By Jon Levy
Flashback to this time last week. Where were you? What were you doing? What were you wearing? No seriously what were you wearing? Nevermind. Before you miss the point completely, let me attempt to make one. A week ago today the state of the US Men’s National Team looked quite a bit different than it does today. Coach Bob Bradley had just named his real first choice squad for the first time since the 2010 World Cup, and the Yanks were primed to try out their new formation, seemingly with all the right players in their proper positions, against some of the best competition South America has to offer. Would have been a good time for a quiet weekend of “no American headlines” club ball.
As you may have heard, that quiet weekend wasn’t quite in the cards. The USMNT lost three players to injury. Two of them, prospective debutant Zak Whitbread and the team’s best fullback Steven Cherundolo, are nursing nagging injuries that’s shouldn’t be an issue beyond this international break. The third, America’s latest star midfield Stuart Holden, suffered yet another devastating leg injury, this time to his knee, and will miss the next six months. Those six month of course include this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, the biggest international competition the team will take part in for the next two years, and one that Holden starred in two years ago.
But don’t go hanging your heads about it Yanks fans: a fair measure of gleaming glorious good came out of the weekend as well. Clint Dempsey became the first American to notch ten English Premier League goals in a single season, and the Jesus of the Beltway, Charlie Davies, lived up to his MLS hype, coming back to life with a two goal substitute performance for DC United. But something else happened too. Something no one’s talked about. Because we talk about them, right. We don’t talk about us. Well just for a minute here, we’re worth mentioning. “We” being the US Soccer fan/coverage community; the voices.
After Holden went down I didn’t have to brace for a lot of talk about the sky falling or the team not advancing out of Gold Cup group play; as a group we’re generally not a bunch of fatalists when it comes to the Yanks. But I sure did brace for bickering about the formation, and for a large contingent of fans and media members to call for a return to the Bobbo 4-4-2 on a regular basis. But that didn’t come. In fact, what followed the Holden injury was as close to a cohesive train of thought as a group of people who don’t regularly spend time with each other in real life are going to produce. No one called for a return to the old standby as our base formation. Everybody was offering solutions. Some of the ideas differed, but there seems to be a sentiment in this community that most those ideas have been half decent. Our colleagues at The Shin Guardian asked readers who should man the offensive pivot point in Coach Bradley’s new 4-2-3-1 that prior to the injury might have had Holden’s name on it. Ives Galarcep wondered if switching to a 4-3-3 with three bona fide central mids and Jozy flanked by two wing forwards would work. And our own Raf Crowley explored both of these options, siding with the 4-3-3, but curious to see how each formation played out. These three examples were joined by more blogs, articles, and enough damn tweets to make my phone say “Uncle” and ask if we could just send some text messages or maybe make a phone call. It all points to one thing, and it’s more rare than most might think. We agree on something. We agree on something big… something normally controversial. The US Soccer community is galvanized in support of exploration of the or at least a new formation. This is not whether Landon Donovan is a quality player or not; this is how the team is going to play the game itself. Yes, I understand that it only makes sense to play a new formation given the types of talents in the squad, but that’s not the point. I’ve seen far less sensible ideas than a 2011 USMNT 4-4-2 supported by far more people than even populate the US Soccer world (insert your own political or sports related joke right here). The point is that we agree. And while it may not amount to the importance of peace in the Middle East, or what you’re going to do this weekend, it’s something dammit.
Thus far Bobbo agrees with us, and I expect to see him keep the faith to start the match on Saturday night. It’s not like we’re going to start Buddle and Altidore up top, right?
So what should we watch for from the Yanks?
Sergio Batista’s Argentina squad isn’t the balls out attacking machine that Maradona’s version of the national team was, especially with this lineup, but Argentina is still Argentina. This means Bobbo will look to keep six to seven players behind the ball at almost all times. I expect our starting fullbacks to include at least one speedster, because di María is no joke (dynamite analysis I know, Monte). And our defensive midfielders will need to live up to the moniker and adhere to those defensive responsibilities above all else. The only question is whether we start two of them in a 4-2-3-1 or three of them (likely a J.Jones-MB90-Edu combo) within the confines of a 4-3-3 that also makes a lot of sense on paper.
Though no one is quite sure which formation or variation thereof we’ll see on Saturday night, the consensus seems to be that we’re going for more attacking width in our forays towards the box (which makes Cherundolo’s absence more of a shame). In a more randomly timed friendly against Argentina I’d have a good amount of confidence in this new strategy, even with the unfamiliarity. But Batista is gearing up for the Copa America, and he didn’t bring Cambiasso and Zanetti back into the squad to enjoy a nice trip to New York City. Add those guys to probable starters Gabriel Milito and Nicolás Burdisso, and captain Javier Macherano and you’ve got a recipe for the Yanks facing a great test at both ends of the pitch. Just join me in willing the game to remain red card-less. Neither of these teams signed up for a tenth minute sending off (I’m lookin’ at Mascherano and Junior here) and eighty plus subsequent minutes of a shittier version of this exhibition match.
And what will we see out of Argentina?
First off, it’s already been announced that Messi the Flea is starting, and did you really think he was going to miss an opportunity to shine just outside of the world’s media capital? Get realistic about that right quick. We’re playing Argentina; we’re playing Messi. That’s what we signed up for.
New manager Sergio Batista doesn’t have Maradona’s attack-attack-attack philosophy, but he’s also not former Brazil manager Dunga. He’s not trying to put a restrictor plate on a Ferrari. Expect a more balanced game out of the Argentines, but never ever sleep on their attack. Higuaín, Tévez, and Agüero may be absent, but Argentina’s ability to reload with diminutive goal scoring machines is ridiculous to say the least. In fact, the most accomplished of the call-ups is my Argentine player to watch for this match (outside of the world’s best player of course).
Ezequiel (25:17) Lavezzi
The twenty-five year old Napoli striker is 5’8’’, and was once tapped to be “the next Maradona.” Sadly, because the South American sports media saddles every single short Argentine striker with that burden, it really doesn’t mean anything anymore. But upon receiving the tag, Lavezzi did the smart thing and spoke up, noting that his game is more akin to Carlos Tevez than the man that single handedly won a World Cup. And he’s right. EZ may not be as physically strong as Tevez, but his work rate and ability to do pretty much everything from the forward position bring the Citeh star to mind.
Currently Lavezzi plays more the role of Manchester United’s version of Tevez at his club (but he doesn’t start most games on the bench, lookin’ at you Fergie). Napoli has a great thing going with Cavani, Hamsik, and Lavezzi, so Ezequiel is content to walk to path of the righteous man and provide for his brothers in attack. But he’ll most likely be asked to play the finisher in this Argentina team, because Messi is a great provider in the national setup. Bad news for the Yanks, EZ’s equally adept at knocking them in when called upon. If he can stay active amongst the US backline, he’ll not only get himself open, he’ll draw more defensive attention and open up the final third for the likes of Messi and di María to operate. This is a nightmare scenario for our heroes. They must find a way to frustrate this man and whichever college aged striker pairs with him in attack, or Tim Howard will have to be superhuman once again just to secure a draw.
US Player to Watch: Jonathan Bornstein
We might not even see Jonny B in the next game against Paraguay due to the “style” they play, but he’s almost sure to start against Argentina. We’ll need speed on the flanks to counter their attack, and that’s the one thing Bornstein has in spades. Well, that and love letters from both males and females all over Honduras. As we’ve alluded to many times on the most important blog of all time, Jon has built a national team career on the back of a great performance against Argentina, and Messi in particular, in a friendly prior to the 2009 Confederations Cup. To say that career has had sky highs and dirt lows is still an understatement. But right now, the situation calls for another Jon Bornstein moment, and his performances in the World Cup warrant that moment being granted. He could be spectacular like he was last time these two teams met. He could make you want to pull your hair out and ask loudly to no one in particular, “Why is he on the field!?” But as with most JB starts, it’s a good bet that you’ll be jumping up from your couch or bar stool and screaming “BORNSTEIN!” at some point on Saturday night. Here’s hoping it’s a cry of delight rather than the alternative.
Prediction: USA 2 – 3 Argentina
This prediction isn’t an indictment of any of the U.S. defenders, rather a reminder that there are questions about the backline as a unit. Continuity concerns coupled with doubts about the overall USMNT defensive strategy have me conceding that a great offensive team will be able to expose us a few times. I hope I’m made to eat my words. But not about the two goals we’re going to score. I’d like that just fine.
Enjoy the new red kits, do not adjust your television (or the bar’s TV), and enjoy the match! Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.