USMNT: Hecho En Ohio
OTF’s Austin Fido reflects on events in Columbus and Costa Rica, looking for what might be on offer in Brazil…
There are three recurring elements of a USMNT World Cup qualifying campaign: the Yanks will lose in Costa Rica, they will beat Mexico in Columbus, and they will make it to FIFA’s quadrennial big dance. This time around, the Stars and Stripes crammed the entire trinity of historical imperatives into one week in September, proving perhaps that Jürgen Klinsmann is not a mere student of history, he’s a glutton for it.
The 3-1 loss to Costa Rica was as abject as any trouncing by Los Ticos that preceded it; the 2-0 win over Mexico, as cathartic as any prior dos-a-cero triumph. And those two courses, with a side order of is-Honduras-going-to-choke-against-Panama-in-San-Pedro-de-Sula, made for a rather wonderful serving of international football for USMNT fans. We laughed, we cried, we dented Wednesday morning’s reputation for productivity. And anyone who has sneaked a peek at hotel rates in Brazil is probably still laughing and crying now; mostly crying.
But you have the best part of a year to figure out which of your children will forego a college education so you can spend two weeks in Sao Paulo. (Seriously kids, this will be the wrong semester to bring home a bad report card; Mommy and Daddy will trade in your future for a Portuguese phrase book.) Right now, all that matters is the United States is officially in the draw for the 2014 World Cup (December 6th — mark your calendars). And, for perhaps the first time since he took over USMNT, everyone is asking the same question as Klinsi: how do we get the most out of next summer?
For Jürgie, the answer seems to lie in a 4-2-3-1 formation. That’s the tactic he preferred during this year’s Gold Cup, and it’s the tactic he’s chosen to start the three matches since that tournament. Personally, I’m not a fan: too often, the formation seems to lead USMNT down a blind alley in the final third. The opposing defense gets plenty of time to sit back and wait for a mistake, or pick off the inevitable one-pass-too-many. Against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Costa Rica, the formation twice conceded two goals in the first half. It is, of course, a flexible strategy — it can morph into a 4-4-2 without any change of personnel — and it is a work in progress. The win over Mexico has bought Klinsmann plenty of time to fashion that progress.
If the worst of the current tactical set up was exposed against Costa Rica (two goals given up in the first ten minutes; twice as much possession but half as many chances as the opposing team), its positives came to the fore against El Tri. The goals were, each in their own way, representative of the formation at its best. First, just after half time, Alejandro Bedoya bounded down the right flank, crossed a little too high for Eddie Johnson to get his head on it, but watched as Landon Donovan collected on the left wing to try again from the other side. Donovan’s cross was deflected, winning the corner from which Eddie Johnson scored the opening goal.
The second goal arrived just after Mix Diskerud had been brought into the game for EJ, who was nursing a banged head. It was created by Diskerud’s skill and attacking sensibility — he collected a loose ball on the edge of Mexico’s penalty area, took himself away from four defenders with one touch, and thereby had space for a uncontested pass into the six-yard box. The cross evaded Dempsey, but Donovan tapped in at the far post.
Yes, the first goal was from a set piece, abetted by Jesús Corona’s appalling error of judgment. In the first half, Eddie Johnson had directed a header from a corner straight at Corona. This time around, the Mexican ‘keeper tried to intercept the cross, caught Diego Reyes’s shoulder instead, and ended up on the deck watching EJ nod the ball into an empty net. But the chance was won from incisive, wing-to-wing wide play of the sort Klinsi would have wanted when he decided to start Bedoya and Donovan on the flanks.
Likewise, one might credit the second goal to little more than Diskerud’s flair, however, if you’ve watched this team recently, you’ve seen myriad attempts to cut through the middle of defensive traffic with a smart touch or deft control. It finally paid off.
This match was the first since the Gold Cup in which Klinsmann hasn’t been forced to abandon the 4-2-3-1 in favor of something more direct. As such, it might represent the culmination not just of USMNT’s World Cup qualifying campaign, but also the tactical plan Klinsi is hoping will bring his team to (at least) the quarterfinals of that tournament.
There is much work to still to be done: the back four continues to be a source of concern (but for Tim Howard, this match could easily have been dos a dos); we have yet to see the four men (Altidore, Bradley, Dempsey and Donovan) the formation is supposed to showcase on the field at the same time; the team’s tendency to look second best in the early exchanges is troubling.
For now we enjoy the afterglow of another thrilling dos-a-cero. But we can also hope that, on a balmy evening in Columbus, we just witnessed something less ephemeral than regional bragging rights get made in Ohio.
OTF’s Austin Fido has never had pink eye, or scored a goal against Mexico. Follow him @canetop.