A Second Beginning

Its been awhile ( OK, a long while) since The Soccer Yoda has written a post. But recently some major events have occurred in the world of soccer, especially in the United States. A number of soccer fans surprised the Soccer Yoda by asking what were his views on the change in national coach and the events which led to that change. Frankly, I was somewhat surprised and flattered that there were those out there in the soccer world who remembered this blog, so I dusted off the computer and relearned to hunt and peck with more than just my thumbs. It’s a second beginning for our new ( sort of) national coach and a second beginning for the Soccer Yoda and this blog. So……lets take a look at the recent national team results and their effect on our national coach position.

On November 8 of this year the USA played Mexico in Columbus, Ohio in the first game of the “Hexagonal”. This is the final qualifying round of matches to decide who goes to Russia in 2018 to represent our region in the World Cup. There are 6 nations left , hence the name. There are 42 countries with teams in the Confederation of North,Central American and Caribbean Association Football or CONCACAF, so it would seem that it is an accomplishment just to get through the several preliminary rounds to reach the final six. And if our region was like Europe or South America it would be exactly that. But, given that the majority of those 42 nations have a population about the size of New Haven, Connecticut, the USA is absolutely expected to make the top six . As a matter of fact, finishing in the top two (along with Mexico) has become absolutely expected ever since the soccer boom in this country started producing decent  players in greater numbers than somebody like say… Bermuda. In order to make it to the World Cup without an additional playoff game, we need to finish in the top three of the six. In light of our international results in this century, this should not be a challenge.

Although playing Mexico in the first game would seem a tough task, the fact that the game was a home match for the USA created an expectation of victory and not just by any score either. The last 4 matches against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio had all been 2-0 wins for the Americans, so cheers of “Dos a Cero” rang throughout the stadium before the start of the game.Then the USA came out in a 3-5-2 formation and the game took on a tone very different from those notable American victories.

One of the knocks on Jurgen Klinsmann during his tenure as our national coach had been that he tended to put players in positions for which they are unsuited. One rational for this is that he had a formation that works best and into which he must fit his players. During the 2014 World Cup cycle he used a 4-2-3-1 system very effectively and although all players were not the best fit for the formation, they grew familiar with it – they learned to play it – they knew who was where and how their teammates would react to the game in that formation. But since then Klinsmann had tinkered with several different formations and didn’t settle on anything in particular. The 3-5-2 was very different from anything the team had played before and they had only practiced it for a few days prior to the Mexico match.

3-5-2-formation-tactics

It has been said that the wing-backs are the key to the 3-5-2. When advancing the ball in possession from the back line the wing-backs must get wide and be available for outlet passes that start the attack. When the team gets the ball near the opposing goal the wing-backs must be in advanced wing positions, ready to provide width to the attack and both supply and receive crosses. On defense the wing-backs must cover the deep wide spaces to prevent the opposition from exploiting the narrow positioning of the centerbacks, in effect providing 5 back defenders at that moment. The American wing-backs vs Mexico were Tim Chandler on the right and Fabian Johnson on the left. These guys are decent players when positioned correctly ( especially Johnson), but against Mexico, in this formation, they were lost. They didn’t provide for outlet passes which forced the USA centerbacks into central passes and long balls which lost possession. They were not in wide offensive areas very often and when they were the balls they played in were mostly misplaced. And they disappeared in those wide deep defensive spaces which allowed the Mexicans to play from those spaces without pressure. Mexico grabbed the momentum from the start and it was only a matter of time before they scored and not that much time either…..like 20 minutes. At the 26 minute mark Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones , the American central midfielders, took advantage of a break in the play and asked Klinsmann to change the formation. He did and the US got back into the game playing a much more familiar 4-4-2. The score was equal late in the game when another tactical mistake cost the USA a chance to gain at least a draw.

The common method of defending corner kicks is to place a defender on each post thus reducing the area of the goal that the keeper needs to protect. Some coaches prefer to leave one post or both posts without a defender which adds to the number of players which can cover attackers in front of the goal. Obviously, if an offensive player can still get his head on a corner kick against a goal defended with open posts then the open-post strategy is worthless. This is one of those times so common in sports when an uncommon tactic is a genius idea if it works and a goat idea if it doesn’t. So coach Klinsmann had the USA leave the far post open on a Mexican corner in the 89th minute and Rafael Marquez hit a brilliant shot with the side of his head into the open post area to win the game. So it was another mark against Jurgen’s coaching which cost the US the game and ended an unbeaten-at-home world cup qualifying streak that started in 2001. After the game Jurgen blamed the failure of the 3-5-2 on his midfield, particularly Bradley and Jones. This certainly did not go over well with those two or the team as a whole. It wasn’t very smart on Klinsmanns part, especially considering the caliber of the next opponent and the motivation needed by the team for that game, coming only 4 days after the loss to Mexico.

marquez-corner Mexico scores a corner against an undefended post to beat the USA.

The next game in the Hex was against Costa Rica and in this match our role was reversed when compared to playing Mexico in Ohio. This time the USA was the visitor playing away to a nation that we have not had any success with when playing in their home stadium. Given the loss to Mexico, one would think that the Americans would be sky high to both A) break the Costa Rica away game jinx and B) get our first win in this round so as to put us in a good position going into the rest of the games. Instead the Americans came out slow, again unable to maintain possession and almost lackadaisical on defense even in the preferred 4-4-2 setup. The result was a 4-0 shellacking by a team that, while competitive with the USA, certainly is not four goals better than our team under most any other circumstance. It was very obvious that Klinsmann was not able to motivate this team to play their best AND added to the tactical and psychological mistakes made in and after the Mexico match AND the controversial stances that Jurgen has taken during the last couple years including the Landon Donovan World Cup Drama, his comments about MLS vs European experience, his seeming preference for dual-citizen players trained in Europe over USA developed players ………well..the writing was on the proverbial wall.

With the change of national coach coming in the middle of the Hexagonal round, the job of replacing coach Klinsmann took on some definite prerequisites. The next matches are in March and , to be sure, the new coach has one specific goal……to get the United States into the 2018 World Cup. It would be nice if the USA could also have a decent performance at that World Cup, but first things must be first. Given the short preparation time before March the new coach should    1. Be familiar with our present players and prospective players.   2.Be familiar ( being experienced would be even better) with our competition in CONCACAF and the challenges of playing away in their home stadiums.   3.Have experience coaching a national team with its unique circumstances.   4.(Optional but preferred) Know the soccer culture of our country and its ups and downs.                                   This list narrows the number of candidates down to a very few ( like maybe 3) and one just signed a contract to coach in the English Premier League. So that left former USA coach Bruce Arena as the most obvious and possibly only choice. Bruce was the national coach from 1998 to 2006. His record of 78-28-27 , a quarterfinal finish in the 2002 World Cup and an American #4 FIFA ranking makes him the most successful American national coach ever. Arena has a much more subdued character than Jurgen Klinsmann and is known for his seriousness about his craft. He has had overall success at every coaching position he has pursued , but a poor performance in the 2006 World Cup cost him his spot with the national team. He has until March to gain the confidence of the USA team and to put together enough wins to get us to Russia. Lets hope his 2nd beginning as USA coach is successful in accomplishing his singular goal of an American presence at the World Cup in 2018.

arena

 


We’re Going To Brazil!

Bulletin! We interrupt our regularly scheduled post to bring you this special edition! The United States men’s soccer team has beaten Mexico 2-0 in Columbus ,Ohio to clinch a spot in next summer’s World Cup to be held in Brazil! The win represents the fourth time the USA has played a World Cup qualifier in Columbus and the fourth time the  score finished at 2-0 for the Americans. But the road to this win wasn’t very smooth. Actually, it was quite the opposite. Since we last discussed the USA men’s team (The Will to Win – A Tale of Two Games) things have been a bit rocky. The Americans and their coach Jürgen Klinsman have learned quite a bit about themselves and about what represents the best way to replace missing players with this team. It took a loss to Costa Rica and some hard luck and questionable refereeing to teach those lessons, but in the long run this was a positive outcome for the Yanks.

It actually started in England almost a week before the Costa Rica game when American forward Jozy Altidore strained his hamstring while working out with his club team Sunderland. He missed their Premier league game that weekend and it was feared that he wouldn’t be available for the important matchup between the USA and Costa Rica later that week. The game was being played in Costa Rica where the USA has never won and with Altidore on a scoring spree with his national team, his presence would be sorely missed. Then shortly before the kickoff in San Jose, things got worse – a lot worse. The first game between these two teams in this hexagonal qualifier was played in Denver in a snowstorm. The USA won 1-0 and the Costa Ricans were enraged that the game was played in the first place. So this second matchup between the two was considered by the Ticos as their chance for revenge for the field conditions that night in the cold in Colorado. They got their revenge in an unconventional and unplanned manner. A few hours before the game it rained quite heavily in San Jose and the field took quite a bit of water. There was never a question of not playing the game, but the conditions were not ideal. The grass was wet and the turf loose and just before kickoff, Michael Bradley planted his left foot on the ground while taking a routine kick in warmup and the turf gave way. He twisted his ankle and the injury ruled him out of the contest. By game time Altidore was doing better, but Coach Klinsman decided that he would rather save him for the Mexico game 4 nights later, therefore giving Jozy more time to rest his hamstring. So, now, just before game time, Jürgen found himself down not just one, but two of his most important players.

In a situation like this, a coach has several options. Option 1 is to simply substitute the two “second string” players for two injured starters and leave everybody else as they were. There is another possibility though, especially if the coach feels that there are better players available than the replacements for the missing starters, even if those better players typically play other positions. Klinsman chose the latter option. He moved Landon Donovan from his expected outside midfield spot to a forward position where he could linkup with Clint Dempsey in a two forward system. This wasn’t what Dempsey was familiar with when playing for the USA and required some adjustment by both players. By moving Donovan, the right midfield position which Donovan would have played opened up and Jurgen solved that question by using Graham Zusi. On paper this wasn’t too drastic a solution as Zusi had played decently in prior qualifiers during the spring, but he isn’t Landon Donovan by a long shot. Coach Klinsman covered Bradley’s absence by moving outside defender Geoff Cameron to Bradley’s holding midfielder spot. This position requires a mountain of playmaking and creative passing and Cameron ,while having some experience as a midfielder, has always been a defensive midfielder so he was thrust into an unfamiliar role with only a few minutes to prepare. In Cameron’s place , Michael Orozco Fiscal was used, again with only a few minutes to get ready.  Now, if you are counting, that is five- count’em- five positions that were changed with either new players or roles. So, half the field players starting the game were not the original players on the original starting team in their original starting positions.

The Costa Ricans were VERY fired up for this big contest, in front of their home fans, with first place in the hex at stake. They pressured the USA all over the field from the opening whistle and the Americans played like half of them were not the original players on the original starting team in their original positions, which, as we know (see above) they weren’t. In ten minutes ,the Ticos were up 2-0 and the Americans were still looking around to see where everybody was playing. As the game went on, the Yanks got better and by the second half the lead was down to 2-1 and with the introduction of Eddie Johnson and Altidore, a comeback was certainly possible. However, as happens so often, by pressing forward a team leaves space open at their back and the Costa Ricans countered well to score again. So the United States 12 game winning streak was snapped and we learned that the team does not really have that many interchangeable parts. On top of the loss, the referee went on a late game yellow card spree and by the time he was done three more Americans were out of the Mexico match. As the ref was Mexican, this opened the door for lots of questions, but that is a discussion for another post.

Donovan surrounded by Costa Rica as he was most of the game

Donovan surrounded by Costa Rica as he was most of the game

For Mexico, Bradley was still out with his sprained ankle and Altidore was still out also, just for another reason than injury. He was one of the recipients of the ridiculous yellow cards and therefore had to miss the game. Also missing with yellow cards was the previously discussed Cameron and defender Matt Besler. So, once again Jürgen Klinsman was faced with missing starters for multiple positions. This time , however, Jürgen went for option 1 above. He simply dropped in the second tier players for the missing starters and kept the basic system and chemistry intact. In particular, he used Eddie Johnson for Altidore and Kyle Beckerman  for Bradley. Now, make no mistake, Johnson isn’t Jozy. But he does have some definite strengths, mainly his ability to be a beast in front of the goal in the air. Beckerman is a poor mans Bradley, but by putting Donovan in the his outside midfield role and surrounding Beckerman with players in familiar positions, Klinsman lowered the pressure on him. The game was in the very friendly Columbus Crew stadium and the Mexicans came in with a new coach, a miserable record in this competition and even more questions about their team than the Americans had. And their questions weren’t about injuries and cards, they were about talent, attitude and chemistry. Hmm, that makes injuries and cards look minor. After the first 15 minutes or so, those injury and card problems got even smaller. The Yanks started putting things together and by the end of the first half it was a promising game for the USA. Early in the second half, Johnson did his corner kick thing again, as he has done before in recent games for the US and as he had just barely missed on in the first half.

Eddie Johnson scores on a corner kick against Mexico

Eddie Johnson scores on a corner kick against Mexico

Later Donovan scored on a nice set up from his teammates and the Mexicans were left wondering if they will make it to the World Cup. Not so for the USA -combined with the Honduras-Panama draw- the Americans are definitely into the finals in Brazil. The crowd in Ohio was crazy, representing the new American passion for the game and for the American national team. I must say, that seeing all those red scarves raised during the national anthem is a stirring site, unseen in any other athletic event. And now, we get to enjoy the World Cup in the best possible way- while rooting for our country.

The loud, proud crowd in Columbus!

The loud, proud crowd in Columbus!