Neil W. Blackmon
Out of deference to the Super Bowl, TYAC’s traditional “final thoughts and match musings” piece moves to Monday this week. After last night’s display by the team from Colorado, there is a thinking at least on this end that the deference was ill-deserved. What a travishammockery of a football game. The bad news is that ESPN’s round-the-clock NFL draft coverage started as soon as Percy Harvin took the opening kick of the second half to the house to put Seattle up 28-0. The good news is that MLS begins in 33 days.
Meanwhile, in the house that David and Landon built…
The United States opened the World Cup year with a solid, not spectacular, 2-0 defeat of a South Korea “B minus” team Saturday afternoon. Chris Wondolowski supplied both American goals, and the Yanks were outstanding in spots, simply sufficient for most the match, ragged throughout and dire for at least two five minute sequences, one of which near the end of the first half- a time you can’t afford to be dire ever but especially not at a World Cup. My feelings on player rankings are well-documented- I’ve done “Player Rankings of Other Writer’s Player Rankings”— but if yours truly were to hand out a grade for the Yanks in Saturday’s match, it would be a “B-.” Not great, not bad, somewhere just north of ordinary.
Here are four final thoughts from the culmination of Camp cupcake– a wildly different proposition in this World Cup year than we are accustomed to in US Soccer.
First, the American situation at right back isn’t “dire”, but there were too many moments Saturday afternoon where US defenders failed to impress.
Late in the qualifying campaign, Brad Evans was told by Jurgen Klinsmann he would be given “every opportunity” to cement a starting position in Brazil this summer. He did little to help himself Saturday afternoon. He was active moving forward in the game’s first fifteen minutes, a segment where the US looked every bit the part of a side that had trained together for a month and looked as if it would spend the day attacking with gusto and taking every initiative in the match. After that, as the South Koreans settled, Evans became the focal point of South Korea’s counterattack, with about two-thirds of South Korea’s attacking forays coming down his flank and, all too often, Evans was left wanting. Worse, he was beat in multiple ways: first by simple pace, second by incutting where his shortfalls as a 1 v. 1 defender (experience, partly) were exposed, and finally, when he was in possession, with errors on distributions that weren’t particularly ambitious- a problem that plagued the entire team too much given the amount of time they trained together but was particularly hard felt by the American fullbacks.
So what are the Americans to do about this spot? Conventional thinking suggests two solutions.
The first is Geoff Cameron is handed the RB spot, where he’s excelled at Stoke City. This would presumably get DaMarcus Beasley off the field on the other side, where Fabian Johnson could start, and allow the US to field a pretty good looking set of passers on the wings. This theory seems to be the most popular among the fan base, but there is zero empirical data suggesting it will be Klinsmann’s choice– remember, Cameron trained almost exclusively at CB with the team in the fall– and corollary to that, there is no data the combination would be effective. There’s also an element of “from my cold dead hands” with the LB spot and Run DMB, whose play in qualifying was far better than folks have given him credit for.
Second school of thought would be to call Steve Cherundolo in for the Ukraine match, and maybe Eric Lichaj again, and see if they have anything to offer on that side of the field. We spent a great deal of time at TYAC during qualifiers discussing how much the US would miss Steve Cherundolo when he’s gone- yes, sing the Anna Kendrick tune with me– and with the World Cup months away and no certainty at all at RB, it might be time to get the now playing and nearly fit Steve Cherundolo back in the mix. (I hear the Timothy Chandler shouting, but I feel like he’s (SPOILER ALERT SO YOU CAN SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU MUST) the USMNT version of Hugh Jackman at the end of the dour film Prisoners, shouting and shouting in a locked room in Roger Espinoza’s backyard somewhere, understanding that his appearance this summer, and ever again, is highly unlikely.
Second, the Graham Zusi/Alejandro Bedoya starting eleven battle during the “Send Off Series” will be fantastic. And this is one of those “nice problems to have” areas.
Zusi was, for me, one of the finer players in a US shirt for both club and country in 2013. His 2014 debut was very solid, as he was active and involved in both US goals and his work rate was strong. If there is a criticism, it is that his first touch at times looked “preseason”, but that wasn’t a real issue in qualifying and you’d not be foolish to think he’ll clean that up pretty quickly.
Zack Goldman wrote a piece for A Football Report I linked above about how this “Camp Cupcake” was markedly different than what US Soccer has offered in the past. The Zusi situation is perhaps most emblematic of that difference.
Klinsmann insisted, both verbally and with what my colleague Jon Levy rightly called a “business trip to Brazil” that this camp be treated differently by the men who received invitations. Klinsmann’s constant reference to the “depth chart” and “position battles” in his press conferences only belie the point: Graham Zusi was here because he’s a starter who plays domestically, yes, but he was also here because Alejandro Bedoya, who has been marvelous (does that undersell it?) in France is nipping at his heels. This was the beginning of an extended battle for a starting position and Zusi, the domestically-based player and the incumbent, got first crack. As noted, he faded out of the game after the opening goal, largely because his typically steady first touch let him down a bit. But he was great movement wise and his touches better in the second half, and he was involved in both goals. That’s a good opening salvo in a “Send Off Series” battle- and here’s the even better news: this is a good problem to have.
This choice will leave most fans content either way, and it should, and both will play. In that sense it is unlike the RB battle we will likely see in the build up to Brazil and it is drastically different than the Ricardo Clark/Jose Torres/Maurice Edu/Sacha Kljestan duel we watched in the spring of 2010, culminating with Bob Bradley still not really knowing what to do and ultimately leaving Kljestan at home, starting Torres for a disastrous half at the World Cup (based largely on one great half vs. Turkey in the Send-Off Series) and having to remove choice “A”, Ricardo Clark, after half an hour in the knockout stages of the World Cup. The famous hug being the defining image from that battle. This battle’s defining image will be of two players, both pretty damn close to “elite” class at their positions, duking it out and Klinsmann almost certainly utilizing the loser as a substitute at the World Cup.
Third, Kyle Beckerman needs to make the team, and not just because the Americans group dictates he’ll be needed anymore. Now he needs to make the team because he’s one of the best American field players, and you bring the best players to the World Cup.
There’s this “as predictable as a Die Hard sequel” thing that happens with Kyle Beckerman every time the US has a camp or hasn’t played in a while and Beckerman is called in and plays. General thread: Oh, Kyle Beckerman’s in camp, he’s a savvy vet and he’s had his share of camps–> well, Kyle Beckerman really doesn’t offer much beyond that grit and he’s still a fringe player for Brazil–> I see why Jurgen calls him all the time, but is he really a better option than “flavor of the month” here–>Beckerman starts–>Beckerman plays splendid –>Beckerman love train swells like Harlem Shake. Rinse. Repeat.
That’s what we saw again Saturday, as Beckerman again clogged the center, helped time and again on the Michael Parkhurst side of things, and delivered passes at a 90 percent completion clip. I know, they aren’t the most adventurous things. They aren’t supposed to be, though, that’s the thing. And here’s the other thing: how many times does this cycle need to play itself out before people simply admit they’re off when they diminish Beckerman’s skill level (he’s a technically gifted defensive midfielder, and that’s not particularly sexy) and when they diminish the empirics, which state Beckerman has lapped every other six in the field, save Geoff Cameron against Panama and zero ball pressure, in this World Cup cycle. Combine that with the fact that the US will absolutely need a shielder LCDM against Portugal– help on you know who– and against Ghana– dictating how much play goes through the center is part and parcel how you play the Black Stars– and the Real Salt Lake skipper has to be a World Cup lock.
I suppose there is some Ricardo Clark angst here: holding midfielder who isn’t technically brilliant, especially in attack, goes to World Cup, has a bad day, doom, gloom. Maybe. But like Rico Clark, Kyle Beckerman was instrumental in the US getting to this point, and not just in the “I play hard and have grit” way. There are tactical and technical reasons to end the debate yesterday.
Two goals, and yet I don't think Wondo has really helped his cause all that much.
— Jason Davis (@davisjsn) February 1, 2014
Finally, Chris Wondolowski. Great spot-on tweet from Jason Davis of Soccer Morning and ESPN and Name Your Important US Soccer Journalism Thing here fame.
Appropriate disclaimers :Wondolowski is a terrific mover off the ball, a strength long-noted as we’ve watched him score goal after goal in MLS and a strength we finally saw produce fruit, albeit against very low-rent competition, in last summer’s Gold Cup. Wondolowski also demonstrated– which we’ve seen less in a US shirt, that he will continue to move well if he isn’t the target forward. Saturday and he and armband-toting Landon Donovan switched target and withdrawn striker roles early and often and at no time did Wondolowski stop working. His work off the ball was entirely responsible for the first goal, and at least fifty percent responsible for the second one- though a great deal of credit goes to Graham Zusi. Wondolowski has scored a bunch of goals for the States since the Gold Cup seal breaker– but the two Saturday were against far better competition, even if it was a South Korean junior varsity.
Here’s the rub:
Herculez Gomez is a stronger, more bulky, plays in a better league mover off the ball who absolutely shines when he’s asked to move off the attacker drawing the lion’s share of attention. In theory, this will be Jozy Altidore at the World Cup; but it could be Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan. Gomez is less static than both Altidore and Wondolowski, and provides value in the sense that he can flip flop with an advanced midfielder- say Eddie Johnson or Clint Dempsey– if need be and the situation demands defending. Do you want Jozy Altidore on the field in Manaus if the US are protecting a lead? Do you want Chris Wondolowski? Or would you rather have a work-rate, off the ball mover like Herculez Gomez who can still help you be potent on the counter but can switch with a Donovan or Dempsey or Eddie Johnson and offer plenty tracking back? I don’t think it is that complicated.
And the worst part for Wondolowski? It isn’t just Gomez. Because of the aforementioned Donovan and Dempsey, it isn’t even assured that Klinsmann will bring anyone beyond Altidore, Johnson and Aron Johannsson to Brazil. And if he does, Gomez would seem a better fit than Wondolowski, but that’s only if Klinsmann wants the extra forward to be flexible. If he wants a traditional post-up player, Terrence Boyd would seem to have more upside and Klinsmann’s repeated looks at Boyd in the high-level away friendlies on European soil at least provide the optics that suggest we’re not slotting Wondo onto the airplane yet.
Did it hurt Wondolowski that he scored twice? No. Did he realistically improve his depth chart position? No.
The comments are yours.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.
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