Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon
Hey US Soccer fan, cheer up! Your team that’s currently sitting in automatic World Cup Qualifying position is set to play Germany in the US Soccer Federation’s Centennial celebration match at RFK Stadium in Washington DC! That’s not a bad thing. So get in the spirit; grab yourself a DC Brau, or, y’know, pretty much any beer, and get ready for the match.
And as for what might be getting you down, a 4-2 loss in a friendly match against Belgium is hardly reason for sports-depression… you could be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan–that one hurts to watch, even for neutrals.
We here at The Yanks Are Coming are unapologetically American. That means we eat pizza, drink bourbon, watch cable TV, and believe that results matter, even in friendly matches. So we feel you if you’ve got heartburn, are hungover, or if you’re sweating that 4-2 loss to Belgium on American soil. But a careful analysis of that Belgium match yielded better results than the scoreline would seem to indicate. The Yanks weren’t (as) embarrassingly out-possessed and out-chanced by Belgium as they were in Brussels in 2011. That match, the third match under Jurgen Klinsmann, should have yielded four goals for Belgium. A glass half-full view and film review shows that while the Americans didn’t do much in the final third Wednesday night, the affair itself was much more even, and was decided by a few isolated missteps. And if you’re still upset at being out-classed by a group of Belgians who’ve been on fire for a year and a half, you can be forgiven for not paying attention. Those guys are really good. And dreadful penalty or no, the Americans doubled up their European competition with two goals (yes, the European sides in their World Cup qualifying group have managed but one.) So while it could have been worse with Witsel and Hazard involved, the Americans should by no means feel embarrassed.
Which leads us to Saturday- an imposing opponent playing a “B” team in the DC heat. A tall order for any friendly, let alone a centennial celebration where a tallboy and a minnow– say, El Salvador– would have been the easier route. But minnows aren’t the way Jurgen Klinsmann operates in friendlies– his quote after the Belgium loss, which he called a “negative” result– was “I would rather play Belgium 10 more times than El Salvador a thousand times. That is how you learn.” So Germany it is, with three enormous qualifiers on the horizon. That’s enough introduction material for a whole piece, so lets’ get to the nitty gritty.
The Series: Ninth Meeting. Germany leads, 6-2. The last meeting was in 2006 in Dortmund, where Jurgen Klinsmann led a German team ranked lower than the United States in the FIFA rankings at the time to a 4-1 victory over the US. It was the first big warning sign for Bruce Arena and company as they headed towards disaster at the World Cup later that summer. The most famous meeting, of course, is Germany’s controversial 1-0 quarterfinal win over the United States in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. The last American victory came in the 1999 Confederations Cup, where Joe Max-Moore and current DC United manager Ben Olsen scored to give the Yanks a surprising 2-0 victory.
Weather: Hot and sticky. 86 degrees at kick, with a small chance of an isolated thunderstorm and humidity around 60 percent. Or, as Miroslav Klose protested at the morning media session, “miserable, exceptional heat.”
What will we see out of The Yanks?
Like many of you reading this, I’m more concerned with what we better not see. I’m sick of watching stupid errors in our own end, especially ones committed by defenders, the guys charged with playing it safe ahead of worrying about possession football. In general the USMNT has been defensively responsible under Jurgen Klinsmann. This is true in regards to formation, team defense, and individual defending as well (converted left back DaMarcus Beasley, you can take a bow for your last 180 plus minutes in the shirt now). But miscommunication on the back end and a refusal to play safety-first soccer has now become a very real problem. The aforementioned problems have played a crucial role in four out of the last five goals conceded by the Yanks, and yes, that goes all the way back to the game winner in Honduras.
Thankfully, these types of mistakes represent the soccer version of screwing up a simple piece of addition or subtraction en route to solving a complex equation. For the most part that’s good news. Granted, the simple mistake precludes you from winning just as absolutely as does the deeply flawed philosophy, but the simple mistake is a lot more easily corrected. And in context, these friendlies, especially ones against outstanding opponents, are precisely the type of “high level reps” needed to correct the mistakes.
If Jurgen wants, he can run Omar Gonzalez until he pukes every time he makes a bonehead play in training, and that might actually stop him from making bonehead plays. But the reality, as we wrote months ago, is match reps are the best way to address the problem, and continuity in the center of defense needs to be established now, rather than later. The fix is a lot more complicated on macro-level deficiencies. That’s not to say the problems plaguing the US defense don’t represent a trend, just that it shouldn’t be one that’s particularly hard to break. And we don’t expect to see the mistakes repeated Sunday.
.As for what we do expect to see, I may disappoint some of you. It should be another disjointed offensive performance from the first kick, getting better again as the day draws on. And here’s where we defend some of the typical “Kljestan scapegoating.” Sacha didn’t take twenty minutes to start finding the right passes to start the offense because “he sucks,” he took that long because the USMNT fielded a hodgepodge of starters and backups who weren’t used to playing with each other, and certainly weren’t used to a new distributing force in the center of the pitch. Kljestan may not play a great deal Sunday, as Michael Bradley, back from Italy, should be back in his usual starting role. But it’s telling that Kljestan didn’t need a “Gold Cup” to prove his value to Klinsmann. Hes off that roster, and should be a credible option for Jurgen in the “meaningful” matches moving forward.
With Bradley back, fans shouldn’t expect brilliant possession and buildup from the start. He won’t be playing with a full complement of starters either, not with the three critical matches days away. Expect a wary US squad to weather the early German storm and start probing for weaknesses. If this was a boxing match, the US is the dude in the first round trying to answer questions about his opponent, not going for the early knockout.
As for lineups, we’re thinking Geoff Cameron and DaMarcus Beasley will play but will be limited ahead of the qualifiers next week. The argument for not playing Beasley period is strong, given his last two performances, but we’re just betting that Klinsmann wants to see his “qualifier back four” for a half. Expect Besler to replace Goodson and join Omar Gonzalez in the center. Parkhurst probably sees the field at some point Sunday afternoon too.
In the midfield, we’ll look for your usual Bradley-Jones pairing to begin the match, but we don’t expect Jones to play more than sixty minutes. If there’s anything that’s “classic Jurgen”, it would be spelling Jones with the out-of-form Danny Williams instead of letting Kljestan and Bradley start the match together– a formula that has been very positive against teams with young defensive midfielders and shaky wingbacks in the past (see- US v. Mexico, Columbus, 2006). Fabian Johnson returns and should start on a wing, if only because this is Klinsmann’s last chance to see if this is a better spot for him in the qualifiers to come. Graham Zusi, coming off another “so-so, man I wish he sped things up” game against Belgium Wednesday night, may get a breather. We like Brad Davis on the other wing. Because the US have had trouble linking center to Dempsey to “any other option”, Stu Holden may deserve a spot Sunday, and we’re hoping for it. More on why, and how he could be a big hope given the US lack of any width, in a moment.
Forward is a bit more tricky. There’s great analysis on the Jozy-Klinsmann relationship and what exactly is happening there over at The Shin Guardian and it’s worth a read. Herculez Gomez, if not limited by the minor injury that kept him out of the Belgium match, would be our choice, and we’d pair him with Altidore, giving the US a forward grouping of Dempsey (as miscast 10), Gomez and Altidore.
Players with the most to prove? Fabian Johnson and whoever is paired with MB 90. We know Bradley can play quarterback. We know Clint Dempsey can score goals, but we also know how difficult it has been for him to be consistently influential. We also know that because the US offer so little from positions of width, Dempsey doesn’t get enough chances to move off the ball– which is part and parcel what makes him an excellent player for his club. We think it is a huge audition for Fabian Johnson. The US must– must– stretch Germany out to have any chance.
Speaking of Germany, Neil W. Blackmon was on press row for their 4-2 thrashing of Ecuador in Boca Raton, so he’ll fill you in on what he expect to see from this “B” version of Jogi Low’s charges.
What to watch for from Germany:
Joachim Löw’s team have been experimenting with a higher line and more ball-pressure since they were out-passed, possessed and “catenaccio’d” out of the Europa by Italy last summer. It has worked wonders in qualifying and even with a side about as obscure as the German house music Löw’s charges warm up to, it was devastatingly effective in the first half in Boca Raton Wednesday. It took just seven seconds for a hard pressing Podolski to capitalize on a pair of lazy back passes by Ecuador and a center back with a first touch straight out of “Eddie Johnson, the Fulham Years” to put the Germans Die Mannschaft ahead for good.
After that goal, the Germans added three more deploying similar tactics, pressing Ecuador into midfield turnovers and then executing swift center-to-flank to incut running attacker attacks with ruthless precision. Lars Bender, normally a deep-lying holder for Löw, seemed to relish in a more advanced role against Ecuador, scoring twice and being involved in the other build up that saw Germany signal to the world that its American tour was not simply a “B” team cameo, but a chance to go to work.
The high pressure has also created some defensive vulnerability– perhaps the only chink in Löw’s side’s armor at this point. As the Germans worked the flanks relentlessly and with great effectiveness, particularly through Sidney Sam, who was brilliant in his first cap Wednesday, Ecuador slowly gained their feet by continuing to probe the middle, an area of the field they found success in late in the first half and actually controlled for most of the second, albeit against a German team at that point sitting with nine to ten men behind the ball. The constant pressure and demands of Löw to get the ball to the flank place heightened responsibility on the German center, and Wednesday, Jermaine Jones’ Schalke teammate Roman Neustadter was not entirely up to the task. His 75 minutes featured a rash of turnovers and late passes that generated chances for Ecuador. The US would do well to pressure him if he is in Löw’s starting 11 again Sunday. Neustadter likely won’t get the nod, however, as it is highly unlikely that Sven Bender flew from Europe for one match just to sit on the bench.
That means a better center for the Germans and as such, an impetus on the US to generate something (anything!) on the flanks. Benedikt Howedes, another Schalke regular, was another German who disappointed Wednesday, and while some of this had to do with Luis Antonio Valencia, more of it had to do with his inability from a pace perspective to catch up when he got caught too far up the pitch. The Americans have doubtlessly taken note of this situation and will do everything they can to work his flank. The rest of the German back four, including Arsenal man Per Metresacker and Marcell Jansen, are capable players but by no means giants, and the Americans should see some success if they are patient in their build-up play and if they can get into the passing lanes effectively like Ecuador did in the second half. Rene Adler will play goal for Die Mannschaft– he’s good enough to start for most countries in the world and was a key reason Germany held its 4-2 edge in the final ten minutes Wednesday.
In attack, Max Kruse earned his second cap, and an assist, Wednesday, but he’s by no means a high-class attacking player. He’s more of a worker bee with a constant motor and an ability to hold the ball up while he waits for the charging calvary. Sure, the US would love to have that type of hold-up guy, but he is not anything Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler haven’t seen before in MLS. Miroslav Klose should feature, however, and that is an altogether different proposition, as is the lethal Lukas Podolski, who really, really enjoys scoring goals for his “home” country.
German Player to Watch: Miroslav Klose
The US was both bothered and burned by the ever-presence of Belgians Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke on Wednesday night. These guys planted themselves squarely in the American center backs’ kitchen and refused to be moved, even after they got their fill. In a good bit of analysis by former forward Taylor Twellman, the ESPN commentator pointed out how Clarence Goodson and (even more so) Omar Gonzalez got rattled by Lukaku’s insistence on staying between them when he didn’t have the ball at his feet. Problems like this one stem from instinctual striker positioning and movement, not from the fact that the Belgian strikers are physical specimens.
Sounds like a great time to invite the world’s foremost cagey/heady striker to our nation’s capital huh?
If Lukaku and his boy Benteke could cause the Yanks many of the problems that they did on Wednesday night before their athleticism even came into play, what’s Herr Klose got planned for an internationally green backline? And yes, it’s true that at 34 years old he’s not quite what he was physically, but that’s like saying Peyton Manning isn’t as fast as he was in college. Who cares? The game is subtle movement and finishing by any means necessary, and Klose may not have written the manual, but it was damn sure passed on to him from Ruud van Nistelrooy by way of Ronaldo (the real one). NOTE: Chicharito is next on this list if he continues down the path he’s on.
But wait, there’s good news! If the US defense can limit Klose to touches outside the eighteen yard box, he should be almost completely nullified. The only drawback is that no one’s ever figured out how to consistently do that. Jurgen did coach Klose for both club and country; maybe he’s got a few ideas. And, hey, if all else fails, at least Klose’s already complaining about the “miserable, exceptional DC heat.”
US Player to Watch: Stuart Holden (and Fabian Johnson)
Okay ya got me, Stu Holden was my US Player to Watch last match. And yeah I said that even if he was an 85th minute substitute he’d still be my player to watch because of his long layoff due to injuries. Well Stu was an 81st minute sub last match, and while I enjoyed watching him trot out onto the field and mark a bit defensively, I’m gonna need more. Not like, “Stuart Holden played poorly and we’re going to need more out of him if we’re going to be successful.” More like, “I can’t tell much from the very few minutes Stu was on the field and the even fewer touches on the ball he received.” I know he’s not back at one hundred percent, but I want to get some idea of how far along he is. As I wrote in my last preview, I’m also interested in seeing how Jurgen’s coached Holden and how he wants to use him. Hopefully we get another, longer, look at the rebuilt Stuart Holden. And that could be especially useful in this match, where, as we’ve noted, Germany fields a group of central midfielders who were a bit slow in reading the play against Ecuador. If Holden can play quickly and read some of the German passes, the US may be in business, if…
Fabian Johnson, or anyone, for that matter, can give the US enough on the flank to stretch the Germans out. Even if the Germans leave more of the center open by emphasizing the flanks, the Americans have to have enough ideas in attack to make the Germans pay for this tactical choice. The only player on the roster whose name doesn’t rhyme with BaMarcus Deasley who can do that is Fabian Johnson, and this is a critical audition in a game that will probably matter a great deal to Fabian as a person.
Prediction: USA 1-3 Germany
This is the type of match for which you carry Carlos Bocanegra on the roster. Your team’s just gone blunder bus in Cleveland, and you’re now facing a potent German attack; it’s scary even with most the Bavarian Dub All-Stars on vacation elsewhere. Too bad the most the team’s calming and organizing defensive influence can do is send a “good luck” tweet. The Yanks give up a couple wonder-goals to some great players but do manage to put one on the board at RFK.
BONUS NOTE: An American squad comprised of most the dudes that will fight for the U-20 World Cup this summer in Turkey is still in the midst of the Toulon Tournament in France right now. They’re coached by Tab Ramos, they were a lot of fun to watch in the CONCACAF U-20 qualifying tourney, even if they’ve been decidedly less fun in their losses thus far in France. These matches are televised on beIN Sport. Don’t sleep.
Enjoy the match(es), and Go USA!