will step it up.”
Beyond that, Klinsmann was also urging his charges to shoot the ball more– while Molvin James played perhaps the finest game of his young life– he is still, at the end of the day, a second division of North American professional soccer caliber keeper– and shots generate rebounds, and rebounds generate goals. This too, was not lost on the gaffer. “Even with three, four bodies in front, I told the guys at halftime, you’ve got to shoot more often. Once you have open space– you need to pull the trigger,” Klinsmann said. Of course, when you aren’t moving the ball well, you end up with “three-four bodies” in front of you. One issue begets the other.
The good news? It’s just one qualifier, and the players know they can execute what Klinsmann says happens consistently in training more effectively. “We know we could have scored more goals,” Maurice Edu told The Yanks Are Coming. “We know we could have been cleaner, quicker, sharper. The rate of play is a simple thing we can work on in training to clean up a little bit, and we will,” he added. “Obviously something we always emphasize is playing one-two touch, and more important, lots of vertical movement off the ball,” Edu added.”We need to do a better job of finding guys like Clint and Landon in little holes and little pockets and create from there, and today, with them sitting back the way they did, we took too many casual touches,” Edu said.
Was it an issue of legs and fatigue after two-a-day training sessions for much of the “five game tournament” camp? Edu refused this offered excuse, noting that “while a few of the guys might have tired late,” it was “the first World Cup qualifier, and we were amped and ready to set the bar high.”
Second, Antigua and Barbuda frustrated the United States by sitting back as deep as they did– and while great sides overcome that, it is also worth crediting the Benna Boys for a brave performance.
One thing that often gets lost on the typical, even highly knowledgeable fan in any game they care deeply about is that there’s an opponent your team is playing, and they usually want to win just as bad as you do and are willing to grind just as hard. I think to some extent, it is fair to say that was the case with Antigua and Barbuda Friday night. Their captain, George Dublin, told The Yanks Are Coming that “just playing in this game, this venue, this opponent was like living a dream, and we wanted to play like it. We thought we did.” He was smiling after the defeat, perhaps content with the showing. And perhaps he should be. And the Benna Boys deserve some credit.
Jurgen Klinsmann was quick to praise a brave Benna Boys’ effort. “Antigua did a very good job defending, they made it very tight, they made it difficult for us to create chances,” Klinsmann said.
Many of the Benna Boys were tremendous. The Americans had fourteen corner kicks, and countless other crosses from the wing, and they were parried away by Dublin and his mates on a large number of those occasions. When they weren’t, goalkeeper Molvin James, as noted above, made a series of spectacular saves (eight in total), and some of those saves are precisely what separated this 3-1 result from say, 8-0 against Barbados. Clearly, a number of things could have been better in attack, but to lie all the blame at the U.S. feet for an underwhelming result is unfair to the opponent.
Additionally, while the talk of a blueprint to defeat the United States (or at least make like difficult on them– alla Panama in the Gold Cup, Paraguay last year in Nashville, Canada in Toronto– is warranted, and the U.S. must work harder on unlocking these defenses in training– it does present a unique challenge to play a side that is sitting back as deeply as Antigua and Barbuda were.
Clint Dempsey agreed, and noted that the U.S. must be more efficient, but that is tricky against a defense that sits ten behind the ball as flat as Antigua and Barbuda did. “You would like to play as quickly as possible, to create space for yourself to get shots. A good way to do that is to play quicker, and give and go. The thing is, against Canada, these guys– those games are different than a road qualifier like we have (Tuesday) against Guatemala. There, I don’t think we’ll have to deal with that problem,” Dempsey said. “They’re going to play more on the front foot. They’ll have that confidence that they have the whole stadium behind them, and, I don’t see them sitting back at home. In that sense, we don’t need to worry about them packing it in the back.” But Dempsey did say the U.S. needed to play a faster game, “whoever the opponent,” adding perhaps the most important phrase, that the Yanks “are still a work in progress.”
Finally, there is a scenario, as Brent Latham at ESPN noted via Twitter Friday night, where the U.S. could lose at Guatemala, and it’s a tricky game. But the U.S. still have way more class, and should just go play their own game.
Qualifiers in Central America are the dirty (and dark) little secret of CONCACAF qualifying. They are why, in my view, when you take into account the limited number of spots available, it’s every bit as difficult to come through a European group. There aren’t any @Faroe Islands or @San Marinos in the bag. Yes, @Antigua and Barbuda should equal three points, but come the Hexagon, that trip goes the way of the dinosaur. In its stead are more trips like the one the Americans face Tuesday night– the kind immortalized in this fantastic Gatorade advert-– full of dark stadiums with chain-length fences, batteries and urine bags. And the Americans will have to navigate these murky places this time around in a region where the soccer is factually better than it’s ever been, and the sleeping giant, Mexico, is very much awake.
It is, very much, a different world. “These teams make it hard for you, not just on the field but off,” Herculez Gomez said after the game. “It’s a hostile environment, every trick in the book is pulled out, no stops. There’s a lot of experienced guys here, but this team, we need to gel, and learn to grind out results,” Gomez said.
That’s what makes tonight such a neat test for the Americans, a chance, as Jon Levy wrote in our preview, to prove the larger point that not only can the U.S. get a result, it can do it with a bit of style and class. And yes, if Oguchi Onyewu sees the field and makes another cement truck turn on an opponent’s deadly goalscorer, as happened with Peter Byers Friday evening, things could turn disastrous quickly. But the reality is the U.S. should at least draw, and likely win.
And, as Herculez Gomez noted, they’ll have a second half against Antigua where the attack looked better and was able to vertically push the envelope to build upon. “We need to be greedier, take some chances, be better, quicker,” Gomez said. “In the second half, we adjusted much better, stretched them out vertically, opened them up, which created a lot more opportunities. We didn’t do that in the first half, it was just kind of individual talent more than collective play,” he added.”But it’s gonna come. We’ll be more effective with our touches, play much cleaner.”
After three points Friday night, let’s hope Gomez is right, and the U.S. is much sharper against a trickier foe tonight.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.