The US Escapes Azteca with a Point and Confidence
By Matt Biggerstaff
A critical draw at Azteca last night left the US in good position in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. The American defense deployed the 'Bend but don't break' strategy extremely well. Coupled with great games from Gonzalez, Besler, and Beasley along with a bit of luck and surviving a couple scary moments, allowed the US to leave Mexico with a point in qualifying for only the second time ever.
Plaudits must be given to Jurgen Klinsmann, who prepared his team very well with an effective game plan to neutralize and frustrate Mexico. A youthful back line got significant support defensively from the midfield, especially from Zusi, who came to the rescue in two critical situations. Overall it was a great result, a result that was built on a couple specific things.
January camp was critical for building rapport for the defense, especially as Besler got only his second cap on the biggest stage in CONCACAF. Remember the lack of chemistry between Gonzalez and Cameron in the game at Honduras? There was none of that to be found in Mexico. Besler and Gonzalez built chemistry with all the reps they got together in camp and it showed.
One of my main takeaways from the US - Canada friendly in January was how good the partnership of Besler and Gonzalez looked. I had no idea however that said partnership would help guide the US to a shutout, especially with Demarcus Beasley starting at left back. Both were composed and calm on the ball, made good reads on through balls and crosses. Dealing with Javier Hernandez, who moves off the ball extremely well is no easy task, however, outside of one situation, the combination did a stellar job. Camp cupcake proved critical for the US' success.
The game plan put together by Jurgen Klinsmann was well executed and put the US in the best position to leave Mexico with points. His task certainly was not enviable, as the number of players unavailable to him due to injury or circumstance was staggering. His team was very well prepared, and was able to overcome Clarence Goodson not being able to go, which certainly threw a wrench in his plans.
Certainly the attack left a lot to be desired, but the team played great team defense and did not press high, helping everyone deal with the elevation and conditions of Azteca. The outside midfielders did a great job of tracking back and harassing Mexican players. At times it would have been great to see the US attack when the opportunity arose near midfield, as the back passes from the midfield seemed to lead to many long balls and hurried clearances, but keeping people situated positionally was more important.
Something that really stood out was the lack of an attacking presence in the midfield is exposed when Landon Donovan is not with the team.
Donovan's ability to take people on and beat them is a critical component of the US attack, and his creativity has been severely missed while he has been gone. Neither Zusi nor Gomez are beating people off the dribble and Dempsey isn't going to be the guy to make a lot of incisive passes on a regular basis, especially since he is carrying enough of the team's goalscoring weight already.
Essentially, no one is the three dimensional threat that Donovan is when he is on the field. It didn't help that often times when the US had the ball in a chance where they could push the attack, the first look from Edu or Bradley was back to one of their backs. Likely a part of the game plan, but that willingness to get forward and beat someone one on one is something that opens up more passing lanes and keeps the defense on its toes.
The US will need to figure this out before their next qualifier as they cannot rely on Altidore to get the ball, beat multiple people and create goals by himself or Dempsey to make magic every time he is on the pitch.
Azteca was not the game for it, but eventually the US needs to try running out a more attacking partnership in the middle with Bradley. Either someone like Torres, who can control the game more from the middle, or Kljestan, who has the ability to make more dangerous passes. Both are more composed on the ball then Edu or Jones and inclined to go forward, which would give the US more chances without fully sacrificing the defensive integrity.
The friendly against Belgium is a perfect time to experiment against a good squad, and I hope Klinsmann has the foresight to experiment with some different looks in the two friendlies before the next World Cup Qualifiers. I would also like to see Gomez or Boyd get some time up top with Altidore, as we saw how effective that was against Slovenia last year. Considering how well Altidore is playing in Holland and how starved he is both for service and for anyone to combine with when he's on the field for the US, its incredibly critical to find a way to get him involved more often and in more dangerous spots.
To succeed both in qualifying and at the World Cup, goals must be scored. This is not something the US has cracked under Klinsmann, but they have some good chances to do so in late May and early June. The way the US plays in those games will be much more important than the results.