Talking Tactics

Wondo, Beckerman Shine Bright for National Team

Of the players on the fringes of the U.S.’s World Cup squad, two helped their case against Korea. Meanwhile, question marks remain in some spots, as ASN tactician Liviu Bird explains below.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
February 02, 2014
2:49 PM
A 2-0 WIN put a lovely bow around the United States' January camp, its “B” team defeating Korea Republic’s second unit with confidence. Compared to the same match a year ago, a boring scoreless draw against Canada, the 2-0 win on Saturday provided much more compelling discussion fodder.

The U.S. lineup was a mix of established players (Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez at center back) and those looking to crack the Brazil roster (Chris Wondolowski at forward, Brad Davis on the left wing). The latter got off on the right foot, playing important roles in the U.S. going up 1-0 in the opening minutes.

Wondolowski also poached a second goal in the second half. The U.S. formation oscillated between an empty-bucket 4-4-2, with Landon Donovan playing almost alongside Wondolowski, and a 4-2-3-1, with Donovan roaming underneath.

In the holding block, Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud showed what a defensive-midfielder-and-box-to-box duo can provide in terms of spacing. Diskerud stepped higher in midfield at times, and the two hardly crowded each other’s space to receive the ball as sometimes happens with two box-to-box midfielders (such as Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones).

Despite a two-goal victory, the U.S.’s margin was much less comfortable than the score would suggest. South Korea’s attackers gave the Americans trouble in particular, more so while they defended than while they attacked, and the U.S. still can’t claim to build out of the back, despite its coach’s insistence that it can and does.

Wondolowski Finishes, But Is It Enough?

Wondolowski finally scored against a non-CONCACAF opponent (and a team ranked higher than No. 100 by FIFA) with his two against the Koreans. His off-ball movement is one of the better aspects of his game, and it puts him in position to score easy goals.

His first was a good example of exploiting spaces in a defensive line. When Davis volleyed Graham Zusi’s cross into goalkeeper Jung Sung-Ryong’s hands, Wondolowski anticipated where the ball would drop and got between the center backs to meet it first.

Despite playing as the target man, he started his runs from a deeper position. He didn’t post up and control passes to him as Jozy Altidore might; instead, he kept his feet moving and looked for spaces to exploit in the Korean defense.

On his second goal, Donovan made the higher run, leaving Wondolowski to run between lines. In attack, the space between an opponent’s lines (defense, midfield, forward) are the most dangerous because of the ambiguity they provide.

Above, is Wondolowski the responsibility of a center back? Should a central midfielder track his run? Arguments could be made either way, but no correct answer exists, per se. As a result, Wondolowski likely benefits from the Koreans’ unfamiliarity with one another and is once again in the perfect spot for a knockdown in the penalty area.

Against the high-quality opponents the U.S. will face in the World Cup, Wondolowski is the type of player that could be rendered invisible. His track record in international competition includes scoring three goals against the worst team in the Gold Cup, two against a highly inferior Cuba, and two against a South Korean “B” team defense.

The fact that he’s scoring is important, but the context cannot be ignored.

Korean Pressure, U.S. Possession Problems

After the game, Klinsmann lauded his team for its ability to play out of the back:

“What we wanted to see today from our back line was to continue playing out of the back, even if they’re pressurized—kind of not panicking and sending long balls—and that’s what they did. They really did that.”
However, despite his constant insistence that he’s trying to build a team that can and does possess from back to front, it just isn’t there in the final product.

Multiple times, the midfield movement was too stagnant to allow for proper possession. This is where that ability to play between lines and constantly find spaces between defenders — not hide behind them, as is common on the U.S. team and especially in Major League Soccer — becomes vital.

Part of the U.S.’s trouble was due to Korea’s unique defensive scheme. Whenever the ball was on one side of the field, the near-side winger would step up almost into the forward line, at an angle to cut off the simple pass to the outside back.

As the ball switched, the opposite winger would step up, and the other would tuck in. This put pressure on the center backs to play the ball, and it also forced the central players to find space to receive the ball.

In the example above, two short runs and two simple passes would unlock the Korean press and get the U.S. on the front foot, facing toward goal, and beyond the first line of defense:

• 1) Besler has to be higher. He wants to provide a good angle for Gonzalez to pass, but in doing so, he increases the distance on any entry pass he tries to play, which would make it more likely to be cut out.

As Gonzalez plays the ball to him, Beckerman should vacate the space between the Korean forwards and possibly drag one with him. That would leave space between the forwards and withdrawn central midfielders for Davis to check.

• 2) Besler could then play that ball between the forwards, as one would likely pull a bit wider to follow Beckerman’s run. It would create a window big enough to play into, as long as Besler could be precise enough with the pass.

• 3) From there, it’s a simple lay-off from Davis to Beckerman to get the U.S. facing goal and on the attack. To their credit, Davis and Beckerman begin making the appropriate runs when Gonzalez has the ball at his feet (small green arrows), but he turns and faces his own goal, negating any possibility to play out.

Other World Cup Roster Considerations

Beyond Wondolowski’s two goals, Beckerman had probably the best overall game. He should have solidified his spot on the World Cup squad in what will be a difficult central midfield to crack (although Jones is prone to the occasional yellow-card spree).

He completed 64 of 70 attempted passes, including some clever balls with the outside of his right foot. Beckerman was one of the only players on the field who routinely checked his shoulders before receiving a pass, and he balances the need to play safe out of the No. 6 role with an ability to start attacks.

Defensively, he made the joint-most loose-ball recoveries with eight, four of which were in the attacking half. In transition, the holding midfielder has to be an anchor and be able to defend in numbers-down situations at times, and Beckerman has the right mentality to do so.

In wide areas, the same question marks remain. Michael Parkhurst may have been the best left back in camp, according to Klinsmann and his staff, but he is not an international-level fullback. The best option remains sliding Fabian Johnson back to defense and putting Donovan on the left flank, where he played when Luis Gil entered the Korea match late.

Brad Evans is still a poor fit at right back, and his Seattle Sounders teammate DeAndre Yedlin showed considerable nerves when he took over the spot on Saturday.

Limited Opportunities Remain

The U.S. travels to Ukraine in March, where the European contingent of players will likely get a run. Which MLS players join them could determine who has made the penultimate cut before the World Cup squad is named.

After that, a rumored friendly against Mexico in April—which would feature primarily MLS players once again, as well as, potentially, the Liga MX players—would be the players’ last opportunities to impress.

Of course, nobody outside the group on site know exactly what players showed in training and games in Sao Paulo. Those not on the inside are left to speculate on the final permutations based on the South Korea match and what players and coaches say.

Liviu Bird is ASN’s resident tactical expert. He also writes for SoccerWire.com and will be providing World Cup coverage from an American perspective for The London Telegraph. Follow him on Twitter.

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