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.

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