By Jon Levy
One match changes everything. That’s a mantra gleaned from marketing exec’s and an idea prevalent in pretty much every Hollywood sports movie. It’s not usually true in real life.
What’s more likely, and what actually happens more often, is that one match changes a season or tournament. Fans of the United States Men’s National Team are now rightfully hopeful that Sunday’s destruction of the red-hot Reggae Boyz was that match. Bob Bradley switched to a 4-5-1, started the two men that had actually been performing well as substitutes in this Gold Cup (Kljestan and Bedoya), benched the franchise (Donovan), and proceeded to watch his team win every single aspect of the quarterfinal at RFK. If the US wins its next two matches, Sunday 6/19/2011’s beating of Jamaica gets the nod as the tournament changer.
But let’s return to the ad slogan and impetus for Disney movies for a minute. One match changes everything. On a rare occasion this overused refrain actually applies. Sometimes one match or game actually does change everything. Since the 2010 World Cup and Bob Bradley’s requisite promise to Sunil Gulati that he’d employ more roster-appropriate tactics, the USMNT has had a flirtation with the 4-5-1. After a number of stop/starts followed by gut reaction retreads of the Bobbo 4-4-2, the manager finally loaded the starting lineup with the right pieces in the right places, and on Sunday we finally witnessed the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station. If the logical shift to a 4-5-1 (4-2-3-1 more specifically) carries the team through the Gold Cup, through World Cup qualifying, and proves to be a sea change for US Soccer, well, then Sunday’s Jamaica match will be a valid representation of one match that changed everything.
But only the most audacious supporters and fervent followers would already be hoping for such a windfall. Thankfully, you guys all read this blog. And I’m right there with ya, but we’ve got Panama to worry about first. Let’s hope the semifinal remix is better than the group play album version on this one. Let’s hope…well– a match with Panama, even a rematch, will never be as good as Mikey and Fredo’s tragic sequel– but it may end a bit happier.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
Bob Bradley is a “stick with what works” kind of guy; as such, he will stick with what worked in the quarterfinal. It’s looking more and more like Bobbo found his back four in the Guadeloupe match, and now it seems he may have found his formation. Just in time too, because the flag drill 4-4-2 looked anemic against Panama in group play, and that’s me being kind with my adjective.
A big part of the success that the US had against Jamaica was that the Reggae Boyz had no luck in pressuring the ball between the halfway line and the top of their own box. At one point they just stopped trying to do so altogether. The Yanks will get no such favors from La Marea Roja, even if they initially frustrate Panama with ball movement and elusiveness. There’s no quit in the squad that equalized in the 89th minute against El Salvador in RFK (which due to Washington’s Salvadorian populace might as well have been in San Salvador).
It will be on largely the same US personnel that took down Jamaica to try and unlock Panama’s disorganized but active defense. Probable exceptions include a return to the starting lineup for a rested Landon Donovan, and Juan Agudelo starting in place of Jozy Altidore, whether Josmer is healthy or not. Agudelo provided great link-up play with his attacking mids on Sunday, and he got an assist for his efforts. Why risk Jozy when Juan’s playing well? As for Landon supplanting Ale-Alejandro Bedoya on the right flank, I think Bob gives the guy that’s been everything to US Soccer one more chance to get his game right. Lando’s earned the shot, even this late in the tournament, but Bobbo will have a quick hook if Donovan looks anything like he did in the second and third match of group play.
And what will we see out of Panama?
They may have only beaten the US by one goal in their first meeting, but match day Tampa was a damn clinic on how to win Panama-style. It’s unconventional to play a game unconcerned with establishing possession in the modern game, but Panama do it well enough to be a consistent contender in our fair federation’s tournament. If the disdainful looks and chaos-themed verbiage in-studio from Eric Wynalda and Cobi Jones weren’t enough to convince you, I’m sure actually watching the match did the trick.
You know the story, Panama does not need to touch the ball very often to be effective. They don’t build an attack through ball possession. They kick the ball forward to Tejada or Perez (thankfully he’s suspended for the semi), then they all run full speed toward the opponents net. Next, they either score, get fouled, force a corner, or give the ball away and start running in random concentric circles again. They’re a chaotic version of the 2004 Chicago Bears. The team I used to yell “PUNT!” at on first down, so steadfast was my belief that they had a better chance of scoring on defense. The only team I’ve ever seen win a football game on a safety in overtime. That’s Panama, but with a blitz-every-down philosophy in place of the patient and organized cover two defense.
As such, winning the possession battle means very little in this match. The US will have to use their de facto edge in ball control to mount meaningful and dangerous attacks as they did against Jamaica, or Panama will be hopping a flight to LAX.
Panama Player to Watch: Felipe Baloy
Come on, after the first meeting between these two teams, could it really have been anyone else? Who’s the main guy to watch in the Temple of Doom? Hmm? Oh yeah, it’s the guy that chants “Kali mah!” and rips your still-beating heart out of your chest with his bare hand. You wanna keep an eye on that Giuseppe Rossi. That’s Felipe Baloy.
He owned the US attack in the first match, more than living up to his captain’s armband and his burly frame. But Panama’s version of Jay Demerit (and the Temple of Doom guy!) excels at cutting out the type of long-ball and set piece based attack the US was throwing at him a couple weekends ago. He relishes the opportunity to body his marker and fight for position. We’ve already seen him win all those battles. But if the Yanks can successfully employ the same strategies and formation that worked against Jamaica, Baloy should find himself outnumbered and have to choose which of two or three American attackers to engage. We’ll all feel marginally better about Bedoya having his heart removed if Agudelo scores while it’s happening.
US Player to Watch: (Super) Sacha Kljestan
We here at The Yanks Are Coming have specifically championed a couple players since the inception of this blog. Sacha, perhaps more than anyone, is our guy (though Maurice Edu has a shout). And while Super Fan #16 a.k.a. Dr. Raf Crowley and I are not so juvenile and short sighted that we can’t acknowledge Mr. Kljestan has had some subpar moments for the USMNT, we’re also not so humble that we won’t link back to a Super Sacha post right here. I wrote that when I was younger and possibly even better looking, hard to fathom the latter I know.
All chest-thumping aside, Sacha really is the player to watch on Wednesday night, and the reasons to watch him are twofold. First off, his inclusion or exclusion from the starting lineup will give us a clear signal of Bob Bradley’s intent in the Panama match, and perhaps beyond. Kljestan in – midfield buildup plan in place. Kljestan out – Bobbo base 4-4-2 readopted.
The second reason #16 is the player to watch actually involves his on-field play, how novel. As the Yanks’ central attacking midfielder on Sunday, Sacha was positioned in front of MB90 and J.J., behind Jozy , and between wide men Deuce and Ale-Alejandro. This allowed Kljestan to serve as the fulcrum for the US attack. Without a creative force in this spot, most offensive possessions will sputter. We saw that when Mo Edu was deployed there against Argentina, not that the US touched the ball very often in that match anyway. On Wednesday, Kljestan will likely bear the responsibility of finding the space and passing lanes to make the “new formation” work as it did on Sunday. If he can find consistent success in both his runs and distribution, the US will do better than reverse the 2-1 Panama score line from just over a week ago.
DC READERS: Yanks Are Coming writers Andrew Villegas and Jon Levy will be at the Laughing Man Tavern in DC again tomorrow night for the semifinal. Come and meet up with them, talk soccer, recap the other semifinal and throw back a pint or three. There are bound to be a number of American Outlaws from the DC Chapter around and it is guaranteed to be a good time, so long as proceedings end better this time around. One thing at least seems likely– the atmosphere will be a bit more lively in the second half than it often is at Laughing Man, which is home of the DC Buffalo Bills supporters club. Tough gig.Prediction: Panama 1 – 3 USA
The US finally runs riot, but no clean sheet in this one. Goals for Agudelo and Donovan, and a Yank performance that removes that negative connotation applied by the last Panama match to my favorite Van Halen song, which yes, will likely be ruined forever should the game end in defeat.
Enjoy the match, and Go US !!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.