By Joe Speaker
Los Angeles, CA
It is a feeling unique to football (soccer). The desire not simply to win, but to win with style, to play el jogo bonito, the beautiful game. This is not a trait that has often been ascribed to the United States Men's National Team, which, for much of the last 20 years has relied on its will, athleticism and a defensive style to grind out results.
Until last week's forgettable performance in Costa Rica (much more on that later), the Nats had won 12 games on the trot, a remarkable streak. Though some have criticized the competition in that stretch as weak--which is in some circumstances debatable--that is beside the point. The wins showcased a new flair for the game, a pressing, attacking style under Coach Jurgen Klinsmann that produced excitement, skill and, most importantly, goals.
It hasn't been all wine and roses under Klinsmann. There were predictable growing pains as a generation of players schooled in the art of ten men behind the ball were asked to push higher up the pitch and harry the opposition. Movement, interchanging--keys to modern football--were tentative. New players were brought in, others shuffled to new positions, sometimes by design, sometimes out of necessity. There was a lack of intuition and familiarity, with the tactics and with each other. A Sporting News article early this year threw this confusion into harsh public light with anonymous players complaining about a lack of understanding in the locker room and on the pitch.
Just as suddenly, it came together. Starting with a surprise 4-3 win over the German B team (perhaps B-, but still German), the Nats started playing a comprehensive offensive game. Movement off the ball, clever combination play and some world class finishing produced fantastic football. Combined with the noted American can-do spirit, the U.S. grabbed nine of nine possible points in World Cup qualifiers to move to the top of the Hexagonal. The B team (perhaps B+) stormed through the Gold Cup, scoring 26 goals in six games against teams determined to park the bus, showing how effective this new philosophy was in breaking down defense-first tactics. It was an avalanche of red, white and blue.
This, not the competition, not the watered down Gold Cup championship, is what stirred the imagination of the U.S. soccer fan. Just as years of frustration with static play had us holding our breath as we repelled attack after attack, waiting for a counter that would edge the Nats to a 1-0 win (Just get the result!), the fluid play made us stand up straight and proclaim that the U.S. was now a force, one that could play in any type of game and be successful. In Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley, we have players with skill who can influence a match with one stroke of genius or simply take it over entirely, much like Altidore did in the second half of win #12 in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
It was this brashness that caused me to proclaim on Twitter that the U.S. was going to "whip the Ticos' ass" in San Jose last Friday night.
As we all know, that did not happen. A disastrous start to the game (which actually began before the first whistle when Bradley injured himself in the warmup), forced the U.S. to chase the game from the 9th minute on. Giving up two goals in the first ten minutes is pretty much death on the road in CONCACAF. Yet, there were those fresh memories of four-goal outbursts that kept U.S. fans in a hopeful mood. And when Dempsey (barely) converted a PK just before half to cut the deficit in half, a comeback (something of a U.S. specialty in recent years) seemed in the offing.
Though the Nats controlled play for much of the first twenty minutes of the second half and Dempsey hit the post, they were undone by a blind (lucky) clearance, some bad positioning from Matt Besler and some tentative goalkeeping from Tim Howard (it won't be long when I write the definitive "Bench Howard for Guzan" piece, which will generate howls of protest from almost every quarter, but, I assure you, it's time).
Jones is no longer the "Hard Man," the destroyer he once was. He's decent positionally, now that he and Bradley have developed an understanding in the middle of the park, but he's become a major liability with the ball. He turned the ball over 22 times against the Ticos, 17 of those came in the first 36 minutes, when the Nats really needed a calming presence to slow down the game. It was his terrible first touch that led to a giveaway that led to the first goal. To be more precise, it led to the chance that led to the corner kick that produced the goal and boy, oh boy has the U.S. defending on dead balls been horrible for 18 months now. Time and time again, Jones gave the ball away, sometimes while under minimal pressure. With Bradley in there, his sins don't seem quite so large, because the Bradley has turned into a fantastic player. He'll never be a Number Ten, a string-puller in midfield, but his positional awareness and reading of the game makes him the perfect field general. He knows when to go and when to stay, so when Jones goes off the reservation, Bradley is there to clean up his mess more often than not.
Bradley's injury in warmup was a shock to the US system and while I'd take Geoff Cameron over Jones in a heartbeat (and every heartbeat after that one), he seemed both mentally unprepared for the task and had little understanding with Jones on this night. After the first goal, what the U.S. needed was a calm head, some composure to slow the game down and repel the Costa Rican momentum. What actually happened was the opposite. They became more harried, trying to play one-touch in crowded space and continually giving the ball away. The second goal was far too easy and far too predictable.
Aside from the Jones catastrophe, the U.S. has real issues at the outside back positions. Demarcus Beasley and Michael Orozco got the nod on Friday and both were overrun early (though Orosco got exactly zero help from the midfielder on his side, Graham Zusi). Now, I understand that the options at these two positions are limited. Klinsmann apparently doesn't rate Cameron as a right back, though he plays there for Stoke. I'm assuming that has to do with Cameron's unease going forward, but Friday night was a perfect time to use him there, as a stay-at-home defender on the road against the dangerous strike tandem of Bryan Ruiz and Joel Campbell. On the left, Beasley's only competition would seem to be Fabian Johnson, but Johnson was at the left midfield spot, where he has been terrific. Klinsmann is loathe to drop him into the backline and I agree with that. However, at this point in time, with Beasley the only other option, I think we have to sacrifice what Johnson gives us in the midfield for the upgrade at left back.
We're still not done. Perhaps the worst decision was to play Dempsey up top as the target man and Landon Donovan in the hole beneath him as the playmaker. Landon Donovan is not a playmaker. He never has been and this was starkly in evidence as he played negative pass after negative pass right to the feet of Ticos. Further, Dempsey is much more effective in that underneath role than he is up top. I'd have started Aron Johannsson, with Dempsey underneath and Donovan either out on the right (for Zusi) or on the bench.
And I certainly would have never put Eddie Johnson into the game. Or Jozy Altidore, for that matter. I understand the desperation and I may be operating from hindsight here due to Jozy picking up a stupid yellow that rules him out of tonight's crucial Mexico match, but if he wasn't healthy enough to start, risking him when you have (roughly) equally appealing options (Johannsson) was a gamble I'm not willing to take.
The loss is not debilitating. the U.S. remains firmly on track for Brazil 2014 with 13 points, second in the Hex behind Costa Rica's 14. Honduras, fresh of a surprising win in the Azteca is third with 11, followed by the free-falling Mexicans with 8. With Mexico in Columbus tonight, the U.S. can qualify (or put themselves on the very brink) with a win. Easier said than done.
Sadly, Jones didn't get a yellow so he'll be there in the midfield. Klinsmann can go a number of ways, but I think it's safe to say he's thinking defense first, so it'll be Kyle Beckerman, who is a useful player and a decent distributor, but is woefully short of pace. Klinsmann could surprise us all, however, and plug in Mix Diskerud or Joe Corona, which would give the Nats something going forward.
The front four is probably going to be the same group and, as I've said, it's a mistake. I'm crossing my fingers for a Johannsson sighting and Donovan somewhere away from the middle where he can find space and exploit Mexico with his speed.
It's the most important game of the Hex. Mexico in Columbus. I'd like to to be beautiful, we'd all like it to be beautiful, Klinsmann most of all. I hope the performances in San Jose changed his mind about some players. The way he has brought guys in and created depth is admirable. It's time to use some of it.
This being Mexico, though, grinding out a result would be beautiful enough.