The national team hasn’t even suited up in 2012, but it’s already been an encouraging year for American soccer. Dempsey and Donovan (for two months, at least) are both leading the line of attack for their respective English Premier League teams, the Women’s National Teamers avoided a would-be tragedy in their Vancouver hotel and are on course to defend their 2008 Olympic Gold Medal (this time as America’s sweethearts), and a talented group of USMNT recruits and fringe players performed admirably against a similarly talented American U-23 team in a couple scrimmages aimed at prepping each squad for the tests that lie ahead.
The annual January edition of the USMNT’s Camp Cupcake saw Benny Feilhaber and Jermaine Jones return to form, Brek Shea stay hot, and Graham Zusi make his presence known with a two goal haul over the course of two matches in which the senior team flexed their muscles and only allowed the US Olympic hopefuls to score one goal.
Now the US U-23’s head down to Costa Rica to take on the Saprissa and Alajuelense reserves, and a ragtag group of US senior team players will try and make their mark in hosting Venezuela in Arizona before trekking to Panama next week. These matches should serve as a great barometer for the US performance and Klinsmann’s system, even with a group that’s pretty far removed from the first choice squad.
The idea: These are the types of defensive teams that Jurgen Klinsmann was hired to tear apart. Yes, he was brought in to take the USMNT to a substantially higher level, a world where a win over an Argentina or a France would no longer be a huge shock to the footballing world. But the road to those matches goes through a dark and malevolent place: CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. It’s a world of dimly lit pitches containing equal parts sod and mud, where seemingly every opponent tries to slide tackle the Yanks down to their level rather than engage in anything resembling “the beautiful game.” Former US coach Bob Bradley was widely criticized for the rare losses his teams took against inferior CONCACAF opponents; indeed, he was even skewered over his sides’ customary narrow wins, coming by way of set piece or counterattack. Then he was fired. Urine bags and batteries hurled at your team bus and plenty of results, but not good enough, Bob.
So the message has been sent, style points matter. It will be Jurgen Klinsmann’s task to find the Yanks that can operate his system effectively enough to unlock a CONCACAF (in this case, CONMEBOL) defense that routinely puts ten and eleven men behind the ball in their own third. And that doesn’t mean lofting the ball into the box and hoping to win the wrestling match: we already had a guy and a team that could do that.
What will we see out of Venezuela?
Since this match isn’t taking place on an actual FIFA International date, it will come as no surprise that we’ll also be seeing a Camp Cupcake version of the Venezuelan national team. ¿Campamento de Magdalena? Sure, we’ll go with that.
So while you won’t be seeing all your favorite big stars for the Plainsmen (which is not a bad national team nickname actually), the Venezuelan league fill-ins should be able to mimic their style of play. Head coach César Farías is the real star for Venezuela. He took control of an under-talented team a few years back, got them to accept their limitations and play a gritty, determined, physical, and disciplined style of soccer. Bob Bradley would love this guy.
I’ve been describing their defensive strategy as “grind line” hockey; it’s certainly not catenaccio. Venezuela wears teams down. Under Farías they advanced to the knockout stages of the Copa América for just the second time in the history of the national team this past summer, and they’re off to a great start in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. A 2-1-1 record with one of those victories against Argentina is worth celebrating. Heck, Grant Wahl even predicted they would qualify for the World Cup. Without using oil money to bribe officials…I digress.
What to watch for from the Yanks: I fully expect Jurgen to revert to his one striker formation that we’ve seen at the outset of most his national team matches thus far. I know the team played a 4-4-2 against Slovenia in the last USMNT match, but Klinsy has a ton of belief it seems in his favored formation, and there’s a good deal of merit to his line of thinking. Lacking Xavi Hernández as the US does, it’s not going to be easy to successfully pass the ball into the opponent’s box when they’re all hanging out in there. Klinsmann’s USMNT formation, whether you want to call it a 4-3-3, a 4-5-1, or a 4-2-3-1, emphasizes width in the opponent’s half. Width that creates responsibilities for a bunker defense and can essentially pry them apart a bit. All of a sudden, you don’t have to be Xavi to put the ball where it needs to be. It’s a solid principle across the sporting world, just as college football’s Mike Leach or the Detroit Redwings’ Russian Five from the mid 90’s.
Thus far, Klinsmann’s US teams have successfully used their width in matches against inferior opposition to build possession and drive the ball into the attacking third. But the final ball movements have been lacking. Not just the final ball into the back of the net. I’d love to get to a place where we’re talking about missed sitters being the problem, but we’re not even there yet. Hopefully a couple players in this new class will show the understanding and ability to validate the scheme. Zusi? Sapong? Larentowicz?
I’ll also have my eye on Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst, should either be given a chance to marshal the backline. Two distinctly different crowds have been lobbying for each man to get a real shot with the national team for over a year, so here it is. Show me something. Show Jurgen something. And don’t leave Bill Hamid out to dry. Love that guy.
Wrapping up with the injuries, it looks like both Juan Agudelo and Kyle Beckerman are a doubt for this match. That could signal a striker start for either Wondolowski or Bunbury, and Jermaine Jones should be ready to do his thing in the defensive midfield. Jones should play hard– he won’t be playing anywhere else for a while.
Venezuela Player to Watch: Alejandro Moreno
The MLS vet and current Chivas USA forward will be one of very few recognizable faces on the field for Venezuela. The rest of this squad consists of one other MLS player, Emilio Rentería, and a bunch of dudes who play in the Venezuelan domestic league. Admittedly, I haven’t watched much of the Venezuelan league thus far in 2012, but eerily I’ve watched exactly the same number of Venezuelan league matches as I did in 2011. Interesting. You get the picture. I make no apologies on this one.
Moreno will be familiar with the MLS defenders and goalkeepers in play for the US, and in some cases he’ll be able to provide in-game scouting reports on player tendencies to his teammates. All the more reason to start Denmark’s favorite defender Michael Parkhurst?
US Player to Watch: Graham Zusi
An attacking midfielder, Zusi is Camp Cupcake’s answer to Stuart Holden, and the Orlando native may have a bright future with the national team. Zusi was deployed on the right wing in the scrimmages against the U-23 squad, and he can also play centrally, behind the striker(s). The 25 year old former Maryland Terrapin and current Sporting KS man can deliver set pieces, and has already shown a knack for making runs into the box without the ball.
He’s been good in the MLS, and he looked deadly as both a ball handler and a finisher against the US Olympic campers. But the latter was a world in which Benny Feilhaber looked world class in distribution, Brek Shea ran into wide open spaces on the wing, and Jermaine Jones shrugged off young’ns at will. Graham Zusi and the rest of this version of the USMNT have a much tougher task in front of them. Two times over in fact. But if Zusi can prove to be dynamic against Venezuela and Panama, he may have a seat on the jet to Italy waiting for him next month.
Prediction: USA 2 – 1 Venezuela
A new year is a time for optimism, and there’s no reason to think that a largely second tier group of Yanks can’t beat a largely second tier Venezuelan team. Mark me down for Shea and Feilhaber on the goals, Zusi with an assist, and a lively performance from CJ Sapong off the bench!
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!