100 Years On: The US Shows It Can Play The Modern Game
By Marc Serber
This may not have been a performance 100 years in the making, but after a tired, uninspired 4-2 defeat at the hands of Belgium on Wednesday, the US response was emphatic.
The 4-3 victory over an experimental German side was as impressive as it was exhilarating and certainly fitting of the occasion.
From the first whistle it was clear to see that the necessary changes and adjustments had been put into place on the training ground during the short turn around.
The USA played with a spring in their step, pressing high without the ball, while showing quick and clever movements in possession.
“I think just having two, three days to prepare for the Belgium game was almost impossible. I think today we set the tone right from the beginning,” Jurgen Klinsmann explained in his post match press conference. “We pressured them [Germany] high. We made it very difficult for them to play out of the back, which is what they like to do, and we were right there on their toes. This is what we need to do every game. Every game we need to win battles, and you have to move off the ball and create something. There was a pace and understanding to our game.”
This has been Klinsmann’s vision for US Soccer ever since he took over almost two years ago. At times today, US Soccer fans witnessed its transcendence in a manner that hasn’t been seen since the US’s 5-1 thumping of Scotland last year.
Klinsmann said after the Belgium match that he wanted his side to play through the midfield, rather than just having the defense force complicated balls up to Jozy Altidore.
The call was certainly heeded as the ball moved through the middle of the park, not only getting more players involved in the attack, but also allowing Altidore to be more dynamic, making darting runs into space rather than coming back as a target forward.
Altidore’s well placed volley from Graham Zusi’s delightful cross was a perfect example as the play through the midfield allowed the AZ Alkmaar forward to lose his marker in the center before showing the composure that saw him rack up 31 goals in Holland this season.
Altidore was playing like he had something to prove, but his enjoyment in the advanced spaces had to do with the work of the midfield behind him.
Clint Dempsey’s smart runs underneath were opening up space not only for Altidore to find lanes but to also come inside and link up play with the midfield.
If Dempsey ran in and Altidore took the lanes, then it was Jermaine Jones’ turn to fill the vacuum.
The German born Jones said in practice yesterday that he was happy that Michael Bradley would be back because it would allow him to get forward. While it sounded a little bit like he was throwing Sacha Kljestan under the bus, you could see how comfortable Jones was now that his partner in crime was back.
When Jones wasn’t taking that space, it could also be occupied by Fabian Johnson making clever diagonal runs to link up with play in the center.
Johnson and DeMarcus Beasley looked a dangerous combination on the left. With both having played fullback and outside mid, it meant that their positions were interchangeable.
If Johnson did come inside to link with the interior, then Beasley was free to take the outside space.
On the defensive side of the ball the pressure started with the forwards. While the second goal was comical, it must not be forgotten that it was born out of three US jerseys pressuring the German box. Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s tragic final touch came with Jones making an otherwise unnecessary 20-yard-run at him.
With Altidore and Dempsey also putting in the defensive work, there were times in the first half when there was less than 30 yards between the forwards and the US back-line, meaning it was very hard for Die Mannschaft to play in between the lines.
The US dominated the first half because they dictated the pace and tempo of the game rather than reacting to the play. It was perhaps the finest 45 minutes under Klinsmann.
There are obviously still holes and things to work on for the US. The back-line has been a source of concern and it shut off seven minutes into the second half. A static back line, including a lost Omar Gonzalez, watched as substitute Heiko Westermann rose unmarked to power his header beyond Tim Howard off a German corner.
The US response was to carry on and normal service was resumed just six minutes later as Dempsey tied Eric Wynalda for second place on the all time scoring ledger.
Altidore needs to be lauded for the way he brought down the long ball and created the space for the cross before sending the ball in for the great 8 to power home.
The US showed that it still knows how to hit on a quick counter attack.
Dempsey’s goal to surpass Wynalda was an individual master-class, leading those rightfully in disbelief to forget that the buildup involved many players getting forward.
The US continued to move the ball with a confidence and swagger throughout the second half, culminating with the Tottenham man’s stellar finish.
“Having a player like Clint Dempsey on your team is just a privilege,” Klinsmann cooed in the bowls of RFK stadium after the game. “I look back and think he’s one of the best players in US history because he performs every game at a very very high level. A huge compliment to him and the entire team.”
A huge compliment from any coach let alone a World Cup winning striker. While Dempsey was leading the line, its hard to remember the last time his teammates passed and moved with such skill comparable to his level.
Not all was sunshine and rainbows though. The defense had shown its question marks early in the game and the US were lucky not to be behind early in the first half.
While Klinsmann’s high pressuring vision came to fruition for longer than it has in any other match of his tenure, the US almost didn’t come back when it finally hit the wall around the 70th minute.
“I want them to go through a little pain, Klinsmann remarked of the high tempo game he wants for his team. “When you get tired and you hit the wall and you have to pick it up again.”
While we can see lessons being learned, the space afforded to the Germans was alarming.
Klinsmann had remarked that against Belgium they had let the ball get outside a bit too easily. The same happened again on Saturday.
Both of Germany’s late goals were products of long balls sprayed out wide to a player who triggered the demise of the US defense by cutting inside past a plethora of tired diving legs.
“I was thinking that we had to hold on, central defender Matt Besler said when asked what went through his head after Germany pulled it back to 4-3. “We had put so much effort into the game and we played very very well and it would have been a shame to give it all away in the last 10 minutes. Germany did a really good job of putting pressure on us. We bent a little bit but we didn’t break.
Perhaps this is what Klinsmann wanted, the US hit the wall and still managed to conjure up the result, but finales (especially when 3 CONCACAF points are on the line) can’t be so nervy. The stakes are just too high.
Those moments of pain need to be rendered with a bit more grace. Smarter defending and more possession designed to catch the breath.
Despite the worries about the defense, the power of the offense was top class, smart and breathtaking. Learning from Belgium and beating Germany has paid off.
It doesn’t matter that this was a German team without it stars from Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and Real Madrid. It’s still Germany, and now the US flies to Jamaica with confidence at an all time high.
“Its good to win against a good team like this and to win in a game that marks 100 years of soccer in this country,” Dempsey said in the media mix zone. “We want to show that the game is moving in the right direction.”
100 years on and a performance like this should have even Klinsmann’s staunchest critics believing that perhaps the US is on the right path.
Despite today’s pageantry, pomp, circumstance and victory, we all know that this isn’t the true test of our progress. It’s the next three qualifying games, Brazil and beyond.