I have mixed feelings on the eve of the United States’ opening match of the 2011 Gold Cup. Everything that I was afraid of happening in the Spain match (except injuries) happened, and now Bob Bradley’s team has U.S. fans nervous and somewhat pessimistic the day before they face the 76th ranked country in the world, according to FIFA and Coca-Cola. Mexico rolled in their first match behind a Chicharito hat trick, we have an idea but not a firm one of who Bob Bradley will bring out onto the field tonight, and even the USSF president has lost the confidence of some American fans.
Can a win over Canada calm these concerns? Not entirely, but the Yanks need a win tonight in order to begin the process of reasserting confidence in themselves. Anything less than three points and angst will reach fever pitch.
Bob Bradley will go with a more veteran lineup tonight and send many of the first-half starters from Saturday’s friendly to the bench. Howard will certainly be in goal, and I expect to see Bornstein and Cherundolo as the full backs. The center backs will be a combination of Goodson, Bocanegra, and Gooch (with the captain moved to the left if Gooch starts) but even the back line is up in the air. The midfield will have Donovan and Dempsey on the wings with Michael Bradley in the middle. Joining him should be Maurice Edu or Jermaine Jones, with the latter the favorite to do so. Up top we could see Agudelo and Altidore, but maybe Bradley will put an in-form Wondolowski up there to try and create some early scoring opportunities. The fact that the starting lineup is so up in the air is concerning, but at least the U.S. has options.
For Canada, the lineup seems set except Julian de Guzman could miss tonight’s match. The Canucks lined up in a 4-5-1 formation against Ecuador in their last friendly and the expectation is they will do the same tonight. Lars Hirschfeld will start in goal but with DC United’s Dejan Jakovic out with injury, the back line of Marcel De Jong, Houston’s Andre Hainault, Kevin McKenna and a backup defender could be vulnerable. Dwayne De Rosario, Atiba Hutchinson, and Terry Dunfield will play in the midfield with Josh Simpson and RSL’s Will Johnson on the wings. Up top was Norwich City’s rising star Simeon Jackson in the most recent friendly but don’t be surprised if the Montreal Impact’s Ali Gerba gets the call to start.
The United States is the favorite to win this match, but I expect this to be a close, well contested match. Here is how both team’s can escape with a full three points:
How the United States will win
Score the first goal: The Yanks have an annoying tendency to let the opposition score first and thus play from behind in many recent matches, including all four games of the World Cup. Canada scoring first would not only continue this trend, but skyrocket the pressure on a team already feeling a bit of pressure. If the U.S. scores first, it can dictate pace and relieve at least of little of the pressure its very uptight fans will feel.
Deny DeRo space: The New York star is the link between the midfield and the lone striker, plus as everyone knows he can score a little, so containing him will be a key to the match. This is especially the case if De Guzman is not playing. Whether Michael Bradley is tasked with denying him space in the midfield or one of the U.S. center backs is man marking him, it is imperative the United States not allow him the chance to make plays. If the U.S. can contain DeRo, Canada will have a harder time scoring.
Play good wide defense: While the focus of the fans’ attention will be on the big names in the Canadian middle, it is the wings where Canada will create some chances. MLS fans are familiar with Will Johnson’s skill but Simpson is also a threat on the outside. The Bocanegra/Bornstein/Cherundolo pairing will have to account for these wings in the 4-5-1 to allow Donovan and Dempsey more freedom to play forward.
Exploit the center backs: While DCU fans can explain the perplexing player that is Dejan Jakovic, he is undoubtedly a critical loss to the Canucks. Their back line has talent, but lacks experience. Besides McKenna, the Canadian defenders on the roster have four international caps among five players. The U.S. should certainly take advantage of this.
How Canada can win
Clog the midfield: As Spain showed, the United States struggles when its midfielders cannot get the ball to the forwards. This is especially true when the forwards are having a hard time creating their own shots. While Canada is not Spain and cannot use precision passing to dominate possession, it can muddle the midfield and prevent Bradley/Edu/Jones from getting the ball wide to the wings or forward.
Score first, or hold the U.S. scoreless for a half: Both of these outcomes would play into Canada’s hands. The U.S. team is feeling enormous pressure to escape with a win (maybe even a convincing win). If Canada scores first or keep the game scoreless as long as possible, the pressure will grow that much more on the Yanks. This team will make mistakes, and Canada needs to be in the position to exploit those mistakes.
Pick the right lone striker: As I stated before, there is a rumor that Ali Gerber could get the nod over Simeon Jackson, which would be surprising considering how good Jackson is playing. Stephan Hart needs to ignore the sexy pick and decide which of his two forwards is the best for the lone striker position. As the U.S. has seen, this is not an easy choice nor can it be a popular one; but there is little room for error for Canada and they need the best players for their formation, not the most popular players.