Sunday, September 9, 2012

National Team Loss Raises Questions About Team's Direction

In the wake of the U.S. Men's loss to the Jamaican team in World Cup qualifying, the predominant concern is not that the loss cripples the U.S.' qualifying fortunes, nor even that the U.S. lost to a purportedly lesser opponent.  Rather, for a team seemingly still searching for a system under relatively new head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the prevailing concern is that the system appears to have no foundation.

In lobbying for Klinsmann's hire, supporters of the former German national team member anticipated two things immediately happening.  The first was that the U.S. would jettison the kick-and-run approach too often found in the systems run by Bruce Arenas and Bob Bradley.  The second was that the team would build from the back.  Klinsmann's supporters also anticipated that, after perhaps a bit more time, the former striker would identify a striker upon whom the U.S. team could rely for years to come.

Early into Klinsmann's tenure with the U.S. national team, the team appears to be reverting not only to the properly discredited system of Bob Bradley, but to depths not seen since well before players such as Eric Wynalda began roaming the pitch for the national team.  After several games evidencing a commitment to a possession game, against Jamaica, the U.S. appeared either willing to kick and run or unable to do anything else.

Support for the latter proposition is evidenced by another alarming trend under Klinsmann, that of the inexplicably worsening defense.  Under Bradley, the concern for the U.S. side was that someone in the middle of the defense would do something foolish--a mistaken step, a handball or takedown in the box, or a needless giveaway.  Under Klinsmann, these results are nearly assured, and not just on a once-a-game trajectory.  Rather, the U.S., under Klinsmann, consistently give the ball away, take players down either in the box or just outside of the box, and often either overplay the ball or mistake the balance between the defense and offense.

For the U.S. men's team to be relevant not only in the World Cup and the final round of qualifying, but even in the initial round-robin leg of qualifying, Klinsmann must dramatically rethink his defensive back.  The most obvious solution is to switch back to the 4-4-2 that worked well in earlier victories over Italy and Scotland.  The second is to pick the right players to play the back line.

Switching to a 4-4-2 could mean relying on Steve Cherundolo, Michael Parkhurst, and Carlos Bocanegra with all others regarded as fullbacks resigned to the bench or moved on--included in this latter group should be defensive mid-fielders Maurice Edu and Fabian Johnson; Edu is not a particularly good defender and is crippling on offense and Johnson is more an American footballer than a soccer player.

Assuming health of all options, a winning option for the U.S. men's team would include Cherundolo at the back, Parkhurst and Bocanegra on the wings, Michael Bradley in the up fullback position, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey in the center with two fresh, fast players not currently on the national team roster on the wings, and Jozy Altidore and Hercules Gomez on top.  That should ensure a solid back line and midfield and allow Klinsmann to assess what he actually has on top in Altidore and Gomez.

Up Next:  An Obvious Must Win.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Many Lessons for USA to Learn from Spain

In defeating Italy 4-0 in a thoroughly dominating performance that could have yielded an even wider final margin, the Spanish national team demonstrated not only its superiority in Europe, but also that conventional soccer wisdom might well be on its death bed.  For soccer fans in the U.S., that could be either welcome news or a sign for concern.

Playing without a striker, in the face of much media criticism in Europe, Spain demonstrated that there is no one set approach to fielding a team.  One would have thought that this already had been demonstrated by the Dutch with its successful inter-changing positions approach, but apparently that was not the case.  In the wake of Spain's complete dismantling of Italy, however, it now should be evident that the primary requirement for maximizing team talent in soccer is utilizing the talent on the team in a manner that best meets the circumstances.

For Spain, utilizing talent in the 2012 Euros when Fernando Torres was not on the field, meant playing with a collection of fullbacks and mid-fielders.  It helps that Spain has some of the top mid-fielders in the game, particularly deserved Euro MVP Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas, and David Silva.  But the true key was in resisting the label of mid-fielder cum mid-fielder.

As Spain brought the ball up field, they controlled the ball on the edges and in the middle with foot-to-foot, one-touch passing around defenders until the ball was at the edge of the box.  From there, Spain picked its spots, with all but Iniesta testing the box.

This was not long-ball soccer.  It was not counter-attack soccer.  It was not set-piece soccer.  Rather, it was soccer as soccer was designed to be played but as it rarely anymore is played in some quarters in favor of a "waiting for the opponent to make a mistake" approach--the kind of approach that made WC 2010 the bore that it was.

With several promising young players and a roster loaded with experienced talent only now in its prime, Spain has made clear that the conservative, pack-it-in style of soccer is not a logical course of play for any team reasonably hoping to win a title.  Now, as Italy was forced to do in the Euro final, teams must take their chances and open up play.  That's not just great news for the likes of Spain and Brazil, but even better news for the world of soccer.

The news is mixed for the U.S. men's national side, however, as it offers a contradiction.  On one hand, the U.S. needs to rethink its formation model and who plays where.  That might mean playing Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley at fully new positions or even using three strikers, three backs, and four mid-fielders.

On the other hand, current head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is a product of a German side once regarded as among the most traditional of the traditional teams, with a set spot on the field for each player and set zones of play for each player.  There are signs that things are changing in Germany, permitting the Germans to keep pace with teams such as Spain, but Klinsmann is not necessarily part of this movement.

At a minimum, however, Klinsmann has the U.S. squad passing to feet and in space far more often and far more impressively than the team ever did under either Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley.  What remains far too often lacking for the U.S., however, is a sense of direction in this sub-game.  For Spain, short passes and back passes are all designed to set-up the defense and convince the defense that the next series of passes will be in one direction when they really will be in another.  This is all by design and well rehearsed.  The U.S., at present, too often appears to be passing for the sake of passing.  That must change, or the U.S. will be merely fortunate to keep pace with the likes of Spain.

Up Next:  More Qualifiers.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

In Victory, U.S. Shows Need for Substantial Improvement

That the United States, at home, would defeat Antigua-Barbuda, a first-time qualifier for this stage of the World Cup qualifying format, was nearly a foregone conclusion.  A-B offers a starting lineup of mostly USL players, a keeper who barely reaches the cross-bar on his strongest of leaps and who is limited in his horizontal movement by his 210-pound frame, and a relatively young coach who kept in reserve a striker who likely and frighteningly could have had his game-turning way against the U.S. had he played more than the handful of minutes in which he nearly did have his game-turning way.

The end result, a 3-1 U.S. victory, therefore, is not the story.  Instead, the story is how the U.S. players performed against an inferior opponent.  In short, for most, the storyline was less than dazzling.

On the positive side, the U.S. maintained possession in A-B's penalty box for the better part of each half, made a concerted effort to continue its transformation from former coach Bob Bradley's kick and run offense to a ball-control offense exhibiting patience and calm in the face of confrontation, and used the overlap--particularly on the left side with Jose Torres, but also with Carlos Bocanegra--and used a player, Torres, in an effective, out-of-position manner.

For each patient foray that Michael Bradley or Landon Donovan made into A-B's box, however, there were at least ten miscues or short-comings for the U.S. side.  Some of these issues were player specific and some were attributable to players being in the wrong position.  All are correctable, but only if recognized.

Among the most glaring flaws for the U.S. side were the defensive efforts by Maurice Edu and Oguchi Onyewu, the poor finishing attempts and sometimes hurried on-ball decisions by Herculez Gomez, who was otherwise a tremendous asset, the brutish play of Jermaine Jones, Donovan's weak drop passes, and Clint Dempsey's inability to convert from outside the box.

Offensive issues aside, head coach Juergen Klinsmann's greatest challenge in the wake of the A-B game is to establish a meaningful back line.  Part of the U.S.'s present problem is that it is without the services of injured outside backs Edgar Castillo and Fabian Johnson; Torres' late injury on Friday only exacerbates this dilemma.

Injuries notwithstanding, the U.S. must still settle on a more formidable lineup than what it put on the field against A-B.  Klinsmann has taken a liking to Edu, despite Edu's continuing uninspiring play--plodding and meaningless in the offensive game, a liability in the defensive end with poor angle passing and outright giveaways.  Klinsmann needs to get his head around the fact that Edu is not a player through whom a high percentage of plays inevitably must run each game and either bench Edu or move him to a position where he will do less harm.

Edu's asset is that he is calm and deliberate.  He is too, calm, however, and too deliberate to play anywhere near center midfield.  Perhaps those traits would translate well as an outside halfback in a 3-5-2, but they might just as well translate even better off the team.

Assuming Johnson returns for the next qualifying game at Guatemala, the U.S. would have three solid backs in Johnson, Bocanegra, and, at least based on last night's play, Clarence Goodson.  If Johnson is not ready to play against Guatemala and Torres remains injured, the U.S. must at least try Michael Parkhurst on the right side, with Bocanegra in the middle back and Goodson on the left side.  That's not ideal, but it's better than any configuration that relies heavily on either Onyewu or Edu.

Bolstering that back three should be a midfield comprised of five players with Donovan and Dempsey flanking Bradley in the center and Terrence Boyd sliding back to the wing opposite some player not currently on the U.S. roster.  On top would be Gomez and Jozy Altidore, who looked both pouty and miserable in his limited role on Friday.

With injuries to Torres, Edgar Castillo, and Johnson, the U.S.' lack of depth, particularly on the wings, is glaring.  That lack of depth probably will force the team to continue to rely on Edu and to continue to audition at the outside fullback center wing positions.  Shoring up the middle by making Donovan and Bradley central to both defense and offense, however, would go a long way toward making the back look better than it really is.

Up Next:  Where in the World is Jay DeMerit?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Positive Changes in U.S. System Dwarfed by Defensive Flaws

On Wednesday evening, in front of nearly 70,000 fans in Washington, D.C., Brazil's national side dismantled the U.S. men's national team 4-1.  For Brazil's fans, the most surprising aspect of this game likely was not the final result but the contribution of the defense in ensuring that result.  For U.S. fans, continuing porous play on the defensive end overshadowed the strides that the team is making under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

In previous years, Brazil has been known to play fast and loose on the defensive side of the ball, sometimes having great players contributing fantastic runs out of the backfield only to show far less skill defending the ball.  That, unfortunately for its competition, is no longer the makeup of the Brazilian team.

Against the U.S., Brazil still showed some vulnerability on defense, but it also boasted, at fullback, one of the more skilled players on the entire field in the person of Marcelo (another Brazilian player for whom one name suffices).  Marcelo completely shut down his side and all but took Landon Donovan out of the game.  Only Clint Dempsey's late insertion and Marcelo's presumably lesser condition at that point in the game offered any hope for the U.S. captain.

Marcelo did on defense what the U.S. long has touted as its strength.  That purported strength, however, was not evident against Brazil, with the Brazilians frequently catching the U.S. on its heels.  If the U.S. hopes to advance deep into the next World Cup, it certainly will need to address major flaws in the current backfield configuration.

Adjustments in the U.S. backfield must come in the form of both personnel and technique.  Oguchi Onyewu was horrid in all phases of the game against Brazil, save for his late header effort.  Onyewu was called for a penalty in the box for a handball that would never have occurred had he simply stepped out of the box and to the play earlier in the sequence.  Onyewu's late move, unfortunately, was emblematic of his slow reaction in the defensive end for much of the game.  Onyewu is better than he showed against Brazil, but he might be too slow for the outside and too timid for the inside to have a spot going forward on Jurgen's side.

Though Onyewu boldly stood out for his poor performance against Brazil, his defensive cohorts were not much better.  Nor were the midfielders much to speak of in their attempts at defense.  That suggests that more is at play here than mere personnel and that technique is an issue for this team.

Brazil is known for at least three things in the attacking zone--carrying to the end line and passing back to the top of the goal box, suckering a stab on a one on one play in the corner or along the sideline, and calm passing.  The third is difficult to counter as it is the result of experience and confidence; the only true counter is experience and confidence on defense.

The other two matters are readily addressable, however, if not always stoppable.  Successfully defending the one on one requires patience and a commitment to forcing the play one direction, preferably as a pass back.  Too often, the U.S. wing back overcommitted, permitting the Brazilian player to turn the corner on the end line, thereby opening up a host of options to the talented Brazilian wings.

More disconcerting for the U.S. defensively was the penchant of players to sag off the play, particularly deep in the U.S. end, and leave several Brazilian players unmarked.  On Brazil's third goal, a counter of sorts, the U.S. actually had five players to Brazil's three in the defensive end.  The number advantage proved meaningless, however, as the U.S. simply played off all of the Brazilian players and Brazil did what it wished, easily converting on a playground offensive play.

Given numbers, the rule is simple, even against Brazil--first player steps to the play, second provides support, and the rest mark up.  The U.S. did not follow this rule either because it has not been properly schooled on the defensive end or because its players are not comfortable in their defensive roles.

For the U.S., the defensive problem is both unforgivable and unfortunate.  It is unforgivable because playing defense at the international level is more about focus, scheme, and coordination than it is about individual soccer skills.  While it would be nice to have three or four Marcelos in the backfield, such players are more a luxury than a necessity for competing at this level.  That the U.S. does not have many fit, well-schooled, disciplined backs on the roster and waiting in the wings is, therefore, a sign that the U.S. is not doing something that it clearly can do to make its squad better.

It is also unfortunate that he U.S. defense is in the shambles that it currently is in, because Klinsmann's offensive system seems to be taking shape.  With Herculez Gomez, Fabian Johnson, and even Clint Dempsey, in a short stint, showing top-level skill and the rest of the team buying into a system that relies on short passes, quick ball movement, and end line back offense, the U.S. team appears poised to move toward far better things offensively than ever it displayed under the plodding straight-line system of former coach Bob Bradley.  But the offensive transformation will prove meaningless if the U.S. does not shore up an eminently correctable defensive chasm.

Up Next:  Response to Brazil's two-man, floating high pressure.  Plus, MIAs that can help.