A Few Thoughts About the U.S. Win in Antigua

Jurgen Klinsmann made some mistakes with regard to his call-up decisions, bringing in both Landon Donovan and Brek Shea despite injury concerns.  He also made some confounding choices in his game-day selection against Antigua, especially on the left side.

Injuries to both Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo gave Klinsmann the option of playing either Michael Parkhurst, a versatile defender but primarily a right back, and Carlos Bocanegra, a central defender who has only started 5 competitive matches for the U.S. on the outside in 5 years, as a make-shift left back.  Parkhurst is a natural full back who is used to to overlapping down the flank and providing support for the attack.  Even though Bocanegra play extensively on the left side for his club Saint Etienne, he doesn’t offer much going forward.  Klinsmann selected Bocanegra.

Clarence Goodson is a toothpick and showed on numerous occasions tonight that he cannot handle the physicality of international play.  Jurgen Klinsmann seems to like Geoff Cameron and if he gets the start against Guatemala on Tuesday we will know that the German has patience for Cameron’s development with an eye towards Brazil 2014.  If the former Houston Dynamo man is the heir apparent at central defense, his partner shouldn’t be Goodson.  Cameron likes to step up to the attacker and once he wins the ball Cameron carries possession into midfield.  A defender like Cameron requires a stay at home central defense partner that can handle counter attacks and deal with the physicality of opposition.  Goodson does not fill that bill, while Bocanegra has the experience and strength to contend with CONCACAF forwards.

The goal against the U.S. showed exactly why Cameron and Goodson can’t partner each other.  Cameron ran out to pressure the ball and made a poorly timed challenge on Peter Byers.  Byers easily evaded the rash tackle of an immature Cameron and played a ball into Dexter Blackstock.  By the time the ball got to him, Blackstone had already put Goodson on his back and faced no challenge on his tap-in from 6 yards.  Neither player can excel while playing with the other.

The midfield and forwards were to be expected with one glaring exception.  Danny Williams was the defensive midfielder which freed Michael Bradley to always look forward.  Graham Zusi provided width on the right side and played several remarkable balls into the box.  Clint Dempsey lined up as a forward playing behind Herculez Gomez, which is a partnership I’m excited to see grow in the future.  The left midfield position was never going to be a perfect fit with Donovan, Shea, and Torres injured and if Dempsey plays up top.  However, I was completely taken by surprise when Klinsmann gave Eddie Johnson the midfield role.

Johnson has never started at left midfield in a competitive league fixture in his professional career.  But the decision at left back just acted to confound the problem of Johnson in midfield.  Carlos Bocanegra is not a forward thinking full back so he didn’t move up into the space on the left side as support for Eddie Johnson.  This meant that Eddie Johnson had two choices, either to drop deep to play the ball or to stay forward isolated on the wing.  In the first half Johnson was forced to come back deep to play retrieve the ball in order to maintain possession for the team.  A majority of those passes in the first half, however, were backwards to the defense or laterally to Danny Williams.  On several occasions, Johnson was actually defending alongside or behind Williams.

At halftime Klinsmann must have told Johnson to stop dropping deep, because in the second half the Seattle forward stayed up more often.  Johnson was camped out just outside the Antigua penalty area for large periods of time after the break.  Because Carlos Bocanegra is a stay at home defender (opposed to the dynamic style played by Geoff Cameron or the ball-carrying type of defender like Jan Vertonghen or Gerard Pique) so he is not as comfortable as a natural full-back supporting the play up the field.  Michael Parkhurst would have been much more able to provide width on the overlap or close down the gap of space behind Eddie Johnson.

Aside from the 10 seconds leading up to each goal, Eddie Johnson was largely ineffective going forward.  Klinsmann must have noticed this, but all three substitutions were of a like-for-like nature.  Jermaine Jones came on for Williams, Gomez made way for Alan Gordon, and Sacha Kljestan replaced Zusi.  This shows to me that Klinsmann liked the tactics being played in the game and didn’t want to switch them.  Not addressing a monstrous gap between a high winger and a deep fullback shows a one-dimensional approach from the German head coach.  By employing both capable wide players on the right side, Zusi and Cherundolo on the overlap, Klinsmann’s main plan was to send service to the far post for a ghosting-in Eddie Johnson.  While that blueprint worked on the second goal, playing Eddie Johnson as a left midfielder/auxiliary left forward was a waste of space and potential for the 89 minutes beforehand.

Clint Dempsey could not find space to operate in and around the congested Antigua penalty area.  Dempsey has many talents on the soccer field, one of them is to serve balls into the box or to cut in from wide positions to take shots from the edge of the box.  If Klinsmann moved Dempsey out to the left side of midfield, the team could have attacked from either side and still played service into Johnson.

Instead, everyone on the field and everyone watching the game knew the U.S. was going to play the ball down the right side of the field.  Every time the U.S. tried to switch to the left side Johnson either couldn’t run to retrieve the pass or couldn’t keep possession if he controlled the ball.  Playing a capable left midfielder like Dempsey or Kljestan would have forced Antigua to cover both sides of the field and move players out of the middle.  This would have made the U.S. more dangerous with balls crossed into the area and also freed up space for Bradley to play his game behind the forwards.

While Klinsmann’s gamble paid off in the 90th minute, he must learn to adapt his tactics if the team is going to make advance from the Hexagonal.  The team still has to get a result against Guatemala to ensure they make the next round in the first place.  Not calling in replacement players for Donovan, Shea, and Castillo could blow up in Klinsmann’s first on Tuesday.  Guatemala are a much better team than the semi-professional players the U.S. squeaked by on Friday night.  Simply put, the manager has to do better.

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