Other slots, not central mids, are hampering USA attack

[USA CONFIDENTIAL] One game doesn’t mean all that much, particularly in regards to the USA, which is a work-in-progress, plain and simple. So why does it seem like panic has set in?

It’s easy to get carried away with one result. Already England’s 1-0 defeat of European and world champion Spain Saturday is being hailed as a “dethroning,” even though Italy, Portugal, and Argentina have also beaten Spain in the past 18 months. (That throne is getting pretty crowded.)

The French team that beat the USA, 1-0, Friday hasn’t called for any comparisons to the great Michel Platini-led teams of the 1980s, nor the Zinedine Zidane-Laurent Blanc-Marcel Desailly World Cup champions of 1998, nor the losing finalist in the 2006 competition. Still, there’s a sense the Americans were badly outclassed by Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, Loic Remy, Marvin MartinMathieu Debuchy and others on the field if not on the scoreboard.

The assumption that Maurice Edu is the more attack-minded of the central midfield pairing with Kyle Beckerman is just that, an assumption. Never has USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann stipulated that Edu is anything other than he is: a hard-tacking grafter responsible, like Beckerman, for stopping attacks and funneling the ball to the wide players, outside backs, and forwards. Against a potent team like France -- even at less than full strength -- backed by more than 70,000 demanding fans, containment in midfield has to be the priority.

If one wants to quibble about the players being too similar, that’s somewhat true, though while the players may fill similar roles, they are not mirror images of each other. What was apparent against France is they don’t always mesh too well or cover for each other or balance each other out by their touches, decisions and movement. Maybe what’s needed is not a different style of player, but one with more ability.

Yet against a strong European foe like France what every American player needs are teammates of poise and skill and vision. Right now, those elements are in short supply.

The attack didn’t suffer because the U.S. played with two central midfielders who are not especially proficient with killer through balls or mazy dribbles or delicate chips into the goalmouth. Many teams can attack efficiently with a pair of two-way midfielders, if the other four front players are of sufficient talent and collective intelligence. Right now, it’s not happening, and probably won’t until Klinsmann can get a potent partnership cooking between Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and at least one other player, be it a central midfielder or wide player.

Against France, Dempsey and Altidore were all right and that might have been good enough had not wide mids Brek Shea and Danny Williams been poor. With only two real options to play the ball to and outside backs Tim Chandler and Steve Cherundolo locked down in defensive mode most of the time, it’s not surprising that Edu and Beckerman labored.

Who are the candidates? Stuart Holden could play in either spot, but he’s out injured for at least a few more months. Jose Francisco Torres, also injured, has good vision and a nice touch and will have a chance to regain a regular spot next year. Both Williams and Fabian Johnson play in the middle for Hoffenheim, with Johnson usually in a more advanced position, and they, too, will be auditioned extensively in 2012. But as internationals, they are far from proven commodities.

Sasha Kljestan must be doing something right at Anderlecht but he’s played only 24 minutes (against Costa Rica) for Klinsmann and wasn’t picked for the France and Slovenia games. DaMarcus Beasley has worked his way back into the pool and might be given a real chance to lock down the left mid slot, which could push Donovan to the other side – or into the middle? -- and alleviate some of the concerns. Alejandro Bedoya has all the skill in the world but needs to shore up a few other areas.

What about the MLS contingent? Some fans and journalists are clamoring for Freddy Adu but his play for the Union doesn’t suggest he’s anything more than a fringe player at this point. Brad Davis is coming off a great season for Houston and Benny Feilhaber has 2010 World Cup experience, but Klinsmann doesn’t seem eager to stock his attacking spots with MLS players, other than Donovan or  Shea, who showed in the Stade de France he’s not that far up the learning curve just yet. Robbie Rogers? We’ll see.

Until Holden and Torres come back, assuming Dempsey continues in his role as a de facto partner for Altidore, Klinsmann probably won’t have enough quality players to fill out an XI that can seriously challenge a team like France.  Using Michael Bradley in central midfield can help, but what the USA needs are six or seven competent attackers, be they forwards or midfielders or something in between, to fill those four slots consistently and effectively. Right now, they aren’t there.

14 comments about "Other slots, not central mids, are hampering USA attack".
  1. U M, November 14, 2011 at 8:06 a.m.

    The key point in this piece: "Until Holden comes back..." I too think Holden is one of our best, but if the USA is pinning its hopes on a twice-(seriously)injured player, well, same old story. I've seen so much soccer at the youth level in my state (Maryland) over the last few years, and this is the conclusion I draw: it's not a case of player quality any longer. It's the clowns who are coaching these kids, in many cases. Two weeks ago I watched a match between a U13 boys travel team and those kids played a much more flowing, possession oriented style than the current USMNT. I'm not kidding. Coach? Netherlands born and bred. My advice: if you're a US-born parent interested in coaching soccer, don't do it unless you are watching the international game 24/7. If you're doing it with a budweiser in one hand and the iPhone in the other -- with the NFL on espn3 -- think twice before getting involved. Let the people who are truly passionate about the sport of international football develop the American players.

  2. R2 Dad, November 14, 2011 at 9:25 a.m.

    Generally I would agree, UM , since I rarely see well-coached youth teams run by non-immigrants. However, I just watched a BU14 match this weekend and this guy's got his kids playing attacking, free-flowing soccer:
    I'm rarely impressed but his team, which doesn't appear to be filled with stars, was a joy to watch.

  3. Carl Hudson, November 14, 2011 at 9:48 a.m.

    Try playing a 433.

  4. Joseph Pratt, November 14, 2011 at 9:59 a.m.

    There's no doubt that many (too many) coaches of youth soccer are not soccer people. They often take an American football approach, which usually means over-coaching, too much sideline instruction, and shouting nonsense like "big kick!" and "get the ball!" But, in spite of that, I echo the sentiments of U M and R2 Dad, in that more and more youth teams are playing possession-oriented soccer, with short passes, quick decision making, connecting the dots all over the field.

    But our MNT continues to lose its way when in the attacking third. It's encouraging to see that the team is now trying to play the ball out of the back (I don't recall even one punt from Tim Howard, who in the past nearly always launched the ball straight over the midfield - not exactly possession soccer), and work the ball through the midfield. But when they get the ball into the attacking third, they display (typically American, speaking as an American) impatience! They are in too big a hurry to force the ball through, and rushing their play, rather than working the ball around from flank to flank and being patient about creating chances.
    So while progress is being made, the hard part remains: finding attacking midfield players who can hold the ball and have the vision - and patience - to create.

  5. Daniel Clifton, November 14, 2011 at 10 a.m.

    I think U M is right about youth coaching in this country. You have alot of people who are in it just to make a leiving, so they have to be results oriented. There is I believe too much of an attitude of just boot the ball down the field and see what happens. Work rate is valued over skillful play. That is something that needs radical change at the youth level including making sure children who are not part of middle class America get a chance to play competitive soccer even if their families don't have the money to pay for it.

  6. Jim Hougan, November 14, 2011 at 11:16 a.m.

    One of the main reasons American youth soccer coaches don't teach a way of playing that's based on passing and possession is that they themselves lack the physical skills to teach it. Lacking technical skills - touch - they emphasize tactics and power, which tends to produce a long-ball way of playing. This will change, but it will take a long time unless and until youth soccer coaches realize the importance of having a skills coach (an Argentine would work - so, too, a Dutchman) at every practice.

  7. Mark N, November 14, 2011 at 11:18 a.m.

    "So why does it seem like panic has set in?" ...does it seem that way? If you're panicking after mixed results in 6 friendly games, then you probably thought Klinsmann had a magic wand to suddenly turn the USMNT into world-beaters. In other words: unrealistic expectations.

  8. I w Nowozeniuk, November 14, 2011 at 11:22 a.m.

    IMHO, Klinsmann is taking baby steps with his personnel. We never had an attacking side in the past, it was always counterattack with opportunity. The type of players we have dictate a more defensive style. First and foremost, team chemistry is critical to be followed by a more attacking mentality. While a Giuseppe Rossi type is not part of the squad, this type of player is crucial in an offensise phase and we don't have one as yet.

  9. Eric in DC, November 14, 2011 at 1:40 p.m.

    We're talking about the USMNT right, not one of the national youth clubs? An important piece of this game was that it was neither here nor there. This was a team Klinsmann has said would play a 4-3-3, but it looked a heck of a lot like a 4-5-1. Also, Donovan flake and Onyewu was also injured. Think we need to take the hysteria down a couple of steps. This is what friendlies are for...

  10. Scott O'Connor, November 14, 2011 at 6:27 p.m.

    Did anyone really think we were going to beat France in Paris? Let's just relax. If Slovenia mops the field with us, then we can start whining....

  11. Manuel Trejo-von Angst, November 14, 2011 at 7:11 p.m.

    yeah i have to agree with Scott O'Connor, losing to France in Paris isn't an unexpected result. Losing 1-0 is respectable. Second point, calling what we use 'two central midfielders' is charitable at best, Ridge. Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack were/are all central mids. No one we play in the middle plays even remotely similar to them (and I'm not talking talent-wise either). What we play with is more accurately called 'two defensive mids' as they never make any forays into the attacking third and leave a constant gaping maw from the opponents 18 to our 18. There is a big difference.

  12. John DiFiore, November 15, 2011 at 2:51 a.m.

    Give Buddle a chance!! also call up Herc...and Adu..the rest of the world is intimidated by him. We need someone different up front. Whats the worst that could happen...no goals???

  13. Philippe Fontanelli, November 15, 2011 at 10:43 a.m.

    Scott, I can assure that Slovenia will beat us with the present system and players designated to play. I think the defeat will be worse than France. Mark my words. There is no confidence built in this team to beat any opponent unless a high school team. While JK had the right idea in the beginning he has chosen bad continuation and the wrong finishing. Too many left over Bradley area " has been players". JK must bring in influx of untried players (not experienced all these failures. Bring on the U23 and even younger players. If you have to lose might as well lose with the youth getting experience. But I think there are lot of untried and unused future talent out there. I said future talent, but only if they get their chances to play and perform. Alas!

  14. Simon Provan, November 16, 2011 at 8:34 a.m.

    Okay, Antonio, I marked your words. What say you now? Never realized a US 3-2 victory is worse then a US 1-0 defeat.

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