Tactics: Cameron, Bradley control midfield in US win
Goals from Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson either side of halftime gave the US a 2-0 win over Panama Tuesday night, lifting the Americans into sole possession of first place in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.
This was the most encouraging US performance in the qualifying cycle- they showed patience and, for the first time in the cycle, the ability to efficiently game manage a full 90 minutes.
Prior to kickoff it was widely expected Panama would sit deep in their own half and look to break forward quickly on the counter. However, it was apparent in the opening five minutes they planned on taking a braver, more proactive approach. Rather than sitting deep and allowing US holding midfielders Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron to collect passes from their center backs with time on the ball, Panama played higher up the pitch and applied immediate pressure to Cameron and Bradley when they received possession deep in midfield.
Without time on the ball to pick their heads up and find a penetrating pass forward, Cameron and Bradley were forced to play the ball backwards and therefore much of the US’s early possession was spent patiently shuffling the ball side to side among the back four.
The downside to Panama’s high midfield press was that their back four would be left dangerously exposed if the US could advance the ball past the pressing midfielders and into the feet of Altidore, Dempsey, Eddie Johnson and Fabian Johnson. The key to carving chances then was for Bradley, Cameron and the US back four to show patience and look for the right time to penetrate Panama’s press with balls forward into the attacking midfielders and Altidore. Forced passes and sloppy giveaways in midfield would have provided Panama with dangerous opportunities on the counter.
The danger to Panama of allowing the US to get in behind their press was highlighted in the 22nd minute when Bradley bypassed their midfield with a surging run forward and found Fabian Johnson on the left channel. Although Johnson’s subsequent cross was poor, Bradley’s burst in behind Panama’s midfielders left him unmarked at the top of the box to collect a weak headed clearance and have a shot. His effort unluckily struck Dempsey on the way in but the move was an indicator of just how vulnerable Panama’s defense was when protection from higher up the pitch broke down and foreshadowed the goal that would ultimately break the deadlock.
That goal would come on 36 minutes from a textbook counter attack. Cameron tracked back to win a loose ball at the edge of the penalty area as Panama committed numbers forward and played a simple outlet pass to Bradley. The Roma midfielder found himself with space to drive forward and carried the ball well into the Panamanian half before once again finding Fabian Johnson unmarked on the left wing. This time Johnson made no mistake with his delivery, curling a perfect low driven cross to the back post for Altidore to tap home.
Panama were unable to obtain their energetic pressing into the second half. With more time in possession Cameron and Bradley were able to get a stranglehold on the midfield and dictate the tempo of the game. Bradley’s distribution was unsurprisingly excellent throughout but Cameron’s performance along side him in place of the injured Jermaine Jones was equally deserving of praise. In his post game press conference Jurgen Klinsmann said he had told Cameron to provide cover for the center backs, intercept balls in midfield and play simply. He did all those things well but also became more expansive with his passing as the game progressed and he became more comfortable with his role. His pinpoint ball over the top for Eddie Johnson’s goal was the highlight of his offensive contribution but he also did well throughout the 90 minutes of circulating the ball with Bradley and ensuring the US maintained a decent tempo in possession.
Despite some nervy defensive moments in the final few minutes, the US’s performance was hugely promising. There was more attacking fluidity than had been shown in the previous four Hex qualifiers (probably understandable given three of those four were on the road and the home game was played in a blizzard) and it was nice to see the team finally show the impetus to put a game to bed with a second goal. With the exception of Brad Evans all of the starters performed well. Along with Cameron and Bradley, Altidore and Fabian Johnson were particularly deserving of praise. A repeat performance next week against Honduras in Utah will surely mean 3 additional points for Klinsmann’s side and all but solidify qualification to Brazil.