[USA SPOTLIGHT] If anyone was surprised by the scoring problems experienced by the USA in its 1-0 win over Venezuela Saturday, a look at the seven previous games played under Coach Jurgen Klinsmann would have provided some clues.
In those seven games, the Americans scored just five goals, and three of them came in the year’s finale against Slovenia, a 3-2 victory in which Edson Buddle, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore did the honors.
Since Klinsmann took over, the only other goalscorer – besides Saturday’s hero, Ricardo Clark – to hit the U.S. net is Robbie Rogers, and his goal came in Klinsmann’s debut last August against Mexico. Add in Dempsey’s goal against Honduras (a 1-0 win Oct. 8 in Miami) and that’s it.
None of those players is available this month, which in the long run is a good thing. Over the next two years one of Klinsmann’s most vital tasks will be to cultivate and nurture the methods and mindset to increase the quality of service, so that in a given situation, if the crucial opportunity falls to Michael Bradley or Jermaine Jones or Stuart Holden or Brek Shea instead of Dempsey or Altidore or Landon Donovan or Juan Agudelo, the American has more than a fleeting chance to hit the net.
Donovan and Dempsey have proven they can turn a mediocre ball into a good chance, but they can’t do that every time. The better the final ball, the simpler it is to score, for anyone.
In a tight qualifier or Gold Cup game or World Cup match, there’s no telling who will be presented with a great chance. And as Robbie Findley proved by skying a shot over the crossbar from all of two yards away in an FA Cup match earlier this month, or Sporting Kansas City’s Kei Kamara confirmed last season by stepping on a ball nestling on the goal line while failing to prod it forward the necessary 10 inches, weird forces can plague even an experienced scorer.
Shea is an intriguing case. Still raw at age 21, he’s blessed with the height (6-foot-3), speed and bravery to get into good spots for shots. He scored a career-high 11 goals for FC Dallas last season, yet that form has yet to carry over to the national team. In 10 U.S. games he has yet to score.
Against Venezuela, Shea dragged a left-footed shot just wide of the far post, and nailed a good header on target that keeper Jose Morales parried to safety. On those conventional chances he did well, but not quite well enough. In addition to switching sides from left to right and back again, which is hardly a watershed of innovation as many U.S. observers seem to believe, he and his mates tried a few other things.
A more subtle situation nearly produced a shot out of nothing. Jones, on the ball near the center circle, suddenly clipped a bouncing through ball towards goal as Shea barreled inside from the left wing with a surprised opponent in desperate chase. A half-step too late, Shea failed to get a touch and Morales snagged it on the bounce. That ball didn’t produce a goal, or even a shot, but it had "danger" written all over it.
Jones flubbed one of the best U.S. opportunities against Venezuela by coming from a deep position, a la Bradley, to lash a cut-back badly off-target. Yet like Shea’s slashing run, the idea clicked even if the connection didn’t. So did a brazen run up the middle during which Jones laid a ball off to Teal Bunbury, who shot low to the near post and hit the side netting.
Though the Americans didn’t produce an ungodly number of shots, 15, they did conjure them up in myriad ways, and lost a few other possible opportunities to crunching hits that could have been fouls. Was the opposition weak? Very. Did the Americans take advantage? Definitely.
Klinsmann lamented his team’s shabby finishing without addressing an element just as crucial, the quality of the final pass. In that regard, the Americans scored well. Benny Feilhaber presented Shea and Jones with excellent opportunities, and in addition to several sharp passes during the run of play, most of Jones’ corners were placed in good spots – Geoff Cameron headed two of them wide -- before Clark buried the winner seven minutes into stoppage time.
Venezuela fielded a greatly weakened team, with only MLS forward Alejandro Moreno a regular member of the senior pool of players, so a 1-0 victory at home snatched in stoppage time is far from impressive. The U.S. is squad is missing most of its starters, and Panama won’t be sending out its top squad for the Wednesday friendly in Panama City, either. No matter.
For Klinsmann and his players, the setting and opponent are backdrops to their own project. Imbuing good habits is borne of repetition and reinforcement. Later this year results will take on real value. He and many of his players will get their first taste of Central America, where indecision is not an option. It’s all part of the process.