ASN tactician Liviu Bird watched and analyzed every U.S. soccer match this month. He takes a look at some noticeable trends and what they say about the team's general trajectory.
FIVE GAMES, FOUR
June 28, 2013
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wins, one loss, 11 goals scored (four by the same player, who hadn’t scored for his country in almost two years), nine points in World Cup qualifying: that was the month of June for the United States.
Thanks to this impressive showing, two results in the September qualifiers—at Costa Rica and at home against Mexico—could clinch a spot in Brazil 2014. June 2013 may turn out to be the stretch of games that made June 2014 a reality.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s preferred lineup was one of many aspects solidified since May 29, and the team's style of play evolved to what will likely be this cycle’s finished product next year.
Target man Jozy Altidore
finally found his form, scoring for the first time for the U.S. since November 2011. The days of Klinsmann calling him out for his work ethic appear to be over. Altidore’s partner, Clint Dempsey
, took an extended run with the captain’s armband.
Underneath them, Michael Bradley’s
leadership came through. Even farther back on the field, the young central defense pair of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler continues to grow and learn.
The biggest remaining question mark in the lineup is at right back, which may be the only starting spot still up for grabs. It’s hard to imagine Brad Evans keeps a healthy Steve Cherundolo or Timmy Chandler out of the starting lineup, especially after being exposed against Panama and Honduras. But a lot will happen between now and next summer.
Secrets to Altidore’s Success
After a lackluster 45-minute performance against Belgium, Altidore flipped a switch against Germany. He scored a goal and provided an assist on Dempsey’s volley, and he found areas on the field in which to be dangerous.
Specifically, he drifted more toward the wide channels
instead of staying central the whole game. This allowed Dempsey to fill in that space, and it freed Altidore up to find the ball and run at defenders (specifically on Dempsey’s goal against Germany).
For his part, Dempsey began to act more like a striker and less like an attacking midfielder. As June progressed, his starting position was higher and higher up the field, ending up in almost a true shadow-striker spot underneath Altidore.
He still drifts back into the midfield to find the ball, but his mentality is more forward thinking than it was in the March qualifiers. This sequence, ending with DaMarcus Beasley hitting the post,
is a prime example.
When Bradley moves forward with the ball, Dempsey and Altidore are stretching Panama’s defense. Instead of checking back to find the ball at his feet, as a midfielder generally likes to do, Dempsey streaks forward and behind the back line.
He ends up laying the ball off for Altidore, who plays Beasley through. The move either breaks down or looks completely different if Dempsey checks back—at least, it would kill the team’s forward momentum on that particular counter-attack.
Bradley: The Boss in the Middle
Speaking of Bradley, he reestablished himself as the key man in the U.S. midfield in June. Without him against Belgium, the team looked stagnant and could hardly find the ball. In his best game (against Panama), the U.S. played its most attractive soccer under Klinsmann.
He ended up with a 90.7 percent pass-completion rate, succeeding in 264 out of 291 attempts in four matches. Don’t forget, he also put up a Xavi-like 57-of-58 performance at Azteca Stadium in March.
Bradley’s ability on the ball shows why he needs to be the primary creator for the U.S. However, his normal partner at holding midfield, Jermaine Jones, has yet to receive the message.
Jones often tries to take over a game, trying to push forward and break up opposition attacks at the same time, and the result is a chaotic and erratic performance. In his press conference in Salt Lake, Klinsmann defined the Bradley-Jones relationship as No. 8 (box-to-box) and No. 6 (holding), respectively, but perhaps that needs to be communicated more clearly within the team.
Jones’ best performances come when he sits deep and breaks up plays. Bradley’s best games see him pressing forward and causing trouble—which is why Geoff Cameron’s performance at holding midfield
against Panama suited him so well.
Growing Pains in the Back
The central defenders, Besler and Gonzalez, need all the help they can get right now. In particular, Gonzalez has shown he is not quite up to speed on the international level, but Besler
has had his breakdowns as well.
On this early play against Honduras, both center backs go up for a ball in the air. Besler ends up challenging, while Gonzalez smartly drops to back him up. The ball falls to Gonzalez
near the sideline.
Now, it’s Besler’s turn to drop. He does, providing an angle to support Gonzalez, who now has a defender in his face. The smart—and easy—play is to drop the ball to Besler, who can then play out through Jones or Fabian Johnson.
Evans and Jones are both pointing at Besler, giving Gonzalez the only information he should need. Hopefully, they were both giving him verbal assistance as well.
Instead, Gonzalez tries to thread the needle to Jones. Roger Espinoza picks the pass off easily, and he has space to exploit. Jones tracks back and fouls Espinoza on top of the penalty area.
The U.S. gives up a needless, dangerous set piece
that could have been avoided with one better decision on the ball.
Later in the game, Besler also gives the ball away cheaply. Tim Howard bails him out, but Gonzalez again could have made life easier for his goalkeeper.
When Besler dribbles the ball into Andy Najar, only Roger Rojas is in position to support for Honduras. Evans immediately starts tucking in, and he should be shouting at Gonzalez to shift and take away the ball carrier’s path to goal.
The yellow line shows just how short of a horizontal distance Gonzalez covers on the play, as he never gets outside the arc on top of the 18-yard box by the time Najar shoots.
Najar is looking at the entire goal, with very little pressure, when he gets near the box. The least Gonzalez could do here is take away Najar’s look at the far post, making the shot predictable for his goalkeeper. If his recovery run were better, he could have blocked the shot entirely.
Luckily, Najar shoots right at Howard, who makes the reaction save. But these plays are emblematic of the biggest American problem in the back right now: poor decisions on both sides of the ball (see also: Germany’s third goal and Honduras’ winner in February
Can Anybody Else Make a Case?
In July, the U.S. will send a second-tier squad out for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. All things considered, it may actually be more of an “A-minus” team than a “B” team, with Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden likely to play major roles.
The biggest question next month is: Can any of them show through their play why Klinsmann should call them up in September? Also, is Bocanegra’s time with the “A” team over? And will some goalkeeper please show they are capable of taking over from Howard and Guzan?
The American product is close to finalized, but just as the January camp often churns out at least one major contributor, the Gold Cup can do the same.
We'd love to hear your take on the U.S. month of June, and on this tactical summary. The Comments section below is open for business.
Liviu Bird is the Cascadia regional editor for SoccerWire.com, as well as an ASN contributor. Follow him on Twitter.