Disjointed intervals taint dramatic U.S. comeback

[USA-SLOVENIA ANALYSIS] For all the harping on positioning and team shape by the U.S. national team coaching staff, there's still a disquieting tendency for the U.S. to disconnect. The spirit of the Americans can't be questioned. They are very hard to beat. But they are also fatuously prone to falling behind. Sometimes they rally, as they did in the Hexagonal at El Salvador and at home against Costa Rica, and have done in both of their 2010 World Cup matches.

Slovenia twice capitalized on suspect positioning and decision-making to score its goals in a 2-2 tie Friday, and on a few other occasions simply hit a poor final pass or squandered the shot. The craft and guile displayed by midfielders Robert Koren and Valter Birsa proved to be just as troublesome as the height (6-foot-3) of forward Milivoje Novakovic.

Jose Francisco Torres has hardened his ability to tackle and win balls, and his ball skills are among the best on this 23-man squad, but he looked completely lost amid the positioning and tactical acumen typical of European teams. The game in Mexico and Concacaf is often more linear, straight up and back, rather than the maze of triangles and other geometric shapes that appear and vanish as the ball and players move. He wasn’t alone in this regard yet once again the Americans were reminded of how costly a few extra yards of space can be.

Maybe Ricardo Clark or Maurice Edu wouldn’t have blocked Birsa’s shot but they certainly would have been closing him down as he hit it. And Oguchi Onyewu’s failure to step up adds an intriguing subplot, that of his charge-down of Wayne Rooney in the England game that opened up a space for Steven Gerrard to dart through and score.

What’s the difference? Onyewu didn’t check his challenge on Rooney when the ball ran past him to Emile Heskey. If Rooney traps it and shapes to shoot, he needs a half-second or so to do so, and that’s when Onyewu charges up to challenge. Once the ball ran past Rooney, Onyewu needed to reverse direction.

Birsa had all day to line up his shot. Onyewu and Torres and Bradley and even Donovan, who had tucked into the middle, needed to get at least some pressure on him, and didn’t. Maybe Onyewu was thinking about the England game, and once again, he made the wrong decision; by not moving at all from his spot at the edge of the box, he cut off the view of keeper Tim Howard, who didn’t see Birsa’s swerving shot until too late to even dive.

A promising run of U.S. pressure triggered by Bradley, Dempsey and Donovan nearly bore fruit in the 41st minute. Robbie Findley’s ball released Dempsey on the right, and his diagonal ball nearly reached Donovan at the back post, but Miso Brecko kicked it to safety. Within a minute, Slovenia had scored again by exploiting a lack of pressure in midfield and a disorganized back line. Novakovic beat the offside trap with a through ball for Zlatan Ljubijankic, who glided into the box to slide a shot past Howard.

Findley didn’t exhibit a good touch during his 45 minutes, but he usually had just one option: link with Altidore. If he ran down a ball on the flank, there was no sign of a midfielder as an option for a knockback and maybe a one-two. The Slovenian center backs were all over Altidore, who nonetheless fought through grabs and bear hugs and half-Nelsons to at least cause some mayhem in the box. Had the U.S. midfielders pressed higher when balls ran for Findley, he could have been more effective, as was the case when he linked with Dempsey.

With the insertion of halftime subs Edu (for Torres) and Benny Feilhaber (Findley), the center of midfield tightened up, and Feilhaber’s calm, confident touches unsettled the Slovenians far more than had Findley’s pace. Dempsey took more of a free role, drifting in the spaces between Feilhaber and Altidore, which confused the Slovenians sufficiently for Bradley punch through into the attacking third and draw attention away from Donovan on the opposite flank.

The U.S. got a break when left back Bojan Jozic fell on his butt chasing a ball lofted up the wing by right back Steve Cherundolo, yet even had Jozic kept his feet, Donovan would have been able to run at him one-v-one in a large parcel of space. Such a favorable U.S. scenario never occurred in the first half. As it was, Donovan took the ball near the end line and waited as long as he could for a runner to come free in the box, but when nobody did, he boomed a powerful shot dead-center into the roof of the net in the 48 th minute.

One of several well-hit dead balls from Donovan nearly produced an equalizer two minutes later when Dempsey flicked it on to the back post where Onyewu was a just a yard short of tapping it in. Altidore drew a foul just outside the box in the 70th minute and after a brief scramble from the free kick he fired a shot right to keeper Samir Handanovic as Dempsey tumbled under a heavy body-block ignored, or not spotted, by the referee.

Slovenia came back into the game and created a few chances to up its lead to 3-1 by neutralizing DeMerit’s ability to step forward to break up plays. Mindful of two and three players in addition to the one he was marking, DeMerit simply couldn’t take the risk. He did get in several vital tackles, as did outside backs Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra to get balls out of danger.

Altidore got his reward for a gritty night’s work by outmuscling his marker to head down a lofted ball from Donovan in the 82nd minute. Substitute Herculez Gomez drew a defender with a run across the goalmouth and a perfectly worked move concluded with Bradley racing onto the bounce and to bang the ball high into the net.

Another crisp set play yielded an apparent winner, but referee Koman Coulibaly’s ruling of a foul annulled Edu’s volley of Donovan’s free kick. A dramatic comeback and sharper set plays are encouraging positives, yet a more cohesive performance front to back will be needed in the group finale Wednesday against Algeria.

9 comments about "Disjointed intervals taint dramatic U.S. comeback".
  1. Greg Williams, June 19, 2010 at 8:38 a.m.

    This all points to poor preparation by the coaching staff. It was amateurish to see the amount of space given by the defense, and the lack of options with few or wrong runs off the ball. I saw, on several occasions, defenders double up one mark, while leaving another open, providing space and options for Slovenia that should never happen on this level. I coach HS and would be totally pissed if my defenders marked like this and couldn't hold their shape any better. What is their game plan anyway? The defense has to get it sorted out, and the understanding and link between the midfield and forwards looks like a random sand lot game. Where has the organization gone? Why so many long balls, bypassing the midfield? It is very frustrating to watch, and leaves the impression, for all of the criticism of the ref for being out of his leaugue, that Bradley and Co. are also not up to this level of play in terms of preparedness and understanding.

  2. Mike Gaynes, June 19, 2010 at 11 a.m.

    Ridge, you've missed the point of the USA's first-half defensive problems... poor tracking and marking. Michael Bradley warned of the issue a few days before the game... "The two outside midfielders, both creative, they like to come inside and are able to make good passes and are dangerous to shoot from distance." Yet Donovan was paying little attention to marking Birsa on the first goal, and when Birsa predictably went inside to collect the pass, Donovan not only didn't track him, he drifted away into outer space. He gave Birsa free rein, and the result was inevitable. And on the second goal, DeMerit was slow to step up and mark the passer before the ball was played through beyond Onyewu -- who, as you pointed out, froze on both goals.

  3. Alex G. Sicre, June 19, 2010 at 12:08 p.m.

    Wow Ric, your hatred for the Bradleys is showing again. Give the boy a break. Chill out.

  4. Charles Stamos, June 19, 2010 at 1:02 p.m.

    If you all have complaints about individual players, bring up the alternative players or l/u that you would rather see out there. I have lobbied for Torres and will admit he did not play well enough to deserve another starting role, he may be a valuable sub though. There are no good alternatives to Bradley at this time. Clark may be the best pairing for him. Replacing Findley has happened. The back four currently in there is our best option. BBradley has done a reasonable job managing - he should be given the opportunity to see if he can manage the USA into the next round. If he does, then give him credit. If he doesn't, then his four year tenure should be over.

  5. Christopher Holden, June 19, 2010 at 1:50 p.m.

    Whoever is playing center mid needs to be ready to stop the opposing center mid from shooting in the middle of the field and or from passing to the wing (to a streaking forward). It is not an easy thing to do for 90 minutes but that should be the objective, namely to take away the middle of the field.

    We are doing very well otherwise and presuming Team USA scores first I think we will be able to counter attack the opposing team (Algeria) all day long, which is when we create great scoring chances and a lot of havoc. We have had a lot of set pieces (free kicks and corners) and we need to put the ball in the net on those plays (preferably without the ref calling any goals back).

    It would be nice to see the team a little more patient. Seems to me when we stretch out the field we do a lot better and cause significant difficulties for our opponents.

    We need to win against an Algerian team that will be going all out with nothing to lose. They have yet to score a goal and they need at least 2 or 3 against us so expect a 3 - 4 - 3 from them all game long. We will be in a position to counter attack their offensive efforts in Wednesday's game and correct me if I am wrong but that is when Team USA is extremely strong. You will not see 8 guys back for Algeria (as you did against England) - our last game will be an open free for all (like the 2nd half against Slovenia). GO USA GO!!

    This team has the chemistry and the skills to go all the way, but first we need to win this last group game against Algeria!

    Team USA is looking great - keep up the great work guys - you are making your country proud of the way you are playing!!

  6. John D. Archimede, June 19, 2010 at 2:03 p.m.

    With all the criticism of our USA Team and not knowing the experience of all you critics. Lets just get behind our National team and cheer them on. They have done quite well under the circumstances.
    Remember we have only so much International experience on this team.
    Go USA!

  7. Miguel Estremera, June 19, 2010 at 5:51 p.m.

    Why is Ridge blaming Torres for the 1st goal?It was Donavan's mark and he let him go while he was ball watching. MB was in the center of the field not marking anyone but closer to the play than Torres.
    The problem here is that MB is most often described as a defensive mid but it is clear that he is always pushing up. Might as well let him be the attacking mid so that we at least get some depth as opposed to playing flat. At times both middies push up and leave big gaps for the back line to resolve. Lalas criticized Torres for drifting too much into the back but what are all of the mids paired with MB supposed to do? Edu basically did the same thing as Torres, he drifted to the back line. This team is built around MB despite the fact that he does not possess the skills of a center mid. He would be much better off in the back and leave the middle to Torres and Holden.

  8. Gabriel Torres, June 19, 2010 at 6:25 p.m.

    How does one, such as Torres, build up an offensive charge when the back line are driving balls from their defensive 1/3 across and past their offensive third only to see the ball go out of play. This with hardly any pressure from Slovenia. Holy moly if they would just take a little time to look for a short outlet and have confidence that the middle can build up. By all appearances the US first half play was all "linear, straight up and down".

  9. Kevin Leahy, June 20, 2010 at 9:27 p.m.

    You have a lot of nerve laying Birsa's goal on Torres. He was already marking someone. The lack of width that Dempsey & Donovan give this midfield would find them on the bench @ U-16. The only explanation is that the coaching staff is alright with it. The reason fans are critical is because we can and should be better. The lack of intensity in the first have was mind boggling @ this level, with so much @ stake.

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