The U.S. came up against an extremely desperate team and found a way to crush the dreams of a nation. ASN tactician Liviu Bird breaks down some key moments from the final World Cup qualifier.
IF THE UNITED STATES'
October 16, 2013
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2-0 win over Jamaica on Friday proved to be anti-climactic for the final home match of the Hexagonal, Tuesday’s 3-2 victory in Panama was heart attack central. In the end, the Americans won with a second-choice lineup against an extremely desperate team in a hostile environment.
It was impressive stuff.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann put out another permutation of a lineup, handing Jozy Altidore the captain’s armband for the first time and starting Sacha Kljestan in central midfield—above Kyle Beckerman but below Mix Diskerud—with Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi running the wings.
Of those who played major roles on a regular basis throughout the Hex, only Altidore, Zusi and right back Brad Evans started. On a few occasions, the top-choice Panamanian side was able to unlock the U.S. defense and make things dangerous.
For its part, the Canaleros came out in a 4-4-2 that looked more like a 4-2-4 at times. Gabriel Gomez and Amilcar Henriquez played holding roles in midfield but pushed wide, as wingers Alberto Quintero and Marcos Sanchez pressed to join Gabriel Torres and Blas Perez on the front line.
As he likes to do, Felipe Baloy got forward from his central defensive starting position. He is one of just a few non-Mexican CONCACAF center backs who get involved in attacks through the run of play.
Panama Comes Out Strong, Desperate
For the first 45 minutes, it looked as though Panama might overrun the U.S. After several dangerous looks from the visitors, Panama displayed tidy ability on the ball, and the olés rained down while the U.S. chased the game.
Altidore, perhaps spurred on by the band tightly clasped around his left bicep, was the brightest spot for the U.S. While Panama strung together a 75 percent passing accuracy and five attempts on goal, Altidore battled on the other end to complete 11 of his 12 attempts and make two passes that led directly to shots.
The frustrated Sunderland striker completed 17 of 21 passes overall. He was active, dropping from his target spot to find the ball on the flank and deeper in midfield, and his hold-up play was on point.
A couple of quick combinations with Diskerud nearly saw Altidore give the U.S. an early lead, but Panama exploited some gaps in the makeshift U.S. back line to go up instead.
Forwards Playing Between Lines
With only one true holding midfielder in Beckerman, the U.S. struggled to contain Torres and Perez in the gap between its back line and midfielders. Especially on a team populated by players who are unfamiliar with one another, that becomes the most difficult run to track in the defensive third.
U.S. defenders could not sort out if a center back should track the run, or if a midfielder needed to drop in. Torres made them pay for the first goal of the game, and Perez nearly added a second one minute later.
In the build-up to Torres’ goal, he already finds that gap between disconnected U.S. defensive and midfield lines. As one forward against two unoccupied center backs, this should be easy enough to deal with: just let him come to you, and don’t let him get free.
Instead, as the ball finds its way to the middle, Torres is still unmarked, just drifting between lines. Now, with Panama getting more numbers into the attack, perhaps Beckerman or Kljestan needs to drop in and pick him up.
Perez and Sanchez occupy a defender each, leaving Torres to drift as long as he wants. On top of the 18-yard box, he finds the ball at his feet and finishes well past Brad Guzan.
Moments later, the U.S. finds isself in a similar defensive situation. This time, it’s Perez who finds that pocket, as Torres and Quintero occupy defenders and drag them away. Kljestan needs to recognize the danger and drop faster, but Perez ends up with a similar unmarked shot on top of the penalty area.
Substitutes Make Vital Impact
As with the Jamaica win four days earlier, it was an injection of fresh legs that lifted the U.S. to victory. And again, it was two players on the fringes of a World Cup call-up that provided the impetus.
Brad Davis joined the fray on the left wing, completing 20 of 24 attempted passes and providing the assist on both game-tying goals for the U.S., one from each side of the field. Aron Johannsson scored his first goal in a U.S. shirt, capping off two solid appearances.
Johannsson is in the best form out of any American striker right now, and forwards who make World Cup squads are usually selected on two criteria: whoever got the team to the tournament, and whoever is hot.
He completed 19 of 20 passes and showed his active style particularly well in one close chance in the 80th minute:
Davis wins this ball in the corner and plays it up to Johannsson, checking off the forward line and into midfield to receive. His striker partner and another active forward, Terrence Boyd, is also close to the action.
Johannsson lays the ball off to Beckerman to keep possession and allow him to spin and get forward again. Beckerman lays the ball off for Davis again, who finds Boyd slightly up the line.
Here, the breakout picks up speed. Kljestan senses the opportunity and gets up the field, as does Zusi on the weak-side wing. Boyd commits a defender and slips the ball into Johannsson’s path for his second touch of the sequence.
Instead of dribbling into pressure, Johannsson sees the U.S. getting numbers around the ball and realizes he has to slow the build-up just enough to allow players to get forward. Boyd tears off toward goal after he gets the ball off his foot, and Johannsson plays Kljestan, who turns and sends the ball wide for Zusi.
When Zusi crosses the ball, Boyd is in the box with Johannsson, after both made 60-yard runs and contributed to the nine-pass build. The only time Johannsson could possibly do more is on the cross, when he should step in front of goalkeeper Jaime Penedo instead of waiting for the ball to come to him.
The Icelandic-American would eventually get his goal, opening his account for his country.
Gutting it Out
Central in the madness of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying conclusion on Tuesday was the U.S.’s ability to scratch and claw a victory from probably the most desperate team in the confederation.
Had the U.S. needed a victory, the lineup would have likely been different, and the entire atmosphere surrounding the clash from the American side would have been different. Still, that doesn’t take away from the nature of the comeback.
Well-placed substitutions have made the difference in each of the last two games. Whether it was Klinsmann’s feel for the game and his team or the individual players’ desire to prove a point to the manager, it's impossible to say.
But if the boss wanted to end the Hexagonal on a high note, without a drop in results, then the last two matches accomplished that goal.
What did you think of the final Hexagonal match? Worried about the slow starts? Glad to see Klinsmann make in-game adjustments? Share your thoughts below.
Liviu Bird is ASN’s tactical analyst. He is also a contributor to NBC ProSoccerTalk and Cascadia regional editor for SoccerWire.com. Follow him on Twitter.