Featured, June 2012

Canada Draw Proof US Have Thin Margin For Error, But May Prove Useful Down Road

On a night when only Clarence Goodson improved his team stock, the U.S. may have learned a valuable lesson.

Neil W. Blackmon

Greetings after a long and not so fruitful trip to Toronto, where the USMNT drew Canada 0-0. On the one end, the Americans did not lose to the Canadians for the first time since the Reagan Administration. On the other hand, they deserved too, as only a phantom foul negated a good Canadian goal late in the first half, and it could be argued that only one American field player, Clarence Goodson, raised his standing in the eyes of the gaffer. Indeed, the Yanks looked tired, disinterested, disorganized and predicatable, a lethal combination, and one that exemplifies the fact that despite how far US Soccer has come, the margin for error remains paper thin.

I know, I know. It’s just a friendly, and to read too much into this match, or the Brazil loss or Scotland win, for that matter, is a dangerous path. Yet friendlies are critical evaluation drills for managers, and as such, fair game for analysts and armchair managers alike. Still, that’s what we as writers do. We analyze things. We scrutinize great wins, and we dissect poor losses, friendly or no. In soccer, of course, ties are part of life, but this one definitely felt more like a loss than a win, a game of the dreaded “kissing your sister” ilk.

Before examining the one thing we at TYAC feel is absolutely a positive about this match, or at least the “experience” that comes from it–we need to talk about the various things that went awry for an American team that was dominant against Scotland and looked like it was capable of playing attractive, robust, unafraid football for large swaths against Brazil. (CAVEAT: It should be noted that Brazil side lost to Mexico Sunday, and it is fair game to suggest the U.S. loss to this particular incarnation of Brazil should be weighted more heavily to the negative in that light.)

First, the American attack was entirely too static and predictable, and like their U-23 counterparts, the Americans struggled mightily for ideas against Canada’s five man midfield.

Looking every bit the part of a group of eleven ready for a 1991 Polo catalog shoot, Canada was organized and disciplined in their blue rugby shirts, content to put ten men (most the time) behind the ball and wait for the Americans to give the ball away trying to move the ball to width or switch the field. The U.S. had little answer for this tactic, which, as noted above, was eerily reminiscent of what the Canadian U-23 group did to Caleb Porter’s Olympic charges in Nashville two months ago.  Gone where the effective, probing long balls we saw against Scotland and Brazil, replaced by desperate long balls to chasers with no real attacking intent or imagination. These passes played into the Canadians hands, as they simply advanced two to three defenders on any American who had space when crossing the halfline. Herculez Gomez and Michael Bradley, so effective in this regard for large portions of the Brazil match, were dreadfully out of sync, and the U.S.’ deployment of Bradley in a deep-lying role without as much liberty to advance did very little to help matters (more on this in thought # 2).

Statistically speaking, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, as well as wing side distributor Jose Torres, weren’t particularly woeful in their passes completed percentage (all hovered around a respectable 70-80 percent). The problem was that most of these balls were back passes that simply retained possession or “reset” an offense which had very little tactical imagination. Making matters worse, Torres looked rattled when pressured– a problem that certainly wasn’t evident as he evolved into a ball-spraying, attack orchestrating defensive mid in Mexico this past campaign. Bradley and Jones were equally poor trying to generate attacks– their collective nine giveaways outpaced the seven they had against Scotland and Brazil combined, according to the OPTA stats.

Torres has become a pretty effective, capable of defending distributive midfielder in Mexico, which begs questions about his continued wide deployment by Jurgen Klinsmann...

Beyond the sloppy passing, which might be attritubale to a combination of Canadian tactics, fatigue and lack of discipline– the Americans tactical deployments at width were disastrous because they were static and overwhelmingly predictable. It was a horrendous replay (only from an attack standpoint, as the Canadians did little attacking beyond a counter or three) of the Gold Cup defeat to Panama, where the Americans seemed content to cross and wait for an opportunity on a late run or a header, rather than drift centrally from positions of width, challenge defenders on the ball and force the issue. Given Canada’s lack of attacking talent beyond the brilliant (and he is brilliant) Dwayne De Rosario, the American wingers of Landon Donovan and Jose Torres can have little explanation as to why they were so content to hug the sideline and cross from distance rather than attack centrally from width, challenge their defenders and find the game. As noted above, Torres, more so than Donovan, appeared willing to do this, but he was disastrous in possession when pressured, and often lost the ball before his few central forays ever got off the ground.

It wasn’t just a failure on the wings when they had the ball, either. Neither seemed particulary interested in pinching inward and making the game more central (and probably chaotic). They were content– again, particularly in the case of Landon Donovan– to stay wide. This made life difficult for Herculez Gomez, whose work rate mirrored his showing in Landover last Wednesday but who, left to his own devices and starved of probing, effective long ball combinations, was essentially a non-factor.

One final thing about the tactical problem (before we get into Michael Bradley, a serious issue in and of itself) that must be noted is that Jose Torres at a position of width against an inferior opponent in particular makes little sense. Always a bit lost defensively in past appearances in the red, white and blue, Torres appeared to make a bit of progress in the past two matches. He at least seemed interested in tracking back defensively, and, when given license, roamed centrally to find the game. His two forced turnovers resulting in goals against Scotland are a bit of what I mean– but the liberty to float seemed at least a cursory acknowledgment by Klinsmann that Torres was developing into a more complete, ball-spraying distributive central midfielder in Mexico. I believe this is where he is most effective– and I really think this is where he should play for the United States. His defensive limitations seem to be exaggerated at the international level– but if Klinsmann is going to keep experiementing (and make no mistake, eleven months in, he has played far more combinations than Bradley did his final two years, all while capping far less players)– this might be an experiment worth rolling the dice on.

Is there a more "Moneyball" type player in the U.S. pool than Maurice Edu? Hard to think of one...

Second, the dilemma of Maurice Edu, which we addressed in the aftermath of the Brazil match, is really indicative of where the U.S. is from a depth perspective. There is depth, yes, and more of it than in past cycles– but there is also a pretty significant talent differential that creates tough choices for Jurgen Klinsmann.

Stating the above thesis more simply: the United States has done a great job developinhg midfielders who are capable of helping the team internationally, all in varying degrees. A Kyle Beckerman might have been very useful in helping the U.S. break down a clogged midfield last night (and this is a more realistic fix than either calling in Sacha Kljestan– which Klinsmann clearly isn’t going to do, or finding a true “10”, which the U.S. just doesn’t hav). It was ironic, in fact, that Beckerman’s teammate Will Johnson was probably the most effective midfielder on the pitch on Sunday night. But Beckerman is only useful against certain international opponents, and most of those are of the “not going to qualify for the World Cup grade.” This is helpful in CONCACAF qualifying, and the U.S. pool has plenty of that type of player– but not particularly useful in the grander campaign for Brazil.

Enter Maurice Edu and Moneyball/Sabermatric principles. A favorite statistic among baseball folk who subscribed to the Moneyball theory that has become increasingly prominent in global footballing circles is the “Wins Above Replacement” (WAR) statistic. Broken down crudely, the statistic measures a player at a given position’s worth comparitive to another player in the same pool (in baseball, the NL or AL are two pools) . It also factors in what would happen if the lack of that player at a given spot forced the move of another player from a spot where he was more comfortable. IN other words, the WAR statistic gauges positional value in relation to every teammate a player has. This is why baseball folk find it so useful, and why many soccer commentators and analysts, such as Simon Kuper and Jen Chang, have found it useful to apply to soccer clubs as well.

Here, we can use “the U.S. Midfield pool” as our larger pool, and narrow it down to “Central Midfielders”, much like you might narrow an outfielder down to “rightfield” in the baseball industry. What happened Sunday night, to me, was a reminder that perhaps no American midfielder (outside of Clint Dempsey, of course) has a higher “WAR”, given those limiting pool areas, than Maurice Edu. The lineup choice made by Jurgen Klinsmann– to deploy Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, and Jose Torres at the same time– forced Klinsmann to make the choice between the man he called a “traditional, clean up six that enables Michael and Jermaine to get forward more freely” (Edu) and MB 90 himself. Because MB 90 is one of the three best players the United States have– that decision seems an easy one. And that is where WAR principle becomes useful. By playing Michael Bradley that deep, Klinsmann negates a large portion of Bradley’s effectiveness. Bradley is limited in a box-to-box sense not because he isn’t capable, but because when he starts in deeper positions his best offensive strengths are hamstrung. It becomes possible for him to be a second or two late on his patented late runs, and it eliminates the opportunity that he gains the ball in advanced enough positions to make the type of defense-breaking passes we saw him attempt in the first two matches, where he was deployed further forward. As Grant Wahl noted, this “stymied the American attack” Sunday night.

Edu, on the other hand, is the one traditional “6” who can certainly handle all comers until the competition reaches a very elite level. Indeed, as we wrote after the Brazil match, most of Edu’s disappointing nights in an American shirt, if not all of them, came against great teams, not against the types of sides the U.S. will see in qualifying or even one, maybe two of the three World Cup games should they qualify. Edu’s WAR, in that respect, at the “6” spot is very high, given the other options are Kyle Beckerman (fine against Canada, El Salvador and Guatemala but give me Panama or even Costa Rica and problems begin) or Jose Torres (fine in Mexico, but the defensive question marks make that an experiment, and an untested one.) With Edu capably filling that role, Bradley’s value resets to the “elite class” it has entered since his move to Serie A.  So the question, we think, for Klinsmann is how willing is he to depart with the known commodity of Edu in order to field a lineup with Torres, Donovan and Dempsey on the field at the same time in attacking positions? Sunday night was, at the very least, a suggestion that perhaps he shouldn’t be willing to do that.

Down the road, on a hot night in a hostile Latin American stadium like this one, this type of grinding, physical game might be a good experience for the U.S. We should all hope so.

Finally, this match will be useful, somewhere down the road, AT “Insert CONCACAF opponent” here.

If one thing is unquestionably true about CONCACAF qualifying, it is that the road games in particular are an absolute grind. In the final group, there are no @ San Marino’s or @ Faroe Islands on the fixture list. Every stadium will be more full than BMO was Sunday night, and will be far more hostile. The Latin American venues in particular are a harsh dose of life in soccer’s nether regions. To play a friendly where things simply weren’t going right, and the U.S. was forced to grind through fatigue, a lack of form, and an organized, physical defense, was a great dress rehearsal. Would it have been splendid if Lars Hirschfeld hadn’t made two fantastic saves, and the United States had found a way to grind out a 1-0 (alla Trinidad and Tobago, Ricardo Clark, World Cup Qualifying, 2009)? Yes. But the fact that they didn’t is useful to. At some point in qualifying, it will be a matter of “want to” for the States, and they’ll simply have to dig deeper. I think the leadership on the team is good enough to use this particular moment as a sound reminder when that evening comes– and to be fair, given how thin the United States margin for error seems to be, and how vastly improved the region is– the leadership better. This will, without question, be the toughest qualifying tournament the Yanks have played in since the college kids found a way through in 1990.

Short Corners:

The Americans were also tired– two a day training sessions with Jurgen Klinsmann in the run-up to qualifying might not have been the best route. The Americans looked very much a team without its legs (particularly Landon Donovan and Steve Cherundolo, who offered zilch on the flank). You have to have energy to play winning football, and the Americans didn’t seem to have any.

— Grant Wahl and other US commentators are right to suggest Clarence Goodson has earned another shot in central defense. That area is a free-for-all, which is not a great thing, obviously, as qualifying begins. 90 percent of a backline’s effectiveness is half about continuity, or something like that– and so many combinations are devastating to the development of chemistry. With Omar Gonzalez on the shelf, Tim Ream nowhere close, Michael Parkhurst’s substandard showing, and Onyewu looking every bit a parked cement truck, Goodson might be the most steady option by process of elimination. That’s not a bad thing: he’s obviously a force in the air, and his one on one defending is a great deal better than advertised. I don’t think he reads the game great, or at the least, he puts himself in some odd starting positions defensively, which is something Ghana and Jay DeMerit can tell you can be exploited by good sides, but if you are willing to instruct Fabian Johnson to be responsible and help him when need be, and you can deal with Goodson’s “one mental breakdown a match” average– he could at least be a capable deputy while Gonzalez does his rehab laps in the pool.

— No player ratings until qualifying from us– we’re still battling internally over how useful they are anyway– but Jack Bell’s over at NYT Goal are a good enough summation— though we think his Cherundolo rating is a bit high. Kudos to him on the Castillo marks– it seems a great too many of the U.S. faithful judged him on the grounds that he isn’t Fabian Johnson– but the reality is he nearly scored a thrilling goal, was good enough defensively despite the turnover leading to the disallowed goal (I blame Bocanegra for leaving his feet more, but that’s me), and showed some initiative in attack. If that’s your backup– we’ve come a long way from Boca out left because Bornstein wasn’t good enough.

— Doug McIntyre agrees with us that this match might be useful later on– and rightly points out that @ Guatemala is one such hostile location where everything can, and has, in the past, gone wrong.

Programming Notes:

— EURO Group previews, and “The Euro in the Age of Austerity, Or Something Like That”, begin tomorrow as we get our EURO coverage underway.

— Antigua and Barbuda preview sometime tomorrow night or Thursday night, but Thursday is a travel day for us as we take our little website over to Tampa for the beginning of qualifying, so nothing during the day Thursday.

As always, thanks for reading. Comments welcome.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.


Neil W. Blackmon