By Ridge Mahoney
It has played six Hexagonal matches already, yet in the next two games the USA will encounter perhaps the most treacherous of situations: opponents that are desperate for a win.
Costa Rica and Mexico are expected to qualify, along with the USA, yet each has its own demons to deal with. Costa Rica has never lost to the USA at home, but is anxious to amend its snow-encrusted 1-0 loss in Commerce City, Colo., last March. Mexico has been riven by criticism of head coach “Chepo” de la Torre for more than a year -- since losing, 1-0, to the USA in the Azteca -- and has already dropped so many Hexagonal points at home it will be under added pressure to prevail in Columbus despite its failures in that city dating back to the famous 2-0 “La Guerra Fria” in 2001.
So in both matches, even though dynamics differ drastically at home and on the road, the USA will likely be pressured more consistently and more aggressively since it lost the Hexagonal opener, 2-1, to Honduras in early February. Regardless of personnel, the Americans have shown a good mix of patience and assertiveness with the ball this year, and reasonably consistent and competent defending without it.
Still, it’s unlikely that either opponent will let Michael Bradley to glide back and forth in front of the back line, exploiting time and space to play balls into good spots and seek opportunities to go forward himself, as was the case earlier this month against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Striker Edin Dzeko and his attacking mates are threats nearly every time they get the ball but in Sarajevo they weren’t all that interested in working hard to secure possession, especially after jumping in front, 2-0.
How hard the Costa Rican and Mexican attackers are willing to work to press the Americans in the defensive third of the field will play a major role in how the games are played. Since taking over the national team two years ago, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has placed great importance on building attacks from the back, and he’s also instilled a variety of methods to achieve that end.
Many excellent opportunities have been created from long- and medium-range passes delivered by centerbacks Matt Besler and Clarence Goodson, as well as Bradley and Jermaine Jones. Using DaMarcus Beasley at left back has not been costly defensively and has yielded a strong attacking presence on that flank in several variations: interchanging and interpassing with the left mid, such as Fabian Johnson; making connections with the central mids; or by occasionally darting inside to shoot or play an entry pass to the forwards.
The return to the national team of Landon Donovan after sitting out the first six Hexagonal matches greatly bolsters the USA’s attacking prospects, and along with his experience and skill he can provide an element few teammates can supply: speed to chase down balls out of the back. Whether he breaks for the ball from a forward slot or deeper in midfield, even at 31 none of his teammates can match his blend of pace and ball control at high speed. Eddie Johnson is fast but not so skilled, Clint Dempsey has the touch but not the wheels, etc.
By now, the U.S. system under Klinsmann has been thoroughly scouted by the four remaining Hexagonal opponents, and so the patterns of play out of the back have been scrutinized and analyzed. Opponents know about Beasley’s runs, Besler’s left-footed deliveries, the channels that Bradley and Jones use to link with the back line, etc.
The presence of Donovan, whether he stays high, checks back into midfield, or floats wide -- offers another option for the back line, and thus reduces the risk of the U.S. losing possession near its own goal. He can burst into space so quickly a defender can aim a ball in his direction with confidence he’ll get a piece of the ball if he can’t control it cleanly. And if he breaks clear for a ball played over the top, a goal is a real possibility.
Look for Klinsmann to incorporate his attributes in myriad ways as the USA proceeds through the Hexagonal at nearly full strength.