Lessons from Fake Tourney

Starters v. Brazil

If you’re a die hard US Soccer Fan, the last two weeks, with three friendlies and roller-coaster results, provided must-see viewing and grist for the soccer-analytic-mill in a big way.  We saw the debut of the ‘Where’s Waldo’ jerseys, the A-Team pretty much in place, and Donovan and Dempsey on the field for the same time since Juergen Klinsmann took over.

Coach Klinsi wanted to treat this three game stretch leading up to the two World Cup Qualifiers (June 8 against Antigua and Barbuda, June 12 at Guatemala) as a tournament.  If so the U.S. might have made it out of the first round on goal differential, beating a disinterested Scotland 5-1, losing to Brazil 4-1, and drawing Canada 0-0.

More important was the way the US played (at times) pressuring high, carrying the ball forward quickly, and working the quick combos to generate scoring chances.  The team showed a capability to play the positive attack-minded soccer Klinsmann has been talking about since he took over.

Unfortunately, they also showed long stretches of passing and possession futility, lack of depth at key positions, and problems getting Donovan and Dempsey involved simultaneously.

Depth the key:  Most of us really like the style of play we’re starting to see.  It was on display against the Scots and throughout the second half against Brazil.  But three games over 12 days – a schedule similar to any FIFA tournament – exposed a lack of depth while seeming to exhaust key players.  Have a look at the team photo above.  Six of those ten field players will be 30 or above when the World Cup kicks of in 2014.  Seven players if you add Dempsey.  Sure, players in their lower 30s often operate in their prime, but you can’t expect them to do so again and again on short rest.  In a tourney like the World Cup, you need to be able to rotate guys in and out – not only to change tactics but to keep them fit enough to contribute.

I still remember how gassed Jay DeMerit, Carlos Bocanegra, Donovan, and Dempsey were at the end of the Ghana match in South Africa.  Those four had played virtually all of the group stage games, and they just didn’t have anything left towards the end.  Klinsmann relied heavily on Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Donovan, Bocanegra, 33-year old Steve Cherundolo in this latest stretch.  And those guys were mostly done against Canada.  Juergen talks about fitness levels, but he has to be realistic as well.

Hopefully the coaching staff avoids the trap Bob Bradley found himself in – only trusting about 13-14 players and not developing a complete roster.  As the best players on the US team age, we have to build that depth and trust in the rest of the roster.  It would have been nice to see more of Joe Corona, Geoff Cameron, Kyle Beckerman and company.

Finding the D:  The US defense continued to show some creakiness, with too many breakdowns the final two games.  Oguchi Onyewu didn’t look up for it against Brazil, and it this point you have to wonder if he ever will show his pre-injury form.  Clarence Goodson seemed steady and would probably be a lock beside Bocanegra if I were coaching.  Still want to see more of Cameron.  Fabian Johnson at left back was consistently one of the best players on the field before a minor injury caused him to sit out against Canada.  Cherundolo remains solid.

They finally appeared to be on the same page pressuring high and moving collectively for some stretches.  The passing from the central defense was still a problem, though (except for Cameron against Scotland), and you just have to wonder how much longer Bocanegra and Cherundolo remain viable.  Coach Klinsi needs to get younger guys like Eric Lichaj, Tim Ream, and Cameron integrated and soon.

Unlocking the Bunker:  Clint Dempsey is our best, most influential player.  One of the big sub-plots of this stretch was a) Clint not playing the first two due to injury, and b) Clint not really finding his place and comfort zone when he was in there.  Do you play him out left?  Just underneath the striker?  Let him roam?  The Coaching staff obviously haven’t figure it out yet.

Another question mark is how to best deploy the central midfielders – particularly Michael Bradley.  MB had a hand and nearly all the goals the U.S. scored over the last week, so you’d like to see him advanced.  Yet for some reason, Klinsmann had him lying the deepest of the the three for long stretches of the Brazil game and nearly all the Canada game.  If you must deploy three of Torres, Bradley, and Jones, make Jones the d-mid so the other two can move forward.  Alternatively, slot Edu in there at the rear, move Jones forward and take Torres off.  As good as he looked in the first half of the Scotland game, Jose Torres struggled the next two.

Canada played it just like nearly every regional opponent will against the U.S. (exceptions being Mexico and maybe Costa Rica at home) – compact the midfield, play 10 behind the ball, and dare us to put in effective crosses.  If Donovan and/or Fabian Johnson are out or having an off-night (see Canada), this will probably work.  It’s the same problem going back to Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena:  this team can play the counter pretty well but has problems when others employ those tactics.

This is why we hired Klinsmann – he’s supposed to instill that confidence and attacking mentality, to allow the team to move up a level and score consistently.  We thought we were starting to see it against Scotland, but maybe not.  The mentality and philosophy seem to be sinking in and yet you have to question some of the tactics and player selections.  Juergen has to get the young guys involved, get Dempsey rolling, and put the right guys in the right spots.  Otherwise no amount of positivity moving forward will help the team score.

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