USA v Honduras: The right fix
The United States will need to be firing on all cylinders on Tuesday against Honduras if they hope to stay in control of their World Cup destiny.
After a fairly resounding win against Panama last week that saw them take the top spot in their hexagonal, the prevailing opinion is that the U.S. is in top form. While they have looked increasingly impressive and fixed a number of issues over the course of the past two matches, the right side of their formation continues to struggle. Panama and Jamaica were ideal teams to find some overall form against, but the U.S. will need to gain productivity from the right flank if they expect to spread out a Honduran team hungry for points.
The right back spot, currently occupied by Brad Evans, was quietly an issue against Jamaica and loudly problematic against Panama. Evans got a pass for his tentative performance in Jamaica after he scored the winner in the dying moments of the game, the rhetoric being that he brought an attacking presence to the position.
In reality, he left Graham Zusi to bear the weight of the attack up the right side, rarely making a push forward despite the space Zusi was creating with his dangerous movement up the line. Without making light of the significance of the goal, scoring on a last-ditch corner in the final seconds of extra time does not signal an attacking instinct.
By comparison, after staying home against Jamaica, DaMarcus Beasley made the adjustment to get forward and around Fabian Johnson. A number of the most dangerous U.S. attacks came from balls swung in by Beasley, and the spacing that his movement with Johnson provides is invaluable in opening up the middle for Altidore, Dempsey and Bradley to work.
Against Panama, Evans compounded his lack of offense with some very poor on-ball defending. He was repeatedly beat by a combination of speed and his own bad positioning. His pace is not the problem. Many teams play their fastest players on the wing, and he is bound to be over matched at times. But the best defenders compensate for such shortcomings with flawless positioning, and Evans repeatedly left a straight line open for his man to push the ball into and run. Thankfully, Geoff Cameron is everywhere, saving Evans--and probably the shutout--three times in the first half.
And then there is Eddie Johnson.
Let’s just get this out of the way: Eddie Johnson’s goal was lovely. Great run, excellent first touch, fantastic finish.
That makes sense, considering he is wired to play striker.
It would be unfair to pin the entire array of defensive lapses on Evans alone, and Johnson’s goal is actually the perfect example of just how little help Evans received on the wing. The U.S. was actually retreating a bit when Cameron received the ball and turned to see Johnson’s run. In fact, he was open because he never came back with the rest of the team. He was playing higher than either of the forwards, completely out of position to the extent that Panama’s defense was basically disregarding him.
Evans’ mistakes are part of a learning curve. Playing right back on the international stage for 90 minutes requires practice and experience. He may become our best option at that position, even if he's not right now.
Eddie Johnson’s defense, however, appeared to be willfully incompetent. There were multiple instances when he left Evans without support, to the extent that Evans had to say something midway through the first half. At the 30 minute mark, Johnson was so far inside that Cameron had to step to the winger with the ball on the touchline, hoping to prevent another two-on-one attack against his exposed right back.
Johnson showed much of the same in attack, consistently pinched in and caught standing beside Bradley or Dempsey in the center of the attack. This sort of movement (or lack thereof) is acceptable when the right back is making overlapping runs, but with Evans anchored to the back line, Johnson’s positioning merely clogs the middle. It wasn’t until the 27th minute when he first received the ball along the right sideline, and in the entire first half he played only two crosses, neither to any effect.
Klinsmann will have to make a few changes heading into Tuesday’s game in Utah, namely, finding a suitable replacement for Beasley (out for yellow card accumulation). Without the left backs’ movement up and down the line, spacing could be an issue against a stronger Honduran team that will look to clamp down on Altidore. Zusi is available after serving his one game suspension, and his reinsertion into the line up could help open things up, but the U.S. will need to have more consistency from their right side to stay atop the hexagonal going into the second half of qualifiers.