The Keeper’s Ball

First, let me explain the title. I’m going to write an opinion piece (Ok, most of my longer articles are opinion pieces) every week on a subject related to the USMNT. I needed a neutral title using soccer terminology and decided upon “The Keeper’s Ball” – why? Well, I was a keeper for many, many years, and this is my way of saying “My Opinion”. So, onto the debut entry.

http://kickssoccer.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/tim-howard.jpg

How good were we against Egypt? How good was Egypt?

After another full day of reflection on the game and a long look at my notes from it, I figured it was time to get a more realistic, less “Hooray for a miracle” look at the game.

The Defense

If nothing else, we learned one very important thing in this game (though if you were paying close attention for the last year or so, it’s been all too obvious) – Oguchi Onyewu is our best player. His play against Egypt was worthy of a “10” on any “player ratings” report. He dominated the box and seemingly swallowed up any Egyptian attempt to get forward. He was a towering presence in the air too. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that Oguchi Onyewu has made every defender around him look better than they actually are, specifically Jay DeMerit.

All in all, the defense was good, but Jonathan Bornstein had another weak effort. He continues to prove his lack of defensive ability, constantly misjudging plays and misreading runs. His positioning at the back is particularly bad, leaving his side open to long balls and making ill-advised runs through the middle.

Hopefully we’ll see the return of Carlos Bocanegra on Wednesday, occupying Bornstein’s position. Bocanegra’s poise, tactical awareness, and tackling ability should provide some stability to the left side and help combat Spain’s skill and passing.

The Midfield

Interestingly enough, the reviews of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan varied wildly across the fans I talk to.

Quite a few thought Dempsey started strong, but faded quickly (not me). Others thought it was one of his best outings (again, not me). Others started calling for his benching early and often (guilty as charged). Yes, Clint’s header was fantastic and clinched our advancement. It was a wonderful play. But can you remember a single thing Clint did during the rest of the game?

Don’t hurt yourself – you can’t. He didn’t do anything. In fact, he was continuing his string of extremely poor outings, only he wasn’t actively hurting the team like he did against Italy and Brazil. His positioning as a “wing” was downright abysmal. He completely ignored his duties as an outside midfielder, electing instead to play up the middle next to Donovan and not play defense.

Donovan, our other supposed “wing”, did much of the same as Dempsey in the first half. He stayed largely through the middle, leaving the entire left side to be covered by Bornstein alone. But, at least Donovan was being a leader on the field. He was repeatedly seen getting in the faces of his teammates, making an attempt to take full control over this team.

Donovan also made plenty of positive runs – unfortunately, his finishing was poor (at best) and his decisions weren’t much better in the final third.

The second half was a different animal for Landon though, as he turned in an impressive display of work and leadership. He defended hard and made his presence felt, defensively at least, all over the field.

The opinions didn’t vary, though, on Michael Bradley and Rico Clark.

Bradley turned in a fantastic performance, dominating the midfield with his tackling and physical play. He made quick decisions with the ball and controlled the pace of the game.

Clark, on the other hand, was Bradley’s opposite in almost every way. He was slow to close on Egypt’s midfielders, slow to make decisions with the ball, and generally looked out of place in the US midfield. His poor play makes Bradley’s performance that much more impressive.

The Strikers

If you didn’t know Charlie Davies name before, he was a revelation to you. Who knew the USA had a speedster on the bench that puts in work like Carlos Tevez? Well, quite a few people knew it actually.

The next question, logically, is: Why in the world was this kid not playing sooner? Unfortunately, nobody knows the answer to this question.

Regardless, we all know about Charlie Davies now, and hopefully that means our coach feels the pressure to play him. We need his speed, work-rate, and willingness to get attack an opponent’s defense – consequently, that’s everything Brian Ching and Conor Casey don’t offer to this team.

Jozy Altidore is getting some criticism for his play, but I think it’s a bit undue. He hasn’t been incredible, but he’s also been a bit of a marked man. Against Brazil and Italy, Jozy was largely left on an island up top, being marked by the opponent’s best defender (and sometimes both of their top defenders). He’s done a ton of work through 3 games, though, putting good pressure on the backlines by being physical and aggressive. His touch has let him down a bit, but overall he’s been consistently good for the US.

Overall, it was a relatively solid performance from the “Nats”. Michael Bradley and Oguchi Onyewu were the stars with their stellar play, and new young star emerged in Charlie Davies.

To be successful against Spain, though, our two “veterans” – Dempsey and Donovan – have to play with more discipline through the full 90 minutes. We can’t afford for them to spend half the game in the middle of the field, ignoring their responsibilities out wide.

We also need to see Carlos Bocanegra’s inclusion in the squad, replacing Bornstein at left back.

Whether or not you agree, that’s this keeper’s view from the back of the field.

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8 Responses

  1. Great observations. Having played competitive ball, myself, (right mid) I completely agree with you on many of your points.

    What surprises me most is that so many people are saying all of our problems are absolved by this one win. Even in the victory, I still see so many tactical, personnel, and positioning issues.

    We need re-vamp our mid entirely and place people there who are capable of contributing both offensively and defensively. What was once are strongest point (WC ’02) is now the source of many of our problems.

    Regarding M. Bradley, I have mixed emotions. I think he’s a gritty defensive mid at best – despite his offensive contributions. The Egypt game was an anomaly, as far as I am concerned. We need someone to sit in the central mid who can create and initiate the O with a true finishing touch and better pace. I think Michael is great a mixing things up in the middle but he’s not to be a go-to guy for us offensively.

    I really, really like Spector. I hope we find a permanent spot in the back line for him. He can play several positions and I’d like to see a combo of: Cherundolo/Onyewu/Bocanegra/Spector.

    I like Altidore and Davies up front. Hopefully we can get Altidore some service to his feet as opposed to the long balls received with his back to the goal. I’d like to see Torres and Adu integrated, as well.

    Finally, I think it’s Dempsey’s time to ride pine. Despite his goal, his commitment to flashy ball skills that produce nothing and his new affinity for giving up the ball all over the field are really detrimental to this team.

    Anyway, great analysis.

    • With Michael, I think we’re asking too much of him when we pair with guys like Kljestan, Mastroeni, and Clark.

      I’d like to see what we can do when we Jermaine Jones and when Mo Edu gets healthy – both will provide the defensive cover for Bradley to use his gifts a bit more. He’s actually a very skilled passer with incredible range, but we rely on him to clean everything up way too much.

      Part of the issue is that his dad is hell-bent on employing the “empty bucket” tactics, essentially using 2 center backs in front of 2 center backs. I’m no fan of it at all, simply because he’s forcing our midfielders to worry too much about defense.

      I understand using 1 holding mid, as every team (except Spain, at times) in the world is working to successfully employ one. But, once Jones is available, we won’t need 2 of those types of players.

      Personally, I’d like to see us model ourselves after Spain in some fashion, using 1 holding mid and getting some good passers in around him.

      Something like this:
      ……………….Donovan………………….
      ….Bradley………………..Feilhaber….
      …………………Jones……………………..

      Jones has the defensive range to be a lone holding mid, and Bradley and Feilhaber have the passing range to be effective in a Xavi\Alonso type combination.

      I’m with you on Spector. In my opinion, he’s easily the most talented defender the United States has ever had.

  2. Thank you, someone who also agrees with the “diamond” committed offensive and defensive mid formation.

    I’m with you – BB is entirely too focused on the D in such a way that it distorts the mid so there is a gap between the D and O – requiring our mids to account for too much of the field and promoting the long-ball crap we’ve been playing with lately. Our mid is so extended across the field it cannot control the ball and transition forward once possession is gained as a unit. Rarely is anyone trailing services so that Altidore receiving the ball around the top of the box or LD dribbling the ball into the attacking third have any support to set up a play.

    It frustrates me to know end because our team appears so out-of-sync.

    And, I’m not ashamed to admit I have a small man-crush on Spector. His positioning, passing, everything is amazing. The time he has spent with top-flight teams in the EPL is so obvious and he should be the poster boy for US Soccer regarding the importance of getting youth in top leagues early, even if they aren’t starting. His cross to Dempsey was one of the most impressive I’ve seen from an American is some time. I just hope he remains healthy.

    How are you feeling about the Spain game? Unfortunately, considering their technical, ridiculous, passing midfield, I’m worried they have the potential to really expose our flaws in the middle.

    • I’m with you on Spector. I played against him as a youth player, and the kid was such a naturally gifted defender. Goofy, funny, sometimes awkward , but a helluva player.
      I think what people don’t realize most about Spector is that he is our only player with the ability to calmly play out of a tight spot. Guys like Bornstein and DeMerit are mostly just clearing balls high and wide, while Spector usually keeps possession after his defensive stops.

      As for Spain, their gameplan will depend heavily on who they start alongside Xavi and Xabi Alonso. If they start Riera and Fabregas, chances are they are looking to exploit our lack of wing defense. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like Thiago Mata starts ahead of Cesc, as he plays a bit more like a natural winger than Cesc does.

      If they start Cesc or David Silva, they’ll probably pair them with Sergei Brusquets (a young version of Marco Senna) and play 1 holding mid with 3 interchanging attacking mids.

      Either way, it’s a tough assignment for the US, especially if we elect to use Rico Clark again. His lack of quickness and foot speed will really hinder our ability to intercept their passing lanes. All of Spain’s midfielders will run circles around Rico. He also has a bad tendency to chase passes, rather than hold his defensive assignments – which will absolutely destroy our ability to hinder Spain’s progress up the field.

      I’d like to see us come out like this:
      …..Altidore…….Davies…..
      ……………Donovan…………
      …Torres……………..Benny…
      …………….Bradley…………..
      Boca………………………Spector
      ………DeMerit…..Gooch…..
      ……………….Howard…………

      Somewhat of a 4-3-1-2, with Donovan sitting deep to help link the midfield\defense with the strkers. Torres isn’t a fantastic defender, but he understands how to play against quick-passing teams and can offer far more to the game than Rico, especially against Spain.

      Unfortunately, I’m afraid we’ll come out like this:
      …………………Casey……………….
      Beasley….Donovan…Dempsey
      ………..Bradley….Clark…………..
      Bornstein………………..Spector
      ………….Boca……..Gooch………..
      ………………Howard…………………

      I have a strong fear that Bradley will revert into a conservative formation, using a “target” forward and his typical 5-deep midfield. I’m a huge detractor of the “target forward” line of thought, which is why I believe Brian McBride’s success actually set the US back quite a ways as a soccer country (but that’s for another column at another time).
      Bornstein, in my opinion, needs to be jettisoned and never called in again. His positioning and general defensive ability has been a huge Achilles heel for us lately. Pearce, while not a popular choice after the Costa Rica disaster, is still a far superior option.

      Thanks for reading and responding! I really enjoy the discussion!

      • God help us if Casey is anywhere near a starting lineup, though I wouldn’t put it past BB.

        A couple things you may have left out is your opinion on Guzan (being a keeper yourself) and the coaching in general (gameplan, subs, etc.)

        I thought Guzan was ok but looks lost on crosses and corners leaving the goal almost wide open as he misjudged 2 or 3 balls. I think we were very fortunate Egypt’s out-swingers weren’t finding Egyptian heads or they would’ve had an easy look past an out of position Guzan.

        Bradley still made some baffling decisions with his subs. Why pull Jozy when we need a goal (which unfortunately looks like a stroke of managerial brilliance because of Dempsey’s goal instead of luck)? Also why pull Connor Casey off of shoe-shining duty to go wander around on the field? He literally only touched the ball one time in which the U.S. didn’t immediately lose possession and that was only because a defender tackled it off of him to Dempsey’s feet. There have to be other subs more deserving of time than Casey.

  3. I refuse to acknowledge the fact that we actually used Brad Guzan in a meaningful name. The fact that Marcus Hahnemann continually gets snubbed by Bradley is reason enough, for me at least, to fire him.

  4. Wow! People who understand the game, probably better than I do! I’m a player too and have played every position, but most of my 15 years has been at right fullback and right mid. I will agree with you on most of your points, I just hope that only one veteran comes out to play, and that veteran is Donovan.

    I’ve had a question since the end of the match with Italy: Why wasn’t the U.S. playing with two forwards until the Egypt match? It was always Altidore up top to fend for himself for most of the tournament. As you said he did well at times, but he had to hold onto the ball for far too long, waiting for someone to show up in support.

    I agree with you and CSC about Spector. At first I wasn’t so sure about him, maybe because he was a new face for me, but he did well against Italy and Brazil. I didn’t pay too much attention to defense in the Egypt match because I was so amazed we were playing with two forwards, I was watching how that was working out. I thought it worked out well for the U.S. even considering that Egypt wasn’t the Egypt that played against Brazil and Italy. Anyway, Spector should be a constant back there on D.

    If the U.S. shows up today with that formation and personnel, I don’t even think that divine intervention could help the U.S. Beasley, should have had to prove that he is still able to play at the international level before even making the trip to South Africa. For me that proof was in the Costa Rica match, he’s wasn’t able. I don’t know why Casey made the trip. Is it because he’s scored a lot of goals in the MLS? Dempsey, I have never really been a big fan of him. His style of play, to me, seems too unnecessary.

    That 4-3-2-1 looks similar to a 4-1-2-1-2 with a central defensive mid and a central attacking mid in that diamond formation. If it is, I like it. If it isn’t, I still like the idea. Tactics aren’t my strong point, but I know either of those are better than 4-5-1. It didn’t work in 06′, why would it work now? Two forwards gives you another option to score. Why is that so difficult for American coaches to figure that out?

    This is the end of the road for the U.S. today. Spain has some of the best teamwork I’ve ever seen and the U.S. will not be able to stop it. Spain wins 2-0.

  5. We played with 1 forward because Bradley believes in a “empty bucket” midfield (meaning two holding mids and a deep-lying attacking mid, usually Donovan) and a “target striker” (the “Brian McBride” role, usually Brian Ching).

    He changed it up for the Egypt game and it was a great move. Hopefully he sticks to it.

    Thanks for all the great comments Adam! Well-written stuff!

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