Neil W. Blackmon
The US Men’s National Team hoped to come to Utah and make a statement. Instead, it opened an eventful summer of soccer Saturday night at the Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah with an uneven performance that raises plenty of questions moving forward. Yes, Christian Pulisic scored a terrific goal, but the United States left Salt Lake City Saturday evening with only a draw against a less than full strength Venezuela squad already eliminated from CONMEBOL qualifying. Our final observations from the lone World Cup qualifier tuneup.
Fabian Johnson delivered another inconsistent performance for country, and is a player Bruce Arena needs to challenge to be better.
Playing in the Bundesliga in Germany, Fabian Johnson has frequently assisted on and scored goals from a wing deployment similar to the one he played for country Saturday evening in Utah, and he’s done it in a variety of competitions, including the Champions League. His consistent production earned him a contract extension with the club last month, and American fans had long hoped that by deploying him in the midfield, instead of his typical left back national team spot, the 29 year old winger would replicate his club production for country.
Fabian Johnson seemed to think the switch would help as well. While never complaining about being asked to play fullback, Johnson did concede to TYAC last autumn that “it was difficult to come into a short camp after playing one position for your club team and play an entirely different position in terms of responsibilities.” Bruce Arena seemed to agree with his star, and made a point of isolating Johnson’s preferred midfield position at a press conference early in his tenure.
So there was plenty of excitement Saturday night when Johnson, finally healthy and with the team under Arena, was slotted in the midfield in the starting 11. And while the the role of shuttler on the right side of a midfield diamond isn’t exactly the position Johnson occupies for the Foals, it was one that should have afforded him an opportunity to get in the channels off the ball and demonstrate his prowess as a passer and playmaker on the ball with his face toward the goal.
The problem is it simply didn’t work that way, at least not on Saturday night.
Notes: Johnson is a mixed bag, with more bad than good so far.
— Jason Davis ⚽? (@davisjsn) June 4, 2017
Johnson struggled most the evening. He struggled with his touch, mistimed a few runs and appeared lost in transition defense, providing late coverage on Venezuelan counters on multiple occasions. If the United States are going to play a diamond formation, they’ll need absolute commitment to transition defense from the shuttlers to help Michael Bradley behind them. The same would be true, perhaps especially so at Azteca, if Kellyn Acosta starts in Bradley’s stead, as some desire. Johnson didn’t seem up for it Saturday night.
While adjusting to a new formation, or more aptly, a new spot in a different formation, is understandable, what was more concerning was the appearance that Johnson’s timing and fitness were less than first rate. He looked a step behind, decisionally and physically, often, perhaps dealing with the break between the end of his club season and the international fixture, or perhaps struggling with the altitude. Either way, it was concerning.
There’s no question Fabian Johnson is one of the best technical players the US have. A US assistant told TYAC as much this spring, wondering aloud if the US has ever had a more complete technical talent at its disposal.
And Johnson’s technical quality showed on the US goal, as he took a good touch and made a lovely turn and layoff to Pulisic, who collected and scored. The level of Johnson’s quality is such that even on nights where he struggles, he’ll flash a moment or two of what he truly offers.
The challenge for Bruce Arena this summer is urging Johnson to play consistently for country. It’s difficult to think of a truly good stretch of soccer he’s played for the national team, and this is true despite being a starter for a Champions League side and a player discussed frequently as one of the best wingers in the Bundesliga, one of the world’s best leagues.
In truth, Arena needs a menacing Johnson to ease the playmaking burdens on Christian Pulisic and perhaps even reduce the scoring burden on an aging Clint Dempsey and the other American forwards. In many ways, the progression of Clint Dempsey as an international player is an exquisite reminder it is possible for a US manager to challenge a European club star and receive more production. Bob Bradley challenged Dempsey ahead of the 2009 Confederations Cup, and Dempsey, who famously had tears in his eyes at the medal ceremony after the US lost the final, responded with a Golden Ball worthy performance. Dempsey has been a dominant and different international player since. The US need a similar shift from Fabian Johnson. Saturday was an inauspicious beginning.
Rumors of Tim Howard’s demise appear, at present, to be overstated.
I’ve documented the US goalkeeping situation at length here. There will be significant questions about the position for the United States after next summer, as for the first time in a generation, there is no heir apparent at the position. Nevertheless, Tim Howard appeared eager to retain the starting position Bruce Arena entrusted him with at the onset of camp, putting in a good performance that included smart distributions and a pair of terrific saves that kept the game from getting away from the United States.
Howard’s leadership ability has never been an issue and his ability to control his area is still a strength. Most important last night, however, was that Howard showed his quality as a shot-stopper, with two very athletic saves to keep the game close. At 38, it’s the shot-stopping ability, a hallmark of Howard’s early career, that has been called into question since his decline and departure from Everton. But, save a disappointing suspension, the keeper has been excellent with Colorado this year, and last evening demonstrated he can still be an asset to the United States in net.
The US Forward situation is more complicated than most are making it.
The United States missed Jozy Altidore’s value as a target forward last evening, as erstwhile TYAC alumni Kyle Bonn wrote at NBC Sports.
While Wood and Dempsey aren’t identical or even particularly similar players, Bonn is correct that neither are particularly effective target players or forwards who help others find space.
And herein lies the complicated rub for Bruce Arena: the only two players to consistently score for the United States this cycle (*Pulisic has as well since entering the fray last Labor Day*) are Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood. Jozy Altidore, who, save twenty minutes in the Natal rain, last played meaningful summer soccer for the United States in 2013, hasn’t. And while Altidore’s goal-scoring numbers for the United States are inarguably impressive, his real value may be as a space-generating hold-up forward and passer.
Thing is, the US may need to adapt the formation to keep Pulisic central. And if you play one solitary forward, Altidore is surely out, as he struggles to find games when isolated and, for all his merit, loses interest at times if things aren’t going his way. But you can’t play Dempsey by himself either- at his age he requires a two forward structure to be effective.
All this sounds like an argument for Altidore to start with one of the other two, and perhaps it is.
But who sits? It’s hard to sit the veteran Dempsey, who saves his best soccer for the States. And sitting the talented Wood, who has saved his best play and goals for competitive matches, is a tough sell. The thinking here is Altidore will get the call at Azteca, because he’s been there before. But he’s never really troubled El Tri, and Wood has. The dilemma is puzzling, but Arena must be pleased to have all three healthy.
Finally, the mixed bag results of the diamond last evening demonstrate there may be merit to finding a different formation.
The US would like to keep Bradley deep and Pulisic central.
To do that, the options are essentially to return to the empty bucket, play the diamond, play 3-5-2 or play with a solitary forward. The United States don’t have the most optimal personnel to play with just one forward. This leaves the diamond, the empty bucket, or the 3-5-2.
Jurgen Klinsmann was rightly blistered in the press, and eventually fired, for playing the 3-5-2 against El Tri in Columbus. So why would the US want to do it at 7,500 feet in Mexico City?
It’s a fair question, but the differences are vast.
First, the US personnel and form is slightly different.
Jorge Villafaña’s inclusion has given the US more stability in the back, and either he or Fabian Johnson could safely play as a wing back, meaning Arena could still deploy Johnson as an attacking piece in this formation.
Omar Gonzalez, accustomed to altitude and Mexican football, gives the US a solid three man backline option along with John Brooks and Geoff Cameron. Matt Hedges, repeatedly left out of Klinsmann’s set up, gives the US another international quality CB. DeAndre Yedlin’s rebirth under Rafa Benitez gives the US another menacing wingback, and one that is far more viable defensively than he was last autumn.
Second, Klinsmann’s choice to play the formation for the first time in over two years against a rival in a World Cup qualifier was either overconfident and overzealous or plain foolish, and he was rightly punished for it by El Tri. The US have now had multiple repetitions in the formation, chances to correct timing and understand where to go positionally. They can play faster and without thinking too much, which Jermaine Jones told the media was the largest issue last autumn in Ohio. Tempo, position and timing are why managers evaluate formations in friendlies, not qualifiers.
The 3-5-2 seemed promising, and may offer the solution to keeping Pulisic central without playing the diamond, and the US have now had a chance to evaluate it, at altitude, in competitive conditions. That’s an important distinction.
Comments, as ever, are yours.
Neil W. Blackmon is co-founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.