Neil W. Blackmon
The United States lost a match Wednesday, 2-1 at the Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. They lost a game on a hot, sticky, Honduran national holiday afternoon in front of a stadium that shook from fans stomping in unison for the first half hour of the match. They lost a game they led, ever so briefly, on a sublime Clint Dempsey goal that silenced the stomping. It was a brief respite. The United States lost a match where they were out-hustled to 50-50 balls, out-jumped on set piece after set piece, and for large swaths of the match, out-classed in the midfield. Perhaps most of all, the United States lost a game where they were out-managed.
The United States lost a match Wednesday, and it’s largely Jurgen Klinsmann’s fault that they lost it. You can criticize the hot-off-the-assembly-line back four if you’d like (we will), and that would be fair. You could argue that a team that even in a dull Canada match where they played poorly kept a very narrow center and was impossible to break down through the middle suddenly failed to close down space, and was a step slow, and you’d be right. You could argue that Roger Espinoza, brilliantly pushed forward and central by a manager who knows a thing or two about making the most of possession, played a master class match and the US lacked the quality to match it, and you’d be right. But most of all, as we begin our three final thoughts:
1. Jurgen Klinsmann is to blame for what transpired in San Pedro Sula.
Klinsmann, who tends to stay quiet about his opinions on blame and internal division, remained that way after the match. He refused to blame the backline, offering only a cryptic response suggesting someone/thing else was to blame for the defeat. “Chemistry takes time to develop, but the back line was not the reason that we lost that game” Klinsmann said. Did Klinsmann think, then, that chemistry lost the game? Let’s examine that theory, because after all, it was Klinsmann who put this lineup together, who had the final say.
Klinsmann decided to start a back four of Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez and Timothy Chandler, which, in theory, and on paper, makes a good deal of sense. For the sake of this “chemistry” argument, let’s include Danny Williams, who played Klinsmann’s beloved “traditional 6” today, for good measure. On paper, Gonzalez’s pace and athleticism are a step above the aging Bocanegra. On paper, the aging Steve Cherundolo offers less than Timothy Chandler for the same reasons. And with Cherundolo unavailable and Chandler needing to be cap-tied, that was a no-brainer. Cameron plays midfield and a bit of fullback for Stoke City, but central defender is a natural position for him, and he’s a cut above the other options in the pool.
Is this the backline of the future? Absolutely. Was it the right move today? Absolutely not. On the road, in the region’s second-most hostile venue, opening World Cup qualifying, and with only a pop-up camp to prepare is no time to field the backline of the future. In this venue, with that short camp, you put the armband on and start Carlos Bocanegra, and accept his limitations. You do that because his leadership and his mettle are what you need for the younger guys (all 3 playing their first matches in Honduras) to weather the inevitable portions of the match that don’t go well. You do that because you learned your lesson in Kingston in the last round, when you sat Bocanegra because you didn’t trust his club form and you got beat badly by Jamaica, throwing a wrench in your early round qualifying campaign. You don’t throw the new backline to the wolves, have it blow up in your face and then suggest that it will be a good experience, or that they have to learn sooner or later. That’s what friendlies are for. This is the final round of World Cup qualifying, in a region that is as tough as it has been in the modern era. This isn’t the time for experimental backlines. And it isn’t the time to shield and protect them with a “6” who isn’t playing all that much for a relegation-threatened team in Germany. Not when you have Maurice Edu on your roster, who, while in no better form than Williams, has battled in these snake-trap arenas before, and won’t rattle. This was a time for basics and simplicity, and Jurgen blew it.
What’s more- Klinsmann preached to the press and his players about how they just needed to play simple and smart and basic football and then you play a lineup with not only a new back four, but others in unique and new spots with a whole new set of demands. Look, one can empathize with the criticisms of the players Wednesday afternoon. They looked fatigued in spots, sloppy and listless. But great managers put their players in the best positions to win games. So if your plan all week is to keep things simple, then don’t overhaul the lineup and the tactics after a pop-up camp and multiple international flights. Honduras’ European contingent (including the best player on the field Wednesday) had the flights too, by the way. Travel is no excuse. But a tactical overhaul with no camp? That’s not exactly keeping it simple, smart, and basic.
For only the fourth time in the Klinsmann era, the United States tactically played with little pressure, sitting back in a defensive posture, presumably waiting to increase pressure and swallow up possession in the second half. The previous times the US have tried this, results have been mixed. They did defeat Mexico this way. They were beaten by Brazil this way. Those were friendlies, as inspiring as the Azteca win was. In competition, the US did this against Guatemala in a road qualifier (a tie), and to some extent did this against Antigua and Barbuda, round two, although they had loads of possession throughout so that’s an entirely fair characterization.
There are two general problems with this approach, and both were obvious Wednesday. First, unless you play MB 90 at the “6” (not gonna happen), you risk taking him out of the match if your link-up play fails. Since Danny Williams was dreadful, and Omar Gonzalez once reached a point in the match where he completed under 40 percent of his passes, it’s safe to say this occurred. Bradley saw more of the ball in the second half, particularly after Edu (and Kljestan) entered, but he was far too uninvolved in proceedings early. This was magnified by Klinsmann’s decision to play him as the most advanced of the American midfielders (excluding EJ, who was switching periodically with Dempsey at the front of the formation). Bradley’s never played that far forward under Jurgen before and does not play that far forward in Rome. So you’ve essentially asked a very smart player who you’ve left on an island to influence the game, because, well, that’s what he’s supposed to do. That’s not putting your players in the best position to win. The second problem with this approach is you are relying on your backline to make good passes that generate counterattacks, which would be fine under Bob Bradley, but is rarely practiced under Klinsmann. And you are doing it with a new backline, an out-of-form “6”, your best midfielder out of position and no target forward. That’s not putting your players in the best position to win games.
Making matters worse, when Klinsmann did press the foot on the pressure pedal in the second half, the heat had taken its toll on his midfield, who, running tirelessly attempting to help the lost backline, had wilted. Three changes later and Klinsmann was left without subs, an injury away from being down a man, and playing with an exhausted forward who had played much of the match alone. Meanwhile, he was still demanding his fullbacks crash forward. That’s not putting your players in the best position to win. And that’s Jurgen Klinsmann’s job.
2. Omar Gonzalez deserves another chance, but not against Costa Rica, and not before Matt Besler.
As we noted above, Gonzalez actually completed less than 50 percent of his passes on the evening. Klinsmann blew that off, saying that “overall, I thought he did well.” Let’s hope that’s him protecting the new guy, because we all know he did not. Gonzalez was atrocious. His ball-watching on the first goal allowed Victor Bernardez to essentially run a training ground set piece drill, delivering the cross to Maynor Figueroa that was finished in astonishing style by Juan Carlos Garcia. Howard was shell-shocked by the shot. Gonzalez seemed to be shell-shocked that Bernardez had the audacity to possess the ball and then cross it into the area.
On the second goal, Gonzalez did something Carlos Bocanegra would never have dared do. He lost track of where Jerry Bengston was. By the time he found him, Bengston was by him, pounding a simple ball from Oscar Boniek Garcia into the back of the net. Boniek deserves great credit. He made a menacing, won’t quit run and put great pressure on Geoff Cameron. But Cameron must do better there. And Tim Howard, who had come out of his net only to stop, presumably because he thought Cameron had things attended to, needs to do better to. Geoff Cameron isn’t Phil Jagielka. If you are out that far, make a play on the ball. Plain and simple. Still, that miscommunication, bad as it was, pales compared to Gonzalez being lost in space. As poor qualifying debuts go, this is as bad as it gets.
3. Roger Espinoza bossed this match around; mostly, Clint Dempsey was nowhere to be found.
Espinoza was sensational. As Hexagon qualifying debuts go, this was as good as it gets. Pushed high and centrally by Luis Fernando Suarez, Espinoza exploited the space between the US holder and defensively-situated back four to perfection, delivering pass after pass all over the pitch and forcing the American midfield to chase. If you don’t think Espinoza’s play had a great deal to do with why the American midfield required three substitutions around the hour mark, you weren’t paying attention. It was a heavyweight fight and Espinoza was working the body, daring the US to adjust. They never did. Danny Williams was particularly egregious in this regard, laying off Espinoza rather than engaging, and turning the ball over at will, but he wasn’t the only one at fault. Jermaine Jones couldn’t seem to chase him down either, and committed several turnovers in the first half. Michael Bradley tried to get back to help from his advanced position, but it was his poor clearance that gave Honduras possession again in the sequence before the first goal. To be short, Espinoza ran circles around the US midfield. It was a brilliant day for a man who had an immense summer, has had a grand start at Wigan after signing on a free, and has a bright future. He should be thrilled.
Meanwhile, Clint Dempsey mostly disappeared from the match in the second half, appearing only briefly to make a run or two after the US had fallen behind. How much of this is Dempsey’s fault is a different question entirely, but what’s certain is the US lacked any cohesion in attack throughout. As good as Jermaine Jones’ pass on the goal was, he had little help from Danny Williams and failed to influence the game outside of a run or two the rest of the night. Once the US brought on two-touch distributors Sacha Kljestan and Graham Zusi, while still tied, the US were chasing the run of play,and while the interplay between Kljestan and Bradley was nice to watch on a pair of US attacks, Dempsey couldn’t find the end of a cross or run, and the one time he could have, he and Zusi watched Kljestan’s cross float helplessly over their heads. As sublime as Dempsey’s goal was, he’ll need to find ways to get more involved if the US plan to qualify for the World Cup.
Tim Howard – 5- Splendid save early on Mario Martinez on a devastating shot with wicked bend. Helpless on first goal, but spoiled by Jagielka on the second. Must do better, especially with that armband on.
Timothy Chandler, 3- Not a very good match to cap-tie in. Lost the ball repeatedly on his forays down the right flank. Was pressing the issue, sure, but losing the ball that often won’t do the US any favors. Made a bad cross to no one on one run that actually broke through in the first half. Defensively, was nutmegged, run over, and run past throughout. His worst match in a US Shirt.
Geoff Cameron, 4– We can forgive his half-lunge towards Garcia on the first goal because, well, who thought Garcia was knocking that in? What we can’t forgive is how often he left the back with no semblance of shape, and why in the world he didn’t challenge Boniek Garcia in the build-up to the game winner..
Omar Gonzalez- 2.5 — As bad a qualifying debut as one could possibly have. Looked like he was in a training drill ball-watching on the cross leading to the first goal; looked like he was Jerry Bengston’s doorman on the second. Only thing less attractive than his play today was reading his legion of fans’ excuses.
Fabian Johnson, 4- Was more responsible in his forays forward than Chandler, but that’s not saying much. Made a nice pass to MB 90 that nearly resulted in a goal. Defensively, made a goal-saving clearance and was one of the few Americans to win aerial 50/50s.
Danny Williams- 3- Made a miserable clearance early that Boniek Garcia sailed over the net. Turned the ball over repeatedly, and what’s worse, didn’t go after it when he did. Run over by Espinoza, failed to communicate with his inexperienced back four he was supposed to protect. Looked very much the part of a player not playing often of late at his club.
Jermaine Jones, 5- His pass to Dempsey on the goal was elite stuff. Made a few solid runs, especially in the first half. Service on set pieces was also pretty good. Seemed confused by his defensive duties, however, and had an odd off-night defensively. Turned the ball over and never made the gritty challenge the Yanks really needed on Espinoza.
MB 90 – 5.5- Left with little link-up play in an advanced position, he had to retreat often to get involved in the first half. Still made some nice distributions, particularly in build-ups with Eddie Johnson and Jones. Rapport with Kljestan still quite strong too, as US appeared a bit more threatening after they were linked up. That said, his set pieces were off throughout and his poor clearance teed up the first Honduran goal sequence.
Eddie Johnson- 6– Made three threatening runs in the first half, although off the ball he drifted too far to the center, which hurt a US team already playing very narrowly. Tracked back defensively too, and made a nice clearance in the first half. His run down the left early in the match nearly led to an Altidore goal, if not for splendid defending. A good match for a guy playing a very difficult role.
Clint Dempsey- 6– A world class finish and he did look dangerous in the first half, working well with Altidore. Seemed to tire down the stretch, and was ineffective in the second half.
Jozy Altidore- 5.5- Did what he was asked to do (even if his manager’s plan was anything but): played basic football and worked hard. On the goal, his ability to play the game more quickly and under control was on full display. Would have scored himself after a fine run but glorious defending prevented him from getting all of Eddie Johnson’s cross.
Maurice Edu- 6.5 – Was first American to challenge Espinoza and force him away from the center he spent most the match shredding. Link-ups with Bradley and the rest of the midfield were simple, and when Edu does that, he’s a very sound player. A good shift.
Sacha Kljestan – 4.5– His rapport with MB 90 is enviable and longstanding, and his passes at least had imagination. He seemed lost defensively, however, and had one turnover he was fortunate did not result in more than a throw-in. His usually sound deliveries into the area were lacking, which cost the US late.
Graham Zusi- 5– Struggled to find the game because Bradley and Kljestan seemed to prefer each other. He did make one nice run on Kljestan’s best run, only to see the cross go hopelessly over his head. His work rate was way better here than against Canada, however, and he should get credit for his defending.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder an Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.