It’s a handful of days before CONCACAF World Cup 2014 Qualifying begins, and there is little clarity for supporters about the United States’ chances against regional opposition as Friday’s opener looms.
Sunday evening saw the American team travel to Toronto to face Canada, who celebrated the recent Centennial of the birth of their Soccer Association with this match. Canada was clearly the more menacing of the two sides, having a goal disallowed and at least two other clear chances to go ahead. The United States looked somewhere between disinterested and dog tired as they struggled to connect passes and maintain possession, lagging to a 0-0 draw.
There were two main story lines as this match went to kickoff:
1) Fabian Johnson picked up a right calf strain in warm-ups, forcing him to the sideline and calling on Edgar Castillo to play in the left back role.
Losing Johnson for any extended period would be a difficult blow for this team. It may not seem it from the surface, with left back always being a potential problem area for the team.
So why now is this left back role so important? First of all, the right side of the formation is not an issue for the Americans, with Donovan and Steve Cherundolo always seeming to provide quality width on that side. On the left, the team has been trying to find a suitable replacement for the width of Brek Shea, who was a left winger but was not chosen by Klinsmann after a bad batch of form. Fabian Johnson had brilliantly fulfilled the width role against Italy, Scotland, and Mexico. He helped connect the dots with Jose Torres (playing as more of an inverted winger) to progress the offense forward, and he also delivered probing crosses from the left. And this doesn’t even consider the defensive aspects, where Johnson has been pretty solid thus far, albeit in a handful of starts.
And how did Castillo do? Overall it wasn’t a bad performance, but he clearly offers differing abilities to Johnson. He didn’t seem to have much intention to beat fullbacks down the left side – according to Opta’s chalkboard (available at MLS’ website), he only attempted two crosses all match. He did have the most intriguing shot for the U.S. on the night, a 35 yard looping ball that was dipping under the crossbar until keeper Lars Hirschfeld tipped it over.
With that said, his most glaring mistake came on the goal that was called back, where he played the ball towards his own area rather than clearing into touch. That bad pass led to Nikolas Ledgerwood placing a brilliant shot under the crossbar for an apparent 1-0 lead, but the assistant referee had tentatively raised his flag for a foul. The referee awarded the free kick. It’s unclear which Canadian player had fouled Castillo, and the home crowd should feel aggrieved that the goal was disallowed.
2) Clint Dempsey returned to the starting lineup, and thus this was the first official start for Dempsey and Landon Donovan under Jurgen Klinsmann.
Dempsey’s return seemed to create some uncertainty in roles in the advanced midfield. Against Scotland and Mexico, Torres was playing as an advanced midfield presence on the left, drifting inside to allow Johnson to skirt forward. With Dempsey’s central presence, it forced both Torres and Donovan to play in wider roles. The Opta chalkboards below from the Scotland and Canada matches contrast the space occupied regularly by Torres and Donovan in those two disparate matches:
This gulf in the advanced central midfield created by this drift by Donovan and Torres should have allowed room for Dempsey, Bradley, and Jones to link play to the forwards. Instead, Dempsey seemed to drop well into the deeper midfield routinely, and while his passing numbers were solid, when you think of Dempsey you think of one thing – goals. And with a solid distributor like Bradley playing deeper himself, it would follow that Dempsey sitting between the Canadian defenders and midfielders would allow for opportunities to find passing lanes into that intermediate area.
So what does this all mean? Tactically to start, this was a 4-5-1 for all intents and purposes, but in a different spatial pattern to the one that worked so brilliantly against Scotland. Instead of having two inside wingers making runs at the area, you had two players working as wide midfielders, and three central midfielders more concerned with maintaining shape than gaining ground in the attack. And that’s the way this match went. The Canadian defensive shell (9 men back most of the time) thwarted possession, forcing the play into one of two avenues: 1) wide play, and 2) direct play from behind the halfway line to the forwards. Without target men to outmuscle and outjump defenders, this style of play tends to be fruitless.
That wasn’t the only issue, though. There seemed to be a lot of tired legs on the pitch. Michael Bradley played all 270 minutes in these three tuneups, and Jermaine Jones 260 minutes. With reports of two-a-day training stints between these friendlies, fatigue may well be an issue at this point. With Kyle Beckerman and Joe Corona only seeing 36 and 21 minutes respectively, perhaps too much has been asked of these central midfielders – especially when their contribution in the Scotland match was so pivotal (Jones earned 3 assists and Bradley a goal and an assist).
As for the rest of the match, the United States had very few dangerous chances. Most came from set pieces, and that included a powerful header from Clarence Goodson off a free kick as the match neared its end. Hirschfeld rose to the occasion, batting the ball over the crossbar to preserve the draw. In the moments before that near-winner, Canada nearly has its own, as Simeon Jackson blew a perfect cross from Dwayne De Rosario past the near post from inside the 6 yard line. It typified a match where neither team had many ideas, and when they did, the execution was lacking. Perhaps the best player for the U.S. was Tim Howard, who made three quality saves to keep the U.S. level.
So here comes the Qualifiers. After an underwhelming 0-0 against Canada, Jurgen Klinsmann needs to energize – and sort out tactically – this crew for Friday’s match in Tampa against Antigua and Barbuda. Perhaps more importantly, he needs to formulate a game plan for going into Estadio Mateo Flores and grabbing a result against a feisty Guatemalan team. A solid outing in Florida on Friday would go a long way to lifting the confidence of both the team and its supporters.