By Ridge Mahoney
As the euphoria of Jozy Altidore’s four-game scoring streak begins to ebb, it’s time to acknowledge a heartening trend at the other end of the field, namely, the lack of desperation situations imposed on keeper Tim Howard.
In six Hexagonal matches, the Americans have conceded just three goals and posted four shutouts. Notable defensive marks have been recorded in the past, but much of the time they were compiled either, a) against weak opposition, or b) because of spectacular, at times unbelievable, goalkeeping.
Far too many times, the U.S. keeper--– dating back to the days of Tony Meola (first capped in 1988) and running through the reigns of Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller and now Howard --- has been the most important, and most tested, man on the field. It’s great to have a tradition of great goalkeeping, but it’s also great to see the U.S. suppressing opponents by a combination of possession play and cohesive defending all over the field.
In the last three Hexagonal victories against Jamaica (2-1), Panama (2-0), and Honduras (1-0), Howard wasn’t close to being man of the match. He didn’t need to be. He did have a sharp save or two in each game, but wasn’t required to fly around the box or soar into the sky every other time an opponent penetrated the final third. There were the inevitable glitches and breakdowns, but for the vast majority of those 270 minutes, the Americans either had the ball or were well-organized and defensively sound.
A suspension forced a change of left back for the Honduras game fromDaMarcus Beasley to Fabian Johnson, and right back Brad Evans is a collegiate forward converted to utility man at the pro level, and the central pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Beslerhas less than 20 combined caps between them. Jermaine Jones missed a game and a half because of a concussion, and Geoff Cameronstepped right in. The personnel and tactics changed but the solidity front to back persisted.
The best way to defend is to keep the ball, a concept that sounds simple but demands technique and movement and stamina and intuition and confidence. Remember all the stick directed at Spain for winning so many games 1-0 en route to the 2010 World Cup title? The romantics wanted more goals, of course, especially given the Spanish attacking potency. Yet Spain could have wobbled at any point in those games had it conceded a goal, and it fused its resilience with the confidence it would eventually score to win the prize.
By keeping the ball for longer periods, teams like Spain and Germany and Brazil limit opposing possessions and thus potential threats to its goal. In trying to instill more possession and technique into the U.S. game, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is also improving its defensive prospects by, to put it bluntly, reducing the instances of possibly screwing up.
When the U.S. defense does break down, as against Honduras when a mistake by centerback Matt Besler provided Andy Najarwith a point-blank chance, you need a keeper like Howard in the nets to shut down the danger. But you don’t want to depend on him a dozen times a game, and even while successfully negotiating the Hexagonal or capturing the Gold Cup during the past 24 years the USA has been heavily reliant on its goalkeepers.
The “great” run at the 2002 World Cup wasn’t grounded on solid defense. The Americans conceded seven goals in five games and its lone shutout was against bitter rival Mexico. Friedel saved two penalty kicks in that competition and stoned the opposition on numerous other occasions.
Meola stood on his head to blank England, 2-0, in 1993, as did Keller to beat Brazil, 1-0, five years later in the Gold Cup. Howard’s heroics enabled the Americans to stun Spain, 2-0, in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinals. Keller and the USA won two penalty-kick shootouts to prevail in the 2002 Gold Cup.
One of the few American victories against a major power that didn’t require sensational netminding was the 3-0 defeat of Argentina in the 1995 Copa America, yet the liberal use of backups by then-coach Daniel Passarella -- himself a stalwart defender in his playing days -- significantly aided the U.S. effort.
The USA is a long way from mesmerizing the opposition through long spells of intricate, elegant passing. Yet there are encouraging signs that the goalkeeper no longer must be Man of the Match to win important games.