By Andrew Villegas
The following is the fourth in a four part series comparing the 2011 Gold Cup rosters of the two “giants of CONCACAF.”
The Yanks: Jozy Altidore (Villarreal/Bursapor), Juan Agudelo (NYRB), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
El Tri: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (Manchester United), Giovanni Dos Santos (Tottenham Hotspur/Racing de Santander), Aldo de Nigris (Monterrey), Angel Reyna (America), Elias Hernandez (Morelia), Pablo Barrera (West Ham United)
The team with Chicharito usually has a huge advantage, as most English Premier League teams found out this year, a breakout one for Javier Hernandez that saw him move from Chivas de Guadalajara to the biggest club in the world. Such a move brings significant amounts of pressure, especially when you’re expected to become a global brand, sell millions of shirts and live up to the tippy toppiest of billings. Chicharito has sometimes let the pressure get to him, most notably by Barcelona in the UEFA Champions League final where Barca’s backline offside trapped him a half dozen times in the first half and where their possession game relegated Chicharito to wandering closer to midfield for most of the game.
But the U.S. back line is not exactly Barcelona’s. And playing CONCACAF opposition in non-friendly competition for the first time at the senior level, the man they call “Little Pea” delivered a hat trick, and a large warning shot to every potential regional rival. The offside trap needs speed and discipline to work, and nearly all USMNT defenders (with the notable exception of Cherundolo) are scramblers – tearing up the turf with frantic defending and reactionary tackling. If…heck when, Chicharito gets behind the centerback, Timmy Howard is going to have to come off his line mighty quickly to have a shot at stopping Chicharito. And that’s without even recognizing Giovanni Dos Santos, who had two goals against New Zealand in El Tri’s last Gold Cup warm-up in Denver, and Aldo de Nigris, who had 12 this year for Monterrey.
Indeed, most of what the USMNT will attempt to stifle when they finally meet Mexico (the two could meet as soon as the quarterfinals on June 18 if Mexico wins its group and the U.S. has a poor showing and comes in third in its group but has more points than its Group B third-place counterpart and vice-versa for places in their respective groups) is the scrappy play of Chicharito, who has a penchant for goals coming off glancing headers, and hustling cleanups. The USMNT big back line should be able to win high crosses – especially from corners – from Chicharito, especially if they can stay in his chest, but close-marking will be key to frustrating Hernandez. This is another reason the USMNT will miss Jay DeMerit, whose brutish English-style of close marking play would have been valuable on that front.
When most of your striking hopes and dreams (that go by the name of “forward” at least) hinge on players that either ride the pine or are sitting on three club goals since 2008, you have to consider all your scoring options. But Bob Bradley seems to be sticking with Jozy Altidore, no matter how loud the appeals from a small, but terribly vocal, minority of USMNT fans. “I will emphatically say we believe that Jozy has done a lot of important things for us and we’re going to continue to put him forward because he’s a big part of things for U.S. Soccer,” Bradley said when he announced his Gold Cup selections.
Still, Juan Agudelo continues to mature and round into form, adding an explosive layer the USMNT hasn’t had (if ever really and truly) since Charlie Davies. Chris Wondolowski also provides the veteran role who can steady the attack with his spacing and field awareness, things that the other strikers lack. Whether or not that level of sound football smarts compensates for Wondolowski’s lack of pace at the international level remains to be seen.
Still, we’re almost certain to see the tandem of Altidore/Agudelo starting the Gold Cup just because they have the skillsets that play best off each other. USMNT fans must hope that Agudelo can provide the speed behind backlines that Altidore lacks. They must also be hoping that Altidore is getting lots of practice standing up center backs in training and that he is quickly remembering how to turn and pass or fire on top-class defenders. Rafa Marquez and Carlos Salcido wait.
Still, Wondolowski coming on as a sub is about as likely in many of the matches as is taking either Altidore or Agudelo off for Freddy Adu or (the advanced role Rangers version of) Maurice Edu (if either or both of them show something early in the competition) and pushing Dempsey forward. In Adu’s case– consider this– many USMNT fans consider Freddy a veteran, but he’s the fourth youngest player on the squad behind Agudelo, Altidore and Eric Lichaj, and the jury is still out on what sort of impact those three will ultimately leave on the USMNT. But many haven’t given Adu the same treatment because he’s been capped 15 times.
It’s a big difference between these two teams with Chicharito on board and him being such a strength, and as such it’s not hard to see that forward play will be much more impactful, likely, for Mexico than for the USMNT. Much of the U.S. attack comes from Dempsey and Donovan in the midfield, whereas the technicality of Mexico in the middle allows for a much more traditional flow of attacking from midfield to forwards.
Still, if the USMNT can keep Chicharito in a pod, they may be able to have the more impactful forwards, but it’ll have to be a shock to just about everybody. But Chicharito is learning class every training period from Demitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney, and it’s only a matter of time before he shows it on an international stage. The USMNT is perhaps better or as close to as good as Mexico in many places on the field, but forward is not one of them.
Andrew Villegas is a contributing writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He writes a weekly column on Major League Soccer and you should follow his musings on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew.