The Soccer Yoda constantly observes many soccer matches of differing levels and ages, males and females…..in person, streaming through the internet and on television. But as for being a fan of any team or teams, there are very few sides that spark my emotions. Among those that do, there are two teams in particular in which I invest large amounts of time and energy. I follow their activities whether they are playing or not and enjoy periods of elation or endure times of depression depending upon their results. One such team is the United States Men’s National Team. Actually, being the patriotic person that I am and considering that I have personally coached 8 youngsters who have reached this level, I cheer for any team representing our country. But since the senior men’s team tends to represent all of American soccer (correctly or not), there is extra emotional involvement with them. The other team is Liverpool. Rooting for the Reds lately is an exercise guaranteed to produce bipolar behavior. Just in the last two weeks in two consecutive games against high level competition, they went from a very impressive 4-0 walloping of Arsenal to a 5-0 disaster against Manchester City. But, win or lose, they have my club team loyalty and my bucket list includes someday singing You’ll Never Walk Alone while watching the Reds at their home field of Anfield.
Last week both my teams were involved in important matches and they resembled each other in eerily similar ways. Unfortunately those similarities were not welcome by their followers and certainly not by me.
Soccer is, by nature, a defensive game. Scoring goals is not easy and enormous amounts of physical and mental energy is spent on devising ways to score and then on putting those strategies into practice. Teams that give up goals easily have difficulty winning because outscoring opponents on a regular basis is very difficult. There are basic methods of individual and team defense that, if practiced proficiently and consistently, can make it very tough on offenses. One of those strategies is the concept that individual defenders must keep track of offensive players as they move into positions in attack and especially if they get near the goal in onside positions. Defenders must know where the ball is, but they also must know where attackers are and they must limit the distance between those attacking players and themselves. The act of “ball-watching” at the expense of keeping track of opponent forwards often results in attacking players getting the ball with space between themselves and the defense. If those offensive players can shoot accurately…. goals result. No defender wants to commit the error of ball-watching and it is considered a basic mistake in defensive soccer.
At national team levels such basic errors as ball-watching are considered major mistakes and decent players know better than to lose attacking opponents anywhere, much less near the goal. So , last week , when the USA played Costa Rica in an important World Cup qualifying match in New Jersey, solid defense by the Americans was expected.The game started on a positive note for the home team. Possession and probing offense seemed to indicate that the USA understood the importance of the game and had a good plan to attack the visitors. Then, at the 30 minute mark, Costa Rica’s Marco Urena managed to get between the two USA center backs Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream without either one providing an obstacle to his receiving a pass. Now Urena is not an international star. He plays in the MLS for the San Jose Earthquakes and, while scoring a few times this season, he is not considered a major danger to opponents goals. Perhaps he would have been noticed more quickly if he did have a greater reputation. As it was, Cameron looked to have his attention upfield and Ream let Urena get inside him. When the pass came, the USA defense was in trouble.
Although Ream recovered to cut off Urena’s direct path to the goal, the Costa Rican still managed to get off a shot around him which beat American goalkeeper Tim Howard and the USA was behind. The visitors played solid defense after that and late in the game Cameron compounded his mistake by giving up the ball deep in American territory and Urena scored again. The 2-0 defeat put the USA in a poor position, needing some kind of a result in the next match against Honduras in order to keep World Cup hopes alive.
The next game was in Honduras and the hosts scheduled the match in the middle of the day to take advantage of the heat and then the government declared a national holiday so the crowd would be large and intimidating. In addition, the grass on the field was left fairly long to slow down the American game. Such is life competing with Central American countries in soccer. Not surprisingly, USA coach Bruce Arena replaced Cameron and Ream at center back positions with Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. These two have played together many times for the American team and seemed to be a good choice for this match. Arena also decided to use a long ball attack to counter the heat and grass. The game mimicked volleyball without any particular advantage to either side. Then, at 27 minutes, the American defense fumbled again. The Hondurans had the ball on their left, about 30 yards from the USA goal. But the situation seemed well covered. One attacking player, Romell Quioto , was in an outside position, however he was covered by Graham Zusi with Gonzalez backing him up.
The pass was an attempted through ball to Quioto, Gonzalez was retreating and appeared to have the Honduran in his sights. But, as the ball approached him, he let it roll past instead of playing it….seemingly not seeing the danger presented by Quioto, who broke past Zusi.
The ball went past Gonzalez, who then realized that Quioto was breaking on the ball. He chose to slide in order to knock the ball away before the Honduran could get to it. But he botched the slide, and instead, put the ball right in front of the grateful Quioto.
The Honduran placed a perfect shot past goalkeeper Brad Guzan and the USA was behind. Ball-watching had again struck the Red, White and Blue and our World Cup hopes hung by the proverbial thread. Luckily the USA’s Bobby Wood found an equalizer late in the game and a draw was the result. So our chance to play in Russia next summer now rides on a huge home game with Panama followed by an away match against Trinidad and Tobago, both in October. Hopefully the American defense will be better in those matches.
While the USA was giving the Soccer Yoda a series of heart palpitations, my Liverpool team was all fun. A roaring attack led by Sadio Mane was tearing up English and European opposition and while the Reds also had some defensive problems, mistakes like the Americans were making just don’t happen at the higher level of play that Liverpool represents. Or so I thought.
The big game was Liverpool versus Manchester City. Although early in the season, Manchester City is a major threat to take the English Premier League title so a match between these two championship challengers represented a chance for the winner to get a jump on that prize. And the game started well for my guys. Passing was brisk, possession was ours, early threats on goal were one-sided in Liverpool’s favor. I should have learned to look away from the tv screen at the 25 minute mark from the recent USA matches, but this was Liverpool…..this was different. As the 25th minute started the ball was being bounced around by each team’s midfielders who were playing their version of soccer tennis. Neither team put the ball on the ground at that moment and it was getting headed back and forth in the middle of the field. While that was happening City forward Sergio Aguero literally WALKED ( yes, CAPITAL letters ) from behind Liverpool’s two centerbacks into a position between them and neither saw him as they were watching the midfield volleyball antics. Then City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne spotted Aguero in his advantageous position.
De Bruyne brought the ball down and, for the Soccer Yoda, it was deja vu all over again. Another defender-splitting pass to a forward who gained his position unseen until it was too late. Aguero dribbled around stranded goalkeeper Simon Mignolet and City had the lead. 10 minutes later Mane was red-carded for a controversial foul and the rout was on. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was concerned about the upcoming Champions League match with Sevilla 4 days later and made changes at halftime to rest many of his most important players. It ended up 5-0 Manchester City.
So what did we learn from these events? We learned that, even at the highest levels, fundamentals are still fundamental. Basic mistakes like defensive ball-watching can occur in any game, from the youngest kids to the most experienced professionals, if the players are not constantly alert to their surroundings. And the Soccer Yoda learned that, for now at least, he should cross his fingers very hard and be very afraid during the 25 – 30 minute mark of his favorite teams games!
Recently the Soccer Yoda came across an article about the USSF attempting to standardize the manner in which player positions are referred to in this country. After checking with an instructor for the USSF coaching courses I discovered that, yes, standard position references are preferred and are being used in class and that numbers are considered superior to position names in this regard. To understand the use of numbers for positions, one must be familiar with the history of soccer development, especially considering historical formations and substitution rules.
In the 1920’s and early 1930’s , the most popular formation in use was the 2-3-5.
As seen above , the formation has 2 defenders with 3 midfielders and 5 forwards. Sometimes, like in Italy, the 5 forwards were staggered to add depth. During this time, the use of numbers on the players jerseys began to become popular, not having been used during the first 50 years or so of the sports formal development. There is a reason that this custom, of such obvious need to modern sports fans, was slow to come into use. It was the substitution rules……or actually the lack of them. In most competitions there were no substitutions allowed until the mid 1960’s and not in the World Cup until 1970. The starting 11 players were the only 11 players to participate in a game, therefore there was no need to differentiate starting players from substitutes by using unique jersey numbers. In the 1930’s player numbers did finally became fashionable, but there was a need for only 11 of them. The numbers were used to indicate the players position for each game, not the individual player himself. So the number 2 (right fullback) might be worn by one individual in one match and different person in the next. Remember, the non-playing members of the team did not need numbers (or uniforms for that matter) since they weren’t going to participate at all in that game.
The numbers were labeled defense to offense, right to left, starting with the goalkeeper as #1 and going from there. So the numbers could be used to describe player positions just as well as the names of the positions.
During that decade (1930’s) Arsenal started using a variation of the 2-3-5, and since they had become one of the most winning clubs of the time, the formation was copied by many (of course).
The center halfback was moved back to increase the defensive strength of the formation and the insides were also moved back to increase depth on offense. Although the center half was no longer a “halfback” and the position became a primarily defensive one, the name stuck and even today some commentators refer to central defensive players as “center halves”. The insides job was to feed the outside players or the center forward. The formation became known as the WM from the letters which can made by drawing lines from one position to the next among the top half of the team and among the bottom half. Each position became associated with each number and the physical traits needed in each position became attached to the number describing the position. A #9 was a big player, very good with headers and possessing a powerful shot. #7’s and #11’s were fast, very good 1 on 1 dribblers and defense was not a needed skill for them. 8 and 10’s had excellent passing skills, great vision and the ability to construct offense moves and so on with the rest of the 11 players on the field. The number described the position in a quick easily understood manner.
Then in the late 1960’s, substitution became a part of the game. Players needed numbers in excess of 2-11 and when a new player entered the game wearing a larger number than 11 he could go to whatever position for which he was needed, unrestricted by the number on his shirt. As the game changed and players became more mobile in their duties on the field, their shirt numbers grew less and less attached to their starting positions. Larger squads required larger numbers and today it is not uncommon for players wearing numbers in the twenties or even higher to start games. However, as mentioned in earlier posts, soccer is a game with a deep attachment to tradition. Even today, many forwards have numbers 7-11, often defenders wear low numbers, etc. As for positions, the number attachment still remains to a large extent. When Messi started games for Barcelona in an advanced central position and then moved backwards towards the middle of the field, the system was called a “false 9”, in that Messi gave the appearance of a traditional center forward, but then moved back in a move designed to pull defenders out of the middle to open up space for other players. The fact that Messi wore #10 while playing a position known universally as a “false nine” shows the lack of connection between shirt number and position number. But the use of the number 9, false or not, shows the long-standing attachment of number to position.
In modern times we have many formations and variations on those formations. As a result, the names used to describe various positions vary depending on the formation, the role of the player, the person describing the position and other variables. For instance, a defender playing in the back outside of a formation might be called a “wingback”, an “outside back” or a “fullback”. Given the multiple names for various positions, it seems logical for the USSF to attempt to establish some uniformity in our country’s soccer terminology. They are using the 4-3-3 as a basic formation and encouraging numbers to be used in place of names to refer to player roles.
Notice in the above , that the numbers used for each position are very similar to those used 80 years ago. 9 is still the center forward, 7 and 11 are still wings. The playmaking midfielder is 10, reminiscent of the “inside” who wore number 10 and fulfilled the same role in those days. 5 is still a central defender, now joined by 4 in the four back lineup. 2 and 3 have moved outside but are still defenders and referring to a player as a “3” certainly does reduce the variety of names that outside defenders have for their position at present.
However, the 4-3-3 is only one formation of play and there are others that don’t fit the USSF numbering system so well. The 4-4-2 diamond is one such formation. It has been used by many teams, including the USA men’s national team. While some of the numbers do fit the USSF designations, others do not. The back line’s 2 thru 5 numbers still describe their roles as does the defensive midfielder #6. And, there is a center forward that #9 can represent. But then we get problems.
There are two “center forwards” in this system, both interchangeable with each other, which is one of the attributes of formations that use two forwards…..they are difficult to defend against given the unpredictable movements of those forwards. Now, if numbers are supposed to represent roles as in #9 is an up-front forward…..then there are two 9’s in this formation (at least to the Soccer Yoda). Similarly if #8 is a central midfielder playing equal parts offense and defense…..then there are two 8’s as well. #10 is an attacking midfielder in the 4-3-3 and in the 4-4-2 diamond as well. So the numbers should look like this……simple:
As we can see, 9 is a still a central forward and 8 is still a central midfielder. As to 7 and 11, well they are wings who play wide and are largely attack oriented. And there aren’t any players in this system with those roles so there isn’t a 7 or an 11. But the USSF doesn’t see it that way. They want one player with each number, not multiples. So in the 4-4-2 formation this becomes the numbers used to describe the positions and roles:
This seems to contradict the concept that numbers describe roles on the field so that there is no confusion when discussing the players and their duties. Now a 10 is a central forward just like a 9. 7 and 11 are no longer right and left wings, they are central midfielders. and 8 has become an attacking midfielder instead of being balanced between offense and defense. The roles of the numbers have changed in order to fit the “one unique number for each player” mantra. Therefore, according to the USSF, when talking about roles on the team, we must also refer to the formation being referenced. “The 10 in the 4-4-2 diamond” becomes necessary because the “10 in the 4-3-3” has a distinctly different job. There are lots of formations with many differing roles for players and many do not fit the designated numbers of the USSF 4-3-3 outline. The necessity of referring to which system is being discussed seemingly contradicts the stated objective of simplifying and standardizing the position references. And, unless the USSF comes out with a chart of numbers for each and every formation, the use of which numbers for which position in each different system is left up to the individual and there is no standardization anyway.
“OK” the reader might ask, what’s the big deal? It’s just numbers. But there is an issue….at least to me. Recently I saw a tape of an excellent youth girls team. This team was very well coached, had a great possession game with loads of control, movement and a terrific combination of thoughtful and skillful play. They were good enough to win the national championship in their age group. They played a unique 4-1-4-1 system with a holding midfielder who controlled the game and a central forward who moved laterally as well as forward and set up her attacking midfielders (all 4 of them). But I was informed that actually, in reference to the USSF numbering system, the team used a 4-3-3 with very withdrawn wings and a deep holding midfielder. You see, there is no argument about numbers and roles if every team is using a 4-3-3. Now in this case the deference to the 4-3-3 doesn’t make much difference anyway. The numbers and roles fit the 4-1-4-1 fairly well compared to some other formations. But here is the problem: our youth system lacks in the development of short game mental and physical skills. Our kids can generally kick the heck out of the ball and can run like crazy to get to it, they can win 50-50 balls and can “be aggressive”. But when it comes to checking back, to providing short support for teammates, to running as a means of creating space for themselves AND for others, to making the simple possession-keeping pass……well, not so much. The USSF recognized this in their new youth rules. While the 4-3-3 can be a formation in which all these techniques are used, far too often in this country it is not. The insistence that numbers following the 4-3-3 are used in all discussions of the game could turn into a lack of variety in formations used by our already imagination-lacking coaches. It is a worry that the ease of using 4-3-3 numbers and the difficulty in transferring those numbers to other systems will stifle creativity in our youth coaches. Of course, for kids under the age of twelve ( under the new youth rules) there are not 11 players on the field and numbers might not be best for describing the roles of those players anyway. One thing is true, however. With standardization comes the risk of conformity and in a sport where imagination can be the best attribute, that is a worry.
Last week the Confederation Cup was played in Russia and won by a German team missing many of that nation’s best players. The Confederation Cup tournament is a warm-up to the World Cup every four years, held in the host country of the next World Cup and many of the processes to be used the next year are tested for readiness in this smaller version of the world’s biggest sporting event. Stories like the success of the German B team, the continued strength of Chile, the failure of Mexico to dent the top tier teams (again) were all worthy of discussion, but the use of the Video Assistant Referee will have the greatest long-term effect on the sport.
The VAR is a technological addition to the management of the game that seeks to eliminate errors by the referee and assistants on the field. Added to the goal-line system that has been in place for several years, one gets the idea that FIFA is finally entering the modern era. To an American sporting audience familiar with the use of video replay in all other major spectator sports in this country, these changes beg a “what took you so long” response. But many Americans don’t understand the massive effect that tradition has on soccer around the world. Remember, this is the sport that still doesn’t recognize the invention of the stopwatch, so adding these other tech innovations represents a huge change in viewpoint by the organization that runs almost all soccer on the planet.
First, lets examine how the VAR works. While many up-to-date soccer fans know of it’s existence, very few know just how it works. First of all, the crew that operates the VAR system consists of 3 individuals. The crew can be at the location of the game or very near, but technological communication being what it is…the crew might be in a room hundreds of miles away. The crew consists of the head person – the Video Assistant Referee, who must be a present or past field referee, and who makes the final decisions of the VAR system. The second person is the Assistant Video Assistant Referee (no, I’m not making that up). The AVAR helps the VAR in making the calls. There is also a Replay Operator who operates the video machines and plays the appropriate bits of the game for the consideration of the other two. There is a bank of monitors so the two video refs can get many looks at the play and even compare them to each other. There are four types of plays that can be reviewed by the video crew: 1) goals – was there was a violation leading up to the scoring of the goal? These “violations” can be hand balls, missed fouls etc, but the primary question that tends to be decided is offside. 2) penalty kick decisions 3) straight red cards – red cards pulled as a result of a second yellow cannot be reviewed 4) mistaken identity in awarding a red or yellow card – yes, this seems strange, but it does happen once in a rare while.
A review can be called for by either the field referee or the VAR. Field refs occasionally know that they haven’t had the best vantage point for a call, so the VAR allows for another set of eyes (or two) to look at the play from a different view and speed. The VAR can conduct a check of a call without bothering the field ref if he feels that the call may be wrong. If all seems correct the VAR does nothing, this is called a “silent check”. If the VAR decides that there has been a “clear ” error ( that is the language that triggers a review) , the VAR notifies the field ref that the video indicates an error has been made. At that time the field ref can accept the judgement of the VAR or decide to take a look for himself by using a video system set up on the side of the field. The ref can also decide he was right with his initial decision and ignore the VAR. The on field play is stopped by the ref when a VAR review is taking place, a signal consisting of a rectangle formed by index fingers is given to notify fans when the review is being used. Players who make the rectangle motion to demand a review or who interfere with the process are given an automatic yellow card. Perhaps this is a first step in lowering the amount of dissent referees allow from players on a regular basis, a move long overdue. FIFA has provided guidelines in regard to the use of the system, especially in respect to slow motion. Regular speed is to be used in all cases except to determine the amount of contact in handballs and physical offenses. In reviewing goals and penalty kick decisions, the “beginning of the attacking phase” can be used as a starting point for the review.
The first major use of the system came in a friendly match between France and Spain this past March. France scored from a header set up by a chip from midfield. The goal was scored, the on-field assistant referee’s flag stayed down and the French celebrated. But the VAR reviewed the play and notified the on-field ref that the French were offside and the goal was taken away. And he was right.
Later in the match Spain had a goal disallowed by the on-field referee, but the VAR correctly found the goal was good. So a potential 1-1 draw became a 2-0 victory for Spain and the VAR had become a factor in international soccer.
Since then the system has been used most notably in the Confederation Cup and, as would be expected with the use of a new process in multiple games, the results were mixed. A couple decisions took a lengthy amount of time and the video tape was seemingly overlooked in a couple calls when the video indicated the standing decision was wrong. In the final match an elbow by a Chilean defender looked very deliberate and the on-field referee called for video review. Despite the video showing a very red-cardish foul, only a yellow was given. This, of course, set up howls of complaints about the system in general but FIFA President Gianni Infantino indicated after the tournament that he was happy with the overall performance of the process and it will be used in select future FIFA events including next summer’s World Cup. The system was good enough not to change Germany’s decision to use it in their national league next year and the English have indicated they will use it in their cup competitions next season with possible introduction to regular league competition in 2018. In the USA, the MLS is planning to use it in all games starting next month.
Of course, in a sport as tradition oriented as soccer, the VAR has produced lots of comments with opinions running both pro and con. The main complaint revolves around the time it can take to make decisions. Although some reviews have been quick enough to avoid major stoppages to play, others have taken long enough to stop the game flow completely. Goal decisions don’t disrupt the game very much as the time taken to celebrate goals is usually enough time to review the play. Reviews on foul decisions, which normally take little time, can stretch out when video is involved. But the Soccer Yoda has heard one complaint, voiced by a number of soccer pundits, which seems rather incredulous, at least to me. That is the concept that incorrect calls are part of the game- they provide a “human” element and many talking points for fans to argue about with each other. One would think that accuracy would be the major aim of referee decisions and not “talking points”, but some don’t see it that way. They point to Diego Maradona’s famous “Hand of God” goal scored on England in the 1986 World Cup as a moment which would never have been allowed by video and therefore a loss to soccer history. I look at it differently. In that same match, Maradona brilliantly dribbled through practically the entire English team starting from his own half to score a goal that might be the best goal ever scored in a major soccer competition, but the controversy over his hand ball goal commands the discussions of that game and that World Cup.
The laws of the game are explicit, they don’t give leeway for bad decisions by officials. Offside is offside, hand balls are not allowed. Flow can be important to the game and game stoppages can affect that flow. But FIFA has decided that accuracy in game-deciding referee decisions takes precedence. As for talking points, there are calls which require opinion…..fouls can be decided by the observer, red cards are frequently a matter of referee discretion. And the VAR system is still controlled by humans…there will still be controversy even as the process becomes more refined, fans will still have plenty to talk about, that is certain.
Last week the USA men’s team was back in action for two very important World Cup qualifying matches. After stumbling to 2 defeats in their first games which led to the replacement of Jurgen Klinsmann with Bruce Arena, the team had earned a win and a draw in their next 2 encounters, thus putting them back in the middle of the contest to earn a spot at the World Cup in Russia next summer.
The two matches were against Trinidad and Tobago at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Co. and against biggest rival Mexico in Mexico at the Estadio Azteca near Mexico City. While the first game was figured to be a must win and very doable… being at home and against the last place team in the hexagonal group, the second was considered equivalent to (in the immortal words of Jim Croce) tugging on Superman’s cape and pulling the mask off the old Lone Ranger.
By the time the match ended in Mexico there were many American soccer fans (including this one) whose prior perceptions about the USA team will have to be reconsidered, if not thrown out entirely. Bruce Arena went out on a very long limb which proved to be much stronger than most anybody would have believed. As a result, there are some new thoughts about the USA men’s team that counter these former ideas:
1. WRONG – The USA has only a handful of players that can be consistently counted on in international matches Prevailing thought was that once you got past Clint Dempsey, Josie Altidore, Geoff Cameron, Tim Howard and maybe…Michael Bradley, there were no more players that could perform adequately on the international level for the USA. The first game seemed to strengthen that thought.
The 11 players who started against Trinidad totaled 715 appearances for the USA. Five of them had been in more than 55 games each for their country. It was a very experienced group but that was expected. Then Bruce Arena came out with his lineup against Mexico and surprised almost all of those who follow the USA.
This lineup kept only 4 of the 11 who played against Trinidad and Tobago. There were 536 appearances for the USA in this group, 179 fewer than the Trinidad lineup. The difference is even more notable in that only 2 of these 11 had more than 55 games for the USA and those two had almost 50% of the international experience of the total lineup. In addition, one of those two – DeMarcus Beasley – actually retired from international play in 2014 and although he came back a year later, he had only played once for the USA since then. In the hours between Arena announcing the lineup and the beginning of the game, fans of the team shook their heads and wondered what the heck he was thinking. And then the USA pulled a draw in the toughest place to play in the region. So it turns out that there are many more internationally capable players in the US than fans had thought previously.
2. NOT AS CORRECT AS MANY THINK – The US back line is its weakest link and cannot stand up to constant pressure from any decent international team In the World Cup 2014 elimination game against Belgium, the USA held off a very good opponent for over 90 minutes before finally succumbing in extra time. But that effort was due to Tim Howard’s amazing performance, stopping 18 shots. The American back line did little to help him that day. Recently they gave up a late goal to Mexico, 4 scores to Costa Rica in a dreadful effort and even after Arena took over they allowed Panama a soft goal that took a possible excellent win away from home and reduced it to a merely satisfactory draw. Even the shutout of Trinidad was not without some scary moments in front of our goal. So most observers looked for the Mexicans to riddle the USA back line, no matter who played there. Arena did figure he needed some extra help on defense and played a formation which had 5 backs for the majority of the game. The idea was to give up possession to the home team but keep them from threatening the goal and look for chances to beat them with counter attacks. This was crazy according to most all experts. How many times have American fans and commentators said, over the years, “we must have more possession to take the pressure off the back line”? But, except for just a couple moments, those 5 held firm despite Mexico’s possession. The Mexican goal came from a rare fast attack on their part and was the only shot on goal of the game for them (shots that hit goal posts are not considered “on goal”). Mexico had 73.8 % possession and only one shot on goal…..and not that many other shots either. Guzan did not have to do a “Tim Howard vs Belgium” imitation and the USA defense gained in reputation, at least for now.
3.WRONG IN CERTAIN SITUATIONS – USA players do not have the ability to change tactics in the middle of matches The USA national team has had numerous successes over the years with varying formations but most observers have felt that lack of experience at high levels keeps Americans from having the savvy to change attacking ideas during matches. That idea must be reexamined now and it was the Trinidad and Tobago match that showed a higher level of tactical awareness than previously attributed to our national team. At the beginning of the game the USA came out with a 4-4-2 formation using the two outside midfielders as withdrawn wings. Arena wanted them to stay as outside as possible in order to spread the T&T defense. This left Michael Bradley isolated in the middle so Pulisic came back on most possessions to offer Bradley an easy forward pass that kept the ball on American feet. (step 1 below)
Pulisic frequently played the ball back to Bradley who then got it outside to either Johnson or Nagbe (step 2 above). They, in turn, either took the ball down the outside themselves or passed it inside and then got it back down the wings. This produced a wave of USA crosses into the T&T box but, except for one good contact by Altidore, there was little danger to the Trinidad goal. The tv commentators were not happy with the American first half and even the former General Secretary of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association commented to me,”T&T central defenders are quite good in the air. I am surprised at Arena’s approach..”. As the second half wore on things changed. There was opportunity to advance the ball more centrally and the USA spotted it. Nagbe beat one defender on the dribble and ran past another before sending a pass to Dempsey who was posted in the middle. 3 nice passes later Pulisic, who had more freedom to go forward than in the first half, poked in the first American goal.
Later on Yedlin took the ball through the same space, made the same pass (but to Altidore this time) and the return found Pulisic. Goal number two assured victory and both goals resulted from a change in attacking method during the game. Americans can spot openings and adjust during matches after all.
4. NOT RIGHT NOW – Michael Bradley needs to be replaced in the USA midfield Michael Bradley has been THE central USA midfielder for 10 years . He doesn’t have the speed to beat defenders to the goal and frequently not to the ball either. He isn’t a strong defender who can shut down quick opposing attackers. If he is placed too far forward he frequently gets pressured into giving the ball to the other team. So what good is he? That is a question which has been asked more and more frequently in the last couple years. What Bradley does is often unnoticed by the general soccer watching public. He plays best as a withdrawn central midfielder and often acts as the “quarterback” of the team, placing passes…..settling the team down when needed…..aiding with defense by helping other defenders and occupying spaces that the opposition would like to operate from. Most of these tasks do not grab the attention of the viewing and cheering public. Earlier in his career he scored more goals than recently but he was given a more offense role in those days. Still, he has contributed directly to goals like his long-range strike against Honduras which probably surprised more Americans than Hondurans. So his game versus Mexico came as a shock to many USA fans…..and an earth-shaking event to those Mexicans who thought the USA would roll over at the Azteca. He caught Chicharito unawares to steal the ball, then, seeing Mexican keeper Ochoa off his line, he chipped a perfect 35 yd. ball to put 85,000 home fans into a state of absolute silence.
He marshaled the defense that we have already discussed and came within inches of pulling off another incredible strike and winning the game. As a result there are now some observers claiming that Bradley might be the best American player ever….which is probably an overreaction to his terrific game. Others are merely stating that his goal at the Azteca was the best American goal ever scored….which could very well be correct. Wherever he and his goal land in the history of USA soccer, one thing is apparent after last weekend…..at this time, the USA doesn’t have anyone else who can do Bradley’s job as well as he does. Kellyn Acosta, Darlington Nagbe, maybe even a withdrawn Christian Pulisic….in a few years one of these players or a combination of them or perhaps someone not on anyone’s radar right now could take over the vital central midfield position for our national team. But right now it is Michael Bradley, period.
The USA did not guarantee a place in the World Cup with these last two matches, but they certainly moved closer to Russia with their results. Perhaps more important, the make up of the team, it’s quality, it’s depth and it’s capabilities seem to be changing and improving. We need to look at this team differently, it is better than we thought.
Please note that the opinions expressed in this post, particularly in regard to training methods, are those of the Soccer Yoda, although many soccer institutions, like the USSF as an example, agree wholeheartedly.
Well, it’s that time again. Each year around the end of May soccer clubs around the country have their tryouts. Thousands of youngsters show their skills and hope to join the team of their choice.Even if that doesn’t happen, almost all clubs will find a place for the kids trying out for their teams. And if that doesn’t work out, there are other clubs and leagues to be had. In other words, virtually every child who wants to play soccer will find a place to play. But what isn’t guaranteed is the type of experience each player will have in the sport. And, more often than not, that experience is heavily influenced by the coach of the child.
Success in soccer can be defined in many ways and is usually dependent upon the goals of the player and his/her parents. These goals can range from “be prepared for a pro career” to “have fun and don’t break anything!” We know that only a minuscule percentage of kids will play professionally and that, despite the dreams of so many families, only 5.6% of boys playing high school soccer will play in college (according to the NCAA). Statistics are about the same for girls, except the number playing pro is even less than the boys. We also know that not all youth players will even be proficient enough to play for their high school and even less will make the high level programs that take the place of high school soccer for some of the very gifted. So, this means that we must recognize that life lessons that carry beyond soccer are extremely important for our young players if they are to carry benefits gained from their soccer experience for the rest of their lives.
But it is not the purpose of this post to discuss the non-soccer learnings that can be derived from the sport, as important as they may be. Here is why…..unless youngsters are having fun they tend to drop out within a comparatively short span of time. At that point they aren’t getting any life lessons from playing soccer anyway. Although other factors may drive a kid from the sport, failure to improve skills is a leading cause of the “this isn’t fun anymore” syndrome. After all, it is fun to learn and get better and often boring not to do so. And of course if a child does harbor dreams of advancement to higher levels, learning new skills is a must. It is possible, even if a child loves the game enough to keep playing for years, that skill development can be neglected by coaches. I have seen, not very long ago, youngsters who were veterans of a number of years of soccer and yet could not use their opposite foot, couldn’t use the outside of either foot, didn’t know the offside rule despite playing with it for years and whose tactical knowledge consisted of “the goal is down there, why don’t we just kick the ball down there?” Once upon a time that might have been expected, although not preferred, because so many youth coaches were moms and dads with little or no soccer experience who were volunteering so kids could play. Not today. Parents are spending good money and devoting more time to the demands of the soccer club than to be satisfied with a lack of soccer growth in their children. One problem is that, to less experienced parents who are paying so much attention to game action and scores, it is not easily apparent if their child is not advancing. If they spent money on a piano teacher for a couple years and their child was playing the same songs as in their first couple months, they would know it. But it is not nearly as obvious if their youngster is still playing the soccer equivalent of Chopsticks after years of soccer experience.
Other countries are not nearly as dependent on coaches to develop their soccer talent. Brazil, Italy, Argentina, Germany……these soccer powers have a culture to help produce talent. Kids play for hours a day in the streets or neighborhood fields in small groups, with makeshift goals, emulating their “football” heroes that they see on tv. There are no coaches, no parents, no recorded scores or tournament championships to be had. Just kids having fun playing the sport and trying new skills with no negative feedback if they mess up while learning. It has been said that the more our youth training is like playing in the streets the better our kids would learn.
Soccer is a sport played with the players feet, brain and heart. Although playing with lots of heart certainly helps achievement and is one of those “non-soccer” attributes parents want their children to develop, the deciding factor in the consideration of the achievement level of any player is far more often the players feet and brain than his/her heart. And it is in those areas, the feet and brain, that good coaches stand apart from the ordinary. So lets look at the methods used (or not to be used) in order to produce soccer players who are at the top of their potential and are having fun while constantly improving their game.
A. Minimum of running for the sake of running.
A top German professional coach said to me once,” You know what you get when you have your players run lots of laps? Good lap runners!” Youngsters need to touch the ball to develop ball skills. The more touches done right, the more proficient they become. Running done without a ball or not in a soccer situation does nothing to develop the ability of a soccer player. Of course, the “win” syndrome plays a part with coaches who run their players. Coaches may feel that they can make up for a lack of skill and tactics by being in “better shape” or “more aggressive”. But 1) just running is not fun to most kids and 2) eventually kids and teams who can use their feet and brains on the field pass those who can’t, no matter how much those latter teams can run or how fast they can get to the ball. For older kids cardio work may be needed, but it can be gained by exercises using a ball.
B. Practice should be efficient, lots of soccer and less of other things.
Take a look at the picture below:
Of the 10 young ladies in participating in this exercise, 1 is practicing soccer and 9 are practicing standing in line. If the drill lasts 20 minutes, that’s 2 minutes of soccer and 18 minutes of line waiting per player. Coaches should use drill structure that involves a high percentage of players in soccer activity and less involved in standing around. Here is an example:
This is a dribbling drill similar in structure to the picture above in that there are 2 players working while the others stand. But, the same work could be accomplished like this:
Now there are 3 times as many players involved. If the coach makes this a game condition drill by putting a time limit on the encounter in the middle , the work and rest times resemble those during a game where there is a period of high action followed by a period of less. In regards to methods #A and #B above, the USSF has long preached the no “L’s ” concept…..” no laps, no lines, no long lectures”.
C. Use the “teaching progression” to develop skills and concepts.
When introducing new skills and team play the use of this progression is the most effective means of developing talent:
- No pressure or opposition – players practice the move or skill without anything forcing the action. They can take it slow, practice by trying one step at a time, make sure of what they are doing.
- Passive pressure – when learning dribbling moves, a “defensive” player who does nothing but stand in the way is a good means to introduce opposition. Limiting space can also provide a limited obstacle for new players. For passing skills the clock provides an excellent form of pressure i.e.”how many passes can you complete in 15 seconds?”
3. Low pressure – use of numbers is a great way to introduce active pressure but still provide a transition from no active pressure to game conditions. 5 v 2; 4 v 1, etc. Introducing team shape with small numbers of opponents works well to familiarize kids with positional responsibility without discouraging them.
4. Increasing resistance to full and beyond – gradually making the numbers of the opposition more equal or limiting time and space to game conditions can prepare players for game action. For advanced teams adding even more opposition players ( 4 v 5; 8 v 9 to a goal) can make games seem easy.
D. Lots and lots of “rondos” – Rondos are drills in which one side outnumbers the opposition and the emphasis is ball possession. As noted above, these are great for building ability when used with youngsters, but even the best teams in the world practice using this concept. The individual drill can be modified to fit the learning objective desired. Touch limitations, single foot usage, dribble requirements…..if it is a part of the game it can be practiced in a rondo form of exercises. A form of rondo can even be used with a goal….ex: the offensive team must complete 5 passes consecutively before shooting. The German coach I quoted above finished his statement about laps with,” If you want good soccer players, they must play soccer!” Rondos and conditional scrimmages are the closest thing we have to the “street soccer” that international youth play and might even be more efficient due to the specific purpose of the play.
E. Make it competitive – kids love to play, but they also love to compete. Those Brazilian youngsters on the beach are always keeping score, even if the outcome is forgotten as soon as they go home. Coaches will keep the interest and the fun levels of their players high if they devise ways to keep score in their exercises. For instance: Passing: a point for every x number of passes ( depends on the skill of the players) Dribbling: a point for every stepover (or whatever move is being emphasized) accomplished in the rondo. Shooting: a point for every shot on goal and 5 points for scoring. The coaches imagination or a good practice manual can provide different scoring scenarios, but competition tends to drive practice energy upwards.
These methods will be very beneficial in making practice fun and improving the ability of players at a high rate. What skills should young players be developing?
Ball Control – Good soccer begins with good ball control. Players must be able to receive the ball and make it playable immediately. Young players learn to receive the ball with the inside of both feet (all skills should be learned with both feet) . Then with the outside of the foot. The ball should be put in front of the receiver just far enough to play it with the next touch. As kids learn, they should be able to move the ball away from defenders with their receiving touch. This leads to the ability to play 2 touch soccer, but the initial receiving touch is all important. Body surfaces should be used to cushion the ball for play. Thighs, midsection, chest ….youngsters need to develop the ability to use all surfaces. If one watches a mid-level ability professional team and compares that to the worlds best, the difference in ball control is very evident.
Passing – For youth players passing is the skill that starts them on the road to advancement. Inside foot ( both feet of course) is the basic and most used pass in the sport. Outside foot and laces passing adds the versatility and unpredictability of a players passes. To pass effectively players must have their heads up to see who should get the pass. This is an extremely important concept for young kids……getting their heads up with the ball is an absolute necessity. This skill must be practiced often and in different situations to develop proficiency.
Dribbling – Dribbling is a required skill for aspiring players. Youngsters should learn to move forward while keeping the ball close . Use of both inside and outside of the foot needs to be stressed. The ability to change direction with either surface accompanied with a feint to the opposite direction is an easily learned first “trick”. Then stepovers, cuts, pullbacks, etc can be added. Experience has shown that young players can develop these moves much earlier than many coaches believe. One point in regard to training dribbling moves: I have seen many drills in which the dribbling player gets 10 seconds, 15 seconds, even more time to try to beat a defender. This never happens in a game. Coaches need to keep to “game condition” exercises and with dribbling that means giving the offensive youth one quick try per attempt to make the move work successfully.
Receiving and Turning – turning as a part of receiving a pass is probably the most important skill in the game that is also the most neglected when it comes to training. The ability to receive a ball and turn 180 degrees quickly with it is very important. Kids can start with a basic inside of the foot 2 touch turn, but once that is mastered they should move on to one touch turns. These include outside of foot swivels, inside of foot hook turn, and the behind-the-heel ( also known as the Cruyff Turn). The ball should be ready to play as soon as the turn is completed. As players advance they should be able to confidently and quickly take a ball from the back, turn and play it to a teammate.
Shooting – Youngsters catch on to shooting fairly easily as far as form is concerned. However accuracy can be challenging to any age player and youth are no exception. The smaller goals now required by the USSF make training to shoot more productive than with adult goals. Keeping shots low and on goal is paramount. Shooting with the outside of the foot and putting spin and curve on shots are not above the level of experienced youth players. However, it takes many practice attempts to become a good shooter so kids need to get many repetitions to improve.
Heading – Due to the unknown potential of injury to still-developing skulls and brains, the USSF has banned all heading (practice or games) for youngsters age 10 and under and minimal heading for those 11 and 12 yrs old. If a parent has a teenager playing, expect basic heading exercises and heading in games gradually leading up to the expertise expected in advanced players.
Defending – By definition playing defense is not a ball skill. Still, youth players need to understand the basics of defense. Parents should expect their kids to know about position ( goal side), footwork, patience and proper tackling technique. As they get older youth should learn team defensive strategies such as sheparding and maintaining shape.
Team Play – Once it was said that younger players could not understand team tactics and therefore only technical skill should be taught to kids. It is my belief that is absolutely wrong. Coaches should never underestimate the ability of youth to develop their feet AND their brains in regard to soccer. They can learn proper support moves, how to get to good angles, when to move to space, what their positional responsibilities are and those of their teammates. I have seen and coached u-10 and u-12 teams that play a high level of tactical soccer and they loved learning the game. In addition. it should not be a surprise that kids get better at things that they practice. By stressing and practicing team possession tactics, youth players also develop technical ball skills of control, passing, dribbling, etc. to accompany their always improving vision, movement and team concept. WARNING: while learning the “good game”, kids make mistakes and this can lead to losses on the field, especially to teams that are athletic and big and fast, even with the new rules that are designed to minimize those physical advantages. But, make no doubt about it, time spent developing these soccer skills…..the feet and brains of youth players, will pay off in the end.
It’s the lucky kids, those whose coaches teach them to know the game and love playing it, that will stick with it and experience those events that make for livelong memories, great friendships and personal traits that can lead to fulfilling lives in many diverse areas. And after all, isn’t that what parents really expect from their kids soccer experience?
One of the unique features of soccer is the number of players on the field with the freedom to go anywhere they choose. The rules of the game do not restrict their placement or movement other than the temporary restriction of the offside rule. Although it is more efficient for goalkeepers to stay in the penalty area where they can use their hands and protect the goal, the rules allow keepers to roam the field. And in some cases, they take advantage of that freedom and play just like one of the other ten, at least for a few minutes. 11 players free to put themselves wherever they want. I know of no other sport with so many participants having so much leeway. It is this freedom that inspires teams to play with so many formations and styles. It is one of the reasons why soccer games can look so different, even when involving the same teams.
Take Barcelona for example. This past week they played two very important matches ….. important for very different reasons. Although Barca was the same, their opponents were not and neither were the circumstances of the games. And so we saw just how different the game can be played when opponents have different objectives, even when the team in question plays the same.
The first match Barcelona played involved Juventus, from Italy. It was the second game of the quarterfinal round played between these two teams in the European Champions League. The Champions League is arguably the most prestigious club competition on the planet. The top club teams in Europe all wish to claim the title of European Champions, it is the highest honor a club team can win, even surpassing the World Club championship in which the winner gets to compete. This is due to the high number of excellent teams in Europe.
The round is played in 2 matches, one in each home stadium. The first contest was in Italy and Juventus won 3-0. Given Barcelona’s reputation and their number of star players this would typically be considered quite an upset. But this year Barca has had a very inconsistent defense and displayed an even more inconsistent intensity of play. The team consists of many players who have accomplished just about everything there is to do in world soccer and sometimes they have appeared to be tired of it all. Of course, other times they get truly motivated, display that tremendous skill and flair they are known for and remind observers of just how good they can be when they want to be and when their shaky defense isn’t being tested. They displayed that exact manic nature in the previous round when they fell behind to Paris St Germain 4-0 in the away match and then pulled off the most amazing comeback in modern soccer history by scoring 3 times in the last 7 minutes of the home game to win the round 6-5. So entering the home game down three goals was not a totally lost cause.
Now, lets consider that positional freedom we have talked about. Here is Juventus’ formation:
Going into Camp Nou, Barcelona’s famous home stadium, with a 3-0 lead, defense was the order of the day. Although Juve often pushes more players forward, especially against weaker opponents, they knew what they had to do in that second Barca match. Barcelona, on the other hand plays a 4-3-3 virtually all the time and this was no different. Of course many teams have attempted to play defense against Barca to no avail. Those teams typically get rattled under the constant intense pressure, make a mistake and pay for it by giving up a score, then try to play more offense, and end up giving up more goals. But this was different. For one thing Juventus has that strong Italian defensive mindset and they have the quality players to go with it. And they have Gianluigi Buffon. Gigi Buffon was considered the best goalkeeper in the world for decades. He is now 39 years old and yes, there are a few keepers in the world considered better than him at this point. But very few. He has won virtually every team championship available except this one….something of which his teammates are very much aware.
Once the match started Barcelona threw it all at Juventus and the Italians held. The home team fired 19 total shots and ended up with one on goal. One… 19 shots and one on goal. You read it right. Actually Juve came closer to scoring in their few trips forward than Barcelona did with their 19 shots. Messi was off, Neymar overdribbled, Suarez disappeared. The score of the game was 0-0 and Juventus moved into the semifinals of the tournament with their 4-1-1 while Barcelona had no rest. 5 days later they moved into their next match, one that holds the complete attention of the soccer world and a match that might even mean more to Barca than did the Juventus contest.
If there is a club in the world with a greater winning tradition than Barcelona it is Real Madrid. The Blancos have been among the worlds elite since the 1950’s and this year’s edition is following in prior Real team’s footsteps. Since both clubs play in Spain’s first division they meet at least twice a year and their meetings are so momentous they are called El Classico. Both teams use 4-3-3 formations although the manner in which they move within those systems differ somewhat. Going into the match Real was leading the league with Barcelona not far behind but needing a win to narrow the gap.
Barca was missing Neymar who sustained numerous bruises after the Juventus match and Real lost an already hurting Bale during the first half, so things were fairly even in regard to injuries. From the very beginning, this game was nothing like the Juventus contest. Both teams attacked, both teams were determined to score first, both goalkeepers were called on to make great saves. Finally a Real shot rebounded off the near post and went across the goal to an unmarked Casemiro, a Real midfielder who had come forward and was alone. He took a second to control the ball while 3 Barcelona defenders pulled a youth soccer mistake and watched him without moving. 1-0 Real Madrid. Meanwhile Real was beating up Messi, hitting him both legally and otherwise, knocking a tooth out and motivating Lionel to prove he could not be intimidated.
Sure enough 5 minutes after Real’s goal, he took a pass and worked his way past 2 defenders to tie the game. The second half was even crazier than the first. Again both teams attacked well and at 72 minutes Barcelona midfielder Rakitic scored with a great left footed shot to put Barca ahead. Note that 2 of the three goals scored at that point were from midfielders; these teams freely use the liberty given to players by the rules. 5 minutes after Rakitic’s goal the game defining event occured. Sergio Ramos, Real’s best defender, dove in with both feet in order to take down Messi. The ref didn’t hesitate pulling out the red card and suddenly Madrid had only 10 players on the field. Although Real manager Zinedine Zidane had a number of options to move players back from midfield positions to keep his team at 4 defenders,he was trailing with only about 15 minutes left so he left his team with the 3 remaining backs. He told his 6 forwards and midfielders to attack Barca’s goal while moving his defenders back, thus isolating them. The strategy paid off 6 minutes later when, amazingly enough, James Rodriguez took advantage of more sloppy defensive play by Barcelona to get free and tie up the game. Although a draw might have seemed a satisfactory outcome for Real at this point, Zidane wanted to win in front of his home crowd and his tactics, although very risky, were working, so he kept at it. For the next 9 minutes Madrid controlled play and hammered at Barca’s goal, 10 men or not. Finally, in the last minute of stoppage time, Barcelona got possession of the ball and poured up the field, driving at those 3 Real defenders left stranded by Zidane’s strategy.
As seen above, Barca had a 6 to 3 advantage as they ran at Real and they took full advantage by pulling off something the Soccer Yoda had never seen before in all my many years of watching and participating in thousands of soccer games. Messi, using the space afforded by his teams numerical superiority, took a left footed shot into the lower right corner of Real’s goal and scored with the very last kick of a non-sudden death game. A walk-off goal. An amazing ending to an amazing game. He then, uncharacteristically, rubbed it in by taking off his shirt and waving it at the home crowd.
So, in the span of 5 days Barcelona played in two very important, but two very different kinds of games- games that were defined by the skill of the players of the teams and the rules that allowed them the freedom to use those skills in the manner that they and their managers felt would best suit them at that time. And that is the major reason, among others, why this game is the #1 sport in the world.
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.