By Paul Gardner
Losing 1-0 to Costa Rica in a meaningless friendly was probably the best result and the best scoreline that could have happened to Jurgen Klinsmann and his embryonic team.
The loss, no big deal in my book, did inject some meaning into the game. If only to spell out that solving the various glitches that beset the U.S. national team is not going to be an overnight job.
If there are still people around who see Klinsmann as a German deus ex machina whose mere arrival will set everything aright, they should now see things more realistically.
Klinsmann has to make changes, which means bringing in young and untested players -- and that means the constant possibility of losing games.
Even when as in this case, the loss was probably not deserved. The U.S. certainly did enough in the first half hour of play to warrant a goal or two. Its game was aggressive and fast moving, and Costa Rica’s desperate response was repeated fouling as it tried to get its defense in order. (If I’m not criticizing referee Jose Molina’s failure to punish Costa Rica severely enough, that’s because he later let the USA off the hook big time, by refusing to call an obvious penalty kick against Tim Chandler for a foul on Alvaro Saborio).
The U.S. did not get on the scoreboard -- and you always sense that failure to do that, after dominating the game, is going come back and punish you. Ironically, the biggest problem here was not the new younger players, but the old stalwart Landon Donovan, who had an oddly ineffectual game. It included missing the easiest of chances to score the vital first goal, the goal that might well have changed the nature of this game entirely.
There are many games, tightly contested games, in which one feels quite certain that the first goal scored will be the one that decides matters. This turned out to be one of those games; in the end it was played that way, very cannily, by Costa Rica, who eventually settled down to good defensive play and dangerous counters -- nothing exactly new or startling in these tactics, but Klinsmann’s squad will have to learn how to deal with them better than they did on Friday.
It’s trite enough to say that you have to put away your chances -- but the genuine U.S. chances were few -- halftime stats showed the USA with no shots on goal. The penalty-area play -- as so often with the USA -- was nowhere near good enough. The sight of U.S. players dribbling into the box, or exchanging quick one-twos inside the box -- the rapid interchanging of passes that opens up defenses and gives them no time for recovery ... we are not used to seeing that from American players, and things were no different here.
There was one lovely example of what I’m talking about, late in the game, when Jose Torres, confronted by two Costa Rican defenders, conjured a perfect short pass between them and into the path of Edgar Castillo as he broke into the area. A magical moment -- one that needed another quick short pass from Castillo to a supporting player who understands the quicksilver geometry of penalty-area passing -- but no such supporting player appeared. Both Juan Agudelo and Brek Shea were in the penalty area, but neither was close to Castillo, and both were shading away from Castillo rather than moving toward him. With no instantly available passing target, Castillo took another touch of the ball -- not a good one -- and a lunging tackle from a defender whipped the ball off his foot.
I’m describing the sort of action that I would like to see -- it remains unclear to me whether that’s what Klinsmann wants to see. His post-game comments were encouraging, with his declaration that he was happy with the team’s performance, happy that the players “combine, that they are patient, that they move the ball around, that they find each other, that they are calm on the ball.”
That last reference -- to calmness -- struck home forcefully, as I had, just a few hours earlier, watched my first college game of the season, Maryland vs. Stanford, and if there was one thing that was totally absent from that game, it was calmness. Anywhere. On the ball or off the ball. Two of the better college teams, then, and a game that did have its moments. But it was basically the same old college soccer. Frantic and frenetic as ever.
For the USA the obvious player to watch for calmness was Torres. A player who projects that aura of having more time than the others to do what he wants with the ball. His passing was excellent ... but, just to get as perverse as the game of soccer itself, he was, if anything, a bit too calm. Stroking intelligent accurate passes around is the major part of his game, a skill not to be scorned. He is also good at shielding the ball from attacking opponents -- though turning his body to do that is likely to result in backward or lateral passes.
What was missing from Torres’ game on Friday was a willingness to move forward and take on opponents. There were opportunities to do this -- but he shunned them in favor of a pass. Maybe a willingness to run at opponents will come -- Klinsmann’s comment that “the more he plays the more he gets comfortable in there” -- suggests so.
Defensively the USA did well enough. Carlos Bocanegra, at the moment, probably has to be there, simply because he is so much more experienced than anyone else. And he has shown that he can score goals from corner kicks -- which is something of a joke, really -- though not one confined to the USA -- because the USA does not have reliable corner-kick taker. It still seems a waste to have a goalscorer like Donovan -- one of the much-needed penalty-area players -- taking corner kicks.
But as Bocanegra, never the quickest of players, slows down, his fouling will no doubt become more obvious. Maybe that’s acceptable to Klinsmann, who has let it be known that he wants more nastiness from his team. Nastiness? We need a definition.
The roles of Shea and Robbie Rogers are puzzling to me. Wingers? Wide men? That seems to be the role that their talents most immediately suggest. But two of them? If the plan is then to get the ball wide and have Jozy Altidore anticipate crosses, and then have Donovan and whoever else gets in the box prey off Altidore’s knock-downs, it’s not much of a style.
Anyway, Shea roamed so much as to make his role difficult to define -- and difficult, I imagine, for Torres to find him with passes. Shea’s running often looked more like Brownian movement than tactical astuteness.
Leaving my biggest Klinsmann concern to the last: this business of fitness. Klinsmann seems to be contending that the players aren’t properly fit -- something that is a pretty serious criticism of their MLS clubs, all of them. If what Klinsmann believes is true, it’s difficult to see what he can do about it during the short spells that he has the players. But what he has done is what he did in Germany: Bring in the fitness gurus. I simply have no faith whatever in those guys. Which puts me in direct opposition to Klinsmann, who appears to have limitless trust in them.
Actually, thinking of the numerous criticisms I’ve heard leveled at U.S. players over the past 50 years, I don’t think I’ve ever heard them accused of being unfit. But the gurus may well have a new definition of fitness, one that has yet to filter through to me. If it includes sharpening the ability of strikers to play quickly and instinctively in the penalty area, then I’ll be all for it. But somehow, I doubt whether any new fitness theory would address itself to specifically soccer matter like that.