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Hold the Line

Gifting Goals and Mental Preparation: A Lament

Jurgen Klinsmann is changing the culture of the U.S. national team, but the squad still gives up too many soft goals early in matches. ASN's defensive specialist addresses the topic.
BY Andrew Lewellen Posted
November 21, 2012
4:33 AM
They did it again.

In last Wednesday’s friendly against Russia, the United States’ defense gave up a soft goal in the first 10 minutes of a match for the second time in as many games. The previous miscue occurred in the October 16 World Cup qualifier against Guatemala when miscommunication between center backs Carlos Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron gave Carlos Ruiz an easy breakaway opportunity.

As bad as that was, the game-changing giveaway against Russia was worse. Danny Williams basically passed a free kick to Russia's Alexander Kerzhakov, who delivered an easy pass to a wide-open Fedor Smolov, who put home a first-time strike.

This problem—surrendering early goals—has plagued the U.S. for years. At the 2010 World Cup the Yanks gave up a goal in the first 15 minutes in three of four games. Falling behind early has a profound effect on the game, and not just on the scoreboard. It gives the opponent momentum and confidence, and it often forces teams to abandon their carefully considered tactics and gameplan.

To the United States’ credit, they stuck with the game, held strong, and thanks to a stellar performance by Tim Howard, the quality play of some youngsters—Juan Agudelo, Josh Gatt—and the leadership of veterans like Michael Bradley, they salvaged a tie with the ninth-ranked team in the world. That type of resilience—especially from younger players—bodes well for the team heading into next year's Hexagonal.

But falling behind so often, and so early, also raises huge concerns. Giving away early goals suggests subpar mental preparation. And there's really no excuse for that considering the key defenders who have been at fault. Bocanegra is the captain. Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, and Williams play in the Bundesliga; Geoff Cameron plays in the English Premier League.

After the match, Jurgen Klinsmann acknowledged as much. “For our players it’s important that in an international game you have to be spot on from the first second on,” he said. “We have to be sharper and mentally fresher in those decisive moments.”

The question for Klinsmann and team is this: How do they solve this issue? How do they find the right mix of defensive players who—even if they don’t make it as a back line all the way to the World Cup—will reliably perform for the team from the opening whistle?

When I spoke to ESPN analyst and former U.S. national team defender Alexi Lalas about this topic, he said, “Who that back four is needs to be buttoned down going into the hexagonal.”

And right now, based on the last few U.S. performances, the buttons remain open.

There are some intriguing candidates for spots in the back four. Despite a poor showing in Seattle on Sunday, Los Angeles Galaxy central defender Omar Gonzalez is clearly ready for his chance. And Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler, recently named the 2012 MLS Defender of the Year, appears to be in line as well.

Whoever is in the mix, Klinsmann needs to find a way to develop a defense that is ready from the first whistle. Otherwise, the U.S. will spend 2013 fighting an up-hill battle in important matches. And World Cup Qualifying is no place to be doing that.

Andrew Lewellen (@AndyHLew), a former college soccer player and youth coach, is now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Read more of his soccer writing on his blog, Andy’s Pitch.

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