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.