By Jon Levy
Coming off a mixed performance but quality result on Saturday night against Argentina, the Yanks will look to put it all together Tuesday night in Nashville against another good South American team. Paraguay just put in an uncharacteristically defensively deficient performance against Mexico, so they’ll also look to get back on the right track. How’s it going to go? Let’s get into it.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
The team showed great grit and determination in rebounding from an abysmal first half on Saturday night, but that first half still happened, and you can bet your ass Coach Bradley’s still pissed off about the opening 45. The same goes for the guys who have been on the team long enough to take ownership of the crest. That kind of inability to recover the ball sticks with you. The ensuing and immediate turnover once you’ve actually managed to complete the Herculean task of getting the rock back doesn’t help matters either. It sounds simplistic, but I expect Bobbo’s boys to focus on maintaining ball possession with smart, short, safe passes in an effort to put the beginning of last Saturday night further in the rear view. The question then becomes what formation will they use to recover ball possession and pride. The answer is up in the air, particularly with the continued emergence of Juan Agudelo as a fast and savvy finisher who can play with the big boys.
Jermaine Jones, MB90, and Mo Edu still haven’t gelled as a three man central midfield. And that’s an understatement. Not only did none of them look like they knew where to go with the ball upon receiving it in the first half against Argentina, but none of them were pressuring the ball on defense, something that’s supposed to be a strength for all three guys! I’m not sure how much of this came from stay-behind-the-ball coaching, and how much came from the midfielders giving each Argentine attacker too much space and respect, but no matter the source, it looked fearful and helped generate a flaccid performance.
Combine the lackluster midfield showing with Agudelo’s fine display (not just the goal—the vision, the work rate and the ability to create himself space), and the Yanks still have more questions about a new formation than answers, albeit with more valid striker options. Will Bobbo embrace the familiar, settle for the simplistic, and revert to his flag drill 4-4-2? Or will he start again in a 4-2-3-1 and hope that it actually plays like it’s supposed to? I think you’ll see him opt for his old 4-4-2 which looked better than the alternative in the second half over the weekend. And while I’m nowhere near confident in that guess, I can tell you that we’re going to see a good amount of different faces start this match in red and blue (I actually really liked the red jerseys with the navy sash and shorts by the way, good job Nike). The Argentina match was for holding the first team to the fire; this match will be used to mix new national teamers and old ones that have come back into the fold with some of the guys whose jerseys you already own.
Note: Tim Howard may not start this match. Do not be alarmed. It’s okay. It’s just a friendly.
And what will we see out of Paraguay?
Paraguay is the Stoke City of international football. They’re the South American soccer version of the Wisconsin Badgers basketball team. They’re 12 rounds of Klitschko brothers heavyweight boxing, and they’re unbearable to watch. That’s when they’re playing well anyway; I’m sure Mexican fans enjoyed watching El Tri put a dominating 3-1 victory on them this weekend. Paraguay will try to bounce back and play their game against the Yanks. In case any or all of the above sports metaphors were lost on you, this means they’re going to play as slow, defensive, and deliberate game as you’ll see in South America (or anywhere really). They’re content to settle for nil-nil draws, always. The Paraguay/Japan match was by far the worst looking knockout-round contest of last summer’s World Cup, but the South American’s seemed just as cool as your favorite cerveza the whole time. Win on penalties when it’s easier to score, right?
Don’t let the fact that they play a negative style fool you though. Didn’t the United States just find a way to draw a fantastically skilled and stylistic team who kept the ball for 90 percent of the match? Didn’t they use strength and body positioning on a set piece to get their chance before claiming the goal in the ensuing chaos? Paraguay’s familiar with getting results this way. It’s what they do, and they generally do it well.
Note: Bobbo and the US Soccer crew do a great job in scheduling these friendlies. We saw them schedule the Send-Off Series matches against teams who played like some of our World Cup opponents, and they’ve done the same for the Gold Cup in these two matches. Argentina plays like Mexico wants to play every match, and Paraguay’s defensive game is similar (but better) to what the Yanks see when they face Honduras or El Salvador (all too often in both cases). And of course when we play Spain right before the tournament, we’ll really just be preparing to face Canada, the greatest soccer team of all time.
Paraguay Player to Watch: Lucas Barrios
Barrios has hit his peak in form over the past couple years, just a bit late for a striker since he’s 27. But since joining Borussia Dortmund in 2009, Barrios has scored 30 goals in 56 appearances, most of them coming against Bundesliga opposition. That’s a damn impressive haul, but there’s no way he maintains anything close to that ratio if handed 56 caps for the national side. Given the particularly unsightly brand of anti-football that Paraguay brings to the table, our boy Barrios will be charged with holding the ball up, and on many occasions will have to go all Kobe and create his own shot. Oh, and homeboy is actually Argentine by birth, so he might actually be able to do it. Watch for this, because if we give one away in the run of play, even if it’s a spectacular effort, there may be no bouncing back against the staunch team D and set piece dangers that Paraguay presents. As such, this is another nice test for the Americans, who have a well-documented problem of conceding early in matches.
US Player to Watch: Juan Agudelo
When you write enough match previews, you’re bound to get some things wrong. I’ve never apologized for an erroneous prediction on score or anything else, but Bobbo got me last time out, and I’ll give him his due. Bradley Sr.’s almost religious dedication to Jonathan Bornstein, along with the speed of Argentina’s offensive players led me to the conclusion that North America’s most controversial left back selection would once again be selected. And let’s be honest, he’s always a player to watch when he’s out there. Sometimes for the right reasons; sometimes not.
So this match I’m going a bit obvious, partially in an effort to not be clowned by Bob Bradley again, but mostly because 18 year old Agudelo is a man! A man to watch! Didn’t come out right.
The New York Red Bulls’ striker added life to the American attack on Saturday, just as he’s done in each of his appearances with the national team thus far. He played fast, smart, and physical. And he scored a goal too, always nice for a forward and a novel idea for the USMNT since the departure of Sir Brian McBride! The kid is gifted. We know he can work with a partner in attack, and it remains to be seen if he can play as a wing forward in a 4-3-3 or whether he can occupy the lone striker spot in a 4-2-3-1. This might be the game to try him out.
I’m also looking for 90 minutes of Tim Ream in defense, a half or so of Mixx Diskerud at AMF, and an opportunity for Sacha Kljestan and/or Benny Feilhaber to reassert their relevance to this team. Sadly, I know the Jon Spector USMNT midfield debut is too much to ask for. Bob will probably put them all on planes prior to kickoff just to spite me anyway.
Prediction: USA 2 – 1 Paraguay
The US team will look better than it did in New Jersey, and at the end of the match I think the scoreline will do them some justice. I almost predicted a clean sheet for the defense, but I have a feeling they’ll find a way to give one up on a set piece, perhaps when it seems they’ve got the match well in hand. That’s how Paraguay got their goal against Mexico, and it’s also indicative of a “switch-off goal” that the Yanks are still prone to until they prove otherwise.
Next-Level US Soccer Maneuver
As you probably know, the USA/Paraguay match is on Fox Soccer Channel at 8 p.m. EST on Tuesday night (7 p.m. Nashville time). But what you may not know is that Thomas Rongen’s exciting USA U-20 squad is playing at the exact same time on ESPN 3 (fancy four letter network branding for “stream it online”). The U-20’s are starting their CONCACAF Championship campaign against Suriname down in Guatemala. The team features Zac MacMath, Sebastien Lletget, Amobi Okugo, Omar Salgado, Conor Doyle, and a bunch of other quality young talents who just barely missed out on being mentioned in this post. If you’re up for multitasking, bust out the laptop and stream the U-20 match while the senior team is beating Paraguay two to one!
Enjoy the match(es), and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can, and should, follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon. He’s also extremely thrilled that Roy Williams and North Carolina were knocked out of the NCAA Tournament by a Kentucky team suddenly led by…upperclassmen.