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Talking Tactics

Few Bright Spots for U.S. in 0-0 Draw with Scotland

Friendlies may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but Friday’s boring game did not do much to raise ASN tactical analyst Liviu Bird’s confidence in the U.S. national team.

BY Liviu Bird Posted
November 16, 2013
10:24 AM
WITH CLINT DEMPSEY and Fabian Johnson out through injury, the United States once again failed to put a cohesive starting lineup on the field on Friday. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team looked uninspired in attack in the scoreless draw, only coming close to scoring toward the end of the game.

It almost looked like a return to the early Klinsmann days of playing three defensive midfielders. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones held in front of the back line, while Sacha Kljestan roamed in front of them, only reluctantly pushing forward. Eddie Johnson tucked in alongside Jozy Altidore, and Alejandro Bedoya provided the only real wide outlet.

Scotland maintained a more balanced formation, although Barry Bannan tucked in slightly on the right side as well, leaving room for DaMarcus Beasley to foray forward as he usually does. In the end, Scotland looked much as it has over the last few months: dangerous at times, but never taking the game by the scruff.

No Width Leads to Overcrowded Middle
Klinsmann balanced personnel well on each side. Brad Evans did not get forward much, which is why a natural wide player such as Bedoya was his ideal partner. On the left, Beasley always overlaps, so playing a more central winger was appropriate.

However, Friday’s game provided another example of why Eddie Johnson is not effective in that role. He wants to push too far to the inside, usually in the target striker’s space. His lack of tactical discipline showed, as he wandered around the field wherever he wanted, without making much of a stamp anywhere.

Johnson only completed one forward pass, and that was inside his own half of the field. Meanwhile, he crowded the midfield and made it difficult for the U.S. to create adequate spacing in central areas. Overloading the middle works when it is done as a deliberate strategy to unlock other parts of the field, but with Bedoya as the only wide threat, it made the U.S. easy to defend.

After a while, Johnson stayed in the middle, and Kljestan pushed out to his original spot, but the Anderlecht man is no more a winger than Johnson. Jones pulled to the left flank at times as well, particularly when Beasley needed cover defensively or support moving forward.

Back Line Still a Big Bother
The biggest concern for the U.S. continues to be the back line. In particular, Evans had his hands full with Craig Conway—who?—on Friday. The English second-tier winger made Evans look foolish on a few occasions.

Here, Evans cannot take all the blame. Geoff Cameron makes an ill-advised dash forward from the back line to try to break up a play, and Beasley never really tracks back after he sees his teammate get beat. However, it’s Evans’ body position that nearly turns one mistake into a goal.

Not once did he look over his shoulder to see where Conway was. Evans obviously knew he was there because his first instinct was to turn and sprint toward him once the ball was played wide.

There was no need for him to chase the ball. Steven Fletcher is running across the defense, toward Evans’ side. The overcompensation toward the middle to fill in for Cameron—perhaps because he thought Fletcher would try to dribble past Omar González—gave Conway enough room that he could have taken a touch before shooting.

Minutes later, Conway blew past Evans on the dribble. In the second half, Evans was lucky not to see a yellow card when he took down the Scotsman with a poor tackle. If the World Cup rolls around with Evans still starting at right back, get ready to see Tim Howard make a lot of saves.

Again, Conway plays in the English second division. Imagine what world-class left wingers like Cristiano Ronaldo, Andre Schurrle, Thiago Motta, or Neymar would do to Evans. If the U.S. wants to be taken seriously as a soccer superpower, then that’s the level Klinsmann must play to, not CONCACAF or UEFA teams that didn’t qualify for the World Cup—and Evans is not the right person for the right-back spot.

Looking to the Bench Again
Since the Gold Cup, and particularly since Klinsmann has been afforded the ability to experiment with his lineup, second-half adjustments have provided big sparks for the U.S. On Friday, the response was a bit more subdued than usual, but it was still there.

In a game crying out for wingers to take players on, Brek Shea was a welcome sight. The match was good for his skill set, and it showed, as he got around the outside and provided a couple dangerous crosses into the penalty area.

The highlight substitution, once again, was Aron Johnannsson’s introduction. He fills the No. 10 role nicely when Dempsey is out, and he was far more effective than Kljestan in the same spot. Kljestan may play Champions League soccer, but it’s hard to argue that he deserves to start in an advanced position more than a player having the kind of season Johannsson is enjoying at AZ Alkmaar.

Johannsson misplayed just three passes against Scotland, drifting all over the field to find the ball and keep the U.S.’s rhythm in attack. The difference between the way he and Johnson drifted was in the purpose of movement: Johnson looked lost, while Johannsson made himself dangerous.

The Icelandic-American had two shots from inside the penalty area and nearly scored despite coming off the bench; Johnson never touched the ball within 25 yards of goal.

Running Out of Time
The clock is ticking. After the friendly at Austria on Tuesday, the U.S.’s time before Brazil becomes even more limited. Instead of multiple players making Klinsmann’s life difficult with selection decisions, many have come up short in their fleeting opportunities to earn a World Cup roster spot.

Some of the same questions remain: Who will the outside backs be? Can key players in the pool—Steve Cherundolo, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Fabian Johnson, Jozy Altidore—regain health and good form leading up to Brazil? Will Timothy Chandler ever play for the U.S. again?

Johannsson and Bedoya have stood out in the last few games as contenders. Depending on Dempsey’s situation, whether he recovers from injuries and goes on loan and starts playing well again, Johannsson could start. Bedoya is in a more crowded spot, with Donovan, Joe Corona, and Graham Zusi, but he has shown well enough to deserve a place as of this moment.

However, with seven months to go, the picture seems to be getting cloudier rather than clearer.

Liviu Bird is ASN’s tactical analyst. He is also the Cascadia regional contributor to SoccerWire.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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