By Paul Gardner
Losing 1-0 to Costa Rica in a meaningless friendly was probably the best result and the best scoreline that could have happened to Jurgen Klinsmann and his embryonic team.
The loss, no big deal in my book, did inject some meaning into the game. If only to spell out that solving the various glitches that beset the U.S. national team is not going to be an overnight job.
If there are still people around who see Klinsmann as a German deus ex machina whose mere arrival will set everything aright, they should now see things more realistically.
Klinsmann has to make changes, which means bringing in young and untested players -- and that means the constant possibility of losing games.
Even when as in this case, the loss was probably not deserved. The U.S. certainly did enough in the first half hour of play to warrant a goal or two. Its game was aggressive and fast moving, and Costa Rica’s desperate response was repeated fouling as it tried to get its defense in order. (If I’m not criticizing referee Jose Molina’s failure to punish Costa Rica severely enough, that’s because he later let the USA off the hook big time, by refusing to call an obvious penalty kick against Tim Chandler for a foul on Alvaro Saborio).
The U.S. did not get on the scoreboard -- and you always sense that failure to do that, after dominating the game, is going come back and punish you. Ironically, the biggest problem here was not the new younger players, but the old stalwart Landon Donovan, who had an oddly ineffectual game. It included missing the easiest of chances to score the vital first goal, the goal that might well have changed the nature of this game entirely.
There are many games, tightly contested games, in which one feels quite certain that the first goal scored will be the one that decides matters. This turned out to be one of those games; in the end it was played that way, very cannily, by Costa Rica, who eventually settled down to good defensive play and dangerous counters -- nothing exactly new or startling in these tactics, but Klinsmann’s squad will have to learn how to deal with them better than they did on Friday.
It’s trite enough to say that you have to put away your chances -- but the genuine U.S. chances were few -- halftime stats showed the USA with no shots on goal. The penalty-area play -- as so often with the USA -- was nowhere near good enough. The sight of U.S. players dribbling into the box, or exchanging quick one-twos inside the box -- the rapid interchanging of passes that opens up defenses and gives them no time for recovery ... we are not used to seeing that from American players, and things were no different here.
There was one lovely example of what I’m talking about, late in the game, when Jose Torres, confronted by two Costa Rican defenders, conjured a perfect short pass between them and into the path of Edgar Castillo as he broke into the area. A magical moment -- one that needed another quick short pass from Castillo to a supporting player who understands the quicksilver geometry of penalty-area passing -- but no such supporting player appeared. Both Juan Agudelo and Brek Shea were in the penalty area, but neither was close to Castillo, and both were shading away from Castillo rather than moving toward him. With no instantly available passing target, Castillo took another touch of the ball -- not a good one -- and a lunging tackle from a defender whipped the ball off his foot.
I’m describing the sort of action that I would like to see -- it remains unclear to me whether that’s what Klinsmann wants to see. His post-game comments were encouraging, with his declaration that he was happy with the team’s performance, happy that the players “combine, that they are patient, that they move the ball around, that they find each other, that they are calm on the ball.”
That last reference -- to calmness -- struck home forcefully, as I had, just a few hours earlier, watched my first college game of the season, Maryland vs. Stanford, and if there was one thing that was totally absent from that game, it was calmness. Anywhere. On the ball or off the ball. Two of the better college teams, then, and a game that did have its moments. But it was basically the same old college soccer. Frantic and frenetic as ever.
For the USA the obvious player to watch for calmness was Torres. A player who projects that aura of having more time than the others to do what he wants with the ball. His passing was excellent ... but, just to get as perverse as the game of soccer itself, he was, if anything, a bit too calm. Stroking intelligent accurate passes around is the major part of his game, a skill not to be scorned. He is also good at shielding the ball from attacking opponents -- though turning his body to do that is likely to result in backward or lateral passes.
What was missing from Torres’ game on Friday was a willingness to move forward and take on opponents. There were opportunities to do this -- but he shunned them in favor of a pass. Maybe a willingness to run at opponents will come -- Klinsmann’s comment that “the more he plays the more he gets comfortable in there” -- suggests so.
Defensively the USA did well enough. Carlos Bocanegra, at the moment, probably has to be there, simply because he is so much more experienced than anyone else. And he has shown that he can score goals from corner kicks -- which is something of a joke, really -- though not one confined to the USA -- because the USA does not have reliable corner-kick taker. It still seems a waste to have a goalscorer like Donovan -- one of the much-needed penalty-area players -- taking corner kicks.
But as Bocanegra, never the quickest of players, slows down, his fouling will no doubt become more obvious. Maybe that’s acceptable to Klinsmann, who has let it be known that he wants more nastiness from his team. Nastiness? We need a definition.
The roles of Shea and Robbie Rogers are puzzling to me. Wingers? Wide men? That seems to be the role that their talents most immediately suggest. But two of them? If the plan is then to get the ball wide and have Jozy Altidore anticipate crosses, and then have Donovan and whoever else gets in the box prey off Altidore’s knock-downs, it’s not much of a style.
Anyway, Shea roamed so much as to make his role difficult to define -- and difficult, I imagine, for Torres to find him with passes. Shea’s running often looked more like Brownian movement than tactical astuteness.
Leaving my biggest Klinsmann concern to the last: this business of fitness. Klinsmann seems to be contending that the players aren’t properly fit -- something that is a pretty serious criticism of their MLS clubs, all of them. If what Klinsmann believes is true, it’s difficult to see what he can do about it during the short spells that he has the players. But what he has done is what he did in Germany: Bring in the fitness gurus. I simply have no faith whatever in those guys. Which puts me in direct opposition to Klinsmann, who appears to have limitless trust in them.
Actually, thinking of the numerous criticisms I’ve heard leveled at U.S. players over the past 50 years, I don’t think I’ve ever heard them accused of being unfit. But the gurus may well have a new definition of fitness, one that has yet to filter through to me. If it includes sharpening the ability of strikers to play quickly and instinctively in the penalty area, then I’ll be all for it. But somehow, I doubt whether any new fitness theory would address itself to specifically soccer matter like that.
Definition of insanity is doing the same non productive thing over and over (Bradley era) I love that we are trying different things and personnel. Lets be patient. If he continues to scan the country for quality soccer players, the cream will rise to the top, it maybe a younger cream but we clearly need to elevate the US game on the international stage.
I agree with Paul almost entirely.However, I wouldn't worry about Shea and Rogers. Both are young future players that will mature in the international game. I don't expect either will be starters when the qualifying matches begin. As to fitness, it seemed clear to me that several of our players were gassed in the 2nd half.Perhaps not unfit, but just out of wind from chasing the game so much at that time.As we grow as a team, I think the fitness will take care of itself.
Fair analyzation of Paul Gardner. I wasn't to sure of the JK selection for the National Team, but I felt that anybody was better than BB. I was hoping for a coach with more flair of a Latin or Italian style. Alas we have JK with MV, it's not bad but time will tell. But back to the game the attacking concept was OK but was missing the goal scorers insertions. Too many midfielders assigned ignoring the goal scoring. I have hard time accepting the so called attacking formation with a solo forward. I have always said that the Donovan should play in attacking midfield (real number 10) with two forwards front of him and him being the third forward in the time of the attack. That is an attacking concept! We have plenty of young and/or untried talents for all positions and I am sure JK or should I say I hope that JK will experiment more and there are more to come. While I am disapponted with the result and Donovan's subpar performance I still think and hope that this is just a tip of the "iceberg". On a footnote I also don't think that Rogers will be in the starting 11. Shea is a question mark, probably good coming off the bench, there will be no more room on the midfield line when Dempsey and Holden are fit and what about Diskerud and Gil!?
Lets hope Klinsmann reads Paul Gardner for reinforcement. One other glaring need Paul previously mentioned is the fine largely culturally and genetically inborn individual skill, magic and athleticism of a true forward of Klinnsmen/Messi/
Eto caliber. Dempsey, Donavan, and Reyna had parts of this, but not the complete package--as we see in Shea, Davis, and others. Consistent scoring will be a largely a futile effort against modern defenses until the complete players are nurtured early at 3 through 16, and/or found among immigrant populations.
Thoughtful analysis by Paul as usual; however, in terms of fitness I have no problems with using the "latest, greatest" science to improve players' performance--minus doping, of course. Apparently the Klinsmann fitness guru has them mining old and new strategies: doing yoga--a centuries-old practice well validated both scientifically and otherwise I'd say--and measuring blood-oxygen interaction (something about how well each player's body distributes and uses oxygen. Sounds good to me.). Ultimately, Klinsmann wants the team able to play quickly, precisely, thoughtfully and calmly all game long. He's also spoken of wanting his players capable of playing out of trouble--ala Torres on occasion in the latest game--rather than blasting it upfield. He's in favor of risk-taking, so long as once the ball is lost, they pressure intelligently to recover it quickly. Can't argue with that either. Sounds almost Barcelona-esque. The difficulty is in the doing, of course, and as Paul noted intelligent anticipation won't magically appear over night. Patience, please. Whle watching the game, I did notice Landon seeming to give Castillo a bit of grief at one point, looked like he was cautioning Castillo about his risk-taking in a dangerous spot. So long as Klinsmann can keep his own confidence, and his best players on board, the future looks promising, or at least, unlike Bradley's team, fun and exciting to watch. While we won't be Barcelona in my lifetime, I like that Klinsmann has the confidence and ambition to dream big, to try to make the US team's play as ambitious as our country at its best desires to be. Why not? It is just a game afterall, and like everything else in life, better enjoyed when approached with a positive, bold, and playful spirit.
Just one addendum: Heck, I'm only 42; in the spirit of positive thinking, perhaps the US will turn the corner and be Barcelona--maybe not under Klinsmann's tenure--but at least looking back as an older fogey some day I'll be able to say, that was the turning point; that's why we play now the way we do. Thanks Klinsmann!
I’m not so sure that the US did “well enough” defensively. Not only did CR create several good chances (more than the US did) out of very little offensive possession, but they did so despite the fact that their key central midfielder (Barrantes) didn’t seem be able to connect a decent pass all day. Castillo got schooled by Colindres in the second half, the central defenders were not only outmussled by Saborio, but looked just plain slow at times, and while Chandler did neutralize Alvaro Sanchez most of the game, he also committed that uncalled penalty on Sabo. Besides, Sanchez is one of those puzzling players who shines for his club but always underperforms for the national team, so stopping him doesn’t mean much. I personally think that the goals will come up front if the US can continue playing like they did the first 30 minutes and players like Torres and Shea gain a bit more first team experience. But I do not see any obvious solutions for our defensive problems.