We’re getting’ the band back together! Landon, Stu, Gooch, Herculez, and Ale-Alejandro partyin’ in San Diego against an outmatched and outgunned Guatemala, showing Jurgen Klinsmann they’re all ready for a line-in-the-sand Gold Cup. It’s a make-or-break tournament for most guys on this roster, and that’s the way we like it. And for added fun, under the new CONCACAF rule, this group can earn a berth in the inaugural CONCACAF Confederations Cup qualifying match to be played against the 2015 Gold Cup winner. They’ll have to win the whole damn tournament to book a spot in that big boy match. So how do the Yanks get started in Portland on Tuesday night? Let’s dish out the usuals and kick the particulars.
Venue/Weather: Portland’s immaculate JELD-WEN Field, which will be filled to capacity in their face-off against Portland-with-Republicans rival city Seattle, who hosted marvelously during qualifying a month ago. Upper sixties at kick, very little chance of rain. Soccer weather as God intended it.
Series: This is the first meeting between the United States and Belize.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
If you’ve watched any of the last few games with either incarnation of the USMNT you know that manager Jurgen Klinsmann has reached fetish level with his “fast,fast,fast!” pace of play obsession. He badly wants to turn the Yanks into the soccer version of Jim Kelly’s no-huddle Buffalo Bills that had so much success in the 90’s. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s the natural progression of his system and what he was brought in for. In year one under Jurgen the manager wanted the team to be more patient with the ball, placing the onus squarely on keeping possession. That lesson was well taken, and now that the proper programming is installed, Klinzy feels this team is ready to crank up the pace and start turning that possession into more and more quality scoring chances. We saw that plan work to perfection in the 6-0 warm-up match destruction of Guatemala.
Jurgen’s got plenty of marquee wins in his first couple years in charge, but let’s not forget the original unofficial mandate. Klinsmann was supposed to take the inferior CONCACAF opponents that Bob Bradley was beating one-nil on a set piece, and really put those teams to the fire. Now is the time to start routinely outclassing teams like Belize, and out-chance them by double digit margins.
As far as tactics against Belize are concerned, don’t expect anything unusual. As noted above, Klinsmann has a formula and he’ll simply ask his eleven to execute it tonight. Customary 4-2-3-1 should be expected with Kyle Beckerman playing the “6” and Jose Torres or Stu Holden occupying the other spot in the center of the midfield. With Torres on the field, the US only scored once in the first half Friday night, but he wasn’t individually poor. In fact, he did a nice job with his completion percentage (second-highest on team) and was one of only two players to complete passes to everyone on the field (what a “hub” should do). Torres also did a nice job of finding space for himself to do what he’s best at: receive the ball, evaluate the defense and consider options, and distribute. There is a lengthier explanation of that here and here at The Shin Guardian. Bottom line? He needs to remain central, but he isn’t a “10” and he isn’t a “6”, as Neil W. Blackmon wrote on our site when previewing the Gold Cup roster. What Klinsmann decides to do tactically with Torres will in large part dictate what the rest of the players are tasked to do.
Now, let’s assume it is possible that Klinsmann saw enough of the virtuoso play from Stu Holden in the second half Friday to play him instead. That would likely be the preferred play from our readers. And it is understandable. It is hard to argue with his special ability to weight the right pass, read the field and play at the quick rate Klinsmann desires. To us, it is just a fitness question. Holden has looked too sharp to not be starting if he were 90-minute fit. He’s not- so we think he reprises his bench role.
Either way, the US will be in capable hands in the center. Expect Landon Donovan and Edgar Castillo to reprise roles from Friday night, and Joe Corona, who showed equally good-and-bad flashes Friday night to get the nod as well. Brek Shea, who faces a critical preseason at Stoke City, was supposed to be sent back to England, but after the injury to Josh Gatt, Klinsmann elected to keep him on board and Stoke City complied. He looked good in flashes Friday night, but we don’t think his presence reduces the likelihood that much that both both Castillo and Corona play– forming the “Tijuana Three” for the second straight starting lineup in a row.
Nick Rimando played a rather unorthodox, silly game Friday night against Guatemala but it was telling that Klinsmann left him out there as long as he did. He’s the starter for this tournament and will play in net barring injury. In the back, captain DaMarcus Beasley will likely be joined by Clarence Goodson, Oguchi Onyewu, and despite his limited ability to help in attack, Michael Parkhurst. Gooch looked a lot like “Bambi on Ice” early in the match Friday, but he did improve as the game went along. Like Guatemala, Belize lacks elite-level talent- so it is critical that Onyewu not miss a step if he is asked to start. Every match like this either builds confidence for Onyewu or eliminates him from 2014 consideration. The stakes are indeed that high.
Parkhurst nearly earns “man to watch” honors because what little dynamism Belize do have will be on his wing. Harrison Roches is a speedy winger of the Charleston Battery/Antigua & Barbuda Quinton Griffith “ilk” whose pace is relied upon to open compact defenses up when Belize have possession and to gain numbers when Belize launch their counterattacks. Roches scored and had a hand in nearly every Belize goal in their short World Cup qualifying campaign, and if you watched the US play Antigua and Barbuda, you know they were troubled by a very similar player in Griffith, particularly when possession was conceded in the midfield zone and Griffith took the ball quickly on the counter. That’s exactly what Belize wants to do through Roches. Parkhurst, who is always a tough-nosed, defense-first fullback, will have the largest responsibility outside of Goodson and Onyewu tonight (more on that below) in Portland.
And what will we see out of Belize?
As you may have heard by now, the new Belize manager is Ian Mork (nanu nanu). Unlike Robin Williams’ beloved alien visitor, Ian Mork is from Kansas, not planet Ork. And he now finds himself at the reins of Belizean soccer. Normally, he coaches amateurs in California, and I’m sure he’d love to take the full-time reins in Belize after becoming the first manager to qualify the soccer federation for the Gold Cup- but little Belize lacks the resources to hire him full-time, and he’ll return to his day-job after the tournament.
While he has this gig though, he’ll defend deep and counter with pace that is better than Guatemala’s. He’s no idiot. The gap in quality and particularly attacking firepower between these two teams is more appropriately described as a chasm. Belize will bunker in, look to play physical defense, and frustrate the Yanks. If they can withstand the early onslaught from a ridiculously motivated group spearheaded by Landon Donovan, Belize will look to break with counterattacks. If Belize is out-possessing Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT, even this “fringe players” version, we’ve got big problems. The good news is that the facts say they won’t. Can the US break down a Belize side that didn’t concede more than one goal in a match in qualifying? That’s the larger question.
Again, when Belize do counter, their preferred method is to go through Rochez, as we noted above. He has the pace to open teams up, as demonstrated by the video above. Rochez will try to get the ball to the best player on the team in terms of quality, Deon McCaulay (who had a failed Portland Timbers run-out) or to the late running Trevor Lennen, who is the closest thing Belize have to a box-to-box midfielder and who scored this goal against Nicaragua that sent Belize to the Gold Cup.
Belizean Player to Watch: Deon McCaulay
Deon is Belize’s all time leading scorer. Granted, that “impressive” mark encompasses a grand total of sixteen international goals, most of them scored against really fluffy powder puff opposition. How fluffy are we talking? Montserrat. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Saint Kitts and Nevis. You get it. But McCaulay’s also scored a couple on Guatemala, so he doesn’t discriminate. The 25 year old striker will take his chances if he gets any, Belize that!
US Player to Watch: Oguchi Onyewu
This isn’t the first time I’ve made Gooch my player to watch, or written “this could be a very important tournament for the towering American defender.” Since the summer of 2007 Onyewu’s career has been a rollercoaster with more lows than highs, but when healthy, the center back has generally performed well. And most importantly, even as a relatively injury prone 31 year old, Gooch’s ceiling is still higher than that of pretty much any other American CB, and that’s only a tall guy pun if you want it to be.
There’s a reason Onyewu keeps getting chances with European clubs near the tops of their leagues– from Newcastle to places like Sporting (Lisbon) and his current spot, Malaga, while more consistent American defenders like Goodson and Bocanegra are on their way back to MLS. Gooch is a 6’5’’ center half that plays ultra-physical big-man defense. It doesn’t hurt that he looks the part either. And at his best he was a no-brainer signing (at the time) as the future of the AC Milan backline.
There is no telling whether Oguchi is even going to get the starting nod from Jurgen Klinsmann in this tourney, but if he does, and plays well all month, Omar Gonzalez, who has shown a nerve-wracking tendency to lose focus, make silly challenges and be out of position once or twice every match– might have to start looking over his shoulder.
Prediction: USA 3 – 1 Belize
If you couldn’t tell from the rest of this preview post, I’m feeling pretty confident about this team and the matchup with Belize. Mark me down for two goals from Herculez Gomez (though to be honest, I’d prefer a hat trick for the deserving forward), and a match-controlling performance from Michael Bradley’s stand-in, be it JFT or Stuart Holden.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you should follow his underrated Twitter feed at @TYAC_Jon.