USMNT: All Square In Arizona
OTF’s Austin Fido brings his take on der Klinnsmannschaft’s dos-a-dos with El Tri…
USMNT played perma-rival Mexico to a 2-2 draw in Arizona in the last international either side will play before preliminary World Cup squads are named in May. Neither team brought a full-strength squad to the party: this match perhaps had more to do with the commercial ambitions of CONCACAF’s largest federations than FIFA. So we watched, in essence, a sort of Liga MX vs MLS All-Star game – if all the stars of those leagues happened to be either American or Mexican.
When under-strength teams collide in not-strictly-competitive circumstances, the result is often underwhelming football. Not so on this occasion. We got one half of blistering attacking play from USMNT, countered by 45 minutes of El Tri hammering back.
Entertainment aside, there were some serious questions to be addressed by this match. The next time Jurgen Klinsmann has a national team camp, it will be the prelude to the World Cup itself. Hard choices will have to be made soon. Indeed, hard choices are already being made: Klinsi moved right-hand-man Martin Vasquez out of his core coaching staff prior to this game — a move widely interpreted as a demotion.
On the field, Jurgie took the opportunity to make a few statements. The first: tactical flexibility. We’ve watched USMNT flex from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 many times over the last 18 months or so, but we haven’t seen the team start in a 4-4-2 for a while. It may have been a decision necessitated by available personnel, but let’s take Klinsi at his word — the switch was about keeping future opponents guessing.
The scouting report on USMNT has read “4-2-3-1 to start; plays a more direct 4-4-2 when chasing a game” for quite some time. He said – and he’s right – the team will need several tactical options for Brazil. Although 4-4-2 is not the most fashionable formation in modern soccer, this lineup was distinguished by a new role for Michael Bradley: central attacking midfield battering ram.
A recurring question in the management of this USMNT is how to get the best out of the Bradley-Dempsey-Donovan trio. The 4-2-3-1 is one answer: Bradley sits back as the deep-lying passer; Dempsey is the up-the-gut CAM; Donovan can buzz around on either flank, and switch with Deuce if necessary.
In Arizona, we saw a new solution to the problem: don’t start them all. This was Klinsi’s second statement: he’s serious about competition for places. Landon didn’t train too well, Landon didn’t get the start.
With Dempsey asked to play up front, and Donovan confined to the bench, the lineup told Bradley to run the midfield without deference to his seniors. He was a revelation.
Backstopped by Kyle Beckerman , Bradley dominated the first half and the score-sheet: a simple back post run off a set piece isn’t the work of a genius, but he outstripped his marker (Jesus Zavala) and clipped the ball into the net on the half-volley for the opening goal in the 15th minute; he also set up the second goal in the 28th minute, flicking Tony Beltran’s cross to the far post, where Chris Wondolowski was able to sneak by for the tap in.
For Wondo, the game could not have gone much better. After this match, he may have passed Eddie Johnson on the depth chart. This is impressive given his early work in MLS this season suggested he was no longer the cold-blooded poacher who had first recommended himself to national team duty.
If Klinsi watched San Jose’s CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal first leg, he watched Wondo shank repeated chances to score. If he watched the Quakes play Sporting Kansas City, he watched Wondo slice a shot wide from close range.
This was not good: Wondo’s value to USMNT is his ability to maximize one chance – and he has been spurning his opportunities recently. So the goal helped his cause. In part, because it was exactly the sort of goal we want to see from Wondolowski: he made a smart run to a place the ball might feasibly be headed, and got just enough of his body past his marker to meet the cross on the volley at the far post.
USMNT has scored four goals in 2014, and Wondo has been responsible for three of them. Is he going to Brazil? Not so fast, there are a few games to be played yet, and his rivals (looking at you, EJ) may find some form of their own.
But it is now difficult to imagine Wondo not making the preliminary 30-man squad in May. Nor does he need to be the best striker available for Klinsi to take him to Brazil, he just needs to be more useful than two or three other guys who might be in the pre-World Cup camp. Right now, he has the upper hand.
When the teams changed ends, they also swapped momentum. El Tri coach, Miguel Herrera, switched to a two-striker system of his own, and found it quite an effective method for pinning USMNT back in their own half.
In the preceding 45 minutes, it had been possible to forget USMNT had a defense. In the second half, it appeared USMNT had forgotten it had to defend.
A well-executed set piece saw Omar Gonzalez stranded behind a pick and Rafa Marquez thump an uncontested header past Nick Rimando from close range in the 49th minute. In the 67th minute, Gonzalez suffered the misfortune of being the closest man in a US shirt to Paul Aguilar’s shot, which bounced off the post for Alan Pulido to knock in.
If defenders were perfect, goals wouldn’t get scored. Conceding a couple to Mexico is not a crisis, but there is some work to be done – particularly on communication at set pieces. One man getting caught in a pick shouldn’t result in a a space the size of an SUV opening up in front of goal.
The match closed with USMNT not quite back in the ascendancy, but at least no longer overwhelmed. Eddie Johnson scored in the 86th minute, a confident finish born of a smart run. It was, incorrectly, ruled offside — there will be blown calls in Brazil, too.
Julian Green, the latest in Klinsi’s growing band of lieblings, got about 30 minutes as reward for his decision to commit to USMNT. We won’t know whether he has been promised a place in the World Cup squad until the final 23 is named (and even then, it would be circumstantial evidence), but we saw a little of what he has to offer the squad.
He played on the left, but looks comfortable with both feet. He likes to run at defenders. He drew a clumsy foul just outside Mexico’s penalty area in the closing stages of the game – which wasn’t called, but spoke to his ability to get the better of defenders.
Did his first half hour of international soccer suggest he is one of the 23 best players available to Klinsi this summer? No. But either the standard of play in the German 4th division is much better than we might think, or he’s not going to be stuck at that level for much longer.
Austin Fido writes about USMNT and CONCACAF for OTF, and tweets about those subjects for fun @canetop.