By Garrett McInnis
Prior to the France match, I had completely unrealistic expectations. The same can be said of my expectations for Jurgen Klinsmann’s first few months as manager of the National Team. I think it’s safe to say that most American soccer fans got a little too excited by Klinsy’s hire.
Having said all that, Friday’s match against France was a disappointment. For one, we lost, albeit to a significantly more talented team. However, this alone doesn’t fully encapsulate my disappointment. For many, the greatest disappointment came from the Yanks’ nonexistent possession, the minuscule creativity in the squad, and the rarity of the scoring opportunities. Whereas in the other American matches coached by Jurgen, the squad has worked hard to dictate tempo, in the France match the team seemed to revert back to a defend and counter-attack approach. It is true that other sites have astutely pointed out that the Americans at least positionally took a more aggressive posture. But that posture didn’t seem to impact the manner in which the game was played. And for that reason– it seems the US would have been better off, from a results standpoint, with complete reversion. The use of such a strategy led to many twhispers (aka: whispers articulated over twitter) mentioning Bob Bradley. In at least a few ways– that’s not fair to Bob. Why? Quite simply, because Bob did what the USMNT did in terms of style of play Friday, in a word, better.
Another compounding reason for my disappointment came in the way the game played out. For the vast majority of the game, the American defense was extremely solid. The usual lapses that we have come to expect from our defenders were not occurring. It seemed, at points, like France had run out of ideas. Well, until that time where Clarence Goodson (who, it has rightly been written, played a fine game otherwise– see Jay DeMerit, Ghana) had a lapse, leading to a Loic Remy goal.
My immediate thought as the game ended was one of severe frustration. I cannot remember the last time I found myself actually yelling at the television during a sporting event, but I caught myself on Friday actually letting a out a few yells when our passes would go astray or when we would inexplicably deliver the French a perfect counterattack. Having noticed my own overreaction, I instantaneously reverted to the opposite mindset….playing the devil’s advocate to my own distaste over the play on the pitch. After letting my thoughts simmer, I have drawn a few simple conclusions, some good, some bad, with respect to the France match.
Bad: The Weak American Midfield Performance
It was not long ago when all the pundits and loudmouths lauded the array of midfield options available to the American squad. It was the clear strength of our team and the one area of the field where there weren’t major question marks. A few months later, the situation has been flipped on its head. This is mainly due to changes in style and formation as well as some untimely injuries. Maurice Edu is clearly not the answer to Klinsmann’s desire for a creative central mid. Kyle Beckerman does what Jurgen wants from a defensive midfield position However, his abilities clearly have a ceiling somewhere just above ‘serviceable’. His main problem internationally is that when stretched, his ability to move from the forward to the back without getting himself into trouble is far too limited. Michael Bradley had been adjusting to a new club situation and, despite starting for a new club already in one of the world’s finest leagues, has yet to find his role in Klinsmann’s system. Perhaps most importantly, Jose Torres and Stuart Holden, probably our best creative options in the midfield, find themselves out of commission. Having either or both of these guys available would do wonders for our ability to possess the ball in the center of the field. This was all a great shame on an evening where Jozy Altidore was the best field player in a US shirt, with all due respect to jersey-stained, yellow card drawing Clint Dempsey.
Good: The Strong American Defense Performance
The biggest talking point from Klinsmann’s slow start has been the lack of balls in the back of the net. While it is painstakingly true that scoring has not come easy this fall, this is not the reason that the US didn’t progress farther in the 2010 World Cup. No, our failures in South Africa were due to a leaky defense that gave our opponents too many opportunities to score. While this tendency did rear its head once in the France match, I can honestly write that the defense looked as solid as I have ever seen it (save for possibly our defensive effort against Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal). Bob Bradley’s team relied upon a solid defense and a dangerous counterstrike. The only problem was that Bradley rarely was able to utilize what I would consider to be a ‘solid defense. While I had hoped we would not go into a shell on Friday, at least when we did, it was an effective shell. I would like to think that with a healthy Oguchi Onyewu (he’s healthy, by the way- so why isn’t he on the field– it isn’t as if Goodson brings that much more pace…see goal) our defense might not have given up the goal that it did.
Bad: Our Lack of Composure
The most disconcerting aspect of our play was our lack of composure against the more talented French team. Jurgen has insisted upon our players learning to both think and play quicker. We have emphasized stringing together passes with fewer touches and, when the ball is lost, quickly regaining possession. Unfortunately, it seems as though “we are who we thought we were.” It may be that our players simply do not have the skill at this time to play the way we want to. It also may be that they simply have not been together long enough to change our entire style of play. I was particularly disappointed with Danny Williams and Brek Shea. Both players have shown the ability to be strong contributors and even strong points for our team. However, on Friday both displayed an inaccuracy with their passes and were uncharacteristically (at least on Shea’s part) unsettled. Their composure could improve with time, but it could also be a chronic problem if our skill level continues to fail us. And for a great many, including the writers and staff at our site– it was a troubling performance from a player about to get an Arsenal run out.
Best: We still have Tim Howard.
I love that guy. His continued quality makes us a consistently better team than we often deserve to be. I pray for his continued health. He proved yet again that when you have one of the ten best goalkeepers breathing- you are stand on your head performance away from advancing another round in an international tournament. The good news Friday was he didn’t have to make world class saves in the first forty-five. The better news was when he did have to make them he delivered. He could nothing (human)on the goal, and nearly stopped that as well.
Overall, I have decided not to fret too much about the France match. Instead, I’m going to look forward to our Tuesday match against Slovenia, but with a healthy dose of skepticism. We should be able to push the ball forward much better on Tuesday and we should have many more chances to score. Let’s hope that our coach chooses to take advantage of this opportunity with a more aggressive game plan and or lineup. If our play is more reminiscent of the Ecuador and Panama matches, I’ll be relieved even if the result it not satisfactory. If we revert to the same style of play I saw in the France match, well….perhaps Sunil Gulati would enjoy a nice “business vacation” to see the Pyramids of Egypt. I hear there’s a manager down there, and he’s got this son who is quite the player, and…
Garrett McInnis writes about the USMNT and Americans in the Bundesliga for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @captainmcinnis.