Scoring woes shroud inventive glimmers in U.S. play

[USA SPOTLIGHT] If anyone was surprised by the scoring problems experienced by the USA in its 1-0 win over Venezuela Saturday, a look at the seven previous games played under Coach Jurgen Klinsmann would have provided some clues.

In those seven games, the Americans scored just five goals, and three of them came in the year’s finale against Slovenia, a 3-2 victory in which Edson Buddle, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore did the honors.

Since Klinsmann took over, the only other goalscorer – besides Saturday’s hero, Ricardo Clark – to hit the U.S. net is Robbie Rogers, and his goal came in Klinsmann’s debut last August against Mexico. Add in Dempsey’s goal against Honduras (a 1-0 win Oct. 8 in Miami) and that’s it.

None of those players is available this month, which in the long run is a good thing. Over the next two years one of Klinsmann’s most vital tasks will be to cultivate and nurture the methods and mindset to increase the quality of service, so that in a given situation, if the crucial opportunity falls to Michael Bradley or Jermaine Jones or Stuart Holden or Brek Shea instead of Dempsey or Altidore or Landon Donovan or Juan Agudelo, the American has more than a fleeting chance to hit the net.

Donovan and Dempsey have proven they can turn a mediocre ball into a good chance, but they can’t do that every time. The better the final ball, the simpler it is to score, for anyone.

In a tight qualifier or Gold Cup game or World Cup match, there’s no telling who will be presented with a great chance. And as Robbie Findley proved by skying a shot over the crossbar from all of two yards away in an FA Cup match earlier this month, or Sporting Kansas City’s Kei Kamara confirmed last season by stepping on a ball nestling on the goal line while failing to prod it forward the necessary 10 inches, weird forces can plague even an experienced scorer.

Shea is an intriguing case. Still raw at age 21, he’s blessed with the height (6-foot-3), speed and bravery to get into good spots for shots. He scored a career-high 11 goals for FC Dallas last season, yet that form has yet to carry over to the national team. In 10 U.S. games he has yet to score.

Against Venezuela, Shea dragged a left-footed shot just wide of the far post, and nailed a good header on target that keeper Jose Morales parried to safety. On those conventional chances he did well, but not quite well enough. In addition to switching sides from left to right and back again, which is hardly a watershed of innovation as many U.S. observers seem to believe, he and his mates tried a few other things.

A more subtle situation nearly produced a shot out of nothing. Jones, on the ball near the center circle, suddenly clipped a bouncing through ball towards goal as Shea barreled inside from the left wing with a surprised opponent in desperate chase.  A half-step too late, Shea failed to get a touch and Morales snagged it on the bounce. That ball didn’t produce a goal, or even a shot, but it had "danger" written all over it.

Jones flubbed one of the best U.S. opportunities against Venezuela by coming from a deep position, a la Bradley, to lash a cut-back badly off-target.  Yet like Shea’s slashing run, the idea clicked even if the connection didn’t. So did a brazen run up the middle during which Jones laid a ball off to Teal Bunbury, who shot low to the near post and hit the side netting.

Though the Americans didn’t produce an ungodly number of shots, 15, they did conjure them up in myriad ways, and lost a few other possible opportunities to crunching hits that could have been fouls. Was the opposition weak? Very. Did the Americans take advantage? Definitely.

Klinsmann lamented his team’s shabby finishing without addressing an element just as crucial, the quality of the final pass. In that regard, the Americans scored well. Benny Feilhaber presented Shea and Jones with excellent opportunities, and in addition to several sharp passes during the run of play, most of Jones’ corners were placed in good spots – Geoff Cameron headed two of them wide -- before Clark buried the winner seven minutes into stoppage time.

Venezuela fielded a greatly weakened team, with only MLS forward Alejandro Moreno a regular member of the senior pool of players, so a 1-0 victory at home snatched in stoppage time is far from impressive. The U.S. is squad is missing most of its starters, and Panama won’t be sending out its top squad for the Wednesday friendly in Panama City, either. No matter.

For Klinsmann and his players, the setting and opponent are backdrops to their own project. Imbuing good habits is borne of repetition and reinforcement. Later this year results will take on real value. He and many of his players will get their first taste of Central America, where indecision is not an option. It’s all part of the process.

4 comments about "Scoring woes shroud inventive glimmers in U.S. play".
  1. R2 Dad, January 24, 2012 at 1:48 a.m.

    Good report and analysis. I wish the MNT good health and good luck this year.
    I am most interested in the Youth soccer newsletters, so that frames my perspective on the development of our guys. Is it me, or does it seem that, re: Shea, we're trying to turn a decent OM in a 4-4-2 into a striker/winger who doesn't have the finishing ability required? It is my understanding that finishing is instinctual, the magic required can be polished through training but not created from an average player regardless of athleticism and stature. If that is the case, are we not trying to put a square peg in a round hole? What if we could identify excellent finishers instead of excellent physical specimens, and give them the chance to work up the U ladder? Why is that not possible or desirable? What if our scouts went looking for short, quick guys with legs like tree trunks, who were natural finishers, instead of taking 6'-3" fast tall guys and trying to get them to perfect finishing?

  2. Mike Gaynes, January 24, 2012 at 10:05 a.m.

    The commentary is as off-target as the US attack. Whatever "invention" Mahoney spotted in the US offense the other night was a product of Venezuelan defensive weakness, not Klinsi ingenuity, and there has been no invention at all against stronger opposition. Klinsmann is certainly incorporating his philosophy into the program and trying to build new confidence into the US attack, but his #1 priority at the moment is to find the players he wants to work with in the World Cup qualifying program. When he has those players in place, that's when we'll start to see the results of Klinsmann's changes in the US approach. What Mahoney claims to be witnessing now is a mirage, brought on by trying to find something positive to say about a dire, bumbling performance by largely unqualified players (Pearce? Larentowicz? In USA shirts? Ridiculous.) against one of the worst teams in South America.

  3. James Froehlich, January 24, 2012 at 11:26 a.m.

    This was not a total failure.
    recognizing the weakness of the competition several things need to be highlighted: (1) this was OUR B/C team also; (2) the US is in the midst of a major overhaul of how we play the game; (3) these B/C players actually TRIED to implement the new style and were surprisingly successful numerous times.
    There was an ongoing effort to carry the ball out of the back, even under pressure. Hamid actually passed the ball to a defender under pressure instead of reflexively blasting it away. In the midfield there were numerous instances of short, quick passes to escape pressure. YES, there were many inept giveaways, but there also attempts and successes!!! Fans need to remember that this is a slow process, like trying to turn around an ocean liner. For me one of the major successes was the performance of Geoff Cameron. We actually have a big center back prospect who knows how to make a good pass and is willing to try. Yes the opposition will get better, but so will his passes.

  4. ckg beautiful game, January 24, 2012 at 12:47 p.m.

    I agree that Cameron has a great upside, our 35 yr old current center back was a step slow before he got old. CB is fearless and dedicated so Cameron will have to shine, his performance in MLS cup was shaky the last 30 min. But he needs these camps and games to reach his potential.It would also be niceto see George John get a run in the team.
    I thought J Jones had a great game except the one foul after he gave the ball away square, against better competition we would been punished and he would have been sent off, That is the risk you run with him on the field.

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