USMNT: How Do You Say Dos A Cero In English?

And so it begins: Aron "Alabama Ice" Johannsson's first start for USMNT. (photo: soccer.si.com)

And so it begins: Aron “Alabama Ice” Johannsson’s first start for USMNT. (photo: soccer.si.com)

OTF’s Austin Fido offers his take on USMNT’s home finale in the Hex…

USMNT’s last competitive home fixture before Brazil 2014 delivered the expected result: a win over Jamaica, confirming first place in the Hex for Jürgen Klinsmann’s Yanks and a basement finish for the Reggae Boyz. Still, though the victory was expected, the manner of its attainment was not.

For 70 minutes, this was a labored and unconvincing performance, a throwback to the dark days of Fall 2012, when USMNT lost in Kingston and struggled to win in Antigua. In part, this was the predictable hangover following the giddy dos-a-cero triumph in Columbus, which sealed another World Cup trip for the United States. It is also difficult to maintain fluency and confidence when a team is missing nearly half its presumed starters: Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Omar Gozalez, both Eddie and Fabian Johnson — all were absent from this squad. 

So Jürgie fell back on the tactic he has come to rely on when the chips are down: 4-4-2. Mix Diskerud and Jermaine Jones held down the midfield; Alejandro Bedoya (on the right) and Landon Donovan (on the left) manned the flanks; and the forward partnership AZ Alkmaar never quite got to see, Jozy Altidore and Aron Jóhannsson, started up front. 

All six of those guys are likely to make the final cut for Brazil, so it was distressing to watch them shank, scuff and slice their way through more than hour of largely turgid football. There were encouraging moments, most notably mid-way through the first half, when Jóhannsson conjured two very good opportunities. In the 18th minute, he took one touch to control a corner kick that landed on the edge of the six-yard box, but drilled his shot wide. Two minutes later, he was played through by Donovan, unbalanced his marker with a clever dummy, and was prevented from shooting only by Adrian Mariappa’s last-ditch tackle. We’re big fans of Alabama Ice at OTF, and one day he’s going to score a very pretty goal or two for his country. 

You thought there'd only be one pic of 'Bama Ice in this piece? You thought wrong. (photo: sportingnews.com)

You thought there’d only be one pic of ‘Bama Ice in this piece? You thought wrong. (photo: sportingnews.com)

Nonetheless, at half-time, the only real positive for Klinsi was the defense. DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, and Brad Evans could be the starting back line for USMNT next summer. They handled their assignments pretty well. The Reggae Boyz sent out a front three comprising Deshorn Brown, Ryan Johnson and Darren Mattocks — a potentially troubling combination of guile, pace and power. But the back four held firm.

One measure of the strength of a defense is the extent to which the players are able cover for each other’s mistakes — they are supposed to be a unit, after all. It was encouraging to see Brad Evans bail Tim Howard out of trouble in the 7th minute, after the ‘keeper misjudged the flight of a free kick and allowed the ball to bounce dangerously in front of goal. Evans cleared the danger.

Such moments were rare, however, largely because this Jamaican team is much better at disrupting possession than using it. If the best thing Klinsmann could say about this match at its conclusion was that the defenders did well, USMNT’s efforts would justly be considered sub-optimal. Change was required.

As has been his custom this year, Klinsi’s changes worked a treat. At half-time, he made the ostensibly bold decision to withdraw Donovan for Graham Zusi. On paper, that substitution weakens the team, but on this night — with Donovan struggling to influence a game he might have preferred not to play from the left wing — it was the smart move. Playing in front of his home crowd in Kansas City, Zusi’s motivation could not be questioned. I don’t like to speculate about how much players want to play in any particular game, but Donovan is on the record about being more interested in current MLS matters than these dead-rubber October qualifiers.

Not that the substitution worked immediately. If anything, USMNT’s performance declined for the first 25 minutes of the second half. The crucial adjustment was tactical: in the 72nd minute, Klinsmann introduced Sacha Kljestan for Jóhannsson, and switched the formation to 4-2-3-1. The team was transformed instantaneously.

Playing the Dempsey/Donovan role under Jozy Altidore, Diskerud skewed a shot wide within a minute of the formation change. Zusi tracks back more effectively than Donovan, which opened up more opportunity for the fullback (now Castillo, who had replaced a tiring Beasley) to overlap on the left. The possession game was suddenly firing.

Less than five minutes after implementing the 4-2-3-1, after a protracted period of passing and probing for an opening, Zusi opened the scoring with a first-time shot from the edge of the penalty area.

Four minutes later, in the 81st minute, Castillo surged on to a shanked clearance and crossed for Altidore to tap in. The Jamaican defense, consistently well disciplined in this match and this Hex, was nowhere to be seen.

Jozy wonders why he never gets this kind of space in front of goal at Sunderland. (photo: nydailynews.com)

Jozy wonders why he never gets this kind of space in front of goal at Sunderland. (photo: nydailynews.com)

The result doesn’t change a great deal. USMNT is still going to Brazil, the Reggae Boyz are not. However, this game marks perhaps the first time Jürgie has seen the 4-2-3-1 outperform the old faithful, 4-4-2. Klinsi has spent most of this year trying to wean the Yanks off the simple comfort of the latter formation. Ironically, since it could be argued the 4-2-3-1 is the best tactic for accommodating the talents of Bradley, Dempsey and Donovan, the team which embraced the coach’s preferred formation lacked any of the players responsible for its introduction. 

Nonetheless, the last 20 minutes of this match could mark a turning point in USMNT’s preparations for Brazil 2014. Yes, the opposition was possibly the weakest the Yanks will face between now and next summer, and the win was expected. Yes, there wasn’t a great deal riding on this result. But it was only a couple of months ago that Klinsmann was desperately reaching for the 4-4-2 to save face in Bosnia. The outcome of that match (you remember the stunning 4-3 win, surely?) suggested Klinsi efforts to shoehorn these players into a new formation were futile.

This game offers an alternative view: these tactics could well be the future for this team; not because the coach favors them, but because the players do.

OTF’s Austin Fido will Hex you up @canetop.

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