On its way to a 2-0 win over Panama in Seattle, the Americans held down the middle channel. Michael Bradley’s performance was especially influential, writes ASN tactical analyst Liviu Bird.
June 12, 2013
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SEATTLE—Despite some lineup shuffling, the United States turned in its most complete performance to date under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann in its 2-0 win over Panama on Tuesday. In fact, the two changes to the starting lineup played major roles in the victory.
Geoff Cameron held down the middle with Michael Bradley in the U.S.’s 4-2-3-1, while Eddie Johnson provided the killer blow with the second goal of the game. Panama, playing 4-1-4-1, could not gain a hold of the middle of the field.
Panama left winger Alberto Quintero had the most success of the visiting players, going at right back Brad Evans all game long on his home turf. The Seattle Sounders’ man had a rough night, struggling defensively to contain Quintero.
However, the U.S.’s stronghold in the middle made up for any success Panama found on the flanks.
Michael Bradley is the Man
Michael Bradley has been the key for the American midfield for some time now, but his style and ability are much easier to appreciate in person than on television. His movement off the ball is sublime; he is always in the correct position, providing proper supportive angles and getting the ball off teammates.
He never panics on the ball, and it shows in his final passing statistics each match. On Tuesday, Bradley was 78-for-85 in passing, not including corner kicks—and 31-for-32 in the attacking half.
Cameron played an important supporting role for Bradley, holding in front of the back four as Bradley ventured forward. Cameron made seven interceptions and recovered 11 loose balls, including one that led directly to the first U.S. goal.
Quick Counter Buries Panama
Cameron, Bradley, Fabian Johnson, and Jozy Altidore combined on the first U.S. goal. It took just 10 seconds to get from 40 yards in front of the American goal, where Cameron won the ball, to Altidore’s finishing touch inside Panama’s six-yard box.
When Cameron recovers the ball, Bradley is still drifting in open space from the last time he pressed up. Because Panama’s line is flat, it is easy for him to find a gap in it to receive the ball. With one simple pass, Cameron beats three defenders, and the U.S. counter-attack is on.
Bradley sees the opportunity and gets going at pace. At this point, it’s Dempsey’s responsibility to either provide a good outlet or clear space for Bradley to dribble. He does both by beginning his run wide.
Eddie Johnson is also an option at this point, but Bradley has no pressure, so he has no reason to get rid of the ball yet. Panama right back Leonel Parris begins stepping to Bradley, and Fabian Johnson begins to bend his run around Parris’ defensive running path.
Players often make the mistake of giving the ball up too soon in this situation, but Bradley has the acumen and composure to keep the ball. That allows the play to develop in front of him, and he can pick his option.
Roman Torres steps from the back line, cutting out the dribble. Amilcar Henriquez cuts off the passing lane to Dempsey. Parris closes down on Bradley’s left—leaving a gap that Fabian Johnson is running toward.
Having committed a defender, now is the correct time to give up the ball.
Meanwhile, Altidore has been waiting for the right opportunity to cut in from the right flank. In Washington against Germany, he similarly drifted wide to open up spaces for himself, leading to his first U.S. goal since November 2011.
Carlos Rodriguez marks him closely in this situation, and Altidore needs to get some separation. A well-placed, nearly incidental, shove creates enough daylight between him and his defender that Altidore is effectively open.
Fabian Johnson whips in an inch-perfect ball, curling along the carpet and away from goalkeeper Jaime Penedo’s reach, and Altidore just has to let it hit him and slide into the goal.
Altidore’s Hold-Up Play
Before his goal and at points after, Altidore was a pest in the middle of the field. He is starting to learn how to use his superior physical stature positively, to get between defenders and the ball and hold it up for his teammates. It’s the classic target-striker responsibility, but it requires an agile mind and body.
In this example, as the ball travels toward him, Altidore has to get in front. Using the same subtle physicality as he does on his goal, he rounds the defender while the ball is in motion, ending up between him and the ball.
The defender, Torres, stabs in on the tackle, and Altidore is in behind. He ends up having a legitimate penalty claim denied, but even if Torres stands him up, Altidore is in a good position to hold him off and wait for support. He can then lay the ball off, spin, and run at goal.
A Full 90
A common slogan at Sounders matches is “Give Us Your Full 90,” imploring fans to stand and cheer for the whole game. That could have been flipped for Tuesday’s match against Panama, where the U.S. played a solid 90-minute game for the first time in recent history.
Even when Panama was on the attack, the danger seemed ephemeral. Panama never seemed likely to score. Officially, Tim Howard made two saves, but neither required anywhere near a full effort.
Klinsmann likes to talk about consistency. Tuesday’s result is something to build on moving forward, toward another match-up with Honduras next week, which embarrassed the U.S. in San Pedro Sula at the start of qualifiers.
Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. He is also American Soccer Now’s resident tactical expert. Follow him on Twitter.