Scotland – USA International Friendly: Your TYAC Preview
Jurgen Klinsmann called up a group for the November friendlies full of World Cup locks and “fringe finalists”, and Garrett McInnis was correct to write on this website earlier in the week that “not a single one of these players is incapable of making it onto the plane next summer.” What this means, of course, is that Klinsmann is taking the November friendlies seriously, treating them like World Cup tuneups. And that is what he should be doing, considering we are three weeks from the draw, six months from Klinsmann’s roster release and less than eight months from the opening ceremonies in Rio.
What’s more- Doug McIntyre confirmed this week what we already suspected but couldn’t prove: there is a US depth chart, and Klinsmann is constantly shifting it via scouting, national team performance, club form, health and team necessity. That suggests that if a player is in Glasgow, he’s situated somewhere on that depth chart that makes his inclusion in the final 23 man team for Brazil distinctly possible. That means the November friendlies are the beginning of the end, a final proving ground for the chosen few with a chance to represent the Stars and Stripes in Brazil next summer.
The Americans begin the final proving ground Friday night (2:30 EDT, ESPN) in Glasgow, where they’ll face what is essentially a full-strength Scotland side playing with great confidence after defeating Croatia 2-0 in October to close World Cup qualifying under manager Gordon Strachan. The defeat was so decisive that Croatian manager Igor Stimac resigned in the aftermath. Niko Kovac has taken his place for the Croatian playoff fixtures against Iceland, but the fact that Scotland played well enough to force a manager whose team reached the UEFA Qualifying playoffs (as a seed, no less) is telling. It should be noted that Scotland also defeated Croatia in the away qualifying leg.The Tartan Terriers are playing their finest soccer in a long time, and at home, they’ll be a very good “group stage b/c team” type test for the Yanks.
With all that in mind, let’s kick the ballistics.
Series: Eighth Meeting. Scotland lead, 3-2-2. Obviously, the Americans put on a show in front of 50,000 in Jacksonville a year and a half ago, winning 5-1 behind a pre-sabbatical-with-Cambodian-monks Landon Donovan hat trick. This is only the third meeting in Scotland, with the Tartan Terriers holding a 1-0-1 edge, though the win came in 1952 and the draw came fifty-three years later in 2005.
Weather: THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO GET A FABIAN JOHNSON MISERY INDEX, THEN… OH WELL. Upper forties, probably going to rain. Gray. Cold. Windy. In other words, Scotland in November.
What will we see out of Scotland?
We’ll see a much better performance than we did in Jacksonville back in May of 2012. This is not some experimental side being fielded by a nation still feeling sorry for itself because they didn’t qualify for the summer’s big tournament. This is a valid and strong incarnation of the Scottish national team, ready to play for pride at storied Hampden Park. Furthermore, this team is starting to get a leg up on even the respectable Scotland sides of the past fifteen years.
The young and experimental Scotland that Landon Donovan destroyed 5-1 back in May of 2012 was in no way representative of what this national team used to regularly bring to the table. Rather, in the decade prior to that anomaly of a friendly, Scotland was a painstakingly organized defense-first outfit, full of dudes that loved a tackle more than a strike on goal. But since the decision was made to find a bit more attacking impetus, the team seems to have retained its gritty core and added a couple offensive options that we won’t go so far as to describe as “flare players.” Still, that’s probably what this team needed, and Scottish fans should be excited about the future, and about facing a very good group of Yanks.
Scotland possess a World Cup group stage grade midfield, which is just what it sounds like- a group of above-average capable players who play together, defend well and can break you down on the counter if you aren’t on-the-shoulder defending. Barry Bannan, their skipper, has called the Jacksonville debacle “a freak night” in the run-up this week and has promised that the Scots will make a better acquittal of themselves after finishing qualifying with victories in three of their final five matches. The Crystal Palace man is joined by Charlie Adam in the midfield and gives the Tartan Terriers two players who can deliver a ball with a defender on the shoulder, which is similar to what the US will face in a B/C World Cup group stage fixture.
Joining Adam and Bannan are Craig Conway and Gary Mackay-Steven, who have come into camp late for the injured James Morrison and James Forrest; mainstay Scott Brown, and a pair of Barclay’s Premier League names you’ll be very familiar with, Norwich City bulldozer Robert Snodgrass and Wigan distributor James McArthur. Watford’s Ikechi Anya went from uncapped to starter down the stretch in World Cup qualifying, and he’ll likely join Bannan, Brown and Snodgrass as a starter in the midfield, especially now that Matt Phillips, the pacy winger we had originally tabbed as the Scottish “Player to Watch”, has withdrawn from the side. and Celtic winger James Forrest has been tabbed “doubtful” by at least Neil Lennon, his club manager.
Scotland won’t do anything particularly sexy in attack. They play through Bannan and Adam and look to move quickly on the counter from positions of width where they can utilize their height in the area. In longer build-ups, it is even more direct, though Strachan has emphasized playing quicker in an attempt to suck central defenders out into more uncomfortable positions and draw more fouls– a formula that worked in the final five matches of qualifying where Scotland earned nearly 2x more fouls per match than the previous five. Set pieces, an American weakness, are a Scottish strength and it’s there that Scotland will hope to earn their living Friday night.
The Scots also have capable and strong forward play in the form of Jozy Altidore’s Sunderland teammate Steven Fletcher and Everton’s Steven Naismath, who is a more pacy player than Fletcher and offers more on the ball. Naismath is also versatile- he can play as a target man, from width or tucked behind a target forward, and Roberto Martinez has afforded him opportunities to do each this year with mixed results. Naismath found the net against Fulham and Chelsea, but has otherwise not shown the promise he displayed in the preseason, leaving many to wonder how long Martinez will continue to afford the Scotsman opportunities. That’s an Everton question that shouldn’t concern the Yanks, however. Naismath, along with Charlie Adam, are the only players the Tartan Terriers have who can diversify the Scottish attack in a way that stretches the Americans out. He’s a guy to keep an eye on.
In defense, as noted, the Scottish are hard-tacklers who make up with smarts what they lack in skill. The gritty back line was exceptional down the stretch in qualifying, led by Aston Villa mainstay Alan Hutton, Norwich City’s Steven Whittaker and the most promising young talent of the group, Blackburn Rovers youngster and centerback Grant Hanley. Celtic’s Charlie Mulgrew was the preferred other center half for Strachan down the stretch in qualifying, and we’d expect him to play Friday night.
Goalkeeper is one area where Scotland are missing a typically key piece– Hull City’s Allan McGregor has a leg injury that has forced him out until around Christmas. It’s a shame, as the longtime Scottish number one has had a great year in the Barclay’s Premier League, but it will be provide an opportunity to Cardiff City’s David Marshall or Blackpool stopper Matt Gilks, and both featured regularly on the team sheet for the Tartan Terriers in qualifying.
All in all, given the opponent, the weather, and the venue- Scotland should pose a much larger threat to the US than they did in Jacksonville, and the Americans will need to maintain their composure and their shape to secure full spoils on the road.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
Players. Players. Players. But not MLS Playoff players- meaning no Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando or Brad Davis.
Couple these absences with Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Fabian Johnson, and the US have a winger dilemma if, as expected, they stick to Klinsmann’s preferred formation. Someone will play out of position, leaving an “Eleven at Kick” that looks a bit like this:
BEASLEY- GONZALEZ-CAMERON-LICHAJ or EVANS
Alternatively, Beasley could bump up to the midfield opening the door for Lichaj and Evans to start, and preventing either Eddie Johnson or Mix Diskerud from an uncomfortable deployment on the left wing. It’s tough to see that happening (though it wouldn’t be shocking), given that Beasley would lose a LB run out against a quality MF this close to a World Cup, and while the next opponent, Austria, has talented defenders, its midfield isn’t up to the Tartan Terriers’ quality.
The US will reintroduce the country’s best midfielder back into the midfield, and there will be much rejoicing. How important is Michael Bradley to this team? He almost singlehandedly makes up for the absences of team’s two starting wingers, its captain, and its best player of the past decade, Landon Donovan. Almost.
But aside from the obviously rapturous experience of watching MB90 run the American midfield, you should be watching for particularly strong or weak individual performances within the USMNT while you play the home version of US Soccer Manager. Move someone into the starting roster if they perform particularly well, or book them a seat on the plane to Brazil if they weren’t assured of one already. See a bad performance? Doom a player to a summer on the bench, or the couch if he’s not a useful sub. Why watch for this more than in any other friendly match? You’ve just gotta read Jurgen’s tea leaves to see it.
Klinsmann omitted the guys that are still alive in the MLS Playoffs from this squad, and he left injured players at home too; all that’s pretty much par for the course. But the really telling non-move came right after Clint Dempsey and Fabian Johnson were sent back to their clubs with minor injury concerns. Who did Herr Manager bring in to replace his starting attacking midfielder and left winger? Nobody. A clear signal’s been sent: the time for meat in the room is over. Only guys that actually have a shot at making the World Cup squad need apply for these matches. And that’s exactly what makes the selection of Eric Lichaj (fresh off a long trip to Narnia) so intriguing.
US Player to Watch: Eric Lichaj
This pick should be no surprise to anyone that follows US Soccer closely, but we’re an inclusive blog (and it’s not acceptable to write just one sentence in this section), so a little bit of background on this wing-back is in order. Eric Lichaj (pronounced LEE-high) was once one of the Yanks’ most promising defenders, but that was before he apparently did something to make manager Jurgen Klinsmann hate his guts. There’s just no other explanation for Lichaj’s seemingly arbitrary national team exile. I mean, we know what Jurgen hates at this point, right? Guys that don’t play regularly for their club teams. National team veterans that he perceives as past their prime. Dudes that can’t stay healthy. Sing it with me—These are a few of Klinzy’s least favorite things.
Now let’s briefly examine the case of Eric Lichaj. After the 2010 World Cup he was tipped as the heir apparent to Stevie Cherundolo at right back. But going into the 2011 Gold Cup the USMNT was faced with that all too familiar dilemma: Cherundolo still solid at right back, and absolutely no good option at left back. Bob Bradley figured right back Eric Lichaj couldn’t be any worse than his tried and far-from-true left back options, and a star was born. Lichaj was one of the players of the 2011 Gold Cup tournament, defending well on the defensive flank, and burning dangerously down that left side in every match. That was the narrative until Cherundolo got hurt in the tournament final against Mexico anyway.
Cherundolo’s injury set into motion a chain of events that caused Lichaj to flip to right back, Jon Bornstein to be subbed in at left back, Jon Bornstein to be completely overwhelmed, Lichaj to fall victim to a highlight reel Gio Dos Santos precision chip-shot, and Bob Bradley to be dismissed from his post as USMNT manager.
Now no one that knows anything about soccer ever blamed Lichaj for that loss, and the reason for his exclusion from Jurgen Klinsmann’s version of the national team to this point has been a complete mystery. And, to his credit, Lichaj himself towed the company line and didn’t really address it this week in a US Soccer Interview. Klinsmann covets speed on the wings, along with the ability to move with the ball, deliver a cross, and play in rhythm with the front six. When it comes to his fullbacks the manager is perfectly willing to trade close marking for makeup speed on the defensive end. It’s for all these reasons that DaMarcus Beasley has cemented himself as this team’s starting left back. It’s for these reasons that midfielder Brad Evans is still viewed as the best option at right back. And it’s for these reasons that US Soccer fans have thrown their hands in the air with exasperation every time a slightly experimental American roster is released that doesn’t include 24 year old English League Championship and Premier League veteran Eric Lichaj. The right back job is there to be won, but it remains to be seen whether it’s just too late in the process for Eric to be given a real shot.
Scotland Player to Watch: Ikechi Anya
We’ll be frank: this was choice three. Matt Phillips and James Forrest were “A” and “B” here because, as noted, Scotland offer very little in terms of width, both on video (no one uses film anymore) and on paper. Typically, the Scots have West Brom’s James Morrison and Celtic’s talented youngster James Forrest who’ve both got pace, but Phillips was our first choice because he always seems most aware that speed is his greatest asset. He’s direct, and will identify any crack in the defense by going right at it and seeing if it breaks. That attitude is common on the Scottish national team, but the execution is generally far different.
Scotland has guys like Robert Snodgrass and Scott Brown in the midfield, and Fletcher and Naismith among their forwards. These are gritty players that will run at you whether you’re in possession or they’ve got the ball, confident that they’ll be the ones still standing after a collision of some sort. Yes, these guys have bags of skill as well, and while we’re on skill, Charlie Adam can’t be overlooked; but Matt Phillips, with his straight-line speed, can be a game-breaker for Scotland. The former England youth player has the potential to balance out the Tartan Terriers for years to come, and create room for the bulldogs in the midfield and strike-force to, well, bulldog their way in on goal.
Without him, the onus is on Anya, a curious player who is a bit like Eddie Johnson- rescued from the trash heap after failed club ventures by a father-figure type that cared about him as a person and helped him discover how to play to his strengths rather than focus on his disadvantages.
For Eddie Johnson, that figure was Sigi Schmid. In Anya’s case, it was Glenn Hoddle who rescued him from his failures at Wycombe and put him in an academy where he could train, begin to work on his fitness, and most importantly, develop his mental acumen for the game. (MAYBE FREDDY ADU CAN WORK WITH GLENN HODDLE. HE’S BASICALLY TRIED EVERYONE ELSE..)
Anya has strengths– he’s fast, he’s above-grade on the ball, and he’s a plus crosser. The questions had always been about confidence and about fitness– and Hoddle helped him develop it in spades. Now starring at Watford, he is a force on the wing for the Championship side, and his form has paid dividends for country, as he scored the winner against Macedonia and made a clever, incutting run to earn a penalty that resulted in the winner against Croatia last month. He’ll be a great test for Brad Evans or whomever starts for the Yanks on the right, for two reasons: 1) he can cut in on his opposite foot but has the pace to blow by you on his strong foot; b) he’s given freedom to roam centrally which is a strong test for the American right back in terms of positioning and communication.
If Anya has a strong day, the Tartan Terriers become far more dangerous.
Prediction: Scotland 1 – 2 USA
Jozy starts. Jozy scores. Chalk another one up for the good guys in a hard fought match.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.