Wednesday, October 17, 2012

US advances to WC Hex qualifying round

After all the commotion and panic by fans and the media going into the last two games of this round, the US ended up winning the group outright.  Turns out a mere draw in the match at A&B would have still been enough to total the most points in this Concacaf semifinal group round.  Looking forward, the final hexagonal qualifying stage just requires a top 3 out of 6 finish for automatic WC qualification while the 4th place team gets an intercontinental playoff for a bid.  Given the 10 games that are played in the hex instead of a shorter schedule where upsets can have a huge impact, the best teams should emerge comfortably.  So, its most likely that the US just passed its most dangerous road bump on its way to Brazil.  I guess there was reason for the commotion after all.

Bocanegra opened the scoring for the US in this critical home match vs Guatemala just as he did on June 8th in our first 2014 WC qualifying match.  Coincidentally, he again scored on a corner kick, off a header from Dempsey (June 8th it was Gomez) in which he was again in the right place at the right time to slot it home.  His set piece IQ has probably contributed the most to his 14 US goals, the most for a defender all-time.

Dempsey himself, who was completely out of the flow of the last game, was in top form this time around.  He finished a perfectly placed Eddie Johnson right-sided cross and then made sure a little chip over the keeper by Bradley would tally into the scorebook for his 2nd.  From one replay angle, it seemed quite clear that Bradley's "shot" would actually have been just wide of the far post, so Dempsey did the right thing.  I like how he immediately explained to Bradley that he wasn't sure if Bradley's shot was going in and how Bradley seemed to immediately confirm that the right thing was done.

Dempsey has now scored 30 goals for the US, tied with McBride for 3rd most overall (Wynalda 34, Donovan 49).  He's got 6 goals this year, the most he's ever had internationally and he's done it with only 8 games.  His previous high was 5 goals, scored last year in 14 games.

While we really did expect Dempsey to put in this kind of performance, Eddie Johnson's play as a wide midfielder was a revelation.  I had always called him "Pass-back" Eddie, but with my own eyes, I saw him running at the defenders nearly every time he had the ball.  Of course, Guatemala strangely never chose to pressure our players until they were far too close to goal, but Eddie's aggression and decisiveness stood out to me.  He took Klinsmann's unexpected offer, knew it was probably his final chance with the US team, and made sure it counted.  Clearly Klinsmann will continue to include him qualifying camps starting in March.

I liked the Danny Williams start, even though he was quite invisible on that muddy pitch in A&B.  I think Klinsmann clearly sees a strong pairing with Michael Bradley.  Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu are capable players, but neither have meshed with Bradley the way Danny seems to have done.  Also, he's not a yellow card waiting to happen as JJ is, and he doesn't seem to make the occasional gaffes that Edu is prone to.  We'll see how this develops, but this bodes well for our central midfield in the next 2 WC cycles.

Gomez redeemed himself from a poor A&B match by displaying the willingness to do the scrappy work, as exemplified by winning the corner from which Bocanegra scored.  Perhaps this is Klinsmann's frustration with Jozy - he's not putting in the same kind of effort if he doesn't have the ball at his feet facing goal.

Our central defense is still questionable, with Bocanegra and Cameron allowing a direct long ball to sneak behind them for a 5th minute Ruiz goal.  It was reminiscent of our WC '10 campaign.  One of Klinsmann's tasks in the next year and a half is to find answers there.  In fact, it may be the biggest task as we approach Brazil.  Klinsmann found an answer to our LB problem in Fabian and even another usable CB in Cameron, but whether Bocanegra continues to be a starter for us over the next two years will be of major interest.  However in a game like this at home when we have the bulk of possession, the pressure is off the defense.

The question is really how we perform on the road.  Not just our defensive back four, but our entire squad.  At home this round, we were 3-0: beating A&B 3-1, Jamaica 1-0 and now Guatemala 3-1.  But on the road, we were a mere 1-1-1.  We tied Guatemala 1-1, lost to Jamaica 2-1 and needed EJ's 90th minute goal to beat A&B 2-1.  Those kind of road performances in the hex round will add a lot of stress on our home performances.

Even Klinsmann will have to review his tactics, especially on the road.  Here were his 6 lineups for this round (Howard started all 6) as well as results and goalscorers:

1) A&B at Home June 8th (3-1 win, Boca, Dempsey, Gomez)
(subs: Gooch, Jozy, Boyd)

2) At Guatemala June 12th (1-1 draw, Dempsey)
(subs: Cameron, Jozy, Beckerman (93rd min))

3) At Jamaica September 7th (1-2 loss, Dempsey)
(subs: Danny W, Shea, Boyd)

4) Jamaica at Home September 11th (1-0 win, Gomez)
(subs: Shea, Edu, Jozy)

5) At A&B October 12th (2-1 win, EJx2)
(subs: J Jones, Gordon, Kljestan)

6) Guatemala at Home October 16th (3-1 win, Boca, Dempsey x2)
(subs: Kljestan, Edu, Corona (90th min captie))

Random Observations:

- In the first 3 games, Klinsmann deployed 3 of these defensive-minded midfielders (Bradley, Jones, Edu, Williams and Beckerman) at a time.  We finished 1-1-1 (granted two of those games were on the road).  In the last 3 games, Klinsmann only used 2 of them - Williams and another - and we won all 3 (sure, 2 were at home and the other was at A&B).

- I'm also thankful that Beckerman, who seemed to be a favorite of Klinsmann early on, only started once.

- In our only loss, we used 2 strikers, 1 attacking midfielder and 3 def midfielders.  No wonder we lost the battle of the midfield.  Non-coincidentally, we also lacked the services of one injured Michael Bradley.

- Graham Zusi has had to start in Donovan's place the last 3 games and has done so capably.

- After such a promising first year under Klinsmann, Shea didn't start a single WC qualifier.  The lack of any left-sided attacking midfielder is precisely why EJ was surprisingly used there.

- In the last 4 games, Klinsmann went with 2 forwards - usually Gomez and Dempsey.  They are also the only two players, along with  who started in all 6 games.

- Dempsey scored 5 goals in these 6 games while Gomez, EJ and Boca each scored twice.

- 2 forwards meant that Bradley, playing in front of Williams, had to cover a huge amount of space, control the midfield and link up the attack.  I think this only works with Bradley.  If he's injured, Dempsey will have to drop back into the hole and Klinsmann will deploy a 2nd def midfielder underneath next to Williams.

Best current starting lineup and formation looking forward to the Hex:


possible subs: Guzan, Goodson, Parkhurst, Castillo, Jones, Edu, Shea, Gatt, Zusi, Kljestan, Torres, Jozy, Boyd

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