USA v Panama: Three things to watch for on Tuesday
The U.S. gutted out a solid win on Friday night in Jamaica, but they will have to keep getting better each game. After beating Germany in a friendly the previous week and posting six goals in the past two games, the tendency is to declare the U.S. ready for Brazil. While it is nice to finally see the team putting a few in the back of the net, especially Jozy Altidore, the squad still needs a lot of work where their attack is concerned. Klinsmann is beginning to show a more consistent hand with the line up card, but unavailable players are still forcing (or allowing, depending on your point of view) him to tinker at multiple positions, not to mention the proverbial “monkey wrench” that is the inevitable return of Landon Donovan.
In anticipation of Tuesday’s matchup against Panama, here are three things to watch for based on the performance of the U.S. squad that faced Jamaica on Friday.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler seem to be Klinsmann’s preferred pair in the center of the defense. The duo have done very well in their limited time together, and the strength of their performance to this point is encouraging going forward. They still lack the instinctive tethered movements of a long term partnership, but they rarely make a complete mess of things.
Against Panama, pay close attention to the ways in which they move in response to each other. The back four for the U.S. did a nice job staying compact against Jamaica, and they stepped and dropped well in unison. The next step for Gonzalez and Besler is instinctively covering for each other. Gonzalez often aggressively steps to ball handlers with their back to him. In the same moment that he steps, Besler has to drop and pinch. Jamaica was able to exploit the space behind Gonzalez on one of his steps when Besler was caught reacting, and the result was a man in behind and a shot off the post. Against a better side (like Belgium, for instance), that fraction of a second delay is all the time needed to exploit and finish.
Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones were excruciating to watch in the first half against Jamaica. They appeared to be almost too similar to function well together in the straightforward 4-4-2 Klinsmann employed on Friday. Both essentially played a defensive holding position, often checking all the way into the back line to receive the ball and play forward, at the expense of any serious attacking threat through the middle.
After suffering what appeared to be a concussion, Jones was replaced around the 60 minute mark by Geoff Cameron. This switch opened the game up considerably for the U.S., allowing Bradley to attack while Cameron (quite capably) patrolled the midfield on defense. My understanding is that Cameron was benched as a result of his performance against Belgium, but it is tough to understand why considering just how lethal Belgium is in attack.
With Jones most likely to be sidelined on Tuesday, look for Cameron to steamroll Panamanian attackers just in front of the back four, while Bradley sprays balls to wingers for 90 minutes. Another possibility is the appearance of Sacha Kljestan instead of Cameron, in which case the versatile Bradley simply takes up the holding roll and allows Kljestan to push the tempo. Regardless, either pairing would be an upgrade from the Jones/Bradley combination.
The U.S. program is currently in the middle of a difficult philosophical transition in attack. Once thought of as a collection of oversized athletes thrown onto a soccer pitch (not unlike Jamaica’s current roster), the former strategy for the U.S. resembled the kick-and-run style game you might see in college. But as the development and skill level reaches new heights in this country, the long ball strategy is becoming merely wasteful. As a result, Klinsmann has tried to implement a possession-based strategy.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has not yet developed any true midfield wizards like the Hazards and (insert any Spanish player)s of the world. Playing through the midfield proved to be futile on Friday, as per usual. Even against a Jamaican squad that played horrible team defense, anytime the U.S. tried to bring the ball directly up the middle everything was very clogged. But when they gain possession and then attack through the wide channels they are very dangerous. Altidore creates massive problems with his strength, runs and finishing in the box, and Dempsey is devastating on the follow up as a poaching goal scorer.
Getting the ball wide, as on the Altidore goal from Zusi, creates enough space in the middle for Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore and eventually Donovan to do work in and around the box. The problem for the U.S. is that in the 4-4-2, the outside fullbacks need to press forward as well, getting around the midfielders on the outside to create a more dynamic attack. On Friday, Evans and Beasley stayed home for almost the entire game, making the offensive strategy fairly predictable since Zusi was the only player getting forward and wide to swing balls into the box. It was barely enough against a weak Jamaican side, but they will need more from their outside backs in the coming matches if they expect to be in Brazil next summer.