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?