Neil W. Blackmon
The US began final Copa America Centenario preparations in earnest Wednesday night with a 1-0 win over CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying leader Ecuador in Frisco, Texas. High ticket prices and a midweek game with a relatively early start time resulted in a paltry crowd at Toyota Stadium, and for the first half, the American fans who did come watched the US play on its heels, surrendering acres of space and defending deep. The Americans generated a paucity of chances in the first half, only to turn the game around mightily with substitutions and positional redeployments in the game’s second act.
Three final thoughts on the American win, which should build confidence.
First, John Brooks showed why he was such a valuable player for Hertha Berlin this season. That’s the level Jurgen Klinsmann and the United States need from him consistently.
In our match preview, we made John Brooks the player to watch because after a monstrous season for his club, this summer presented an immense opportunity for Brooks to show consistency for country. Despite the heroics against Ghana in the Natal rain, Brooks has struggled for the Yanks, making positional and passing errors too frequently. In Geoff Cameron, the US have a high-level international CB. Finding him a long-term partner for both the Copa America and the remainder of the World Cup cycle continues to be a priority for Klinsmann and his staff. It is no secret Jurgen Klinsmann wants that player to be John Brooks. Indeed, the manager said as much when interviewed earlier this week by ESPN’s Taylor Twellman. Yet Brooks hasn’t won the job yet, struggling to take it from incumbent Cameron partner Matt Besler, who isn’t physically or technically as gifted as Brooks but is responsible on the ball and in the air and positionally stellar. Whether Klinsmann could find a starter to pair with Cameron remains a lingering question.
Immediately given an opportunity to distinguish himself, Brooks struggled Sunday against Puerto Rico, committing a handful of distributional errors that helped Puerto Rico generate chances. Nonetheless, Klinsmann called on the young Berliner again Wednesday night against Ecuador, a side with quality attacking talent, giving Brooks 78 minutes before bringing on Besler to close proceedings out.
For the first few minutes, it appeared Brooks would give the US more of the same. He struggled with his spacing next to new partner Steve Birnbaum, and an early passing error nearly led to an Ecuador goal in the game’s first minute. And then perhaps the evening’s most promising thing happened. Brooks steadied himself, making several brilliant recovery tackles, dominating the air on Ecuadorian corner kicks and flashing his wares in helping the US build possession from the back through a deeper-lying Michael Bradley in the second half. It was the type of performance Hertha Berlin became accustomed to from Brooks as they competed for a spot in Europe, and the kind of performance that if replicated could give the US a formidable CB pair for the remainder of this World Cup cycle.
Second, Gyasi Zardes struggled on the wing and Clint Dempsey wasn’t effective as the tip of the spear. Both these problems are correctable, if Jurgen Klinsmann plays folks in position.
Gyasi Zardes isn’t a winger. He’s a center forward. Not only that, he’s a CF in splendid form. Further, with the out of position Michael Bradley high and Dempsey at the tip of the spear, the US front wall of three were detached from the midfield and each other. When they did manage to get the ball to Dempsey at the top, he was usually isolated against two or three Ecuador defenders. Making matters worse, when the US did manage to get the ball to Zardes in threatening positions, Zardes’s first touch let him down.
Gyasi Zardes is on this team because he’s improved tremendously in the past eighteen months and he’s logged enough minutes to earn Klinsmann’s trust. Yes, his first touches are clumsy, but he’s fast and physical, fairly good in the air and has shown in the past few months in particular that he can be serviceable holding the ball up. And Jozy Altidore isn’t here. Those are great things for a CF to do.
So why start him on a wing? Especially when the US have, in Fabian Johnson, a Bundesliga best 11 winger at their disposal? The error is even more astonishing when you look at in the context of form: Zardes has been on fire for LA (2 goals, 4 assists) of late since being moved to CF.
If you want to start Dempsey at this stage of his career and want him to actually play, you have to play a 442. You have no other options.
— Will Parchman (@WillParchman) May 26, 2016
As for Clint Dempsey, the Sounders man has scored nine of the last seventeen goals for the US in international tournament play. He has a role to play on this team, and not just in the locker room. But if the US are going to play a 4-3-3, Dempsey can’t be the tip of the spear. And he isn’t a false nine, because his work rate has slowed and he won’t consistently drop deep enough to suck the centerback out and create more space for rushing attackers to occupy. And even if that were a conceptually sound notion, Klinsmann doing that without a globally elite winger to fill the space makes little to no sense. The US could slip Dempsey behind Bobby Wood, and play a modified 4-4-2, and that could keep the Sounders man involved. Otherwise, he doesn’t help the team enough to warrant a starting spot.
Finally, Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to drop Michael Bradley deep and move Darlington Nagbe high in the midfield, along with the addition of Bobby Wood, changed the game and helped the US earn a quality win.
Consistently asked if Michael Bradley is elite, I tend to defer to Jorge Luis Pinto’s remarks to TYAC last cycle after the Ticos defeated a Bradley-less USMNT that “deployed properly, MB 90 is an incredibly intelligent, effective leader who has a great influence on games.”
The proper deployment, of course, has always been the rub under Jurgen Klinsmann. Too often forced to play as a number ten at the tip of a diamond, or an odd trequartista, Bradley is summarily removed from where he operates best, as a regista lying deep in the scrum, waiting to find the errant ball and convert pressure to attack. It is the role he’s played brilliantly for Toronto this season- his best since returning to MLS- and it is one that still allows him to pick his spots moving forward, and do special things like this:
The problem for Klinsmann, of course, has been who would be the engine of his attack if Bradley was utlized as the deep midfielder. Enter Darlington Nagbe. Nagbe, whose move to the center of the midfield keyed the Timbers run to the MLS Cup last year, is a player Klinsmann notes “truly understands and sees the game.” Nagbe’s vision and ability to control the ball in limited space is a trait Klinsmann had previously relied largely on Bradley for– but Nagbe’s ability to do that with tempo gives the US a chance to develop a combination between the deep-lying mid and high mid in the center that has been lacking for Klinsmann for some time.
Nagbe’s entry into the match Wednesday evening changed the game, his ability to find space to receive the ball and quickly shuttle the ball with accuracy to teammates helped the US establish a tempo and develop a rhythm that changed the game. Ecuador began rushing clearances rather than trying to initiate transition counterattacks, and the US began to create chances.
With Bradley deep and Nagbe high, US dictating tempo and have rhythm. Players playing in position think less, play better.
— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) May 26, 2016
How good was Nagbe, before scoring the game-winning goal? How about this good?
— Ben Jata (@Ben_Jata) May 26, 2016
It wasn’t all Nagbe, though the fact he scored the game’s winning goal was marvelous justice. Bobby Wood’s entry into the game also proved pivotal. The US found hold up play it could not get from errant Zardes touches and a disjointed and all too isolated Clint Dempsey. In one early sequence after coming on, Wood simply beat two Ecuadorian defenders to the ball, held it and eventually cycled the ball back to Zusi, helping the US retain possession. Moments later the Americans won a free kick. That nothing came of the set piece misses the point– the US couldn’t keep the ball with any success in the first half. In the second half, Wood helped the Americans control possession against a good side for the first time in a long while. And it was Wood’s effort and ability to win a physical aerial that resulted in the chance for the Americans on goal late, which Nagbe buried.
Jurgen Klinsmann can be stubborn, and perhaps more than the previous two American managers, he sometimes needs to be overwhelmed with evidence that change is necessary. The second half against an Ecuador side leading CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, which featured a dangerous Darlington Nagbe, a quality target forward in young Bobby Wood, and an in-position and still in his prime Michael Bradley, ought to be that type of evidence, friendly or no.
Comments are yours, and yes, Pulisic is special. I saw that too.
Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.