Back in the MixPosted: April 4, 2017
When the United States men’s national team suffered two defeats in its first two games in the last round of competition to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the result was the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann and the hiring of previous national coach Bruce Arena. Since only 2 of the 10 matches in this round had been played, and 3 of the remaining 6 teams automatically qualify and the fourth still gets a playoff, it was way too early to panic. However, two more losses in the games played last week would have drastically increased the odds of our nation occupying an observers seat in the worlds most watched athletic competition. Given the intense interest in the USA during the 2014 Cup, a failure to qualify would be a sorely missed chance to once again cast the public eye on soccer.
The upcoming games consisted of a home game (San Jose, California) against Honduras and a trip to Panama City to play Panama. Neither of these opponents would typically strike fear into USA hearts , but given our team’s position, earning points from these 2 matches was considered a must. Honduras handled Trinidad and Tobago 3-1 last time out and Panama has one of the toughest defenses in the region, so nothing was for sure. Most observers were hoping for 4 points – a win against Honduras and a draw vs Panama. Although 2 wins would be great, CONCACAF away games present challenges rare in most soccer venues anywhere. Crowds within throwing range (fireworks, bottles filled with various distasteful liquids, etc), field surfaces that make every ground pass an adventure, and referees that turn blind to ridiculous physical play by the home team, make getting points on the road very difficult in our region. So a draw in Panama was going to be a tough ask.
First up was Honduras and Arena came out with a 4-4-2 diamond formation. The Soccer Yoda is very familiar with this system. It is my preferred formation, and I coach it in the same manner that the Americans used it against Honduras. The two forwards (Altidore and Dempsey) have complete freedom as to their movement. They can come back to get short passes from the midfield; they can run laterally and forward…looking for open spaces to receive balls that allow them to attack; they can work together in tandem so as to outnumber any defenders close by; they can run independently to create havoc with defenses who can’t figure out where to go and who to cover. Aiding them is an attacking midfielder who often is the key to the offense. This player provides passes to the forwards to put them into position to go toward the goal and can make the “killer” pass that creates scores. If the forwards pull defenders away from goal with their movement, the attacking mid can run into the open space behind them to strike at goal. Depending on the situation, this player can be more of a withdrawn forward than a midfielder and can join the forwards to provide three attackers in a close area. For this important task Arena chose Christian Pulisic, the 18 yr old Pennsylvania prodigy playing and starring in Germany with Dortmund, one of the best teams in the Bundesliga. This was a gamble in trusting such an important position to a youth who is comparatively new to the national team battles with regional foes. Behind Pulisic was a defensive or “holding” midfielder who provided defense in front of the back line and helped the offense, acting as the instigator of attacks by providing that all important first pass that set the offense in motion. Micheal Bradley, a veteran who has had both brilliant and not-so-brilliant outings, took this role.
As it turned out, the system worked to perfection. Honduran defenders stayed back allowing Altidore and Dempsey to roam. Although a withdrawn defense can be tough to beat, Pulisic joined the top 2 and provided some excellent passes to break the defense and assisted on 2 goals in the first half alone. And the unsure Hondurans allowed Bradley to dribble across the top of the penalty area without pressure so he fired a left-footed shot with eyes on it into the lower far corner of the goal. By halftime it was 3-0. At the half, Honduras decided to become more aggressive in the back and challenge the forwards as they moved. Immediately Pulisic saw the space behind them and with a nice pass from Altidore it was 4-0 with 15 seconds of the start of the 2nd half. Another Altidore pass to Pulisic, who found Dempsey running free and the score mounted. Add a rather amazing Dempsey free kick and the 6-0 final gave the Americans not only the 3 points they needed but also the unexpected benefit of six goals to create a positive goal differential which may become all important at the end of the qualifying competition.
The next game was a different situation altogether. First of all, 3 starters from the Honduras match were unable to play against Panama. Sebastian Lletget, who started against Honduras at right midfield and scored the first goal, was injured just a few minutes later in that game and had to come out. He was replaced by Alejandro Bedoya who did well for the rest of the time, so Bedoya got the start against Panama. Larger losses came from John Brooks’ sinus condition and Geoff Cameron’s muscle strain. The towering Brooks had started at center back and Cameron on the right of the back four versus Honduras. Cameron himself was a replacement for two players who might have started in front of him, DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson. So Coach Arena faced some tough choices in deciding what to do about his defense for this important game. He went with Tim Ream in the middle and Graham Zusi on the right. Ream had a minimum of national team experience and Zusi has done well as a midfielder, but was a question mark as a back. However, with so many injuries on defense, there were few other choices. In addition, this was an away match with many of the previously mentioned problems staring the Americans in the face (and other body parts) when they took the field in Panama City. As a result, Arena changed his formation in the midfield. Instead of the diamond, he went with a flat four midfielders across the field. Pulisic went to the wide right, Nagbe went wider left and Bradley shared the middle with Jermaine Jones. Jones is a very experienced defensive midfielder, having played in many USA matches in the Caribbean. That experience, along with Bradley’s own history with the national team, would help balance Pulisic and Nagbe, the newcomers to this type of battle. The problem with a flat defensive midfield and two running forwards is that is difficult to find the front men without the attacking midfielder that the diamond midfield provided against Honduras. But the American coach knew that his defense was tentative and wanted the midfield to help the task of keeping Panama off the scoreboard.
The game was every bit a CONCACAF qualifier played in Central America. The field was chopped liver, the crowd was bananas (no pun intended) and the ref could hardly find his whistle or cards. As for match quality, I surely wouldn’t show the video of this match to any prospective youth players. Neither side could maintain any real possession and constructive offensive moves were few. Although having Pulisic isolated on the wide right with space to operate would seem to be a good move, the Panamanians had an effective strategy. They simply knocked him down…..again and again. And it worked fairly well as the referee did nothing to deter their behavior. Jones was appropriately destructive on defense, but he contributed little of any offense except for one notable long ball and Bradley was too far from his forwards to deliver any effective passes. So the game devolved into a physical long ball exercise. But, at the 38 minute mark, Pulisic ran deep down the right getting past the Panamanian left side defense and Jones found him. Once he got the ball he broke to the center, held off Torres, the strong Panamanian center back and slipped a short pass to Dempsey who didn’t miss. The lead was short lived however as the Central Americans converted a monstrously long throw-in thanks to a poor clearance by Ream and a lucky bounce. The second half was more of the same but without any Pulisic heroics and the only drama came late when Panama realized that a win at home is the aim in these matches and raised their offensive game. But Tim Howard is still Tim Howard and the rest of the USA defense did just enough to exit with a draw. It was an effective result even if purists like myself turned their eyes away during much of the game.
So, the USA got the 4 points minimum that was the goal before these particular games began. In June, Trinidad and Tobago comes to Denver. They are in last place right now and playing in Denver should produce a win for the Americans. But then it is off to Mexico, to mile high Estadio Azteca and the toughest venue in the region. A draw in that one would be a real success. Once again, to get 4 points in the pair of games would be a good result and would possibly earn that important trip to Russia in 2018.
So far Bruce Arena has done what was asked of him and has done it while coping with a mountain of injuries. With consistent effort, some better luck with hurt players and continued solid results, in a few months we should be calculating how early in the morning we will need to get up to watch the USA in the World Cup.