Sunday, October 14, 2012

US barely scrapes past A&B in WC Qualifier

For the two most critical games of Klinsmann's career thus far, he had clearly made some bold / risky / crazy (choose your adjective depending on your pov) roster decisions.

Forwards Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon, were called in instead of Jozy Altidore and recent regular, Terrence Boyd.  Landon Donovan and Brek Shea were called up in spite of injuries, which ultimately left us short-handed in attacking midfielders.  Both our left backs, Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo, were sidelined with injury.

So our starting lineup against A&B was:


Without Landon or Brek, Klinsmann decided to deploy EJ, who has played forward for all of his career, at wide left midfield.  Boca took over LB duties, which he can play as long as the opponent does not have a right-winger that is faster than him (which is almost everyone).

The high stakes given the possibility of missing the WC 2014 meant a must win away at A&B and at least a tie at home vs Guatemala.   We needed all hands on deck.

What I think should have been done given our injuries:
a) I would have brought in some speedier attacking options at left midfield. Somebody that can stretch the defense (even though the A&B field was comically small) as well as put in crosses from the left.  Gatt (who was called up last camp but was injured) or Pontius (Jan camp call-up) perhaps?  Or even Kljestan.  At least he didn't try Edu out there.

b) As much as I love Bradley's offensive prowess, I would have played him alone at defensive mid, and brought in an offensive-minded distributor or attacker who would be planted centrally in front of Bradley.  We didn't need Danny Williams as well.  Perhaps Kljestan, who has been in great form, contrary to all our bad experiences with him in the past.  Or Dempsey, with EJ on top with Gomez.

c) With Fabian and Castillo out, Klinsmann should have immediately given Timothy Chandler a chance to be the hero.  It was perfectly setup - Klins should have sold him on the fact that he could endear himself to teammates and fans with an emergency cap-tie in the position of greatest need.  Is there any doubt Chandler would have done a better job at defending against A&B's only goal?  If Chandler rejected us again, then Eric Lichaj would have been the obvious choice.  To go with an aging Bocanegra, who has never been mistaken as fleet-footed even in his youth when you know that A&B's only chance is lightning fast counter-attacks, seemed to be an invitation for disaster.  If nothing else, I would have rather put Edu back there.

What I would have done:


Seeing how the game played out, we looked as unprepared and inexplosive as our roster suggested.  Our left side, gutted by injuries, was non-existent.  (The Chandler-Shea combo, once a strength and so immensely promising, is but a dream.)  Our forwards had little service.  Gomez was especially horrible, displaying the first touch of a linebacker.  On his best 2nd half chance, it was clear to all that he should have shot the through ball first time, but he bonked (for lack of a better word) it straight to the keeper trying to control it.  Dempsey was practically invisible for most of the night.

The fact remains that though we dominated possession - somewhere above 70% - we just could not get shots on goal!  I read somewhere that we had 1 shot on goal from run of play.  I think the problem lies with either a lack of usable quality attacking midfielders OR a lack of trust in them on Klinsmann's part.  We have so many skilled defensive midfielders, but that doesn't mean we need to play them all together.  Klinsmann has at times deployed 3 on the field at the same time, even misusing guys like Danny W, Edu or Jones out wide.  I know he believes that especially Jones and Bradley are not only defensive but in fact 2-way players, but it is clear that all are better at defense.  We need to try and get Donovan, Dempsey, Shea AND two forwards on the field at the same time especially against teams that are just looking to bunker.  Bradley can shore up our central defense by himself.

On A&B's unlikely score, it took mistakes from all 3 of our centerbacks to give them the easy goal.  Bocanegra lost the ball and was too slow to recover.  Cameron had good position but was beat around the corner quite easily by the sprinting attacker.  Goodson slipped (or was pulled down) while trying to hold off the goal-scorer, thus giving him one of the easiest scores he'll ever get.

Ironically, with the number of Americans playing well all over Europe, the 3 US players who scored or assisted in this critical match were all MLS guys.  Kansas City's Zusi sent in the beautiful left-footed cross to Seattle's EJ for the lead and San Jose's Gordon displayed great touch in his smart cross to EJ for the 90th minute winner.

It is hard to believe that EJ would emerge as the hero.  He had a meteoric start back in 2004-05 during WC '06 qualifying, when he scored 7 goals in 6 games.  He was hyped as the future of US Soccer.  He was what we all believed an American athlete normally destined for the NFL, but decided to play the other kind of football, would be.  Then he couldn't live up to those expectations.  He probably got a big head.  Probably didn't work hard enough.  Probably got injured some.  Bounced around to a bunch of different teams in different countries.  Never scored another critical goal for the US besides a Gold cup group goal in '07 (WC qualifier goal vs Barbados in '08 doesn't count since we won 8-0) and didn't surprise anyone when he was cut from WC '10 roster consideration.

However, with his recent resurgence with Seattle and with Jozy being in Klinsmann's doghouse for his attitude, EJ got his call-up.  Then both Landon and Shea were unavailable due to injury and EJ's found himself starting at left midfield.  Two goals and 3 precious points later, he's the toast of US fans everywhere.  Amazingly, only Landon has scored more WC qualifier goals than EJ (10, tied with the legend that is McBride).  His first goal came from after a corner, which accounts for why he was so close to goal, and his 2nd goal came after he was moved up to forward.  He was aggressive, quick and decisive - all attributes that I don't remember him best for when he played for us.  In fact, for me he had become synonymous with the backward pass, which is all I saw him do in games in the last half decade.

Other bright spots were Michael Bradley, who was the man of the match if you put aside EJ's heroics.  Graham Zusi also continued to show himself as a useful right winger, which gives us much-needed depth down the line.

Even though it was against the 106th ranked team in the world, a 90th minute desperation goal to grab an additional 2 points was still exhilarating.  Unfortunately, it never should have come to that.  Honestly, I felt more relief than joy.

What I'm guessing Klinsmann rolls out against Guatemala given our healthy camp options:


EJ scored 2 goals while Gomez was completely out of sorts, so I'm giving EJ the nod here, albeit hesitantly.  Kljestan fills the hole on the left, just because we need somebody there.  Corona would be his backup.  This is Kljestan's chance to stake a claim for future call-ups.  Edu gets a start, even though Williams has played a lot more for his club lately.  Parkhurst gets the start at LB because we literally have nobody else.

Should we win or at least draw, our WC hopes stay alive as we advance to the hex.  I'll probably post a WC 2014 roster prediction then after that.  If we lose and Jamaica advances in our place, I may be too upset to ever post again.

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