USA Friendlies Analysis: B-Side All Mixed Up
US Soccer’s January camp is a chance for coach Jurgen Klinsmann to get a look at the second tier US players for an extended period of time and test their implementation of his system in a couple of friendlies against similarly skilled competition. Without Dempsey, Donovan, Howard, Bocanegra, Bradley, and the other regulars, it’s a time for younger players to show what they can bring and a time for us to hopefully get excited about some young talent stepping up.
The US won both matches, as expected, but not with the panache we would have hoped for. While there’s no doubt that this was a learning experience for both coach and player alike, the soccer on display was pretty ragged for a team that had plenty of time to gel in training camp. At home with a decent crowd in Phoenix, a last minute win against Venezuela was justification for a controlling, if not attractive, performance. In Panama, the team was out-muscled, out-hustled, and out-coached against a physical side that deserved better than a 0-1 loss for their efforts.
Match reports are available here, so I’ll focus on my takeaways.
The back four that looked so comfortable against an anemic Venezuelan attack was stunned by Panama’s direct, physical style. They were repeatedly beaten over the top, in the air, diagonally, and directly – and had to resort to emergency defending and goalkeeping (and some wayward shooting) to keep CONCACAF’s most fearsome striker, Blas Perez, at bay. The outside backs were repeatedly beaten by combination play and the central defense could not sort out simple long balls. The performance was encapsulated by Cameron’s red card, which he earned by swiping at Perez, who was in clean on goal after he had won another ball behind the defense. The contact was minimal, but the Dynamo defender learned the hard way that you simply don’t get borderline calls to go your way on the road in CONCACAF.
Despite the clean sheet, the defensive performance under pressure had to be frustrating for Klinsmann, who is desperately looking for depth along the back line. Omar Gonzalez’s unfortunate knee injury looks increasingly costly. Perhaps Jurgen can take heart in the first match, where Cameron and Parkhurst were able to snuff out all danger and distribute the ball to playmakers with ease.
A midfield that easily controlled the South Americans was neutralized in Panama. They simply avoided the USA’s strength by playing around and over it, while the US fell into the trap of sloppy, high pressure, breakneck soccer. The team was never comfortable playing through the midfield and thus never in charge of the game, naively scattering themselves after every loose ball and recovering their shape poorly. It was a poor enough effort to obscure the good work in the first match, where Jones, Larentowicz, and Feilhaber easily maintained possession and won balls back before danger could appear. Feilhaber did not appear against Panama in a game that clearly called for his classy skillset, a sign that he’s gotten himself in Klinsmann’s doghouse for some reason – rumors on twitter seem to indicate his attitude needs a little team-first adjustment. In his place, Rico Clark could not have been less effective.
The forward line was clearly disappointing. In the first game, with Teal Bunbury up top, flanked by Zusi and Shea in a 4-3-3, chances came from combination play through the midfield and down the flanks, and lots of crosses – with the lead striker rarely involved. Shea missed a couple of golden chances (one on a fine save by their quality keeper). Bunbury in particular struggled to make an impact and the US looked far more dangerous when Wondolowski was introduced in the second half.
A change of shape put Wondo in the starting 11 against Panama, next to Bunbury in a 4-4-2. There were moments of effectiveness – Teal had a nice knock down for Zusi’s goal and Wondolowski was desperately unlucky to have his header off a rebound of Jones’ wicked shot saved off the line. But when the game needed a bit of class, control, and maturity, these guys failed horribly. Bunbury gave simple balls to his feet back to the Panamanians, Wondo couldn’t pick out a teammate with a pass, and Shea looked like a shell of the guy we saw running at defenses last year. They were obviously intimidated by the physical Panamanian defense and didn’t have the nastiness that a match like this requires.
As bad as Venezuela’s effort was, allowing the US to dominate with ease; Panama’s was every bit as good. Full credit should go to them for a high-level performance that demanded the US play at their absolute best to show well. The US did not show well, and the blame for that lands in a few places. First, Klinsmann, did not have the US prepared for the direct game plan Panama threw our way. Defenders were left in bad situations and then beaten regularly. The midfield was late in support of the defense as those long balls rained down, and we looked completely scattered for long periods. On the road in CONCACAF, the discipline must be better. Hopefully he’ll learn that you win in Central America with organization and patience, not by chasing revved up Panamanians all over their home field. Second, the players did not show the grit we need to confidently come away with results like this. They were so easily rattled and taken off their game, that they deserve a good amount of criticism for not having the mentality.
Despite all that, Jurgen will no doubt point to the two results as a success, call the Panama performance a lesson learned and move on to Italy with the full team. I think he’ll take with him the knowledge that Jones can be a dominant force in central midfield if motivated. Rico Clark is not ready to contribute despite his dramatic late goal in Phoenix. Beckerman didn’t play due to injury, but I have to think he’d have helped the team keep their shape and composure. I don’t think he’s the answer, not with Michael Bradley earning praise at that position for his performances in Italy – but Larentowicz did nothing of note to unseat him. Klinsmann will hesitate to call on Cameron and Parkhurst in central defense until they show they can handle pressure with a little more confidence.
I think it’s likely we’ll see Norwich’s Zak Whitbread called as depth for Bocanegra and Gooch in the next get together. Shea will likely see a reduced role. He was counted on to be the playmaker and probably show a little leadership out there after this camp. He’ll play a complementary role with the full team. Zusi is probably filed under “interesting, but not yet” along with Bunbury. Wondo is what he is. The outside backs, AJ DeLaGarza and Zach Lloyd along with Heath Pearce, didn’t earn further looks with lackluster play on both sides of the ball. The goalkeepers all looked good, and he’ll take some comfort in the depth we have there along with Guzan behind Tim Howard.
My takeaway? We learned how unprepared we are to qualify without Bradley’s dynamism, Jozy’s strength, Donovan’s class and maturity, and Dempsey’s daring and ability to finish. I’m disappointed that no one stepped up and demanded to be included in the full team roster next time.
We’ve got national team players doing quite well all over Europe right now, and when they get called in against Italy, we’ll see where the full team stands. And we’ll give it a full treatment here on gay4soccer.