Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon
As is custom around these parts, three final thoughts on the Americans 1-0 victory in front of a raucous Columbus crowd last night (one Klinsmann very much appreciated) and then player ratings as the Yanks head back to their respective clubs and wait for the critical October qualifiers. Fortunately, the waiting will be a great deal easier, with all due respect to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (yeah, the version at the bottom!– you’re welcome!!).
Onto the three final thoughts, courtesy of Neil W. Blackmon.
First, Klinsmann’s lineup changes were a pretty decent dice roll, and he rolled sevens!!
Graham Zusi was revelatory, which is all the more impressive given the fact that it was an enormous moment to receive your first start in a competitive match. As we suggested in the preview, Klinsmann tasked his fullbacks, who sat deep and contained Jamaica’s pacy strikers in Kingston, with getting forward and providing width, constantly interacting with Graham Zusi and Jose Torres on the flanks. Zusi was splendid in doing things the simple way, two-touch quick football. Off the ball, he made smart runs and didn’t forget himself defensively. The Americans were very nearly rewarded in one early sequence, where Stevie Cherundolo (more on him in a bit) took on a defender off the dribble and laid off to Zusi who was extremely unlucky and hit a post. Zusi’s run on the play was patient, his movement once he received the ball was decisive, and the strike was exceptional. It was a nod to the great night it would become, and was, for the Sporting Kansas City man.
Equally critical last night was Danny Williams, a guy who had the credentials and the coach’s confidence but in candor had shown us very little in a US shirt until last night. Many had argued (The Shin Guardian and Brian Sciaretta most notably and most early) that Williams suffered from Klinsmann’s repeated wing deployments, which took him away from his natural holding spot in the center of the pitch. Williams, whose inclusion we questioned when lineups were announced, made those folks look very smart.
Williams work rate was phenomenal– we were even more impressed about how hard he continued to go after being slotted back to the wing in the second half– and he was a critical cog in the US plan to garner width from marauders Cherundolo and Johnson. Williams sat back, provided appropriate cover to Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron, and retrieved no less than six (YES, SIX!!) Jamaican outlet/long ball efforts to strikers on the night. His distribution still needs to be better, and he could play the game quicker, but this is still essentially a kid and if his game improves as fast as his English, he’ll be a most capable deputy to MB 90 and potentially could crack a US 11 at full strength. Last night was a testament to that fact.
Last note on the lineup changes: Jose Torres was pretty good. He’s still NOT an attacking midfielder and he’s not the guy to unlock defenses or serve as the needed bridge between the midfield, Clint Dempsey and the forwards (in that order)– but he was better than he has been and that’s something given he was put in an unusual spot out on the left flank. Two important things: he resisted the urge to drift inside, and he made a decent effort repeatedly to win the ball. He missed more passes than any American (7) on the night, and he’s still too slow, both pace wise and with his distributions, to be a repeat starter at the advanced spots Klinsmann seems to want him in– but he played well enough to stay in the conversation, especially with Sacha Kljestan exiled at the Jurgen Klinsmann’s own personal Gitmo.
Second, the Americans sincerely needed Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo Friday night in Kingston, and they are still a better, more cohesive group when these two salty war horses are on the pitch.
My favorite, less-noticed moment of the match last night? Carlos Bocanegra telling Geoff Cameron to settle down during one of the only moments of sustained play in the American final third. Cameron wasn’t having a bad night, quite the opposite– but it was just a reminder after a late challenge that Cameron needed to play his game, not let the moment or the “want to” overcome him into doing something silly (around here we call that “Goodson syndrome”– when a player tries so hard to impress something goes wrong at least once a match). Bocanegra was around to simply remind Geoff that he was in control, and was doing just fine. That’s priceless, and why Carlos Bocanegra could be playing fourth division football in the Kingdom of Nairu and he’d still be worthy of wearing the armband for this side.
Steve Cherundolo continues to stake his claim to being the most under-appreciated American soccer player in history (not that Steve Cherundolo would ever say so or even notice, as Roger Bennett pointed out here). A manager says he needs width and he wants to know if coming off a calf injury you can calmly provide it? Steve Cherundolo. A manager says “I’m going to make some midfield changes and if they need cover I need you to be smart about providing it” and…Steve Cherundolo. Jamaica starts to press more after you’ve taken a 1-0 lead and can’t seem to score again and you need possession in the back? Steve Cherundolo. There was no more important figure on the side than Stevie C– the man the Mayor of Columbus Frankie Hejduk calls “just a regular San Diego dude, man”– and it showed last night. Cherundolo was instrumental in setting an early attacking tone, his interplay with Graham Zusi and Herculez Gomez was consistently dangerous, and when the Jamaicans did attempt to ratchet up pressure, Cherundolo made smart runs and held the ball calmly when he found it in the back. It was the type of consummate professional performance American fans have come to expect, and of course, taken for granted. Nights like Friday in Kingston remind how much they’ll long for them when Cherundolo is gone.
Finally, even on one of his less good nights, Clint Dempsey is from Texas. And he’s always going to play his guts out.
Remember the Clint Dempsey that for club was a sensation but for country was more Steven Gerrard (before this past Euro)-– you wondered where he was and what he was doing? Well, that image forever changed with Confederations Cup tears but if you had asked us three years ago if Deuce was capable of being the national team’s heartbeat, well, we wouldn’t have believed it.
He wasn’t at his best Tuesday night– not even close. He looked gassed at times and, as we wrote Monday night, was guilty of “pressing”, particularly when the US couldn’t find the first goal despite brilliant play. To review: Dempsey “pressing” is often a product of his “want to”, his desire to win for country. It’s more than his stylistic “I try stuff” game– it’s a deep desire to avoid Confederations Cup tears. Sometimes it’s because Klinsmann hasn’t deployed him properly (guy isn’t a 10!)– but other times, like last night, it was just pressing. There is no other reason for him to retreat behind the midline on seven occasions in the first fifty minutes to retrieve the ball. And what was worse– when he did that, it never ended well and once nearly led to a Jamaican goal on the counter.
But Dempsey on an off-night is still useful now in a way it wasn’t two to three years ago because Dempsey still plays with great fire, still takes on defenders when nothing’s really there (precisely how the US earned the foul that set up Gomez’s goal), and still always has his teammates back. That’s not always just on a captain– and with MB 90, who typically fills that role, on the training table, Deuce stepped up. Sassy Dempsey face certainly trended on Twitter, and it was fun. More important, it was just what the US needed when the technical quality of the game began to slip and things got chippy. It was clear, the way the US was playing in the back, that Jamaica could only equalize if the US made a silly, emotional error. Dempsey’s leadership, his resolve, wouldn’t allow it.
Player Ratings by Jon Levy
Tim Howard: 7
Thankfully wasn’t called into action often in this match. Textbook Timmy on rare occasion that Jamaica threatened.
Fabian Johnson: 7.5
A tremendous bounce-back coming off his most disappointing performance in a US shirt (the same could be said even more vehemently of Jurgen Klinsmann). Johnson’s forays into the attacking zone were some of the USMNT’s most dangerous, and he never left the back end exposed.
Carlos Bocanegra: 7.5
It’s no disrespect to Clarence Goodson or Maurice Edu to say that it was beyond evident that the Yanks missed their captain in the last couple matches. Boca is a steady no-nonsense center back by trade, and as usual, it showed on Tuesday night.
Geoff Cameron: 7
As every Houston Dynamo fan knows, Jeff Cameron is comfortable with the ball at his feet. That, combined with the fact that he’s an athletic in-his-prime defender who competes for every ball, makes him the perfect Jurgen Klinsmann center back. The number of games that it’s taken Geoff to cement his starting spot is both alarming and positive.
Steven Cherundolo: 8
An even more positive return to the first team than Boca, and that’s saying something. Dolo was more than responsible in defense, and his runs forward often left the Jamaicans looking like amateurs. And that’s without flashing the high skill ball movements of his full back counterpart Fabian Johnson. Stevie C played with the savvy and instinct of a veteran, and the legs of a young trainee. Did you see the crossover? Wow. And great one-two games with Gomez and Zusi nearly made it 1, then 2-nil early on…
Danny Williams: 7.5
By far his best performance in his most important game in a USA shirt. You have to love that. He played the primary defensive midfield spot, and while his tackling grit wasn’t tested, he showed better distribution (and skill going forward) than the Dred Pirate Beckerman. Was also game for a smart Klinsmann change when Edu entered and he slid out wide right.
Jermaine Jones: 6
Maybe the most underrated performance of the night. Jermaine proved that within Jurgen’s preferred formation he can play the most important spot on the field, the Michael Bradley position. He should have scored on Gomez’s set piece after schooling Jermaine Taylor to get space for a header just outside the six, but whiffed. Otherwise, less silly fouls. When he doesn’t try to do too much, he’s at his best, and he had less “try to do too much” and more “simple football” last night. That’s a good thing. Pencil in Jermaine as first string DM, and second string CM.
José Francisco Torres: 6.5
Did a great job considering he was playing on a wing out of position, but did look like he was being played out of position. No indictment of Klinsmann though; Gringo’s covering (yes, he decided to defend!!) for Fabian Johnson alone justified his role in the gameplan, not to mention his cultured keeping of possession and distribution (most bad passes, but the US didn’t have any, and Torres was second in attempts in the first half). Plus, he was actually missed when he wasn’t on the field, which hasn’t happened since the Turkey match in Philadelphia prior to the 2010 World Cup. Torres’ should most naturally play the MB90 spot that Jones played on Tuesday night, but he hasn’t proven enough during his up and down tenure with the USMNT to start at that spot in a match of this magnitude.
Graham Zusi: 7
Justified all the praise and expectation we’ve heaped upon him. Zusi didn’t notch a goal or assist, but he was the most likely culprit. He made a great case to retain his starting spot in the full “A team,” over Brek Shea and across from a rejuvenated Landon Donovan. Klinsmann will rue the silly yellow, but that is a learning and teaching moment.
Clint Dempsey: 6
Found a good balance between keeping the attack alive and taking over the offense himself. Played an important role in almost every US buildup. Notice I didn’t write, “Was the best player on the field for the Yanks.” On this night that was okay, and that’s a credit to the coach and the entire team. Plus, he’s suddenly invaluable even on an off night. That’s what greatness is about.
Herculez Gomez: 7
I finally found the best way to describe what I love so much about Herc. He’s a self-actualized soccer player. He’s knows his abilities, his limits, and his role. He knows where he’s been and where he’s going, and he knows the value of direct striker play. And he’s lapping the striker pool right now.
Maurice Edu: 6
Mo was the best of the three subs, slotting naturally into his defensive midfield position and looking like Walter Smith’s favored number six. Good to know he can play like that coming off the bench. Edu’s adding to his resume lately, and that bodes well for his minutes under Klinsmann going forward. He also was, unlike Shea, useful getting forward late.
Brek Shea: 3.5
One of the few times under Jurgen that Shea’s failed to put any sort of stamp on the match. Direct flank play and energy would have been enough to garner Shea positive notoriety when he came in. Instead we were treated to an unsure feeling-out period more suited for minutes one through fifteen of a particularly tricky matchup. Maybe he was afraid to make a late mistake after his last gasp gaffe helped keep the US out of the Olympics? If so, he needs to not be– his errant pass off a late corner conjured up visions of Run DMB, Robinho and a devastating counter, alla 2009 Confed Cup, Brazil Round One. Yikes.
Jozy Altidore: 4
I was sure Jozy was going to come in and pickup where Herc left off, but with greater quality. Almost the same deal as with Brek though, but there’s greater blame to be placed on Jozy due to his career progress and history with the national team. Altidore and Shea’s short corner debacle exemplified their ineffectiveness.