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Godfrey's Column

Narrow Minded: The U.S. Needs to Start Going Wide

Can Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. men's national team learn a thing or two from Tab Ramos and the under-20 squad? ASN editor in chief John Godfrey thinks it's time to stop playing it safe.
BY John Godfrey Posted
March 11, 2013
4:51 PM
THREE OBSERVATIONS STRUCK ME during the recent under-20 CONCACAF Championship in Puebla, Mexico.

1) Tab Ramos’ team played an attractive brand of soccer—a possession-based game that featured multiple short passes, ambitious attacking play, and high pressure on defense. This squad made a point of imposing its will on every opponent.

2) Just about every American on the pitch seemed very comfortable with the ball at his feet, and all of that technical acumen and creativity led to multiple scoring opportunities from a wide variety of sources.

3) The team attacked from wide positions. Not exclusively, but extensively. By establishing this threat, the U.S. stretched opposing defenses and prevented teams from bunkering in the box. As an offensive strategy, it absolutely worked.

Could Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. senior team learn a thing or two from Tab Ramos and his young charges? I think so.

The big boys, the full international squad, played poorly against Honduras on February 6 and seemed particularly clueless in attack. That tepid showing, combined with the importance of the two World Cup qualifiers later this month, has a lot of people—myself included—believing that the Americans need to reconsider their offensive strategy. Developing some wide play against Costa Rica (10 p.m. Eastern; ESPN and UniMas) and Mexico (10:30 p.m.; ESPN and Univision) is a huge priority. But will Klinsmann risk it? And does he have the players to make it happen?

American Soccer Now’s resident tactician, Liviu Bird, advocates for more wide play and believes that the U.S. desperately needs to vary its point of attack.

“Having players out wide forces teams to decide how to defend—whether an outside back will step to them or a midfielder will track back,” Bird said. “At the very least, it forces opposing defenders to have their head on a swivel and be aware of the possible wide threat.”

To Bird’s trained eye, whenever Klinsmann starts Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, and Danny Williams in the midfield, he is effectively limiting the U.S. to a narrow game plan.

“It's definitely by design,” Bird told me. “A coach doesn't put three defensive midfielders on the pitch on two or three separate occasions by accident.”

“Playing a narrow set like Klinsmann trotted out in Honduras and relying on defensively overworked outside backs to provide width in attack just isn't enough,” Bird continued. “The 4-3-3 that Klinsmann has used in the past provides plenty of width, depending on the players he uses in those wide positions.”

ESPN analyst and former U.S. national team striker Taylor Twellman gave me a similar assessment.

"I think with what we have seen at Honduras and at Jamaica, this U.S. team is not suited to play three defensive center midfielders,” Twellman said. “Their attack has to have some width in order to open up space up front and underneath that center forward.”

“There are some big decisions coming up for Jurgen Klinsmann on that starting XI."

Bird believes that the roster selection will set the tone for the coming matches.

“The personnel is there,” he said. “In my tactical wish list for 2013, I put Herculez Gomez and Landon Donovan as ideal wide players in an American 4-3-3. Graham Zusi, Jose Torres, Josh Gatt, and even Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey can play out there as well.”

There’s a downside to starting a more offensive-minded midfield, of course, and there are risks to pushing forward at every turn. Leaving Williams and/or Jones on the bench will—at least in theory—create additional vulnerability at the back.

The U.S. U-20s learned this lesson.

In the finale against Mexico, the young Yanks took the match to the opponent. Ramos started an attack-minded lineup and had them push forward. The players didn't turtle; they threw punches. They probed for weaknesses in the El Tri defense, and they took their shots. And ultimately, they ran out of gas and suffered a TKO in a 3-1 overtime loss.

Along the way, however, the U.S. U-20s came very close to defeating a Mexico side that many expected to win with ease. Had a few calls gone their way—especially a blatant non-call on a penalty against Mario Rodriguez in the 60th minute—the Americans might have won in regular time.

It was thrilling soccer. And watching the young Americans spread their wings, rather than retreat into their shells, just felt good. I doubt that American supporters felt good, or proud, watching the U.S.’s cautious, one-note defeat in San Pedro Sula.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to see the U.S. senior team approach all of its matches the way the U-20s approached the Mexico contest.

Forget about trying not to lose.

Go out there and take it.

John Godfrey is the founder and editor in chief of American Soccer Now.

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