This is a guest post by Jacques Pelham. You can find more of his soccer writing at the Football Garden.
Predictably, there are still many outstanding questions regarding Juergen Klinsmann and the US national team after Klinsmann’s second and third games as US coach. On Tuesday, the US demonstrated sustained effort for 90 minutes and crafted occasional quality sequences against a Belgium team that effectively pressed the US without the ball and featured dangerous attacking talents. The US conceded an unlucky goal and arguably should have at least tied the game after a questionable offside call to disallow a goal.
Collectively, the US team’s performance was decent but lacked the spark of progress and superior quality demonstrated during the first half of the Costa Rica game. Belgium was in obvious control of many parts of the game but the US was able to put together several offensive sequences and spells of defensive pressure that allowed the US to take the protagonist role. Unfortunately, the US had neither the individual skill nor the collective tactical awareness to dictate the game for prolonged periods.
At times, the individual mistakes and collective misunderstandings against Belgium were unpleasant reminders of the stasis and mediocrity of the Bradley era. Altidore and Edu gave up possession and passed to Belgian players when under little pressure. Shea and Rogers offered no change in speed/direction and looked lost when they weren’t running head down towards goal. Bocanegra and Goodson panicked when balls were in the air and often preferred the perceived safety of playing long passes in the general direction of forward players as opposed to playing a 10-15 yard pass to a loosely marked midfielder.
Clint Dempsey was deployed as a central midfielder in a role responsible for retaining possession and dictating the tempo of the US buildup with the ball and pressuring the opposition defenders and midfielders without the ball. Dempsey’s performance against Belgium was a fascinating demonstration of the potential held by the US and what must be overcome in order to realize it.
Dempsey’s game is unique, volatile, and frustrating. Against Belgium he showed moments of inspiring brilliance and moments of head scratching ignorance of his surroundings leading to loss of possession in dangerous areas. Without the ball, he showed little intent to pressure or force the Belgian players into mistakes. Yet, despite these deficiencies he created the US’s best chance of the game almost out of nothing after a deceptive juke and dribble into the Belgian penalty box. Had his shot been better placed and led to a goal, every analysis of the game (including this one) would likely have been viewed through the lens of an exceptional goal to tie the game and secure a result after a gritty comeback performance on European soil.
This volatility from both Dempsey and the US team in general is the most important thread Klinsmann must address in order to develop the US team into a more dominant and more consistent outfit under the possession-based system he is seeking to implement.
Reflecting on the Belgium and Costa Rica games and looking forward to the October friendlies, the analysis of Klinsmann and his staff must seek to distill what must be changed to direct the US on a trajectory to become dominant no matter the opposition. Arguably, the shape/system has been a success and provided a platform for the superior stretches of play throughout Klinmann’s first three games in charge. It is the elusive matter of player selection that will define Klinsmann’s ability to shape the US into something better and more robust.
Is it acceptable/effective to select experienced players with incomplete skill sets and little tactical malleability? Or, is the system Klinsmann seeks to implement better served by selecting players with less pedigree but with skill sets better suited to succeed in a possession based system?
Are young players Brek Shea and Timmy Chandler (Both 21 years old) better suited to succeed in Klinsmann’s system than Michael Nanchoff (22) and Kofi Sarkodie (20), who both contributed greatly to Akron University playing the best possession soccer of any amateur or professional team in the United States during the last college season?
Who can complement Jose Torres in central midfield? Are Donovan and Dempsey, who have both made their careers for club and country on the wing, better suited to playing central midfield as opposed to Anthony Ampaipitakwong or any of the promising central midfielders Brian identified in his recent College Prospects post? Is Stuart Holden better than any of these players?
How far can the US go with holding midfielders that can’t pass under pressure and don’t demand the ball to dictate the tempo of the game at every opportunity? 3four3 has identified several young quality holding midfielders in college and just breaking into MLS that would likely be in the national team pool if US Soccer’s selection process was more similar to developed soccer nations. As a reminder, Sergio Busquets and his Spanish national team understudy Javi Martinez were both 22 when Spain won the WorldCup.
Finally, what will it take for Klinsmann to replace Jozy Altidore as first team Striker?Agudelo has consistently looked more dangerous, energetic and consistent than Altidore. Altidore’s first touch is not going to get better and his change of pace is non-existent. Combine these issues with lack of playing awareness and laziness without the ball and its hard to see how anyone can watch him play and come to the conclusion that he has the tools to be an effective possession based attacking player. Is it enough that he’s scored a few goals for his new club despite looking woefully out of depth whenever he plays for the national team?
Can Klinsmann sift through the noise and hype to select players of true quality that understand the commitment, awareness, and professionalism required to dominate opponents?
Klinsmann must ask these questions and the answers he provides will reflect deeply on whether he can undertake what is necessary to adapt and evolve the US team into something that reflects the unlimited soccer potential that exists in the United States.
There are promising signs that progress is underway and the next opportunity to evaluate will take place during international friendly games vs. Honduras and a yet to be named opponent in October.
Gary — Sorry, been not posting as I’m not quite into college analysis as you know. Anyway, good post as always.
In terms of your question about experienced pros with marginal skill versus youth will les experience but better talent. The answer is “yes”. In key positions (e.g., center defender, central mid, and an attacking player), we need experience. Lose the middle and you lose the game.
USA needs to build for 2014, so we can go complete young 20-somethings. Klinsmann and USMNT will be successful moving to 2014 with combination of youth and experience. I also think we need a true general. Someone on the file to control tempo, read the game, know when to attack and when to not. I’ve don’t see that.
I for one don’t have much hope for 2014 other than a possible round of 16, depending on our group.
We all talk about ball mastery. However, if we can somehow teach / make aware to players at about U13 that they need to play with 1 or 2 touch max, it makes a huge difference. To do that, they must use their brain and eyes to read the game. Not think; but recognize patterns, have mental memory to understand situations and react naturally. Built into their DNA. I consider it a cycle of situational recognition, spatial recognition, movement and support, receive, pass, move / support — and then restart the cycle. Sounds complicated and technical, but the good players do it. Watch any Barcelona game and they do it. They teach it from youngest ages to first team.
Soccer is organized chaos as we know. The game speeds up as kids get older. A player with average ball skills can be massive if he has the smarts; while a Ronaldinho jr. can be crap if he doesn’t have the smarts.
If we can get this thinking into US Soccer, I do think we can make some waves in 2018 starting with the U12 – U14 ages.
Gary Kleiban says
No worries Lalo … post when you’re inspired! This is your home too.
I have sooooo much material in my head, so much I want to share, but I just can’t flow when it comes to writing unless inspiration strikes and I get all worked up.
Jacques moved me here when he posed the “experience vs skill” question. And your response helped me along as well. I’ve drafted something and look to publish tomorrow.
I think you’re on the mark with 2014 (round of 16 hopefully). But I can tell you that at least in Southern California, our youth coaches are not getting it done. Not even close!!! So for 2018 & 2022, it’s gonna take an excellent NT coach who, as Jacques stated, can pick out real quality from all the noise and hype out there. AND obviously know how to bring the pieces together to dominate.
“A player with average ball skills can be massive if he has the smarts; while a Ronaldinho jr. can be crap if he doesn’t have the smarts.”
People don’t understand soccer smarts though …
Sorry for all the typos . . . coffee not kicked in!
Ken Collins says
New to your blog, and really enjoy all of your observations. This particular post was very well deduced and I tend to agree with almost all points. What stuck out to me in this game was generally a very poor first touch, passes that never got to feet, and a general malaise in the midfield and up top. I realize this was merely a friendly, but the lack of energy and desire was abundant. I realize they played a few days before and had an extreme travel itenerary, but if you are gonna make that trip, do it with some sense of energy and urgency.
I look forward to your future posts (especially on the college side) I would love to hear your take on the women’s side of collegiate soccer as well. I am in Norcal and will be at the Stanford/Notre Dame rematch tonight. Berate me if you need, but the Stanford women would give a game to 3/4 of the men’s team across the country.
Gary Kleiban says
Hi Ken and welcome!
Yes, our first touch is lacking, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Consider this: take who you think has the worst first touch on the National Team and throw them into an amateur game. What would people think of his first touch then? It’ll seem like he has the first touch of a god! Food for thought …
I don’t watch much women’s soccer, but in case you were serious about your Stanford vs a men’s team comment:
Once males hit around 14 years of age, their physical capacity and speed of play – as related to soccer – have surpassed that of high level adult women teams. It is not uncommon for women National Teams to scrimmage U15 boys. When the boys used are of appreciable level, they regularly dominate the match.
Again, welcome aboard!
If the USA wants to change their style of play, they’ve taken a good first step with the hiring of Klinsmann (maybe there was someone better but I’m not familiar with the history behind his signing). But if the team wants to change its style and revert to a high pressure/possession style of play, I think there needs to be a 180 degree change. In fact, I think what happened in the movie Miracle has the potential to occur (on a less spectacular note I’m sure) in The United States. More people just need to have the right ideas… Bob Bradley is not one of them.
Gary Kleiban says
I’m hoping that change comes Alejandro. I also believe firing BB and not hiring one of his thousands of clones helps.
Gary, where are your articles on the USMNT performances? No offense to Jacques but I read this blog because I find your view refreshing from all of the other “ESPN” sounding articles/blogs out there, which is how this kind of how this article feels. Your articles are entertaining because they are for a lack of a better word- unprofessional. The rant style blog you run is what keeps me coming back.
Gary Kleiban says
Ha! I never thought ‘unprofessional’ could be used as a compliment. But yeah, when it comes to soccer I flow from the heart. Straight up! Flavor baby! That’s how I write here, how I play on the field, and how I pick my players. NO ROBOTS ALLOWED!!!
But as far as me doing articles on USMNT performances … at this early stage I don’t have much to say. I pretty much parallel Jacques. In essence, the team has already shown flashes a play greater than anything witnessed during all of Bradley, Arena’s, and Sampson’s tenure.
It’s kind of like getting an old Chevy carburetor engine to start. There’s something there, you feel she’s gonna start, but she only hangs on for a couple seconds before having to try again. Hopefully Klinsi is a master mechanic and can swap that carb out for fuel injection.
That means eventually kicking Altidore to the curb and anyone else who can’t adapt to some tactical sophistication.
Hang tight Leadbelly, I haven’t left the building.
But I think both Jacques’ approach, and Brian’s long form analysis, provides 3four3 a good balance. No?
I welcome anyone to post who can offer the insights like those I have been reading here. God job again Jacques. I agree with most of what you say. However, while I don’t follow college game very closely, I don’t think there are players there now that would offer up anymore to the MNT than what we already have. With that said, what if those players were allowed to play and develop year round rather than be hindered with the college academic playing restrictions during these crucial ages 18 – 22? My belief is that there are too many of our best young players that don’t make enough progress during these years. I’m sure if the money was right, many more of them would choose to turn pro rather than play at the college level. Perhaps (and I wouldn’t know where to even begin) the focus should be to find a way to pressure/lobby the NCAA to consider changing its’ rules.