USMNT Conclude Hex Prep Against New Zealand: The TYAC Preview

Fresh off a strong performance against Cuba, can Julian Green continue to impress?
Fresh off a strong performance against Cuba, can Julian Green continue to impress?

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon

A massive hurricane blasted Haiti, Cuba, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina last week, leaving death, destruction and millions of dollars of damage in its wake. Our thoughts go out to the victims and their families who look to piece together their lives and rebuild. If you want to help with the recovery efforts, this piece at Yahoo lists organizations central to the effort. We suggest you take a moment of your time to see if you can help in any way possible. 

Far less important, the hurricane spoiled a TYAC USMNT match preview, marking the first time since the site was founded that we failed to preview a US Men’s National Team match. The US defeated Cuba 2-0 in a match that was largely forgettable, save fine performances from veteran Chris Wondolowski and Bayern Munich product Julian Green, who scored this goal, making the most of his return into the national team fold.

The larger takeaway from the Cuba match was the history of it, with the US returning to Cuba for the first time since the Cuban embargo, another sign of the thawing of the icy relations between the US and the  island nation 90 miles south of Key West.  There’s a fair debate about whether the US should have played the match at all, given the field and the continued repressive politics of the Castro-led Cuban government. But it’s possible to respect those political concerns without making the significance of the trip part of the mechanics of that debate. 

Arielle Castillo, responsible for a prodigious amount of top-flight soccer journalism for Major League Soccer, manages to navigate those narrow waters masterfully in this piece, well-worth your time.

With Cuba and Hurricane Matthew in the rearview, it is onward to the Hex, which starts in a month with the US and Mexico facing off in Columbus.  

The US finish preparations tonight against New Zealand at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in DC (8PM, ESPN). Final match before the Hex? Yes. Tune up? Not really, as it is difficult to call the match a dress rehearsal given the roster, a collection of mostly fringe players and substitutes simply fighting to make a last and lasting impression on Jurgen Klinsmann and the US coaching staff ahead of the 10 match Hexagonal that will determine the Yanks World Cup fate.

The customary TYAC preview, then, albeit less verbose?

Series:Third Meeting. US lead 2-0-0. This is the first friendly,  with the previous two engagements coming in competitive matches, at the 1999 and 2003 Confederations Cups. The US won both of those matches 2-1. 

Weather: Upper 50’s and clear. A crisp October evening. Perfect for soccer. Unfortunately, Fabian Johnson, who thrives in such weather, is already back in Germany. Still, the US would do well to have this type of weather for Ohio in November. Maybe a few degrees colder, just for Mexico. 

Tonight is a chance for young players like Kellyn Acosta to show their wares ahead of the Hex.
Tonight is a chance for young players like Kellyn Acosta to show their wares ahead of the Hex.

What to Watch For From the United States:

Ideas and imagination.

A bit of the assertive, attacking play that the US demonstrated it was capable of against Trinidad and Tobago last month in Jacksonville, when the side secured qualification into the final qualifying round Hexagonal.

Young players seizing an opportunity, or squandering one, to demonstrate to the coaching staff they can contribute significantly in the grind of a Hex that awaits the Americans over the next year. 

Jurgen Klinsmann emphasized that the coaching staff has an idea of how they want to approach the Mexico match already, but they want to see young players take the initiative and make the most of the moment.

“We have a clear picture of how we want to approach (Mexico),” Klinsmann told the press this week. “But at the same time we want to see some players who we haven’t had the opportunity to see in recent World Cup qualifiers. And when you do that, you might get surprised. We had one surprise definitely with Julian Green, who is training tremendously well and had a good game in Cuba.” 

Tactically, the US should approach the match as a tactical dress rehearsal.

The logic at TYAC and in most American soccer circles is that the US open the Hex with a rivalry game and probably their toughest road match, a brutal opening two matches that will test what appear to be visceral, tangible improvements in both style and quality from the Yanks in 2016. 

With that in mind, look for the United States to make tonight’s match about what they want to be. Do they want to play a higher-line, attack, take chances and play with a degree of fluidity and imagination that the US used in St. Vincent and the Grenadines and more critically, against a Trinidad and Tobago team that can punch back in Jacksonville?

Or do the US revert to a risk-averse pragmatism, sitting further back in their lines and waiting to score an opportunistic goal against the run of play?

It isn’t always that simple, as Klinsmann reminded the media in Jacksonville. 

“Sometimes you can’t impose your will from the beginning,” Klinsmann said. “You think about who you want to start, who the opponent is, who grinds the first half and what to do after an hour of the game,” he added. “Who grinds the opponent, who gets the opponent tired, who makes physical plays. In World Cup qualifiers, these things matter and are complicated.”

He’s right, of course. The Hex is a grind, a year-long ten match marathon where a point on some evenings is a beautiful thing. But when you build something, method and process matter most. Repetition doesn’t ensure success, but it is a touchstone, a nutrient key to growth. The US should play in DC the way they hope to play over the next twelve months. Anything less will disappoint.

Chris Wood is one of two physical, athletic and talented New Zealand forwards.
Chris Wood is one of two physical, athletic and talented New Zealand forwards.

What to Watch For From New Zealand:

The US aren’t taking New Zealand lightly. Klinsmann noted that New Zealand have long been organized defensively, but have impressed recently with a style that relies more on pressure and a high line. 

“I thought they played terrific against Mexico,” Klinsmann said. “They played with a high line, brought a lot of pressure, played at a quick tempo. Most of their players play in Europe, even if not for big clubs. They have always had a good fighting spirit and we expect to see that.” 

The All Whites have defensive quality. Captain Winston Reid is a longtime fixture at Premier League side West Ham United. Michael Boxall played with Vancouver in MLS for a pair of seasons and now plays in South Africa. San Jose Earthquakes product Kip Colvey is a young player manager Anthony Hudson says is full of promise. 

The All-Whites have added a bit more athleticism and use a bit more pressure, as Klinsmann noted. But the reality is the All Whites are still a team that relies on compact, organized defending and direct, counterattacking football. It’s the formula they’ll utilize to try to once again weather the OFC qualifying tournament and get themselves into a World Cup intercontinental qualifying playoff. And it is a formula: compact defense, physical challenges, opportunistic counterattack- that will resemble what the US face in at least four of their matches in the Hex, against Honduras and Panama.

Last cycle, they were unfortunate to draw Mexico instead of Panama. They’ll like the low probability history repeats itself.

When they do break, the ball is usually moved quickly to Michael McGlinchey, a Celtic youth product who is adept at finding seams in defenses and can hit a lovely diagonal. Clayton Lewis admirably paired with McGlinchey in the Mexico match, earning high praise from Hudson in only his fifth match with the All-Whites. He’s the stopper to McGlinchey’s ball-mover. 

The emergence of Marco Rojas, a 24 year old winger starting for the Melbourne Victory of the A League, has helped New Zealand play slightly less direct, and given McGlinchey a wide outlet on the break that has helped the All Whites spread defenses out a bit in the past year. Rojas will be a quality test for whatever young combination the US deploy along the backline, but he could be a particularly useful test for Kellyn Acosta, who promises to play a role in the Hex and is with the Americans in DC.

The goalscorers remain Chris Wood, the talented youngster now with Leeds United, and Costa Barbarouses, an effective goalscorer in Australia’s A League who does most the gritty hold-up work. 

The West Ham fixture is one of the world's best on a set piece.
The West Ham fixture is one of the world’s best on a set piece.

New Zealand Player to Watch: Winston Reid, West Ham United

 

The West Ham center half is the All Whites’ captain, and most pedigreed player.

But lately injuries have forced him out of national team action, and uncharacteristically spotty performances have marred the start of his Premier League season. He made his return to the New Zealand squad against Mexico, rejoining his Kiwi teammates after thirteen months away from the team he’s tasked with leading. And while he seems to have come through that two-one loss physically unscathed, you could argue his questionable form led to El Tri being awarded a (similarly questionable) penalty kick. 

But make no mistake, at his best, Winston Reid is the type of physically imposing defensive rock that USMNT fans appreciate.

I’m talkin’ Lalas, Onyewu, or, for a more topical reference, John Brooks taking over Copa America matches just a few months back. Reid set a standard with performances like that against some of the EPL’s best. He was a seemingly constant transfer target for Arsenal (and eventually Liverpool too) before signing his latest lucrative West Ham deal. And even as Reid and his West Ham teammates struggle through a defensively pitiful start to this season, it’s never wise to count the big center back out. After looking like he was on skates for a few weeks, Reid bust out an EPL Team of the Week performance against Middlesbrough last Saturday. 

And whether we get a world-beating effort or a dodgy mess out of Reid in front of his own goal, the Yanks would do well not to lose him when the All Whites get a set piece opportunity. Reid burst onto the scene with a last gasp headed equalizer (though not off a set piece) against Slovakia in the 2010 World Cup, and he’s been periodically nodding in big goals ever since. The latest being the show-stopping header to beat Manchester United and close Upton Park for good. He flies so high, nearly touches the sky… so the US better mark him closely.  

USA Player to Watch: Bill Hamid, DC United

Who’s next for the US at goalkeeper?

Like, after this whole Guzan/Howard thing is over. It’s a question we’ve been asking for a little while now. And we’ve got a better handle on the “when” than the “who.” At its core, this is likely a question about who we start in goal for Qatar 2022 (AKA Australia 2022, USA 2022, etc.).

And for me, all roads continue to lead to Bill Hamid. Now- this would probably be a good time for your author to note that Jurgen Klinsmann lives in a universe where this is somehow the case:

I don’t get it. 

Hamid is the most physically gifted American goalie since Tim Howard.

He’s an instinctual shot stopper, and he’s been slowly developing the crucial positional awareness side of his game for years with DC United. Seriously, if that part of his game was half as bad as his detractors make it out to be, do you think he’d even sniff the field under the direction of Mr. Defensive Fundamentals Ben Olsen?  

At this point, Hamid is probably the best shot-stopper the US have in the player pool.

And Hamid, while still relatively new to actually playing for the national team, has always shown himself to be a pressure player for DC.

He renewed those credentials this summer, coming back from an injury that forced him out of Copa America consideration, and led to to him missing the first third of the MLS season. Hamid came back to a DC United team that was on the ropes, legs wobbling. So how’d he get ’em back on track? He put his head down and put in a month and a half’s worth of Superman level performances, getting DCU back into the playoff picture. Oh, and my favorite thing about Bill? Well, I won’t write too much about it, because this isn’t a topic that bloggers with graduate degrees are supposed to dwell on in this post Moneyball, FiveThirtyEight world. I love Bill’s passion and intensity. Those two don’t always come to an intersection with leadership, but they absolutely do when it comes to Hamid. And yeah, I know none of that matters if he can’t play goal. But he can. And he makes guys want to play hard in front of him too. 

Look for Bill Hamid to stake his claim in his home stadium. And if he doesn’t get a chance to get on the field, look for RFK’s upper deck to come crashing down. Actually, look out for that anyway. Stay safe in there everyone!

Prediction: USA 2, New Zealand 0. A scoreline that feels right as we head towards Ohio.

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter @TYAC_Jon and @nwblackmon.