The Americans began a run of five games in 18 days by thoroughly dismantling Scotland, 5-1, with a Landon Donovan hat trick and bewildering display of attacking soccer.
The Americans didn't thrash the Scots Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla., solely because of any one factor, yet by combining several powerful elements of their game –- conditioning, aggression, determination, tactics – they embarrassed a nation that prides itself on spirit above all else.
Before they began to wilt from heat and fatigue after about half an hour, the Scots were down, 2-1, and already in deep trouble. While they were able to shackle lone forward Terence Boyd one-on-one, they were unable to close down the spaces behind and around him, which enabled an energetic array of five midfielders to connect passes, time runs, and interchange positions frequently and efficiently.
Magnificent performances byDonovan, who scored his third national-team hat trick, and Michael Bradley, credited with one assist to accompany a scintillating half-volley from 25 yards out for goal No. 2, highlighted one of the most dominant U.S. games ever by the USA against a respected European opponent. Jermaine Jones, a victim of his own volatility too many times, played a monster two-way game that produced two precise assists and a clinical finish on the fifth U.S. goal.
As if often the case, no consensus existed on what formation the team was playing. MLSsoccer.com called it a 4-1-4-1, NBC Sports Network diagrammed a 4-3-3, and there were also references to 4-3-2-1 that seemed to jibe closest to a designation of a four-man back line, a triangle of three interchanging midfielders, two wingers, and lone forward Boyd.
Dubbed in some circles the “Christmas Tree” formation and stereotyped as a defensive blockade, the Americans proved yet again that the right mix of talents and tactics trumps a dogmatic diagram. Well-supported, aggressive defending smothered the Scots; flank play and crisp ball movement that spread out the “Christmas tree” cut apart their defense.
One facet of the system was that Donovan, deployed as a right wing but free to move about, attacked more directly than did opposite number Jose Torres. Yet still Torres contributed several vital plays at both ends of the field as he and left back Fabian Johnson gave the Americans one of their strongest left-sided presences in recent memory.
By tucking Torres inside, Coach Jurgen Klinsmman achieved several objectives: room opened up on the left flank for Johnson, who is bolder and faster going forward than Torres; Torres replicated the left-central role he often plays for his Mexican club team, Pachuca; and the freedom to interchange positions allowed to Torres to at times slide farther, all the way into the middle, which utterly overwhelmed the already laboring Scots as they chased Bradley, Jones, Donovan and Maurice Edu.
The concept of players taking up positions on the field, rather than rigidly playing positions laid out on a chalkboard, manifested itself throughout the match. At times, Torres would slide into the middle but Johnson would hang back, which allowed Jones to float outside and take up that vital position near the touchline from which he hit two crosses in the first half.
In the second half, a similar move mirrored on the right side produced the ball that Jones, playing briefly as a right wing, served up for Donovan to score his second goal with a sharp finish into the bottom far corner. Jones rounded off his outstanding night and the U.S. scoring by heading home a cross from Donovan.
Torres tracked back to win a ball near his own goal line a few minutes after his sharp midfield tackle had set in motion the sequence from which, less than three minutes after kickoff, Donovan slashed the rebound of his own shot into the roof of the net. Another fluid sequence early in the second half yielded a linkup between the two wingers when a Torres back-heel freed Donovan to shoot against the post.
The secret to the U.S. attacking success had just as much to do with its balance and shape defensively whether or not it had the ball. While the midfielders, along Johnson, were always scenting an opportunity to move the ball forward, very seldom did a player leave an exploitable gap. The USA, especially in the first half, lost a few balls in the middle third but usually had enough cover to either win the ball back quickly or blunt whatever forays Scotland generated.
This concept didn’t always transition smoothly to defense. The Scots in the first half found some room on their right side, and from midfield launched several tempting crosses, one of which Kenny Miller headed off the chest of U.S. defender Geoff Cameron and into the net. But once their legs started to shake and lungs began to burn, byproducts of American running and Florida heat, the Scots were consigned to scramble and survive.
While Bradley’s incredible strike and sharp passing deserved all the plaudits they generated, his greatest value came from serving as a central fulcrum: the first line of contention when possession was lost in midfield, and the conduit to keep possession or exploit a defensive seam when attacking.
Playing first-time short balls and anticipating play shrewdly, Bradley moved imperially about the midfield, with only a couple of innocuous giveaways clouding his performance. And his goal, a sweetly swerving strike with the outside of his right foot from a Donovan flick, is dazzling every time it's viewed.
Klinsmann will have more weapons at his disposal this week for games against Brazil (Wednesday) and Canada (Sunday) when Clint Dempsey recovers from a groin injury and Jozy Altidore joing the squad. Regardless of personnel, the team’s bold mindset seems unlikely to change.