World Cup Qualifying: USA's Recurring Problems

A propensity to concede early goals plagued the U.S. again during its two Hexagonal matches in June, and an overall sluggishness in transition is one facet of the team's game that needs to be improved
between now and the 2010 World Cup.

Of the many tenets coaches preach to their players at all levels, one of the most repeated is to not lose the ball in the wrong areas of the field.

Fans pillory an attacker who dribbles or reaches the ball deep into the opponent's half of the field, only to lose it to a tackle or a misguided pass, yet such turnovers are expected if not perpetually forgiven by coaches. Forcing the play often involves taking risks with the ball, and when confronting a good defense, a minority of possessions will result in a decent scoring chance.

Far more costly are the giveaways on a team's own side of the midfield line, for they are the turnovers that even mediocre teams can convert into chances and good teams often punish with goals. While losing to Costa Rica, 3-1, and beating Honduras, 2-1, in June the U.S. national team was guilty of such errors while also conceding early goals in both games -- just as it had done at El Salvador in March before staging an incredible rally to earn a 2-2 tie.

"Anytime you give a team a goal advantage, particularly in the first 10 minutes, it's going to be tough, especially for the visiting team," said Landon Donovan after the loss in Costa Rica. "I'm disappointed. It's disappointing to play that way. We were never in control because of the way we started the game, and that makes it difficult."

TICOS ROMP. After DaMarcus Beasley, who got the start at left back against Costa Rica, lost possession in the second minute, Alvaro Saborio blasted a spectacular left-footed goal when he knifed between midfielders Jose Francisco Torres and Pablo Mastroeni. Either Torres or Mastroeni could have salvaged the situation by getting a foot on the ball or jostling Saborio as he veered into the middle, but both reacted tentatively and Saborio took advantage of their laxness to score.

The USA, which had lost six straight matches at the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in San Jose, never recovered and spent most of the game chasing and flailing on the artificial turf as Costa Rica overran a three-man midfield deployed by U.S. head coach Bob Bradley. The coach had to make some tough choices, as his MLS players had played the weekend before and he had only two days of training with the full team for a match moved up a week - from June 10 to June 3 - to accommodate the U.S. participation in the Confederations Cup, for which it traveled to South Africa on June 8.

All three Costa Rican goals resulted from errors and breakdowns on the flanks, and while several Americans obviously struggled to control balls skipping and bouncing on the notorious Saprissa artificial turf, the ferocity and cohesion necessary for such a match seldom materialized.

The formation and the playing surface at Saprissa took a lot of the blame for a lopsided loss, yet that terrible start and a subsequent defensive mixup that enabled Celso Borges to smash a point-blank shot past Tim Howard in the 13th minute effectively erased any chance of the Americans taking their first World Cup qualifying points out of Costa Rica since a 1-1 tie way back in 1985.

Borges came racing through the middle to bang home a first-time shot after a seemingly innocuous possession on the flank turned into a great scoring chance. Mastroeni put pressure on the ball near the touchline and his failure to win possession left Marvell Wynne and Oguchi Onyewu exposed. Esteban Siras dribbled the ball inside and clipped a cross that Borges, who had timed his run perfectly, drove into the net with an impeccable first-time hit more than a foot off the ground.

Again, a seemingly minor error turned into a great opportunity because the Americans failed to recognize the danger and adjust to it after nobody got close enough to win the ball. Once Siras got into the box, the risk of a foul and a penalty kick impaired the U.S. ability to prevent his pass, and nobody noticed Borges steaming into the middle until it was too late.

Another crisp move produced a third goal in the 69th minute. Playmaker Walter Centeno pirouetted in the penalty area to play the ball wide on the right flank to right back Pablo Herrera, of all people, who glided past an exhausted Michael Bradley. When defender Carlos Bocanegra stood his ground rather than challenging, Herrera hit a roller to the near post that cleanly beat Howard.

Throughout this sequence no American got within a yard of the ball or the player on it. Of the three goals conceded, the ease of this one defied belief. Whether fatigued or shellshocked, the U.S. players were nothing more than bystanders.

"We didn't compete hard enough," said Howard. "We got beat to balls and they caused us problems we couldn't figure out. A lot went wrong for us."

SOLDIERING ON. Michael Bradley picked up his second yellow card of the Hexagonal, prompting his father to reshuffle the formation back to the normal 4-4-2. Changes to the lineup and a return to home soil to play Honduras at Soldier Field in Chicago did produce a victory, yet again the Americans needed to come from behind and on the offensive side, both goals came from set plays.

They conceded another early goal, this time in the fifth minute, when Clint Dempsey escaped two opponents in the midfield circle but failed to see a third, Carlos Pavon, who stripped the ball away and dribbled at the U.S. goal. While fending off a challenge Pavon managed to stab the ball into the path of Carlos Costly, who nailed a searing strike past Howard from 25 yards out.

Dempsey bears the guilt of losing the ball to set the sequence in motion, yet he did so more than 50 yards from his own goal. Still, a player must check to see if he has cover when he wants to beat opponents on the dribble in the neutral third, and Dempsey's failure to do so caught his teammates out of position.

With a loud majority of the 55,000 fans in attendance cheering them on, the Catrachos pressed forward after taking the lead. Pavon and Ramon Nunez repeatedly attacked the corners, and right back Mauricio Sabillion got forward on occasion as Costly roamed from side to side in search of space.

The Hondurans, though, failed to hold the advantage provided by that early goal. Changes at the outside back positions - Jonathan Bornstein replaced Beasley on the left, Jonathan Spector took over for Wynne on the right - battened down the flanks, and solid games by the central midfielders provided more stability in the middle.

The USA also used possessions by its defenders much more efficiently than against Costa Rica. Jozy Altidore just managed to reach a long ball from Onyewu but couldn't turn the opportunity into a shot; late in the first half, another ball from Onyewu yielded a penalty kick when the ball bounced up onto the arm of defender Mario Beata. Donovan, who had converted a penalty very late in the Costa Rica game when Onyewu was fouled going for a throw-in, scored again from the spot to tie the game, 1-1, in the 43rd minute.

Benny Feilhaber replaced Mastroeni for the second half, and his presence helped open up the midfield. Feilhaber pushed forward to draw attention from defensive midfielder Hendry Thomas, and prompted attacks by evading pressure and playing short, early balls to the wide players whenever possible. With more possession, the Americans were able to push their midfielders and defenders further upfield and control most of the play. They also compressed the midfield and regained the few balls they lost in the middle third to deprive Honduras of opportunities to break out of pressure.

Still, the Americans couldn't score during the run of play and produced the winning goal on another set play. Dempsey jumped over his marker at the back post to head Donovan's corner kick into the middle. Bocanegra, stooping to knee-height, nodded the ball over the goal line from just a few yards out.

After taking the lead, the U.S. struggled through a sloppy interval of poor passing and turnovers that offered Honduras chances to attack. Balls won by the defenders were often given right back to opponents, and Howard and his teammates were called to the rescue on goalmouth situations resulting from giveaways close to the U.S. penalty area. The goalie saved from Walter Martinez, a sliding tackle by Onyewu thwarted Costly, and Ricardo  Clark cleared from underneath the crossbar.

After gaining three points from the two matches, the U.S. sits in second place with a 3-1-1 record and 10 points. It is on track to qualify for its sixth straight appearance in the World Cup yet has yet to rectify recurring problems at the start of matches and in transition when losing possession.

"We can't keep doing that to ourselves, you know," said Howard of falling behind in both games. "But overall, if you look at the game over 90 minutes I thought we were very, very good. Again, it's something that you want to look at. It's something we can overanalyze and dissect, but it's just more about being switched on from the start."

(This article originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)    

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