Friday night, the United States Men’s National Team could not replicate the recent success of Bay Area sports. Playing a game in which the host team, at times, felt like the visitors, the USMNT was not up to the task. Although there was a lot left to be desired, there were in fact more positives than the scoreline suggests.
This was not a dominant and clinical Colombian two-nil performance. The first goal came from an early and well worked set piece in which Geoff Cameron, who was one of the overall better US players on the field, lost his mark, and Cristian Zapata made him pay the price. A few minutes before halftime, James Rodriguez scored a penalty kick after a foolish handball from DeAndre Yedlin - the Sunderland/Tottenham right back unnaturally raised his arm in the box, obstructing the ball’s path.
The two goals aside, other than a tantalizing woodwork hit - Carlos Bacca’s effort in the 77th minute - Brad Guzan and the defensive line were not all that tested. The game proved to be no onslaught. Colombia did not attack in fluid and powerful waves and often became disjointed in the US’s final third. While the South American squad often controlled play, the USMNT rarely followed on their heels to the frustration of the players, coaches, and US fans since victory often looked like a possibility.
Despite the loss, the US side continues to develop together and signs show that they are beginning to play attacking, attractive soccer. The only problem that persists, however, is that their style needs to be effective. Three big takeaways follow:
1. Credit the Center Backs
Despite the scoreline, the US center backs were the team’s best two players. The back four as a whole, consisting of left back Fabian Johnson (who plays left mid for Borussia Monchengladbach), John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, and DeAndre Yedlin have played under 180 minutes together in game situations. Other than a few lapses in concentration, Brooks was the best US outfield player Friday night. He held firm in battle, making safe, smart defensive stops while riding to the aid of the often exposed Johnson. Brooks was comfortable on the ball and in possession with his passes - a man of the match performance from the young German-American. While wingbacks Johnson and Yedlin often bombed up the pitch to contribute in attack, the two struggled defensively and will need to improve - fast. All is not lost. The four looked cohesive at times and the more time played together, the sturdier the back wall will become.
2. Set Pieces are a Problem
Further up field, things got a bit messier. Captain Michael Bradley performed miserably in defensive midfield - a position he has begun to thrive in for the national team. His passes lacked a crispness to them, his vision seemed blurred. Rather than ignite quick US attacks, he seemed to create turnover, slow down the pace, and over hit long balls. Bradley’s set pieces were especially off against Colombia. Bradley has been designated for corner kicks, long free kicks, and some shorter free kicks. No set piece he took inspired fear or excitement. Colombia’s two goals were off set pieces - they designed smart plays and forced the US to remain totally focused whenever the ball entered the box. As a US fan, set pieces aren’t exciting me because they rarely amount to anything. Even if there are no goals, set pieces should create chaos. Bradley’s service and the end products of the men in the box are inadequate. Both Dempsey and Johnson, who took free kicks in dangerous positions, failed to test Colombian defenders or give the US opportunities to create second ball chances.
3. Strikers Need to Strike
Whether you’re a midfielder or a striker, you need to take the shots that come your way. The US team’s forward created but never looked like scoring. Dempsey dropped too deep and often wasn’t there as a target man, forcing the wingers to go up top and leaving the flanks completely vulnerable to a counter attack. The front three’s mishaps trickled down into the midfield as they lost their shape and subsequently left the wingbacks over exposed. Despite all this, Dempsey recorded the USA’s only two shots on goal! Two shots on goal does not warrant a victory, sorry gang. Bedoya had a real opportunity in the second half - the ball came in, he had space to turn, and he just rocketed a shot into the high heavens. The US needs to create, and finish - oh by the way, finishing starts with putting the ball on target.
Okay, so the game left a bitter taste in fans’ mouths. It’s time to cleanse our palate. Here are a few ways to create a more savory result on Tuesday against Costa Rica.
1. Bench Gyasi Zardes
I’m sorry, Gyasi. Your speed can’t save you anymore. Colombia completely shut down Zardes on the right wing. With so many players in the midfield and forward line competing for positions, Zardes’ performances have not warranted a continued place in the starting line-up. His two goals against Bolivia were one touch strikes where he did not have to control the ball. However, as a winger and striker, one isn’t always in front of goal. Colombia suffocated Zardes whenever the ball came close to him and capitalized on his inability to firmly control the ball. With a cleaner touch he could work in Dempsey, and Bedoya, but against Colombia Zardes was found more often tracking back and trying to retrieve loose balls. To his credit, and deservedly so, Zardes worked hard defensively and helped balance the right side as to not overwhelm Bedoya and Yedlin. His honorable defensive work, however, is not means enough to save him from the bench.
2. Release the Kids
Darlington Nagbe needs to start. No more 65th minute substitutions for Pulisic and Nagbe. With every game, both players continue to look more comfortable in the US squad. Nagbe can play active defense, take players on comfortably, and is a play-maker who can add the creativity the US side is starving for. I’m not convinced Pulisic should start. He is young, energetic, and clearly so talented, but at this point, I still see him adding more value as a super sub. Pulisic wants to play and wants to win. Pulisic adds grit, technical skill, speed, and courage. He needs more time on the field to make his mark - Pulisic is the kind of player who elevates those around him and frustrates the opposition. Even if things aren’t going his way, he doesn’t quit. Colombia’s second half defensive stability prevented Pulisic from getting the touches he needs to influence the game. The more the Borussia Dortmund starlet plays, the better the USMNT.
3. Ditch the 4-3-3
A generally smart idea when managing a soccer team is to put players where they play best. Bobby Wood is a player with great upside who has continued to develop well for the USMNT. Wood is a strong, athletic player, whose strengths are his movement, hold up, and speed. Release Wood up top as a striker who can drift to the left if need be, but operate with Clint. After Jozy’s injury in the World Cup, we saw how Clint struggled on his own as a striker - besides, Clint is not the player he was two summers ago. The Hamburg striker was neutralized out wide against Colombia and needs to play where his talents are maximized. With Zardes benched, and Zusi not making enough of a case to start, there is no real true right wing option. Bedoya struggled against Colombia but still deserves to start - for now. The same goes for Jermaine Jones. Bedoya can play out wide but is more comfortable a little deeper. Klinsmann should move to a 4-4-2 diamond - the USA thrived in this formation, especially against Mexico a couple years ago. Then we had Bradley as the number ten, but now the US has a new number ten - the roster’s actual number ten. Again, Nagbe needs to start.
Recommended line up against Costa Rica:
With Costa Rican goalkeeper star Keylor Navas injured and defensive stalwart Kendal Watson absent through red card suspension, there is no reason the United States can’t get all three points here. The US needs to win if they want to seriously challenge for the knockout stage.