Gold Cup Final Preview, Part One: In Chicago, Can Clever Panama Stop US?

The US Men's National Team have celebrated their centennial with a ten game winning streak. Game Eleven matters most.

The US Men’s National Team have celebrated their centennial with a ten game winning streak. Game Eleven matters most.

Jon Levy

As a fan of the United States Men’s National Team and a reader of this fine online publication, you’ve got to be elated right now. The Yanks are riding the longest winning streak in national team history, and they’ve crafted this impressive ten game run mostly in meaningful matches against quality opposition. What’s more, they’ve done so with two distinctly different squads, and the “B plus team” that’s now in the Gold Cup Final has been absolutely dominant in this tournament.

But if you think you’re happy, step in our office for a quick second. Here at The Yanks Are Coming we make predictions on the outcome and scoreline of every USMNT match, and every once in a while when we’re feeling frisky we’ll give you a bonus prediction for another match of some importance. Usually that just depends on whether we had bourbon for breakfast that day. And while we try to stay vigilant in issuing a quick mea culpa when we’re way off the mark, we’re also not nearly above tooting our own horn when we kick a little ass. The US by a score of three to one over Honduras? How bout Panama two-one over Mexico?  You heard it here first. 

And the personal positives don’t stop there. The US is about to face Panama in the 2013 Gold Cup Final at Soldier Field, the perfect venue. Soldier Field is awesome because its name/dedication honors American troops. It’s awesome because it’s the site of Benny Feilhaber’s CONCACAF Championship winning golazo in the 2007 Gold Cup Final. And for me, Soldier Field is the perfect venue because it’s home to the greatest professional football franchise of all time, the Chicago Bears. That’s right, your friendly neighborhood USMNT blogger is a dyed-in-midnight-blue Bears fan, so you’ll have to excuse any references appearing below.

But you didn’t visit this page to read an autobiographical account of my NFL fandom. What the hell is gonna happen on Sunday afternoon when the Yanks meet Los Canaleros with the regional championship on the line?

To quote my man Nino Brown from New Jack City, as I so often do, let’s kick the ballistics:

Series: Thirteenth Meeting. United States lead, 9-1-2. The lone loss came in Tampa in the 2011 Gold Cup, where we first fell in love the Dely Valdes brothers as they out-coached and out-played a full American team under Bob Bradley. The Americans exacted revenge in the semifinals, with Bob Bradley putting on a coaching clinic and Freddy Adu making “that pass.” This is the second time the two countries have met in the Gold Cup Final, with the US winning in penalties in the 2005 Gold Cup Final.

Weather: Glorious. 70 degrees and sunny at kick. A 2 on the now-famed (for our readers) Fabian Johnson “misery index.”

Eddie Johnson's marvelous summer has continued in the Gold Cup. He'll be counted on Sunday.

Eddie Johnson’s marvelous summer has continued in the Gold Cup. He’ll be counted on Sunday.

What should we expect to see from the Yanks?

More of the same from the guys that are skull-crushing everyone in their path right now, or at least an attempt to do what they’ve been doing thus far.

Contrary to what can quickly become a popular belief anytime a team goes through a goal-scoring drought, the US has never had a real problem finishing chances, at least not anytime in the past four or five years. The big problem that spanned from Bob Bradley’s time in charge all the way up to a few months ago was the inability to create that final ball. The incisive pass that would either create a scoring chance itself, or lead to one a few simple passes down the line. The type of ball movement (and player movement) that turns what was just “possession in the final third” into a dangerous attack on goal. That’s half the reason why Bradley was fired and Klinsmann was hired in the first place. We can talk all we want about composed passing keeping possession in the midfield, which is an important difference between Bob and Jurgen, but if Bobbo could have turned possession into a continual flow of scoring chances against CONCACAF opposition, Jurgen would still be surfing in SoCal right now. Thankfully, after an adjustment period of over a year in which US players learned exactly what Klinsmann wanted in the middle of the pitch, they’re now creating that steady flow of chances when on the attack, and they’re on the attack A LOT.

Jurgen promised a faster, more attacking brand of football when he took over. He's starting to deliver.

Jurgen promised a faster, more attacking brand of football when he took over. He’s starting to deliver.

 

Far more than possession, which can be negative and positive, this has to do with tempo, and a willingness to throw bodies forward- particularly from the fullback position. As soccer writers, we get obsessed with different metrics: completion percentage, heat maps, secondary distributions, etc. Sometimes, the game really is simple. The US have played faster over the last few months, and have thrown more bodies forward in attack. This places more pressure on defenses, who have to react quicker to stay in position and close gaps. But the ball moves faster than defenders, and when the passes and secondary distributions are good, the space is present for service. And the US have had great service in this run. And they’ve finished their chances when getting that service.

The dream when this manager was hired was that the Yanks would soon be out-classing inferior CONCACAF opposition on a regular basis, and that the marquee results against top quality opponents from around the world would follow. Reverse the order of operations on those two goals, and that’s exactly what this squad has achieved in just under two years. Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT resume is starting to look pretty damn good; now it’s time for his players to finish the drill and get a cup-winning result. If they manage to do so in style, all the better, but I’d be pretty surprised if that’s the case.

As for the final itself, there is at least one storm cloud on the Chicago horizon that makes what was already an interesting tactical matchup even more interesting. Jurgen Klinsmann’s fate was decided after a too-long meeting by the CONCACAF disciplinary committee (I picture cigars, brandy, and lots of cigar smoke), and he will not be with the US on the sideline for the final.  Officially suspended for “throwing a ball violently”, he’ll be somewhere in Soldier Field, but the on-field and locker-room management will be handled by his longtime deputy Martin Vazquez. Vazquez is a tactician first, and soft-spoken, so there are legitimate questions as to how Jurgen’s absence will affect the United States.

The US need Parkhurst to stay deep and play responsibly.

The US need Parkhurst to stay deep and play responsibly.

The good news here is that the US plan for victory is already in place- defend vigorously, push tempo, find an early goal, keep pressing and defending, slow tempo and cut out opponent’s heart. Or something like that. Vazquez and Klinsmann will likely utilize their eleven the same way they have throughout this tournament. Kyle Beckerman will shield and cover. Michael Parkhurst, on the right, will be instructed to prevent space from being opened up by remaining relatively deep in his own half, and the US winger on that side will be told to create the space missing from an overlap by staying very wide (see Bedoya, after first 20 minutes, Wednesday vs. Honduras). The midfielder paired with Beckerman, whether it be Diskerud or Holden, will be slotted higher up the pitch, allowing the US to push tempo and have a distributor who can spray the ball to width further in the attacking third. Meanwhile, Landon Donovan drifts centrally then back wide, makes incutting runs depending on the play of Beasley and Torres on the left, and the US eventually is able to affect the organization of a defense already dealing with quicker tempo.

This will be critical against Panama. If you let them stay in their flat-lying back four, Panama are incredibly good at funneling you into the channels on either side of the pitch and then ushering out your service from the edges. (SEE, PANAMA, GOLD CUP GROUP STAGE 2011 and pre-Adu substitution, GOLD CUP SEMI 2011; or more recently, PANAMA v. MEXICO, GOLD CUP SEMI 2013) If you can make Panama lose their shape, you’re in business through the center. (SEE, ALTIDORE VS BALOY, World Cup qualifying during the winning streak). It’s easier said than done, especially without Altidore. Panama have conceded only ten goals in eleven competitive matches in 2013, and they don’t easily compromise Dely Valdes’ defensive commitment and tactics. The US will need to be very effective on the overlap, and they’ll need sharp, cerebral movements from Eddie Johnson (something he’s very capable of, and did with gusto in the qualifier, albeit with Altidore helping to suck Baloy out to where Baloy didn’t want to be.) It is a big challenge, but one the US are capable of meeting.

After you read our preview, a lengthier tactical breakdown of the match, with fine commentary from former US U-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera, and the usual sound analysis, check out this preview over at the Shin Guardian.

What will we see out of Panama?

Like Ricky Bobby’s sons, the Super Dely Valdés Bros. will try to unleash their particular brand of anarchy on the USA.  And the Dely Valdés brand of anarchy- a controlled anarchy- is both effective, and more measured than most soccer commentators give Panama credit for. Here at TYAC we’ve been screaming about the subtle genius of Julio Dely Valdés and his system since Felipe Baloy ate Bob Bradley’s boys for breakfast in Gold Cup 2011 group play. And oh by the way, that was the best squad the USMNT could field, nothing “B plus” about that team. We’ve enjoyed detailing the intricacies of Panama’s unorthodox system as we did in our World Cup Qualifying match preview last month, and we stand by our prediction that Panama will find a way to qualify for the big dance in Brazil next summer (what a nightmare they would be for New Zealand in a two match playoff; Panama comes in from the bullpen like a relief pitcher with a funky release point- say, friend of The Yanks Are Coming Darren O’Day of the Baltimore Orioles).

Dely Valdes, seen here holding court, has done a great deal with a little.

Dely Valdes, seen here holding court, has done a great deal with a little.

What’s most impressive about the job that Julio Dely Valdés has done with both this team and the first-choice World Cup squad, is that he’s running a system that values runners over skill in the midfield, and creating chances straight off of 50/50 balls over retaining possession and crafting a steady building attack. Mexico wants to possess the ball for 65% of their two matches in this tournament? Panama says, “cool possession dude,” and beats El Trí two-one, twice!

This is international soccer’s new look version of Moneyball, and Dely Valdés is Billy Beane. No, he’s not reinventing the wheel. And yes, Tony Pulis did something similar in keeping Stoke in the English Premier League for years, though his system was built on player size and set pieces rather than run-and-gun chaos and set pieces (which are chaotic by nature, like Panama). But you’re crazy if you’re not impressed by what Julio Dely Valdés and his brother Jorge have done.

As noted above, Panama will want to stay very compact with its deep-lying flat lines of four. Everything is compact and when a team plays a risky ball to try to open them up, they ferociously attack the small space available to win the ball. Once they win the ball, they launch frenetic, pacy counters with no set position or hub as a point of attack. It’s literally “find the runner in the most space”, and go. This chaos makes Panama difficult to mark, because literally anyone, including a centerback, can start a counterattack and Panama have the quality at striker in Blas Perez to punish you if they get the ball forward. The extra brilliance in it all is that you have to be patient to break Panama down, but not too patient, or they end up dictating tempo without the ball, a lesson Mexico learned twice.

Blas Perez of FC Dallas has the quality to punish the United States right guard.

Blas Perez of FC Dallas has the quality to punish the United States right guard.

Panama will look to win those contested balls and launch attacks, and they’ll have success if the American fullbacks get caught too far up when the turnover happens, because they are great at finding pockets of space quickly on the counter, and because the coverage that has to occur when they do counter, whether it be a Diskerud covering for Parkhurst, or a Beckerman for Beasley, or Besler shading left, etc… opens up more space for their dangerous forwards. Panama is great at recognizing what defenses are doing when they counter, and that’s how they score nearly all their goals. For the US, the real danger is on the Goodson/Parkhurst side, and we’d expect this to be where Blas Perez and his “A” team mate, Alberto Quintero, who absolutely terrorized Brad Evans a few weeks ago, to try to set up shop. Our guess is that Goodson will be caught out at least once, and Panama will get their chances going forward.

The only question, can this Panamanian team bring the new American attacking machine to a screeching halt without a number of its best defensive players. Probably not, but I’ll bet they slow the US down, which is exactly what Jurgen “faster, faster, faster!” Klinsmann doesn’t want.

Oh, and I guess that really wasn’t the “only question;” got just one more for ya. Did you really think we were going to write this whole USA/Panama post and forget to include the obligatory Van Halen?

Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.

Filed Under: 2013 Gold CupFeaturedJuly 2013

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