[USA-SLOVENIA ANALYSIS] For all the harping on positioning and team shape by the U.S. national team coaching staff, there's still a disquieting tendency for the U.S. to disconnect. The spirit of the Americans can't be questioned. They are very hard to beat. But they are also fatuously prone to falling behind. Sometimes they rally, as they did in the Hexagonal at El Salvador and at home against Costa Rica, and have done in both of their 2010 World Cup matches.
Slovenia twice capitalized on suspect positioning and decision-making to score its goals in a 2-2 tie Friday, and on a few other occasions simply hit a poor final pass or squandered the shot. The craft and guile displayed by midfielders Robert Koren and Valter Birsa proved to be just as troublesome as the height (6-foot-3) of forward Milivoje Novakovic.
Jose Francisco Torres has hardened his ability to tackle and win balls, and his ball skills are among the best on this 23-man squad, but he looked completely lost amid the positioning and tactical acumen typical of European teams. The game in Mexico and Concacaf is often more linear, straight up and back, rather than the maze of triangles and other geometric shapes that appear and vanish as the ball and players move. He wasn’t alone in this regard yet once again the Americans were reminded of how costly a few extra yards of space can be.
Maybe Ricardo Clark or Maurice Edu wouldn’t have blocked Birsa’s shot but they certainly would have been closing him down as he hit it. And Oguchi Onyewu’s failure to step up adds an intriguing subplot, that of his charge-down of Wayne Rooney in the England game that opened up a space for Steven Gerrard to dart through and score.
What’s the difference? Onyewu didn’t check his challenge on Rooney when the ball ran past him to Emile Heskey. If Rooney traps it and shapes to shoot, he needs a half-second or so to do so, and that’s when Onyewu charges up to challenge. Once the ball ran past Rooney, Onyewu needed to reverse direction.
Birsa had all day to line up his shot. Onyewu and Torres and Bradley and even Donovan, who had tucked into the middle, needed to get at least some pressure on him, and didn’t. Maybe Onyewu was thinking about the England game, and once again, he made the wrong decision; by not moving at all from his spot at the edge of the box, he cut off the view of keeper Tim Howard, who didn’t see Birsa’s swerving shot until too late to even dive.
A promising run of U.S. pressure triggered by Bradley, Dempsey and Donovan nearly bore fruit in the 41st minute. Robbie Findley’s ball released Dempsey on the right, and his diagonal ball nearly reached Donovan at the back post, but Miso Brecko kicked it to safety. Within a minute, Slovenia had scored again by exploiting a lack of pressure in midfield and a disorganized back line. Novakovic beat the offside trap with a through ball for Zlatan Ljubijankic, who glided into the box to slide a shot past Howard.
Findley didn’t exhibit a good touch during his 45 minutes, but he usually had just one option: link with Altidore. If he ran down a ball on the flank, there was no sign of a midfielder as an option for a knockback and maybe a one-two. The Slovenian center backs were all over Altidore, who nonetheless fought through grabs and bear hugs and half-Nelsons to at least cause some mayhem in the box. Had the U.S. midfielders pressed higher when balls ran for Findley, he could have been more effective, as was the case when he linked with Dempsey.
With the insertion of halftime subs Edu (for Torres) and Benny Feilhaber (Findley), the center of midfield tightened up, and Feilhaber’s calm, confident touches unsettled the Slovenians far more than had Findley’s pace. Dempsey took more of a free role, drifting in the spaces between Feilhaber and Altidore, which confused the Slovenians sufficiently for Bradley punch through into the attacking third and draw attention away from Donovan on the opposite flank.
The U.S. got a break when left back Bojan Jozic fell on his butt chasing a ball lofted up the wing by right back Steve Cherundolo, yet even had Jozic kept his feet, Donovan would have been able to run at him one-v-one in a large parcel of space. Such a favorable U.S. scenario never occurred in the first half. As it was, Donovan took the ball near the end line and waited as long as he could for a runner to come free in the box, but when nobody did, he boomed a powerful shot dead-center into the roof of the net in the 48 th minute.
One of several well-hit dead balls from Donovan nearly produced an equalizer two minutes later when Dempsey flicked it on to the back post where Onyewu was a just a yard short of tapping it in. Altidore drew a foul just outside the box in the 70th minute and after a brief scramble from the free kick he fired a shot right to keeper Samir Handanovic as Dempsey tumbled under a heavy body-block ignored, or not spotted, by the referee.
Slovenia came back into the game and created a few chances to up its lead to 3-1 by neutralizing DeMerit’s ability to step forward to break up plays. Mindful of two and three players in addition to the one he was marking, DeMerit simply couldn’t take the risk. He did get in several vital tackles, as did outside backs Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra to get balls out of danger.
Altidore got his reward for a gritty night’s work by outmuscling his marker to head down a lofted ball from Donovan in the 82nd minute. Substitute Herculez Gomez drew a defender with a run across the goalmouth and a perfectly worked move concluded with Bradley racing onto the bounce and to bang the ball high into the net.
Another crisp set play yielded an apparent winner, but referee Koman Coulibaly’s ruling of a foul annulled Edu’s volley of Donovan’s free kick. A dramatic comeback and sharper set plays are encouraging positives, yet a more cohesive performance front to back will be needed in the group finale Wednesday against Algeria.