Talking Tactics

The United States Fails to Scale Great Wall of Canada

Liviu Bird wades through the mire of Tuesday’s game to figure just why the Americans couldn’t get through the dense Canadian defense and takes a look at the bright spots in the MLS XI’s performance.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
January 30, 2013
10:10 AM
Jurgen Klinsmann said a number of times before the United States’ 0-0 tie with Canada on Tuesday that this was an opportunity to look at different players. It was run as a half-fitness, half-training camp, and the selection of mostly MLS players was obviously in preseason form.

What resulted was fairly frustrating for everybody involved. Canada never really tried to go forward—Colin Miller selected mostly MLS players as well, and they were coming off a 4-0 loss to Denmark—and the U.S. wasn’t sharp enough to break down the cluster of white shirts protecting the Canadian goal.

Basic Shape: 4-4-2 vs. 4-2-3-1
The U.S. started in a 4-4-2 and moved to a 4-1-4-1 at halftime before going back to a 4-4-2 with the introduction of Juan Agudelo as a second forward in the 64th minute. Canada played a very withdrawn, defensive-minded 4-2-3-1.

Klinsmann may have advertised his second-half formation as a 4-3-3, but his wingers were too often withdrawn, giving the appearance of a flat bank of four underneath Eddie Johnson as the lone striker.

One head-scratching aspect of the player selection within the formation was Josh Gatt on the left side. His left foot isn’t spectacular, and he often tried to cut the ball back to his right before crossing.

So instead of Gatt providing width, he preferred to cut inside and head diagonally toward the goal, giving himself a better angle to play the ball with his right foot. But as he did in Russia, Gatt provided a spark off the bench, even if he was playing on the wrong side.

Tear Down That Wall
Canada didn’t even exhibit a pretense of attempting to stay wide. Two defensive midfielders stayed tucked in tight, and the weak-side player in the bank of three in front of them dropped back when the Americans had the ball. When the middle is that crowded, the outside backs become a crucial source of width. Tony Beltran, Justin Morrow, and Brad Evans didn’t cause enough problems with their runs from the back.

Defenders had plenty of time on the ball, but they had trouble finding any attacking player’s feet with the ball. If Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, or holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman tried to thread a pass in, the recipient often had one or two Canadian players on his back.

In this scenario, the space to exploit is in the wide areas, just above the Canadian back line. All it takes is a run into the crowded area from a center mid to draw a defender, and the outside back has space to get forward. Above, Brad Evans has that space. Graham Zusi is keeping his width, so running into that space would be redundant, but the under-lapping run (opposite of the overlap) is on.

It’s not that the outside backs didn’t get forward often. However, they were too predictable. It was going to take something a little different than the ordinary, linear run to penetrate Canada’s 10-man wall of defenders.

Oh Captain, My Captain
Kyle Beckerman is unlucky to find himself in a spot with so many talented players in the American pool, but Klinsmann has shown faith in him and has given him multiple opportunities. On Tuesday, he played his preferred freewheeling distributor role that makes Real Salt Lake’s attack click. He checked deep to find the ball off defenders’ feet, and he showed confidence and a desire to be on the ball. Coaches often talk about wanting the ball and demanding it from teammates. Beckerman is never shy about having the ball, and he will drift anywhere on the field to find it.

Against Canada, the spot between the center backs was one of the only places where he could find space. This positioning allowed the outside backs to overlap more often, as the U.S. still had numbers back to prevent the counter-attack.

It also gave some much-needed breathing room in the midfield. His central midfield partners had a little more room to operate, as the Canadians had to stretch a bit to keep Beckerman from getting on the ball and dribbling or passing through them.

Opta had him at 85 percent passing (61 successful passes out of 72 attempts), which was the best of any player above the back line. Always a leader, Beckerman made his first appearance as captain of his country on Tuesday. He was a bright spot, turning in a Man of the Match performance in his usually understated fashion.

Despite what Twitter would have you think, last night’s game was far from disastrous, and it was anything but a blemish on Klinsmann’s recent record. It is true that American fans should expect to beat Canada with almost any random 11 players on the field, and Klinsmann said as much himself, but this game needs to be taken for what it was.

It was a tryout. Not to mention, it was a tryout in which both teams were in preseason form. In any tryout, only a couple of players are going to stand out. Of the players who played, Beckerman, Gatt, Besler, and Gonzalez acquitted themselves well. Selection for World Cup qualifiers isn’t solely based on those 90 minutes, but a good performance never hurts.

In the end, if just one player on the field against Canada ends up on the Brazil 2014 squad, it will have all been worth it. In the larger picture, the game and result on Tuesday mean next to nothing.

Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle who contributes to the New York Times Goal Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @liviubird.

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