It Seems To Me. . .
Despite strong beginning against Mexico, U.S. men reveal much to be concerned about.
By Robert Wagman
(Thursday, April 3, 2014) -- There was much in the United States men's 2-2 draw with Mexico last night to please coach Jürgen Klinsmann. However, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., there was also an awful lot that should worry him as the Americans' first FIFA World Cup match June 16 against Ghana draws closer.
Although the U.S. used only players from Major League Soccer (plus young German-American Julian Green, making his debut), MLS players these days include many of the likely starters in Brazil, such as striker Clint Dempsey, midfielders Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Graham Zusi, and defenders Matt Besler, Omar Gonzales and, perhaps, Michael Parkhurst. Although El Tri was without a number of its likely starters because Mexico manager Miguel Herrera used only domestic league players, minus players from the four Mexican teams still in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, this was still a good test for the Americans.
In the first half, this was the same Mexico team that sleep-walked its way through the last meeting between the two sides -- the U.S. 2-0 victory in Columbus, Ohio, during World Cup qualifying. For whatever reason, Mexico gave the Americans acres of room in the midfield and the U.S. responded by playing perhaps its best half of soccer under Klinsmann.
This was especially true with Bradley, who moved from his midfield position into the attack, scoring the first U.S. goal. He took in a corner kick at the far post and slamming it home and then assisted on the second goal by heading a ball to the far left post where Chris Wondolowski ran onto it, beating a Mexican defender.
Things changed at halftime after Herrera changed tactics and inserted Raúl Alonso Jiménez as a second forward and then midfielder Luis Montes, a likely starter in the World Cup.
Suddenly, Mexico began to pressure the U.S. back-line for the first time. Besler and Gonzales in the middle of defense did not respond well. They looked confused and, at times, Parkhurst had to move from his outside position to bail them out. The U.S. were a bit better in back after Clarence Goodson replaced Besler in the 59th minute.
Playing two strikers also accomplished something perhaps more important for Mexico. Bradley was no longer free to roam and to push forward as he had in the opening 45 minutes when he left the defensive midfield responsibilities to Kyle Beckerman. The Americans were back on their heels until Landon Donovan entered the match with Goodson.
It looks as if Klinsmann is continuing to play mind games with Donovan -- something that has been going on since, much to Klinsmann's displeasure, Donovan took his sabbatical prior to the start of the last MLS season despite the fact that World Cup qualifying was going on.
Saying Donovan had not looked sharp in training, Klinsmann kept him on the bench until early in the second half, thus passing up the opportunity of playing Donovan, Bradley and Dempsey together for an extended period.
When Donovan finally entered, the U.S. had someone in the midfield who could both hold the ball and could take off on long runs at the Mexican defense. His presence also caused the Mexico to stop double-marking Dempsey, who was freer join in the attack.
Although Mexico scored again in the 67th minute, over the last 20 minutes the Americans again gained control and it looked like substitute forward Eddie Johnson found net with the game-winner in the 85th minute, only for it to be disallowed on a phantom offside call.
So what to take away from this match? Probably the number one lesson is the U.S. defense is far from settled. If the center of the back-line gives up the kind of chances it gave up in the first 20 minutes of the second half last night, when put under pressure, what is going to happen when it is pressured by the likes of Ghana's Asamoah Gyan, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo or Germany's André Schürrle.
Frankly, Klinsmann's needs to get over his problems with Donovan. Both of his predecessors, Bruce Arena and then Bob Bradley, recognized that Donovan, at times, was not the best practice player and even in matches, he might all but disappear. Yet, he has been, and remains, the only U.S. player who can put the team on his back when all seems lost and make the big play to save the day.
For 45 minutes in Arizona, the U.S. looked like a squad ready for Brazil, but when faced with pressure, it certainly didn't. That has to worry Klinsmann and it has to worry U.S. fans.