U.S. midfield needs to improve in possession
Even as the U.S. men's national team was creating all kinds of buzz this summer -- usually for all the right reasons -- one disturbing trend was the team's inability to finish off games. But the root cause of that weakness can be traced to the Americans' inability to keep the ball against the world's better teams, a tendency that has long plagued the U.S. side.
This assessment is not borne of the expectation that the U.S. should win the possession battle against the Spains, Brazils or even the Mexicos of the world. But if this summer's spate of matches revealed anything, it's that when the Yanks do get the ball they give it away too cheaply, and this trait remains the team's biggest obstacle to advancing to the knockout stages at next summer's World Cup, assuming they qualify.
This flaw played a huge part in Wednesday's gut-wrenching 2-1 defeat to Mexico, with U.S. manager Bob Bradley admitting it "probably was the area that let us down the most." The match saw the U.S. repeatedly give the ball back to El Tri just moments after doing the hard work of winning it. This usually took the form of a wayward clearance by the U.S. defense that was then rammed back down the Yanks' collective throat, albeit after Mexico had reestablished its rhythm by connecting five or six passes.
The midfield wasn't any better. Whether it was Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey dribbling into trouble, or the midfield duo of Ricardo Clark and Michael Bradley missing the mark with their passes, the U.S. found it nearly impossible to take the sting out of the opposition as well as the crowd. Their tendency to drop too deep on defense, almost on top of their own back line, compromised the team's efforts to keep possession as well, leaving forwards Brian Ching and Charlie Davies to fend for themselves.
Granted, the hypoxia-inducing conditions at the Estadio Azteca (not to mention Donovan's bout with swine flu) played a part in the Yanks' inability to hang onto the ball. But for the U.S., this penchant isn't unique to their games played at altitude. And their success in other areas of their attack just might be exacerbating the problem.
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The U.S. revealed at the Confederations Cup that it can be downright lethal on the counterattack. Donovan's goal in the final against Brazil was one of the more breathtaking tallies the U.S. has conjured up in the past few years. But lately there hasn't been much variation from the defend-tough-and-counter strategy. It's as if the team is hell-bent on going from zero to 100 miles per hour in record time, without bothering to cruise for a bit at say, 60. This disinclination to slow things down at times and try to control the tempo was especially evident in the second half against Mexico, when the Yanks' primary attacking impulse was to dump the ball into space in the hope that Davies could find a way to latch onto it. On the rare occasions when that proved successful, he went straight for goal.
This inability to control a game's pace, even for a few minutes, leaves the U.S. in a position in which getting results against difficult opponents requires several things to fall perfectly into place. The U.S. has to get great goalkeeping, defend heroically and be opportunistic in attack. The win over Spain at the Confederations Cup revealed that on their day, the Americans are capable of doing all of these things, which counts as a considerable improvement over a year ago. But as the subsequent games against Brazil and Mexico have shown, it's an approach with inherently long odds.
So what are your options if you're Bob Bradley? It would appear at this point his choices are limited. The players at his disposal are not going to turn into Maicon or Andres Iniesta overnight.
One possible solution is to get more of his technically gifted players onto the field more often, in particular Benny Feilhaber. Admittedly, his substitute appearance against Mexico, outside of a few early touches, didn't have the kind of impact that was hoped for. But with Feilhaber finally getting considerable playing time with his club, perhaps he can evolve into the kind of player who can do more to dictate the pace of the team's attack. It would have been interesting to see how the U.S. would have possessed the ball if a player such as Feilhaber, Jose Torres or Stuart Holden had been on from the beginning.
The downside with this approach is that these players lack the "hard to play against" mentality Bradley prizes. If they did have it, they'd already be on the field, and it speaks to the delicate balance Bradley is trying to achieve.
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Of course, "hard to play against" is an apt description for the soon-to-be-eligible Jermaine Jones, and it remains to be seen what impact he'll have when he suits up for the Yanks. The Schalke 04 midfielder's reputation is that of a tough-tackling, box-to-box-type player, traits the U.S. already has in abundance. But Jones' experience from playing in one of the best leagues in the world, as well as in the UEFA Champions League, could give the U.S. the kind of savvy to know when to go for broke and when to take the foot off the gas.
Jones' application for switching his national affiliation from Germany to the U.S. is still in the process of being approved. He's also still recovering from a hairline fracture in his left leg, but the expectation is that he'll be available by the time the potential crunch World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Costa Rica roll around in mid-October, if not sooner.
Otherwise, Bradley is left with the hope that his younger players will grow with experience, and that they'll handle situations such as the Mexico match better in the future. But with the World Cup less than a year away, time is running out, and the chance that the U.S. can repeat its Confederations Cup performance next summer in South Africa hangs in the balance.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.