Saturday, June 21, 2014

Costa Rica Offers Exhibition of How Team USA Ought to be Playing

Against a favored Italian side, Costa Rica laid claim to the better performance on Friday, emerging a 1-0 victor and securing a spot in the knock-out rounds of this year's World Cup.  For most, a 1-0 result might seem less than convincing, but the Ticos did everything that a team competing in the World Cup ought to do to win without employing a run-out-the-clock approach.  And, in so doing, they offered a reminder to team USA--a team that finished ahead of Costa Rica in CONCACAF qualifying--of how it got to Brazil and what it needs to do to stay in Brazil a bit longer than round one.

In its opening match against Ghana, the USA displayed none of the form or creativity that it showed at times in advancing to Brazil.  Rather than play as if it deserved to be on the same pitch as the other thirty-one teams, the USA played scared.  It also played dull and, seemingly, tired.

But for a first-minute goal by Clint Dempsey, the USA very well might have dropped their first game in Brazil.  That result would have been at the hands of all involved, as Ghana showed little to suggest that they are remotely close to the same team that defeated the USA in each of the past two World Cups.

There were at least four revelations/confirmations from Monday's game against Ghana. The first was that, as suspect as he can be in the middle, Matt Besler is the best option to fill the role--at least the best option that Jurgen Klinsmann is going to try in the position.  When Besler went out at the start of the second half, the defense, already playing ten in the box, looked shakier than ever.  But for a game-winner from his replacement, John Brooks, Besler's presence was missed.  That, in and of itself, says a mouthful about team USA's back line.

The Ghana game also demonstrated, for those who had not already adopted the view, that the Old World tactic of slowing down the game with the lead is disastrous at best and certainly not worthy of World Cup play in the modern era.  After Dempsey's goal, the USA sucked its players back inside midfield and "dared" Ghana to attack.  That was hardly worth the gamble, as Ghana easily gained the box against team USA.  But for a lack of a meaningful finisher, Ghana would have walked away with this one.  A stronger side, say Germany, would have eviscerated the tactic.

It is not clear whether the USA fell into the fall back strategy or were instructed to use it.  After the game, Klinsmann expressed dismay that his team did not attack more.  With a vantage point along the sidelines and ready access to his players, however, it is impossible to believe that Klinsmann was not in on the plan and Klinsmann certainly bears the blame for not setting things straight from the sideline.

In addition to the slow-down tactics, the USA appeared in overall slow mode.  Either television does a great disservice to the tremendous speed advantage enjoyed by Ghana over the USA or team USA simply was slow in this game, almost beyond belief or description.

Three players epitomized the sloth-footedness of team USA on Monday--Michael Bradley, DaMarcus Beasley, and Jozy Altidore.  Bradley was slow everywhere, looking as if his playing days were several decades in the rear-view mirror.  This was not the same Bradley who, more often than not, has been the most crucial field player for team USA.  Rather, he was, for the first time in his career with the team, an utter liability.  Bradley could not pass, could not catch up to players with average speed, and seemed unwilling even to get goal-side on plays.  It was a remarkable transformation, making Bradley look as though he were playing with an 80-pound sack of potatoes around his waist.  Awful.

Altidore was not much better in his limited time on the field.  Although Altidore clearly is the best striker option on the team, he, too, seemed to lack energy and fitness against Ghana.  On the run during which he was injured, Altidore looked the role of a father attempting to show up his much younger, much fitter teen son, only to be hobbled by his lack of fitness.  It was ugly before it became painful.  Were Altidore alone in that category, it might be on Altidore.

That both Altidore and Bradley appeared sapped in the very first game of the Cup is either on conditions that did not seem to affect the Ghana players or on something that team USA is doing to prepare for the Cup.  Klinsman has blanched at the latter, but the proof might well be in the pudding.  When Bruce Arenas was coaching team USA, the team was always more fit and more energetic than its opponents.  Klinsman has far more talent to work with on this team, but the fitness level seems below that of the opposition, at least after one game.  For the USA's sake, that, hopefully, is merely a one off.

As for Beasley, he was not bad, but neither was he the sure-footed speed back that the team needs on the outside.  Though somehow only 32 years old, Beasley plays much older.  And, though he plays hard and smart, he seems prone to being twisted like a pretzel by fancy footwork.  Perhaps Beasley can center himself and determine to simply stay in front of the play and keep the crosses out.  If he does that, rather than also trying to steal the ball from faster forwards, he should be adept enough to overcome his diminishing speed.

Back to the Ticos' performance on Friday, the Ticos did precisely what team USA fans thought their team was capable of doing.  Costa Rica made precision one-touch passes in space throughout the mid-field, pressured high, and played the ball wide, with patience along the lines, in the backfield.  That, Costa Rica did, with a 1-0 lead.  And that, Costa Rica did against a far more accomplished squad than Ghana.

When the USA gained the lead against Ghana, Klinsmann and company reverted back to 80s soccer in the USA.  The field was littered with the USA's unforced give-aways--half from Bradley--and long balls to a space into which nobody seemed interested in running.  It was as ugly as soccer gets and a reminder of how quickly things can go bad if a team is not reminded of its mission and encouraged to play the game rather than letting the game play it.

The goal for the USA on Sunday, against a woefully depleted and already overrated Portugal squad, should be to return to the form demonstrated against the CONCACAF opposition that, with the exception of one game put in by Honduras, has vastly outshone the USA's sole performance.  If that does not happen against Portugal--if the USA is unable to punch its second-round card on Sunday--the result will be a blight not only on this year's World Cup for team USA, but also on the direction of the national team.  Klinsmann might rightly believe that the USA cannot win this year's World Cup, but he cannot cater to that prophesy by allowing the plodding play we saw on Monday.

Up Next:  USA v. Portugal.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Portugal Sets Table for USA

The United States' National team could not have asked for a better gift from Portugal in game one of the purported "group of death" in this year's World Cup.  Not only did Portugal lose, they lost big.  That, in and of itself, would be a grand gift to the USA, as it puts Portugal not only one game down but several goals down and likely in last after round one of play in Group G.

Portugal did the US two more favors, however, when Pepe, the heart of Portugal's defense, was booked with a red card for head-butting a German player.  The red card means that Pepe will not be available for Portugal's game against the US.  In addition to the loss of Pepe, Portugal likely will be without two other starters injured in the Germany game and is still feeling the effects of a lingering injury to star player Cristiano Ronaldo.

For Portuguese fans, the picture could not be more bleak.  For U.S. and Ghana fans, opportunity knocks.  The winner of tonight's game not only moves atop the standings with Germany, but also appears an odds-on favorite to beat a depleted, despondent Portuguese team.

Even more than Ghana, the United States stands to gain from today's events.  Not only will the US face Portugal minus Pepe and likely two other starters--the former unlikely and the latter unknown for Ghana--the US also will have an opportunity to cement its position among the top two in its group, prior to meeting Germany.  Ghana will face Germany needing to win and will have the additional pressure that goes with that.

That makes tonight's USA-Ghana matchup all the more intriguing, as the winner gets a large leg up.  Both teams understand this and both almost certainly will arrive on the pitch looking to win, rather than trying not to lose.

Up Next: Post-Game.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

FIFA Moves Ahead of NBA with Latest Farce

After ninety plus minutes of play, two things were certain about the first game of the 2014 World Cup between host team Brazil and Croatia.  One is that Brazil emerged with a win.  The other is that Croatia deserved far better and Brazil at least no better than a draw.

Croatia could have weathered suspect goaltending and some curious strategy at points in the game, were they on a level playing field.  Alas, they were not.  As has become the norm on FIFA's largest stage, when it most mattered, the officiating went south--or at least stayed true to FIFA wishes.

With all of the consternation about the cost of the World Cup to the denizens of a largely poor nation, nothing would have been worse for FIFA then to have the host team, the team of the past Century and, perhaps, of the present, not advance to the knock-out rounds of this year's tournament.  Fortunately for FIFA, that result appears highly unlikely, given that Brazil likely needs only to beat either a struggling Mexico or a disgruntled Cameroon side in one of the lightest draws in World Cup history.

Assuming Brazil only received the benefit of the draw from FIFA, and not the benefit of some FIFA-orchestrated conspiracy to advance Brazil through the tournament, Brazil certainly was the beneficiary of several horrendous officiating calls in the second half of the opening game.  The calls, in order, gifted Brazil a penalty kick on what can only charitably be called minor contact in the box--contact arguably initiated by the offensive player, continued with a suspect contact with the keeper call in Croatia's offensive end that likely negated a tying goal that should have been the lead goal, and concluded with the referee turning a blind eye to a clear foul on Brazil that opened the door for Brazil's final goal.

In the end, Croatia could look back on its performance and lament a soft goal to Neymar, a PK that its keeper nearly stopped, some surprisingly hesitant play amidst otherwise aggressive play, and another soft goal to close it out.  All of these things, Croatia controlled.  And, in spite of the transformation of the Japanese official midway through the second half from a competent official to one seemingly on the take, Croatia still could have won or at least tied the game.

For Brazil, the concerns should be myriad.  In spite of winning, the victory surely has to be viewed not only as gravely tarnished but also as undeserved based on play, alone.  Brazil started the game playing as if it was entitled to victory--perhaps Brazil knew something FIFA's critics only suspected.  On Croatia's goal, Dani Alves was woefully out of position, as he was for the better part of the game, and Marcelo was forced to make a late stab--if only he had thought to feign a grievous injury at that point.

Not until Neymar scored off a mis-hit, did Brazil seem to play up to par, and then, disappointingly, all too briefly.  For twenty or so minutes, Brazil seemed to have its way in earning set pieces.  But Brazil were mostly off on their takes and failed to convert.

Defensively, once Brazil shored up its right back position by doubling on the flank, Croatia began to expose the newly created weakness in the middle, nearly converting on several occasions and clearly dominating stretches of the game when Brazil ought to have figured things out.

Ultimately, Brazil has more question marks after this game than does Croatia, at least as far as expectations are concerned.  Brazil needs to demonstrate that it can defend, that it can handle pressure in the defensive third, and that it can take advantage of set pieces.  If it plays the remainder of the tournament as it played for the vast majority of the game against Croatia, it cannot win this year's Cup.  Unless officiating again comes into play.

Up Next:  More Games.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Altidore Still Not Grasping Role

As the United States prepares for its first match in the 2014 World Cup, Jozy Altidore still appears confused about his role with the club.  After netting two goals in a 2-1 victory over Nigeria in the U.S.' final warm-up prior to its match against Ghana, Altidore was asked whether the performance relieved any pressure resulting from a six-month scoreless drought.  Altidore responded that he felt no pressure and, therefore, felt no relief.

That response would have been fine, as it would have signaled that Altidore is comfortable in his role as striker, regardless of whether he scores.  The best strikers experience periods without points and the very best overcome such periods.

What is troubling about Altidore's remarks after the Nigeria game are the comments that followed the innocuous comment.  In subsequent remarks, Altidore stated that he is fine not scoring and that he does not need to score for the team to succeed.  "I contribute in many ways," Altidore noted.

Although it is true that Altidore contributes in many ways other than scoring--drawing extra defenders, distracting the opponent, creating space, and sometimes distributing, he is disingenuous in even suggesting that the United States does not need him to score for the team to succeed.  For the US to defeat world-class opposition, the kind they rarely face in CONCACAF, Altidore not only needs to score, he needs to dominate, drawing double-teams and doing all of the other things that he things normally suffice for him.  In short, for the US to succeed in Brazil, Altidore must prove he deserves the moniker that most observers believe he deserves--that of a willful striker.  Anything less will spell difficulties for the US in Brazil.

Up Next:  Making the Semi-Finals.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Finding Room for Donovan Could Shore Up Team U.S.A.'s Greatest Weakness

Just over two weeks ago, United States national soccer team coach Jurgen Kinsmann stunned team U.S.A. fans by announcing that midfielder/forward Landon Donovan would not be joining the team in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.  Klinsmann's critics immediately suspected that the coach merely had it in for Donovan, a stalwart in the U.S.'s three previous World Cup appearances and a large reason for team U.S.A.'s success for over a decade.

Klinsmann's critics gained ammunition for their suspicions when, immediately following the coach's announcement regarding Donovan, Klinsmann's son sent out a tweet mocking Donovan and rejoicing over the decision.  The impression was that Klinsmann's son had at least been privy to words of exasperation spoken by his father about Donovan's role on the U.S. national team.

Klinsmann did himself no favors by likening Donovan's situation to that of "so many U.S. athletes past their prime."  Klinsmann suggested that granting Donovan a position on the team, in spite of his mileage and less than full fitness, was akin to the L.A. Lakers giving Kobe Bryant a massive contract in the twilight of his career.  The coach lamented the purported epidemic of U.S. sports franchises rewarding athletes for what they have done, rather than for what they are doing and are likely to do going forward.

In addition to supporting his detractor's impression that he simply has a personality conflict with Donovan, Klinsmann's analogy is fatally flawed for, among other reasons, failing to account for the fact that Donovan's presence on this year's World Cup team would not be a reward for what he has done in the past but would, in fact, recognize what Donovan still brings to the team and what that means for the team going forward.

There is little question that Donovan is not a starting forward for team U.S.A. in 2014.  Of course, that never really was Donovan's role with the national team.  That he was regarded as a forward this year is simply a product of Klinsmann's decision to so label him.  For if Donovan truly was fit enough to be considered a forward in any World Cup team's final roster, he certainly was more aptly considered a midfielder on a U.S. team that essentially plays with five midfielders.  How Donovan is not among the best five midfielders on the U.S. roster is confounding.  How he is not among at least the reserve midfielders is confounding and befuddling, and, probably, telling as to Klinsmann's dislike for Donovan, for whatever reason.

There is still a possibility that Donovan replaces one of the current members of this year's squad and there are certainly people whose place Donovan could take without depriving the team of a meaningful option.  One of the most obvious options is to permit Donovan to slide into Julian Green's spot.  Green is far from polished at the international level and is likely to see the pitch in Brazil only if Klinsmann simply cannot resist some nationalist urging.

By eschewing Donovan, Klinsmann is missing on a golden opportunity to shore up his team in an area in which he has had nothing but problems since joining the U.S. side, the defensive back.  Despite lesser speed than he once displayed, Donovan still has good touch on the ball, sees the field well, and has good instinct.  Those are all attributes that make for a solid middle defender.  Smart play at the back is what the U.S. is missing right now and it is precisely what Donovan would give the team.  The question is whether Klinsmann is smart enough to recognize that transitioning Donovan to the back line would be good for the U.S. not only this year, but for at least one more, if not two more World Cup cycles.

Up Next:  How Team U.S.A. Advances to the Semi-Final Round.

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.