By Neil W. Blackmon
Three thoughts on a great win for the USMNT today at RFK Stadium and more broadly on a weekend that changed (for now) the complexion of this Gold Cup tournament. Mexico looked vulnerable Saturday night, despite a comeback victory. They were disorganized in the back against a Guatemalan team that only threatened on the counter and looked very much the side capable of being harassed thoroughly by a quick striker and one-two play. As such, their brief status as prohibitive favorites to win this tournament, well-documented on this site here by Sean McElroy, has at least been tempered a bit. Normally, you could write off Mexico’s first-half struggles as an aberration on the way to glory, and maybe that’s all it is, but there is certainly reason for a re-think given the American performance tonight: an inspired, efficient display against a quality side that saw the Yanks better in every way—tactically, technically, and physically. The one question that must harass USMNT fans, especially the increasing in number members of the cynical camp, must be “Why did this take so long?” That question, while difficult to answer, is exceedingly fair and seems a better place than any to begin the our TYAC final three thoughts on the quarterfinal proceedings from the nation’s capital.
First, forget the “What took so long?” questions—that answer is obvious: the USMNT under Bob Bradley has perfected the “gut check.” They play their best soccer when their back is against the wall and when, as Mikey Bradley so “eloquently” put it in 2009—“they know the #@$% people are saying back home.” Today’s match involved both of those elements—and as Bradley’s teams tend to do—the Americans responded with vigor. That response indicates the “What took so long?” question is really a chicken or the egg dilemma, and the real question is “Why, excluding the England match, do they only seem to play their best non-friendly match soccer when they are up against it?” If there were an obvious answer to this question—your writer would probably not be writing at all, and instead would be actively involved in the coaching and preparation business.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to take a stab at it, so here goes: the US, for all its bravado and brashness and chatter about being the “Giants of CONCACAF”, is still a footballing nation that not only relishes the underdog role—they need the underdog role. Call it Chicken Soup psychology if you want to, and yes, you’re right that the Yanks weren’t technically an underdog in this match—but there is enough historical repetition involved to support the idea that the Americans play better when they’re supposed to fail. Win the World Cup group? Lose to a Michael Essien-less group runner-up Ghana? Play Algeria for all the marbles? Miss chance after chance and respond in stoppage time. Play inspired football against England? Fall behind 2-0 to Slovenia and in the ultimate gut-check moment manage a draw despite a clueless referee and a defeated fan-base. And those examples don’t even address struggles on the road in qualifying, a mystifying loss at the Azteca after a flying start, and of course, the Hollywood drama that was the Confederations Cup. Some of this is directly on Bob Bradley (more on him later), who increasingly looks to be a smart x’s and o’s guy but not exactly a “Win one for the Gipper” motivator. But some, and this part is surprisingly difficult for Yanks fans to admit aloud—is directly on the players. You can talk all you want about being the best in your region. You can say the “next step” is just around the corner. You can go on Letterman after the World Cup captivates a country in need of captivation and say “Man, we should have beat Ghana; we should have won that game”, but the Americans are still a footballing nation in the business of saying big things and waiting too long to do them. That’s concerning, and it might (let’s wait this tournament out, shall we?) indicate that it’s time for a change.
Regardless of explanation, the USMNT did what it tends to do in these “gut-check” moments today. They responded. They won, and for one afternoon and the few days thereafter, the cynics are hushed to a soft, buzzing white noise and the under-fire Bob Bradley is slightly vindicated. Fail in a rematch against Panama, and we’re right back where we were last week. And rightly so.
Second, Bob Bradley had a really good day at work. The 4-2-3-1 (modified 4-5-1, to be specific) worked, and so did his lineup changes. And they took guts. Quiet the criticism for a few days and tip your hat, folks.
Raf Crowley will write more on Bradley’s revised tactics in the next day, but against a Jamaican side that hadn’t conceded in group play and looked every bit the part of a 2014 World Cup participant in the run-up, the Americans came out guns-a-blazin’ in the first half. Lined up in a modified 4-5-1 that certainly suits ten men selected to play in it, the Americans dominated proceedings, moving the ball crisply from the middle to the flanks, where Alejandro Bedoya and Eric Lichaj werea revelation and gave the Yanks more than fleeting glimpses of not simply the future but an attacking element they’ve lacked for a long while: width. Instead of the Reggae Boyz dominating play out wide as they had all tournament, it was the Yanks who stretched the Jamaican defense towards the sideline and created lanes for Clint Dempsey (and at times Sacha Kljestan) to make darting runs that challenged the Jamaican backline. The bad news was that despite a host of chances that resulted from the increased amount of space and the waves of pressure, the Americans couldn’t grab a lead. Eric Lichaj’s miss in the 44th minute (following a ten minute spell where US movement off the ball stagnated and Jamaica finally found some possession) was probably the most egregious opportunity gone bad—but as Dr. Raf Crowley texted me late in the half, the goal was coming—the US had simply had too much “quality” possession to be denied. As it turned out, American fans had to wait until the second half, but eventually the breakthrough came, and even if the goal was a bit of a freaky deflection—soccer has a way of rewarding sustained periods of attacking excellence and the Jones goal seemed very fair.
Defensively, the Yanks were sound for the second consecutive match. Part of this had to do with the insertion of Bedoya into the lineup, which allowed Steve Cherundolo to be really picky about when he decided to get forward and ensured the US was accountable against the counter in the back—but part of this was also due to the American midfield playing their finest game as a collective since the World Cup. They controlled possession enough to truly limit the dangerous Jamaican counter, and tracked back exceedingly well, shutting off passing lanes when Jamaica did choose to attack with build-up. Dane Richards produced Jamaica’s only truly threatening moments of the first half, one early after a unusually poor decision by MB 90 left Tim Howard on an island against a counter, and another late in the half after a Jones turnover, but on both instances American central defenders closed out well and Tim Howard, who had a bit of an off night in the Panama loss, was back to his world class self, handling the danger.
The second half didn’t see the Americans threaten the Reggae Boyz goal mouth nearly as much, but it did see two goals, which were absolutely a product of attrition after the fine first half. Jamaica looked tired and after the Jones goal, it looked timid on the ball, which had two effects. First, it allowed the Americans more time on the ball, as Jamaica seemed to simply be hoping for a US turnover that would allow for a counter to level. Second, on the rare instances Jamaica did advance as a collective, fatigue from chasing the game allowed the Yanks themselves to utilize a suddenly resuscitated counterattack. One such counter changed the game, as Jermaine Jones took a pass from Clint Dempsey following a turnover and galloped goalward on a breakaway. Appearing to be fouled by Jamaica’s Jermain Taylor, Jones fell to the ground and waited for what seemed a fair and inevitable red card. Replays showed that the red card may have been harsh, in the end, and Jones may or may not have a career as an actor following his playing days, but two things should at least be written about the red card. First, it is telling that Taylor didn’t argue. He was the last defender and the only way he was going to stop Jones from going free on goal was to foul him or hope Jones fell. The latter may have occurred, but this is where point two is useful—video evidence indicates Jones was in fact clipped. It wasn’t a big ol’ professional foul—but it was a foul, and Jones embellished well. After the red card, the Americans were never threatened, and eventually added the game-clincher when Juan Agudelo found Clint Dempsey square in the box in the 80th minute, and Duece finally capitalized on a golden opportunity, slickly dribbling around Jamaican keeper Donovan Ricketts (who was splendid, by the way) and slotting cooly into an open net.
In the end, Bradley’s tactics and lineup choices worked. It took courage to sit Landon Donovan, who is, of course, perhaps the greatest field player in the history of American soccer. Look—I understand that LD was at his sister’s wedding yesterday, and that Bob gave him the “okay” to attend. And I realize that he didn’t get back until 7AM. But at least view that choice from both sides. Had Donovan been the American star this tournament, as he is so often—he would have been on the field. Donovan’s ineffective, disinterested play, however, opened the door for Bradley. It was still a tough choice—sitting one of your finest players always is—but Bradley made the right decision, and he was rewarded by Ale Bedoya and Sacha Kljestan for his faith, as both put in outstanding performances. Credit Bob for that. And credit him for what he usually gets credited for—responding when he’s up against it, just as his players tend to do. He made tactical adjustments, and he was richly rewarded. It’s a new tournament now.
Third, and we’ll just include the MOTM honors in this section as well—Jermaine Jones played his best game in an American shirt, and today, he was finally the guy so many “experts” thought he could be for the United States.
The goal was one thing. The tenacity and “I really do want to be here” disposition on the pitch was the critical thing. Jones covered nearly 10,000 meters before being subbed off, was tidy on the ball and despite one turnover late in the first half, was very effective as a passer. His 1-2 play with Eric Lichaj on the latter’s marauding runs (has America found a left back??) was outstanding and better yet it was instinctual, the sign of a player who has played at the highest level for a long time. He did what Jermaine Jones does, and picked up a silly yellow card in the first half—but to be honest it was almost a relief to see because the German-American hasn’t exactly looked like he was very passionate about his choice of national teams recently—and sure, he embellished a tackle late in the second half, but the result ended well. All in all, as Jon Levy wrote in his match preview (he’s on a roll, really)—Jones was the key figure in the match and when he performs at that level, the American midfield is very formidable. Jones is also a player who is particularly sensitive to his own confidence level—the equivalent of a streaky baseball hitter—and a game like this can get him going on a good stretch. The Yanks weathered the storm and Jones emerged today—they’ll need more of this to win this competiton.
Tim Howard, 7—Didn’t have too much to do but saved well after a Bradley the Junior error in the fourth minute created a dangerous Jamaican counter and two quick chances, and also did well to prevent a rebound on a rocket right at him from Dane Richards late in the first half. Distribution was splendid (as usual), and it appears his vocal nature is paying off now on set pieces, as the Yanks looked comfortable on Jamaica’s few chances.
Carlos Bocanegra, 6.5—Oh Captain, my captain…second consecutive solid performance from the American leader, who is so calm on the ball and keeps such a fine line that it’s hard to see young rising star Tim Ream on the field in the near future. Bocanegra is aging, and one-on-one against strikers he’s almost a step too late—but he didn’t get turned. Chicharito will be a big test, but Boca at the end of the day is the team’s quiet heartbeat.
Clarence Goodson, 6—As noted above, Bocanegra is aging and sometimes appears challenged by opposing forwards. Goodson is more reliable on this front, and his one-on-one defending against Ryan Johnson was outstanding. Goodson is still good for one “What is he doing?” gaffe a match—but before you are too critical of his lunging tackle on Dane Richards (this match’s Goodson-gaffe)—remember Jay DeMerit was guilty of the same sin. See this video. Or don’t.
Eric Lichaj, 6.5—Here and now, on this website, I declare the Jon Bornstein era of American soccer over. As our friends from this website here tweeted today: Lichaj is one or two full-team US matches away from making left back an asset for the United States. I do wish he would be a bit more responsible about when he gets forward though—but that will either come with time or we’ll just learn to deal with it.
Steve Cherundolo, 6.5—Steady as she goes Stevie played sound defense securing the flanks as usual. His positioning continues to be the finest of any American defender ever to wear the shirt. He didn’t get forward as much, but that’s because Bedoya meant he didn’t have to. Their link-up play was excellent. His cross to Dempsey that led to a brilliant Ricketts save was class.
MB 90, 5.5—Sometimes, as the NYT Goal Blog folks have pointed out—it is hard to believe the fiery 23 year old is the son of a seemingly unflappable, show little emotion coach. He is, and for the next six-seven years, he’ll be the heartbeat of the US midfield. Today he looked a little tired, missing a bit in distribution and offering up a silly giveaway early and losing the ball again later in the first half creating a Reggae Boyz counter. He did do well with Jones (finally), and he does seem to inspire the confidence of Sacha Kljestan, who he’s played with forever—but today he was among the more average American starters.
Jermaine Jones, 8—That’s the guy Jen Chang was telling us about: a guy who takes tremendous angles in defense and can single-handedly stall counters, a guy who plays with fire and uses it as an asset, even if it means a yellow card or two more than he should take, a guy who can get forward when the time is right and instinctually understands how to interact with an attacking fullback. More matches like that, and as noted above, the US midfield becomes formidable. Red card play not as bad a dive as we thought either. See video.
Sacha Kljestan, 7.5—A proud day for this website. Sacha was what his upside says he is today—a dynamic, attacking central midfielder. Credit Bob Bradley for not slotting him wide either, where he often looks and plays out of position. In the center, he could spray the ball to threatening spots and did frequently, and his ability to know when to make runs was on display today too. Still does a maddening thing in the box here and there—but one such moment was more fine Jamaican defense than bad decision. He’s revived a career that saw him captain youth national teams this year, and it is good to see.
Ale Ale jandro Bedoya, 7.5—One watches Bedoya play and wonders what more seasoning will make of him. He’s a relentless runner (Stu Holden relentless). He doesn’t always make threatening runs but he makes a lot of them. His passing was good today. Banner moment? Fighting off two defenders to win a ball he slickly played to Cherundolo in the 64th minute, leading to a cross and near second American goal off the head of Clint Dempsey. He’s going to score goals in a US shirt too- it’s a matter of time. Fine afternoon.
Clint Dempsey, 7—Goal finally came near the eightieth minute, and despite Twitter rubbish to the contrary, was not a sitter, as Ricketts played it perfectly but Deuce was simply better. Again, the finest American field player was all over the pitch, drifting centrally as he likes to do and finally having the space (thanks to Bedoya and Lichaj’s gift of width) to do so in more threatening ways without having to play one on three. Goal was well-deserved after so many tough misses the last two games.
Jozy Altidore, INC—Let’s hope the hamstring is okay—or, as Grant Wahl accurately wrote, Juan Agudelo has a heady assignment ahead of him…
Juan Agudelo, 6—Attacks fearlessly, and that’s a great thing. Was flagged for offside, and in this tournament for the US, that’s a rare thing. It took him a while to find the game, but that wasn’t for lack of effort. Different than Jozy in that he does come back to the ball without giving up and standing idle at times. Nice cut back ball led to Dempsey clincher.
Landon Donovan, 5.5—More or less about as memorable as the rest of his tournament—he didn’t seem to run too much and actually gave up on a threatening counterattack shortly after coming on, presumably because…oh who knows. But did play a nice ball to Agudelo that led to the second US goal, so maybe he can build on that. Or maybe he just needs sleep.
Maurice Edu, 6—Sound defensively, but what was nice was the strike that just missed immediately after he entered for Jones in the 75th minute. With Jones playing on a yellow, Edu may have to spot start the Gold Cup final. Heady stuff, and a good reason to keep a Champions League vet on your bench.