Neil W. Blackmon
The United States played a unique new style last night in Houston: let’s call it anti-total football. In so doing, they played to a scoreless draw against a weak, MLS-reserve heavy Canadian side under an interim manager, and doubtlessly left Jurgen Klinsmann shaking his head about the options that are truly at his disposal when the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying begins next week in Honduras. You can break this match down any way you want, but the reality is it was a dismal performance by an American team with very little excuse for such a dismal performance. The Americans had, even with a slightly shortened version of Camp Cupcake, three weeks to prepare. The Americans had the better talent at their disposal by leaps and bounds. The Americans were playing at home. Worst of all, the Americans had built-in incentives to play excellent soccer and elevate their standing in the eyes of their manager just days before the most important tournament they will participate in over the last three years was to begin. The common excuses, as such, went out the window. Unfortunately, none of this mattered, and this group of Camp Cupcake Americans delivered what has to be considered the worst footballing display in the Jurgen Klinsmann era. There were very few positives, but in our final three thoughts, we thought we would focus on those first.
1. The general rule of being a player in a match where your team performs miserably is “Do No Harm.” In this regard, Kyle Beckerman was a bright spot.
By the end of the match there was, amdist much “snark” in the Twitterverse, a good bit of fun being had with Taylor Twellman constantly reminding vieweres whose eyes were bleeding that Kyle Beckerman had done “everything Klinsmann asked him to do.” In a way, this is accurate. Beckerman did protect the centerbacks, and it is impressive how well the American middle kept its shape. Canada had literally zero success attempting to split the middle of the American defense, and more or less quit trying by the second half. Beckerman also was very clean in his tackles, and on the one or two occasions in the first half where Brad Evans, in particular, forgot who he played for and which direction the goal was, Beckerman won the ball back quickly and Canada’s brief threats were eliminated.
We mentioned on Twitter prior to the match that Beckerman was one of three players who had the most at stake in this match. The thought here was that the American central midfield is extraordinarily crowded, and with Danny Williams very much in the “regulars” fold, it could come down to Beckerman or Maurice Edu for a spot on the plane to Brazil. This is true despite the fact that Beckerman and Edu will be integral to the qualifying process. For this reason, Beckerman is very much in the position Brian Ching was in the last cycle– he can play quite well in qualifying and still not be part of the team at the tournament. World Cup rosters are very much a product of what the manager thinks he’ll need to navigate a group. Chances are taken sometimes with that in mind, and old reliables who don’t quite fit into the equation are discarded. Beckerman is precisely the type of player a manager may find dispensable, even if he is indispensable to qualifying the team for the tournament. Given this, a match like last night, had Beckerman played badly, would not have been a good start to the qualifying process. Instead, Beckerman delivered, and in our view, the onus is now on the struggling Maurice Edu to answer the bell, either in Turkey or in future performances for his country.
What’s more, Beckerman was good enough last night that he might be a starter next week at the San Pedro Sula next week. That might not be a popular view, but at least Doug McIntyre at ESPN agrees with us, and here’s two additional reasons why. First, Beckerman is a savvy vet, whereas Williams is still a relative newcomer to the USMNT and certainly is new to the qualifying process. Beckerman has played in Central America quite a bit, knows about those tenacious crowds and tricky pitches; Williams certainly has not. Beckerman wore the armband last night and played well as Klinsmann’s “true number 6”, which the Boss views as essential to his system. Williams has played on and off for a team that is relegation threatened at Hoffenheim. All signs point to either Edu or Beckerman getting the nod, and with Edu just loaned out, it isn’t as if Maurice can point to club form as a reason he should get the nod.
2. Benny Feilhaber is still an asset to this team, and has earned the right to be useful in qualifying. Meanwhile, American fans, and yes, some journalists, are too enamored by Josh Gatt.
Feilhaber was the second of three players we felt had the most at stake yesterday. His club form hasn’t been good. He hasn’t had a match of any great influence in the Klinsmann era. He’s not getting any younger and his once viewed as immense upside has leveled out. We thought he would get a run out, and if it went poorly, it could be a “last chance saloon” type deal. Feilhaber made the most of that opportunity. Long established as one of the finer American passers in the playing pool, he had extremely nice 1-2 combinations with both Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans in the second half that led to American scoring chances. The 1-2 with EJ, in particular, should have resulted in an American goal but Brad Davis, who had made a nice run, botched the shot all the way across the goalmouth and off-frame. The 1-2 with Evans, who had made an overlapping run, was an example of how Feilhaber offers something the Yanks also are short in: the ability to play the game fast, but with imagination. Feilhaber can use this performance as a springboard, we think, to a useful role as a catalyst substitute during the Hex. From there, who knows?
Speaking of fast– Josh Gatt is certainly that. The Michigan native has the type of speed the USMNT haven’t seen in a long while, if ever, and he does bring a great amount of energy. He also still has a great deal to learn. Feilhaber is a nice contrast, despite the two playing different positions. No one is going to argue Feilhaber has good pace, but he does play the game at a quick rate and has ideas about what he wants to do that he executes quickly. Gatt, despite blazing speed, does not. He needs to learn there is a difference between playing fast and running fast, and that will likely take time. His (almost) great run on the ball late in the match is a perfect example– not only did he deliver the ball with his right foot, allowing the Canadian defender to block the pass to the middle of the box– he waited two strides to long to make the delivery. As many fullbacks as Gatt can outrun, he’ll need to learn when to switch the ball, when to pass, and how to be more clever if he’s going to have a bigger role. He looked excellent against Russia, but last night was not a good show. He also needs to stop whining. CONCACAF referees are notoriously short-tempered (and poor)– Gatt isn’t going to help himself any by dissenting even when he’s clearly at fault. Passion is great, as long as its tempered. Otherwise, it can be a liability.
3. The Americans under Jurgen Klinsmann have regressed in the final third, and without Clint Dempsey, tend to be flat out of ideas.
Trouble in the final third is certainly not unique to the Klinsmann era, but it has been magnified as a problem-spot during it. The Americans have had more possession throughout the Kaiser’s tenure but often look the part of a team with little idea what to do with it, and last night, more than any, embodied that problem. The Americans swallowed up possession in wholes but very rarely troubled a goalkeeper who entering the match was without a club. That’s a big problem.
The Americans switched formations on and off last night, too, and none of the tactical adjustments seemed to help. Chris Wondolowski tried hard, but his problems in an American shirt continue. He’s a good probe and poach forwward, but he’s not a talented hold-up guy, and when the service is as off as it was last night, he’s not going to help much. Maybe he would do well with the A-team distributors at his disposal, but then you have to sit Altidore, and right now, as shaky as Jozy has been internationally, that’s not an option. How many more times can Klinsmann afford to see Wondolowski making what is becoming a trademark “so close, man, but I need a little more” face at his midfielders before we realize he’s not a viable international option? He’s even worse if Klinsmann does want to play a 4-3-3, because as a hold-up player he’s somewhere around 4th or 5th best in the pool. That’s not good enough.
When Clint Dempsey plays, the Americans have a good, sometimes great “let-loose” forward who not only will “try stuff” from distance, especially if he were, say, playing a team whose goalkeeper has no club, but who also can break the game down 1 v. 1 off the dribble on his own. Dempsey is also comfortable enough to hold the ball up if he’s asked. But the Americans will need more than Clint Dempsey to be more threatening in the final third. Landon Donovan’s absence hurts too, but should it hurt this much? Brad Davis played an active match last night, but he too often delivered the right ball when the “great ball” was necessary. He also plays fast, but seems to do so just for the sake of playing fast. He lacks imagination. And for a guy reputed to have great service, his was dreadful last evening. Graham Zusi might have to slot directly into Landon Donovan’s spot for about half of the Hexagon. That would seem to be okay, given how he’s looked on other nights for the Yanks, but last night was a night he’ll want to forget, and quickly. What’s more, when he pinches in, the Americans lack the pace, either from Steve Cherundolo or another fullback, to make it tactically threatening. That’s a problem. It’s an even bigger one because the Hexagon is front-loaded for the Americans, and if they don’t improve in this area, the deficit they find themselves in after opening with three road matches could be immense.
Let’s be clear, too: this isn’t all on the players. This is the third time in a year a USMNT side, whether U-23 or senior, has played against Canada and its five midfielder maze. There is absolutely no reason it should continue to be so difficult to break down. We used the “toddler with her first building blocks” example in our preview. but the thing is toddlers start to figure out how to put pieces together given enough looks. I’ve mentioned before that Klinsmann is an interesting guy because he seems to be a great motivator of men, and when he speaks about the game, he does genuinely seem to know a great deal about it. Yet he’s often quiet about his own personal judgments on players, and he’s often looked a step behind tactically at the helm. There’s a great story about Holland’s Rafael van der Vaart and his time under Harry Redknapp at Tottenham Hotspur. Van der Vaart said that he loved Harry as a person, loved that he didn’t have favorites (at least publically) and loved talking about the game with him. But he said the best thing about playing for him was Spurs would go weeks without having a tactical session, and then Redknapp would call for one, and present the same idea as he had the last time, only with more urgency. One wonders if Klinsmann has a bit of Redknapp in him. That may or may not be a bad thing, but we’ll let you all decide. History will decide soon enough.
G- Sean Johnson-7– Did very well on De Rosario’s rocket in the sixth minute, and again on a De Rosario chance in the second half. Had little to do otherwise. A promising beginning.
D- Justin Morrow- 4.5- Didn’t have much to do, but didn’t utilize that fact to get forward and help much. Lost De Rosario on a free kick in the second half that nearly cost the U.S. The Earthquakes man probably did little to state a case for more chances.
D- Omar Gonzalez- 6- Was extremely strong in the air on a pair of Canadian set pieces and never looked like the game was too big for him. An invitation to Honduras seems likely.
D- Matt Besler- 6– Not tested all that much, but did try to help the attack with long passes from the back, one of which Zusi should have done much better with. The MLS Defender of the Year will likely need to show a bit more before being called into qualifying duty, but a decent start.
D- Tony Beltran- 5 — Was better going forward than Morrow, and had a couple of nice hold up moments that led to opportunities for Zusi to do something with the ball, and Zusi failed. Defensively, lost De Rosario early on and was more or less not involved on set pieces. Ho-hum stuff for the Real Salt Lake man.
M- Brad Davis- 4 — Was active and played fast, but with very little idea why he was playing fast. Delivered right ball several times, but great ball zero. Set pieces were terrible. Fans clamoring for him for a year had to be disappointed in what they saw. We were.
M- Kyle Beckerman- 7.5 — Clean in his tackles and disrupted any Canadian effort to split the middle of the American defense. Distributions were better than usual. Made a strong case to start against Honduras next week, lying deep behind Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley.
M- Brad Evans- 4.5 — Feared he fled to Mexico in first half, when he was invisible other than two atrocious turnovers which were cleaned up by Beckerman. Was a bit better when moved to fullback, and did free Eddie Johnson up for a golden scoring chance, which Johnson airmailed into the seats.
M- Graham Zusi- 4- Was certainly the flavor of choice in terms of distributions from the back received– but did little with the ball. Tucked in often, but without support on overlaps, was generally frustrated when trying to create individually. Not what you want to see from Donovan’s replacement eight days before qualifying.
F- Eddie Johnson- 6- A pretty strong night, particularly in the first half, when he showed his improved capacity to get out on the wing, split defenders and create. Slowed down a bit in half two, but did have a nice delivery to Davis which was botched. Continues to be plagued by a heavy (that’s being polite) first-touch, particularly as he gets tired.
F- Chris Wondolowski – 5– Grades out here on effort alone, and his touches were pretty sound. Still, he was tactically replaced when the US switched to its preferred 4-3-3, and he didn’t finish the chances he had. Early on he had chances, but he’s really just too reliant on others to create for him.
M- Josh Gatt- 4– Blistering pace is a wonder to behold, what he does after he utilizes his pace is painful to behold. Needs to make quicker decisions that accompany his pace, and needs to complain less. A long way to go before he’s influencing proceedings consistently.
M- Benny Feilhaber- 6.5- Was strong on the ball, played at a quick rate, and helped break down the Canadian midfield on multiple occassions. His 1-2 with Johnson deserved better. Odd decision on the free kick at the end of the game, which begged for a bit of the Gold Cup 06 magic….
F- Juan Agudelo- 6- Actually played quite well, winning three free kicks and constantly probing. Had a header sail wide where he should of done better, but he’ll remain in the mix after this performance.
M- Alejandro Bedoya- 5- Didn’t offer much on the offensive side, but did show massive improvement in his willingness to track back and be involved defensively. Had one nice ball late in the match which led to a free kick, but of course it was squandered. Going to be tough for Bedoya against this midfield depth chart.
F- Will Bruin- I — Not on the field long enough to influence the game. Congratulations to him on his first cap.
D- Alfredo Morales- I- Same as Bruin, with similar kudos on the first cap.