Tactical Analysis

Success! But the U.S. Still Has Much Work to Do

Sometimes, a win is all that matters. The U.S.’s 2-0 victory over Mexico on Tuesday was just that. ASN tactician Liviu Bird breaks down some keys to the game and laments the steep decline of America’s biggest soccer rival.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
September 11, 2013
4:21 PM
WE PROBABLY SHOULD have seen it coming. Regardless of outside circumstance, the 2-0 United States win over Mexico on Tuesday seemed destined to end with that score, the saga complete when Clint Dempsey missed his stoppage-time penalty to maintain the Dos a Cero narrative.

With the win, the United States earned passage to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, meaning head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s men can now focus on substance rather than results for the time being. The remaining two qualifiers, against Jamaica and at Panama, can become public training sessions on a higher platform.

While a 2-0 result and momentary first place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal may indicate otherwise, the team still faces major questions before descending into Brazil next summer. The biggest task facing Klinsmann and his staff will be selecting 23 players to represent their country on the world’s biggest stage.

Playing the Channels

In qualifiers, the U.S. has shown an ability to dominate both central and wide areas, depending on what spaces the opponent gives and the personnel the U.S. has on the field. Against Panama in Seattle, Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron dominated the middle.

Against Mexico, the match was played primarily in the channels. Landon Donovan and Alejandro Bedoya’s styles within the match contrasted, with Donovan getting forward more effectively and Bedoya getting pinned down into the defensive end, especially in the first half.

All game, Donovan made three loose-ball recoveries and three clearances. Bedoya made six recoveries, two clearances, and two interceptions and went into two tackles. In the Gold Cup, Bedoya showed his ability going forward, stretching the opposition’s back line from his wide position and getting behind the defenders to serve dangerous balls into the box.

While he did get the ball into the box against Mexico, particularly his second-half effort that was just out of Eddie Johnson’s reach but led to the corner kick that resulted in the first U.S. goal, Bedoya primarily acted as a shield for Fabian Johnson on the right side.

The team’s aggregate passing showed this propensity to go into wide areas. The outside backs went forward—DaMarcus Beasley completed 38 of 45 passes; Fabian Johnson connected 23 of 30 attempts—and Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones in the middle sprayed their passes wide.

Particularly in the defensive half, the U.S. moved the ball from side to side rather than trying to force the ball forward, which was also a product of facing a deeper Mexican defensive line than the one it played on Friday against Honduras.

When Mexico got the ball, it wanted to attack its left (the U.S.’s right) side, which also accounts for Bedoya’s added defensive responsibility.

Jermaine Jones’ (Brief) Transformation

Often, the player covering the right side ended up being not Bedoya or Fabian Johnson, but Jones. This game was one of Jones’ more disciplined defensive showings in a U.S. shirt, clogging up Mexico’s left-central attacking options.

A couple times when Jones tracked back, it was to cover Giovani dos Santos, who has been Mexico’s most dangerous playmaker in qualifying (although with Mexico’s attacking record, that’s not saying much). Jones effectively nullified dos Santos.

Going forward, Jones also had a noticeably better night than usual. He completed 48 of 57 passes, most of which were square balls and short passes to keep possession rather than launched long balls as he usually plays.

On this sequence, which ends in dos Santos going down easy inside the U.S. penalty area in the 24th minute, Jones advances to support Fabian Johnson’s overlapping attack. Three defenders are back, and Beckerman is holding in front of the center backs, so Jones can advance a bit. Dos Santos is in an offside position, but he recovers centrally, as does Omar Gonzalez eventually.

As Mexico wins possession, Jones immediately recognizes that Fabian Johnson is out of position and tracks back. Omar Gonzalez has stepped up too far, tracking Javier Hernandez into midfield, and he never really recovers his positioning. Jones ends up covering for Gonzalez on this play more than he covers for Fabian Johnson.

Because of Gonzalez’s poor positioning, the easiest spot for the ball to be played is over his head. Jones slots in at the right back spot, although he could probably be tucked in a bit more to maintain connection with the center backs. The man behind him is in a far less dangerous area than dos Santos.

Still, by the time the ball travels and lands for dos Santos, Jones has time to track back and body up on him. He does well to keep dos Santos uncomfortable and unable to bring the ball down for a clean look at goal, and all dos Santos can do is fall over and hope for a penalty.

How the Mighty Have Fallen

Mexico’s struggles in qualifying have been well documented, but the root of the problem lies in the fact that the team has lost its identity. In this cycle, Mexico has not been the quick-passing, possession-based team with deadly creativity in the attacking third of the field.

Too often, Mexico has played timid and flat, failing to create any opportunities and relying on opponents’ defensive errors. The counter-attack that looked so dangerous against Honduras was nowhere to be seen in Columbus, and as a result, Mexico created very little moving forward.

Its playmaker, dos Santos, attempted just 23 passes all night. Almost all of his 18 completions were either square or backward, and he completed just one pass inside of 25 yards (on a corner kick). His teammates tried to play route-one soccer (over the top) too often, almost finding success a couple times, but faltering overall.

CONCACAF is not the same without a strong Mexican team. A powerful opponent south of the border also helps the U.S. because only competition can breed progress. Without Mexico constantly fighting with the U.S. to set the bar in North American soccer, the U.S. will also suffer in the long run—after all, the vast majority of games the U.S. plays are continental matchups, as European friendlies come along sporadically.

Work to Do Before Brazil

For the U.S., the work has just begun. Qualifying for Brazil is a step in the process, but the end product is far from settled. If the U.S. wants to impose itself on teams in the World Cup and not merely react to what opponents do, it still needs work in the attack.

The best teams in the world attack proactively, not reactively. Opponents feel they cannot play their game against Spain, Germany, Argentina, and Brazil because those teams dictate the tempo of the game and probe defenses at will.

The U.S. has been good in qualifying—at times. But if the team wants to be successful in Brazil, the Americans will have to find an identity predicated more on willful attack and less on reactive counter-attack.

OK, this is Liviu's take. Let's hear yours. The Comments section is open for business.

Liviu Bird is ASN’s tactical analyst. He is also a contributor to NBC ProSoccerTalk and Cascadia regional editor for SoccerWire.com.

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