Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy
The US opened the second Bruce Arena era last Sunday afternoon with a sleepy 0-0 draw in San Diego. For most the afternoon, the match against a young, experimental Serbia side played out like so many of the “end of January camp” matches past: a slog of tired legs and heavy touches. The US created the better chances, especially in the second half, but couldn’t find a finished product and left San Diego with a disappointing result. But it wasn’t one inconsistent with recent end of January friendlies. Recent January efforts saw Jurgen Klinsmann’s side struggle against an experimental Iceland before winning late; play disjointed in attack and poorly in defense against Chile, and play a mind-numbing draw with Canada where the US created a total of 6 chances.
Recent history seems to dictate then that while the draw against a youthful Serbian side isn’t optimal, it is far from unusual for the US to struggle coming out of a lengthy camp. Tired legs cause rubbery touches. New player combinations dazzle in training sessions but struggle with the step up to game speed. Couple that with an increased incentive to train hard for a new manager who has declared competitions wide open at several positions, and you get the idea. Should the US have done better? Yes, they should have scored and the 20,000 or so fans in Jack Murphy’s sterile, lifeless arena rock stadium deserved better. But the game wasn’t an aberration or a cause for concern- or better stated, an independent cause for concern separate and distinct from the very legitimate worries US fans had entering 2017.
Friday night affords a reprieve: a match against a regionally-based group of Jamaica players in soccer-crazed Chattanooga.
Chattanooga, a southern hipster haven of about 200,000 people nestled at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains along the Tennessee River, has seen capacity crowds of 18,500+ supporting third-division soccer club Chattanooga FC. The home game is a reward from US Soccer for a job well done supporting the domestic game. The town, an old railroad hub famed for its ridges and panoramic plateau views, is one of the most interesting and independent places in the south: a destination city for young folks with eager and talented young chefs and a lively music scene ranging from the alt country and hillbilly funk to the delta blues and jazz-infused southern hip hop. If you were to pick a city to see for a friendly, Chattanooga would rate highly.
Finley Stadium, which will host the match, isn’t an ideal venue– it’s basically a jazzed-up concrete and iron high school stadium with lipstick and Reagan-era in look if not installation astroturf. But the match (7PM, Fox Sports 1), is a deserved reward for a city that has wrapped its arms around its club, making soccer weekends in America feel parochial and special.
The TYAC Preview then. Usuals, then the specifics:
Series: 24th Meeting. USA Lead 13-8-2. The two American losses were suffered under Jurgen Klinsmann, whose teams found the Reggae Boyz a bogey side. The most famous of these defeats was the humbling 2-1 semifinal loss to the Jamaicans in the 2015 Gold Cup, a game played just down I-75 from Chattanooga in Atlanta. In that match, the US fell behind 2-0, thanks to some astonishingly poor defense and a stunning free kick by Giles Barnes. A furious American comeback was thwarted by a Reggae Boyz defense that entered the game having not conceded in over 4 matches, led by Leicester City captain Wes Morgan. Strong defense in the air from Morgan, and a curious substitution by Jurgen Klinsmann, snuffed out the American rally, and set off a debate about Klinsmann’s fitness to continue managing the Americans that didn’t end until he was fired in November.
Weather: Really cold. Temps dipping to around 32 degrees at kick. Clear and starry, crisp mountain air though. With the game being played at altitude in very cold weather, at the end of a lengthy camp, both sides will likely substitute liberally.
What to Watch for from Jamaica:
Theodore Whitmore, a veteran of the Premier League and the coach of a talented Jamaican U-20 side, took over for Winnie Schäfer following the team’s disappointing failure to qualify for the final round Hexagonal of CONCACAF qualifying. He’s tasked with ushering in a wave of talented new players, including defender Kareem Manning and talented holder Tevin Shaw, who are expected to make their debuts against the USA. The top scorer of the Red Stripe Jamaican Premier League, Shamar Nicholson, who plays for Boys’ Town, should also feature for the Reggae Boyz tonight.
It’s telling that Whitmore brought these players- mostly Jamaican based players he was familiar with while running the U20’s- instead of the large collection of MLS talent at his disposal. The Jamaicans aren’t without MLS faces: goalkeeper Andre Blake and longtime MLS midfielder Je-Vaughn Watson will be familiar faces to any MLS fan- but Whitmore is obviously utilizing this friendly, as well as a game against Honduras in two weeks, as a proving ground.
As always, expect the Jamaicans to be powerful in the air and fast in the channels. This isn’t a game for a slow, immobile holder and on turf, it’s a game that should make American fans nervous about captain Michael Bradley, who will have plenty of work to do cutting and covering. The US were exploited by Jamaica’s speed in the channels consistently in the Klinsmann era- even in wins- and just because the Reggae Boyz are young shouldn’t make this match any different.
Jamaica are always very direct- but corralling their speed, especially in transitions- also makes this a fascinating match for Graham Zusi, who will have to deal potentially with Watson or Omar Holness, a Real Salt Lake first rounder with electric pace. Holness, who was slowed by seizures initially with Salt Lake, has been healthy of late and Whitmore expects him to “blossom into what he is capable of being in the next couple of years, which is a talented and complete technical footballer.”
As simulations go, this isn’t really the most direct preparation for a more technically talented and compact Panama, who await the US in March. But it is a chance for the US to impose its will on an opponent that doesn’t take a complicated approach to football and who, for the most part, lack the higher-level MLS talent the US will feature Friday night.
What to Watch for From The United States:
The Americans showed a good amount of 4-3-3 in training leading up to the Serbia match and then played 4-3-2-1 in the game. In shape and function, the formation amounted to a 4-1-4-1, a curious choice given the lack of dynamic wingers in the camp and the notable struggles of Jozy Altidore as a solitary striker in his career.
Altidore was candid about that this week, telling Goal.com ““I think it’s no secret. For me, I’m better with kind of a partner up there.” “I’m not a huge fan of a 4-3-3,” the Toronto forward said. “It’s difficult. You need really dynamic guys to be able to play it. We’ll see how it goes … That’s what it is in this formation. You’re lonely a lot at times.”
The US probably do have the personnel to try it when Arena has his full complement of players: Fabian Johnson, Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic are all chance-creating wing players who can give the formation teeth. But none of that means it is the best formation for the United States moving forward. Bruce Arena will have no camps prior to qualifying play to get acquainted with Hamburger SV forward Bobby Wood, but playing him with Altidore still seems a more viable attacking formation, even in the absence of Clint Dempsey, who Bruce Arena told media will not be a part of the March qualifying camp.
Friday night, Arena told reporters the key to improving Altidore’s productivity is “getting someone a bit closer to him,” noting he firmly believes “Jozy is a number nine type of player.” That usually would mean a playmaking winger in the 4-2-3-1; Friday night it probably means Seattle Sounders forward Jordan Morris underneath.
What the US do tactically moving forward will be the subject of longer writing in this space, and doubtlessly in other spaces, following Friday’s game.
What the US can do Friday night is continue to evaluate the midfield combinations at their disposal. The position has flummoxed US coaches since the end of the World Cup, as the thinking is the US has to move beyond some combination of Michael Bradley as playmaker or the longtime, up and down working partnership of the US captain and Jermaine Jones.
The two players do not seem to maximize the other’s effectiveness, and with Jones not getting any younger, that’s unlikely to change. Indeed, Arena was blunt about the problem when he was hired, saying “We need a better passer in the midfield than we have. We need to have a player in the attacking half of the field who can deliver the right ball at the right time.”
Reading the tea leaves from the Serbia game, it appears his answer to that is two-pronged: first, find a creative player ahead of Michael Bradley, one who can get the ball to a series of attacking wing players; second, move Michael Bradley back to a regista-type holding position, where he has flourished in his career and where, from the scrum, he can deliver his divine diagonals forward.
It’s a common-sense solution but one that is short on time, making tonight’s match immense for…
The US Player to Watch: Benny Feilhaber, Sporting Kansas City
Banished from Klinsmann’s universe sometime in the middle of Jurgen’s tenure, Benny Feilhaber quietly went about his business in MLS, guiding Sporting KC to a pair of marvelous campaigns in the center of the park and in the process, reminding US fans why they were so enthralled with the young midfielder even before his 2007 Gold Cup heroics. Long a flashpoint for criticism for being outspoken and, whether fairly or not, perceived as brazen and arrogant- Feilhaber has become more muted off the field and more consistent on it.
Feilhaber has guided Sporting KC to the MLS Cup Playoffs in each of his four years with the club, tallying 28 goals and 50 assists in 145 total appearances. He has been particularly brilliant over the last two seasons, ranking second among MLS midfielders with 45 combined goals (17) and assists (28) since the start of 2015, and placing in the top ten among all players in chances created per ninety minutes.
Feilhaber flirted with a move to Israel in the offseason, but ultimately opted to remain, along with Peter Vermes, in Kansas City through 2018. According to his Kansas City manager, becoming a key cog in a World Cup qualifying run was a significant incentive for Feilhaber, and a big reason he stayed.
“It certainly is something that motivates him,” Vermes told TYAC last autumn.
“He’s a better player, more mature, more decisive. He’s always been a talented technical player. He’s more than that now. “He’s a great decision maker on the field. He sees the game in ways that a lot of players don’t, and the bigger the game, the more he’ll take the ball. He’s not afraid of the big moment. He was very frustrated by the choice to exclude him,” Vermes said.
For his part, Feilhaber has made little secret that he wants back into the national team, subtweeting Klinsmann on occasion (to the chagrin of some) and being more plainspoken about it this past year, after Klinsmann was fired.
“It’s something I didn’t know would happen again,” Feilhaber told Goal.com. “I had already closed the book on that chapter of my career and it was something that was just an honest answer. I don’t want to harp too much on that, but it was an honest answer and I’m looking forward to the opportunity at hand right now and not look back at what has happened in the past years.”
Against Serbia, a fifteen minute cameo saw Feilhaber deliver three exquisite passes and create two chances. It was evident he was hungry for the opportunity and objectively evident he improved the product on the field.
Saw enough from Feilhaber in 15 minutes today to say it's absured we haven't seen him in three years.
— The Yanks Are Coming (@YanksAreComing) January 29, 2017
TYAC is betting on 90 more minutes to see if Feilhaber can provide the extra creative midfield spark the US desperately need Friday evening. That question, as the Americans approach a set of matches where only four points of six will suffice, is as big as any this evening.
Jamaica Player to Watch: Romario Williams, Atlanta United
Atlanta United is a club run by smart people with Ivy League degrees who have done a host of smart things. One of those things was to acquire Romario Williams in a trade from Montreal in December. Williams, only 22, is a pacy and strong forward who will play apprentice to Kenwyne Jones as Atlanta makes its MLS debut to much acclaim this spring.
Williams was the third overall pick in the 2015 MLS Super Draft, presumably after Montreal mistook him for Brazilian great Romario. As a funny aside to that joke: Williams was born in 1994 and was named for Romario, who was of course the star of Brazil’s World Cup triumph in the United States that summer.
But back to this Romario- once Montreal realized he wasn’t the Brazilain star but was instead a raw, Jamaican striker out of the University of Central Florida, Montreal sat Williams on the bench and began looking for a loan that made sense. So he spent last season with the Charleston Battery and actually did quite well (but not by Brazilian Romario standards). He scored ten goals in 27 matches, and was traded to Atlanta for a conditional third round pick that becomes a second rounder when Williams makes Atlanta’s squad. It’s commonly held that Montreal plans to use the pick on any Juninho, Ronaldo, or Zico it can find, but they plan to pass on Zé Roberto, because they have fitness concerns.
As for Romario Williams, he seemingly has a new lease on MLS life with Atlanta United, and he’s looking to make his mark with the Reggae Boyz after representing Jamaica well at youth levels. This would be just his second senior cap, but his good season in Charleston could see him get the nod over similarly unproven forward options. If nothing else, he’ll run at the American defense and make them assume the proper position. Raw speed strikers can act as the soccer equivalent of the “check hook” in boxing. Your chin shouldn’t there if you’re on your defensive game at all, but on the off chance it is, you got big problems. Like your butt probably just hit the mat.
Prediction: USA 2, Jamaica 0. A feel good win to conclude a competitive camp. Feilhaber scores, and the US snag one from a forward as Jamaica presses late.
Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter @TYAC_Jon and @nwblackmon.