2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Featured, July 2017

Morris & Agudelo Shine Amidst Yanks’ Struggle: TYAC Analysis

Neil W. Blackmon

TAMPA

It was a game that suited the gloomy and soggy weather, but the United States outlasted Martinique 3-2 Wednesday night in Tampa, securing three vital points and putting themselves in good position to advance in either first or second place in Group B. Jordan Morris scored twice for the United States, his first two goals in an international competitive match (non-friendly), with Omar Gonzalez adding the other American goal after a chaotic set piece. Still, the Americans made things all too interesting, looking vulnerable on the counterattack despite playing relatively deep and defending miserably on set pieces. In many ways, the US were fortunate to get the victory, despite controlling possession and outshooting their opponents by a substantial margin.
Nevertheless, three points is three points and the US will head to Cleveland in a strong position to win the group. The group winner will likely be decided on goal difference, with the US playing last place Nicaragua and Panama drawing this tricky Martinique side in the final group games Saturday.

Here’s three thoughts on the US victory.

First, the US back four struggled, particularly the CBs again, who were gap-prone and failed to communicate with the fullbacks.

The US fielded a different CB pairing against Martinique, keeping Omar Gonzalez but opting to pair him with Matt Hedges over Matt Besler, who struggled against Panama. The results weren’t much better. Again, the American CB pairing was gap-prone and had difficulty dealing with pace on the break. Communication was also lacking, both on set pieces and on Kevin Parsemain’s opener for Martinique, a blast from the top of the area that beat Brad Guzan on the near post.

These problems surfaced early, with the US again playing a very deep and disjointed backline, and finally punished the US late.

On that play, US fullback Eric Lichaj stepped back to try to keep a clean backline, expecting his CB to close out on the shot, which is a professional fullback’s reaction. Unfortunately, Gonzalez stayed put, giving Paresmain, who was a Sounders trialist before tearing his ACL only two years ago, the time he needed to find the net.

It’s fair to ask why Gonzalez, a Liga MX champion and World Cup veteran with 42 caps, didn’t close out a player with an astonishing 30 goals in 46 international caps. But he didn’t, and with Brad Guzan screened, the US lost the lead.

Hedges struggled at times too, of course, getting skinned fairly clearly on the second Martinique goal, and being very fortunate late in the first half when he was beat to a dangerous header in the six that glanced wide far post.

But Arena also neutered Hedges’ organizational strengths, opting to have Gonzalez call the lines and tend to the back line’s discipline. From a pure experience perspective, this move makes sense. From a broader perspective, it makes almost none, as this has never been a strength for Gonzalez and is part and parcel the reason Matt Besler remains around this team. It is instructive that Eric Lichaj was the most vocal communicator throughout the game, as the US desperately searched for someone-anyone- to settle the defense.

Arena may never admit it, but it is perhaps telling that after the match the manager isolated three starters on the backline, but not Gonzalez, despite the latter scoring the opening American goal.

“I saw some good performances,” the manager said. “I thought Eric Lichaj, Matt Hedges and Justin Morrow did a good job on our backline.”

While that’s not what I saw from at least the US CBs defensively, I’d agree with Arena from an attacking perspective, especially in the second half, when the US made an overdue adjustment.

Arena opted to move the back four out of the deep line it had played the first 3 halves of the Gold Cup and press the fullbacks higher up the pitch. The adjustment was revelatory for the US attack.

“We did tell our players in our backline at halftime to move up, and told our fullbacks to get higher,” Arena said. “And I thought that adjustment clearly helped us move the ball.”

Second – for all we can grumble about – Jordan Morris and Juan Agudelo were marvelous.

I wrote about this at MLSSocccer.com as well, but Jordan Morris’s performance, beyond simply scoring a brace, was especially encouraging.

Interestingly, it was the runs he made off the ball that we sometimes see him fail to diagnose or make in Seattle, that was most encouraging.

Cristian Roldan noted it too. Sort of.

“Every coach wants a forward to attack the near post but sometimes that’s just a space-creating run,” Roldan said. “Jordan does that all the time and it was good to see him get the goal, especially on a play that started from the left side and was just good ball movement. We rotated it all the way out right and Eric played a beautiful ball.”

With respect to Roldan, it’s maybe not a run Morris makes all the time, even if he does move with electric pace and is adept at creating space for himself in the penalty area. Here, he did the yeoman’s work needed to carve out space on a limited 23 man World Cup roster. And he was rewarded with two vital goals.

More critically, he began what is an essential tournament for him as an international player with a performance that reminded us of his prodigious talent to begin with. And he made a lasting impression on his manager.

“Jordan runs very well in the penalty area,” the US manager said. “We told the guys at halftime we needed to attack the near post and he responded. Then he finished another run for a second goal. He had an overall good game tonight with Juan (Agudelo). It definitely made a good impression.”

Here, we appropriately shift to Agudelo, the New England Revolution forward who is still only 24 years old and has every physical tool on the proverbial checklist: strength, speed, soft touch, agility, the ability to hit a ball with either foot, a flair for the dramatic and spectacular. He just hasn’t put it all together yet.

He is, however, getting better, and when he’s in the mood, he makes the difficult work of a center forward, holding the ball up, occupying a defender, laying off to a runner in space- look rather simple.

Further, he did a great job of floating off the ball, peeling away defenders and helping create space for Morris. And while his finishing was off (a great first half chance was spoiled by a choppy first touch) – his link up play was not.

His upside is magisterial, which is how you get linked to Celtic at 19 and sold to a Premier League side at 21. It’s always been about consistency.

Maybe tonight is the beginning of something for Agudelo. After strong performances from all three American forwards to feature in this competition, it’s evident Bruce Arena will have difficult choices to make moving forward with qualifying in September and into next year.

But as the great and terrible Marlo Stanfield once said…that sounds like one of them “good problems.”

Despite the positives from Morris and Agudelo, this wasn’t a quality US performance. The US need to play better if they hope to win the tournament.

One of the better writers in our sport is Leander Schaerlaeckens, who was correct, I think, to suggest that the US shouldn’t get a pass because the weather was bad and they chose to field a B/C team Wednesday night against tiny Martinique.

I think the two vital tweets of a tweetstorm worth visiting are here:

I’m a bit bummed Leander isn’t reading TYAC more, because we’ve earned a reasonable following precisely because we aim to hold the US accountable when games like this occur.

The Americans won Wednesday, and did so on a night where they took too long to get the tactics right and the players didn’t deliver consistent performances. On the one hand, that’s good, a sign the player pool is deep and talented enough to bail the US out when they come out flat. On the other hand, the US ought to play better and be held to account against an obviously outmatched opponent like Martinique, and the varied excuses for last night’s performance – “off-year” Gold Cup, bad weather, experimental lineup, tough to scout a side that isn’t in FIFA – shouldn’t be persuasive.

That said, I didn’t see a universal race to make excuses from US writers, which is also something Schaerlaeckens suggested.

At MLSSoccer.Com, Matthew Doyle rightly panned the American defense and challenged the US midfield, in particular the sizeable talent that is Kellyn Acosta of FC Dallas.

Brian Straus at SI offered just praise to Jordan Morris but questioned the Americans’ consistency.

Here at TYAC, we argued the US was out-schemed and outplayed in the midfield against Panama in Nashville and would need to adjust moving forward. Today, we offered continued criticisms.

Point being, the idea the US are getting a “pass” from US Soccer writers isn’t entirely accurate, even if it’s a narrative rooted in a well-intended rallying cry for media accountability.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the idea that the US media don’t hold Arena or the US accountable is most prevalent among holdover Jurgen Klinsmann supporters, who believe there’s a “double standard” between the way the US media treat and evaluate the national team under Bruce Arena compared to the Arena regime. The argument is total nonsense, as Steve Davis pointed out in this column you should all read, littered with so many distinguishable facts and utter falsehoods that we may revisit it at TYAC this week.

But there is an element of irony in it – and it’s the fact that one of the points of emphasis, at least for Klinsmann the technical director – was vocalizing the idea that the press shouldn’t treat the US team with kid gloves. Klinsmann the manager, it should be noted, loathed the technical director’s idea, usually smiling off criticism or simply resorting to the long-tenured belief that American soccer writers simply don’t know what they’re talking about (true in 1989, probably- largely ridiculous today, even as we grow in number and retain a healthy intellectual curiosity about the sport).

Whatever the origin of the trope, it doesn’t apply, as most among us felt it odd the US manager was so upbeat after the match, given how close the US were to a rather embarrassing result.

It is only the second match of the Gold Cup, a tournament with a dual purpose, as Arena fairly noted.

“One of the things we’re trying to do in this tournament is really look at some players in our pool that we as a staff haven’t seen much of to help us make decisions moving forward with World Cup qualifying in September and October,” Arena said.

He’s right. Another part of the Gold Cup is to try to win. And the US can make some roster changes that may help them do that, as Arena also acknowledged.

From the looks of things in Tampa, they’ll need to.

Neil W. Blackmon co-Founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.

Neil W. Blackmon