Neil W. Blackmon
The United States Men’s National Team opened the “Send-Off Series” for the 2014 World Cup with a 2-0 victory over Azerbaijan Tuesday night in San Francisco. In scoring twice, the Americans did what only fellow “Group of Death” side Portugal managed to do in the last two years: score twice against Berti Vogts’ men from the “Land of Fire.” More important than the scoreline, however, was the play of several individuals, both good and bad, and the insight the match provided into some of the Yanks’ World Cup camp key position battles. We’ll evaluate both the overall result- and its rather frosty reception among many in both the media and fanbase– and dive into a few of those position battles in the paragraphs to follow.
First, the result. Don’t Panic. That’s the critical thing on that front. And try to remember 2-0 against Azerbaijan is comparatively a decent result.
Luke James at Soccerly was correct to make “Don’t Panic!” the headline of his fine recap and also correct to point out that despite the ranking, Azerbaijan are hardly “minnows” in the classic sense. Now let’s be fair: 1) No, Azerbaijan aren’t World beaters or remotely of the quality of anyone in Group G or for that matter, most anyone in the World Cup field next month; but 2) Only Portugal, and now, the United States, have scored twice against them in two years and like most Eastern European sides of the former Soviet bloc, Berti Vogts’ team make up for a lack of technical skill with an incredible work rate, compact and organized defense, and high quality emergency defending. The almost always spot-on Taylor Twellman missed the mark terribly last night at the outset of his telecast when he labeled Azerbaijan “suspect defensively.” There’s just not a shred of data from the UEFA qualifying campaign to support that claim and did the US a bit of a disservice from the outset to have viewers at home– who swallowed up the paltry 24,000 on hand in San Francisco– believing otherwise.
A more balanced view would be to suggest, as Grant Wahl at SI did immediately after the match, that the US were sluggish out of the gate and, after losing their most creative attacking player before the kickoff to a sore groin, found the going difficult (like most everyone in the world does) against an Azerbaijan side perfectly content to, for the most part, place ten men behind the ball and collapse into a shell, particularly in advanced attacking areas (Zone 14 especially). And yes, my colleague Jon Levy is correct to tweet:
@nwb_USMNT lack of ideas in run-of-play in final third bad sign though. Possessed the ball in final third so often, hardly breached the box
— Jon Levy (@TYAC_Jon) May 28, 2014
It was discouraging that the Americans and the “diamond” midfield fans became so enamored with struggled to break Azerbaijan down and ultimately produced zero goals from the run of play. But it’s hard to take much from that other than possibly believing the US will be in trouble if they are chasing goals and teams bunker (even this is a stretch, both tactically and historically given how good the US has been in the second half of matches this cycle). because no one in the US group will play with ten men behind the ball and even Ghana, who will sit a bit deeper and wait for opportunities to present themselves in transition, will have the talent up front to press the Yanks centerbacks and get forward.
That’s a long way of saying Azerbaijan aren’t a “comp” for any team in this group and if there’s a reason they were scheduled, it’s because they are managed by Berti Vogts, who Klinsmann has tabbed to be a technical consultant for the US in Martin Vasquez’s “reassigned stead” this June. Vogts now gets to watch film and say: “Here’s how we defended your diamond, Jurgen. And now you have more of an idea what work must be done and how to tweak it.”
Two, speaking of “the diamond”, it’s worth remembering this:
Two things bear repeating: 1) Mexico played 3-5-2. Those expecting to see diamond work as such need to remember that. And…
— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) May 28, 2014
And that first half worked with Clint Dempsey in the match and the US legs not subjected to a bruising pre-World Cup fitness test camp in the run-up. But probably the most important distinction, which I wrote about here, is that this was the first experiment with the formation against a back four, not a back three. To be succinct: it is fair to say work needs to be done.
The US lacked cohesion in the midfield and no one seemed to know exactly where they should be running at to find space. The general idea was clear: get the ball to the underrated Graham Zusi and let him serve as a creative conduit– and Zusi seemed up to the task for most of his portion of the evening, delivering fine set pieces and crosses– but there was clearly a lack of cohesion. Some of that probably had to do with Wondolowski’s late inclusion, which isn’t necessarily to say Wondo had a poor night– he was very unlucky not to score on one of his two headers right on frame, and a decent save prevented a goal on the second header– so much as it is to suggest Clint Dempsey or even Aron Johannsson sweeping wide from the channels and moving actively outside the “hashmarks” off the ball is a better pairing for Jozy Altidore in that formation. Altidore, to his credit, switched with Wondo when he could early on and toiled harder than we’ve seen him in a while with his hold-up play, delivering a fair account of himself, but he needs a partner who can generate space for him to make himself available by getting wide at times- and Wondolowski isn’t really that player.
The best evidence of the above from a “film perspective” on my second viewing was that the US were playing slow and waiting for the guys up top to move a lot– or trying chip passes just to generate tempo. This isn’t going to work and to some extent defeats the purpose of the diamond, where you play the ball on the floor with pace, especially when you recover the ball in the midfield zones and look to break. The US settled for “route one” stuff too often in a formation that is well-suited to avoid “route one” football.
Beyond this, the diamond also seemed to have defensive issues (with one promising caveat, coming soon) in that there was simply too much space between Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones at times. That space has to be closed down in transition and both parties weren’t quick enough to do so, which actually allowed Azerbaijan to catch the US out a time or two in the first forty-five minutes. Michael Bradley had a subpar night, by his standards and by US midfielder in general standards, and whether that was fatigue from camp or unfamiliarity with his new spot at the top of the diamond, the US will want to sort that out quickly.
Here’s the “diamond caveat”– Jermaine Jones did well behind Bradley, with the exception of closing the spaces in transition– and that’s impressive given the way Azerbaijan were sitting back.
I still would prefer Kyle Beckerman to Jones if the US are going to play the diamond, but if yesterday were an “audition” of sorts for the German-American then he probably did well enough to earn a B+. The reputation/concern for Jones sitting behind MB 90 is well-earned: he tends to go walkabout for the US, which exposes the US to risk on the break, and inhibits MB 90’s effectiveness getting forward. Last night, against a team sitting extraordinarily deep- where it would be very tempting to get forward– Jones stayed put. Yes, he looked miserable being tethered at times– even yelling “sweet nothings” at MB 90 during one exchange ESPN cameras caught– but stay put he did. He made a crunching, chance saving tackle after a Yedlin error in the second half, and was safe and accurate in his distributions. He also didn’t earn a yellow card–something I’ve heard he does from time to time, despite very little statistical evidence suggesting that is the case– against a notoriously trigger-happy referee. All in all, a good start for Jones.
Alejandro Bedoya played his finest game for the United States since the Honduras match in the Gold Cup, and he wasn’t even the best US winger on the pitch!!
Other, smarter writers actually thought Bedoya played his best game for the US last night:
Switching with Zusi, Bedoya gives the US a guy who tracks back and defends with vigor, can stay wide and shuttle at a fullback or can collapse in the midfield to relieve pressure on Bradley or Jones/Beckerman. His versatility and his defense got him to this point, but it was nice to see him respond to the rather heady occasion of being a starter in the “Send Off Series” with a fine performance. Yes, he was better (aided by one Landon Donovan) in the Gold Cup against Honduras, where his beautiful run and soft dish to Donovan sealed the result after Nery Medina had given Honduras hope-– but the tell of a World Cup starter quality player is multiple, consistent performances, and Bedoya’s building a fine resume.
Zusi was discussed above, but certainly is starter worthy and reliable.
Brad Davis, the man who seems to have born the brunt of the “Landon Donovan should be here instead” criticisms- right or wrong- did everything he could do win the hearts and minds campaign last night. His service directly led to two American goals. Oddly, I heard a podcast (I’ve spared names because they are usually quite good) suggest that despite Davis’ service leading to US goals- that didn’t justify his inclusion on the team– after all, the US have “plenty of guys who can deliver good set piece service.” First, no. Second, who? Third, not Davis’ fault. Fourth, if so, how come only Zusi, Bradley (whose attempt was miserable and way off frame) and Davis took any of them last evening?
Davis is probably not a starter for the USMNT but if what we saw last night was, as Jurgen Klinsmann put it, “as close to the Ghana lineup as we can for now”, then what we may have seen is part of Klinsmann’s plan for Davis, and it was a promising return. It was also nice to see Davis charging back to help Timothy Chandler defend on at least two occasions, when Chandler had either overrun a play or dribbled himself into trouble. Davis is a professional, more than anything else, and last night, he looked excited, and poised, for his moment.
Finally, the US have been a bad set piece team this cycle so it was nice to see the set piece goals.
I don’t necessarily disagree with Alexi Lalas that the US can’t simply rely on set piece goals at the World Cup (LINKED AUDIO). But I do think it is worth mentioning that the US, despite the difficulty of the draw, are in a group where their opponents aren’t compelling set piece defenders.
Set piece "D" ranks of teams in #USMNT Group: Ghana (24/32, Portugal 30/32, GER 31/32.) So, so important. (US 20/32 by the way)
— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) May 28, 2014
The US have been fairly miserable on set pieces defensively and below-average on set pieces in attack, so if the “Send-Off Series” functions to some extent as “confidence building exercise”, then the two set piece goals are a good beginning in a group where for whatever reason, the US have opponents who concede from these types of positions.
Against Turkey, I imagine we’ll see if the US have improved at defending set pieces any since the Mexico match.
The comments, as always, are yours.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.