Hexagonal opener was a learning day for USA

By Ridge Mahoney

The next Hexagonal match is nearly six weeks away, whereupon many of the issues raised by Honduras beating the USA, 2-1, Wednesday in San Pedro Sula will be revisited.

A rough start had been expected -- the Americans play three of their first four matches on the road, including trips to Mexico and Jamaica -- so a defeat in the opener isn’t that shocking. When it topped the last Hexagonal in 2009, the USA earned seven points on the road, which it isn’t likely to accomplish this time around. It also clinched a World Cup spot by winning the penultimate game in Honduras.

The points situation isn’t so bad - the other two games ended in ties -- but the manner of that loss to Honduras certainly was. Back-line confusion, midfield malaise and attacking ineptitude have prompted considerable concern. The much-awaited competitive debut of right back Tim Chandler was a disaster, the 85-degree heat and stifling humidity seemed to drain the team of energy and purpose, and the raw, lightly experienced centerback pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron predictably struggled.

There’s plenty of reason to criticize the players along with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who went with four German Bundesliga-players -- all of whom wilted in the severe conditions -- and left all three of his Liga MX options on the bench. He didn’t see a need to use a bonafide wide midfielder and again tried to shoehorn three central players into a formation that seldom looked like the 4-3-3 formation depicted on paper or anything that might be effective.

Klinsmann also didn’t set up his midfield properly to protect his inexperienced back line. While Danny Williams has played the holding role well several times for Klinsmann, in this game, the pressure and conditions overwhelmed him. A better choice would have been Michael Bradley, who does take on a playmakers’ role much of the time but for a Hexagonal road opener could have protected the young centerback pair. Despite his flaws, he’s the best mix of passer and tackler among the midfielders and for this match could have provided some stability as well as hamper Roger Espinoza, who operated without hindrance far too often.

Higher up the field the Americans desperately missed a midfielder who could keep possession as his teammates moved into the attack. Jermaine Jones set up Clint Dempsey for the USA goal with a wonderful chip, but he’s a turnover machine much of the time. Jones needed a partner, either Jose Torres or Sacha Kljestan, to keep the ball when necessary and funnel it to the right places.

The use of Torres would present Klinsmann with the same problem faced by predecessor Bob Bradley. He plays with very different players in Mexico, and Klinsmann has clearly opted to stack his squad with Europeans. Certainly Bradley, Dempsey and Landon Donovan, as well as Steve Cherundolo, are sufficiently skilled and experienced to adapt to just about any player but a national team needs cohesion and continuity throughout the lineup.

Maybe Klinsmann has a Mexico-based lineup in his plans, where Torres starts in midfield, Edgar Castillo gets a run on the left -- hopefully as a mid, since his defensive capabilities as a left back at the international level are questionable -- and Herculez Gomez starts up top. Mixing and matching MLS, Bundesliga, other European and Liga MX players might be the ultimate goal of Klinsmann and assistant coaches Andres Herzog, a former Austrian international, and Mexican-American Martin Vazquez, but it hasn't jelled so far.

Two of his best flank options, Brek Shea and Donovan, were unavailable, so Klinsmann went without a right-sided mid to start and again deployed Eddie Johnson on the left. Johnson played a good first half before moving up top for the second half and tiring badly. Kljestan replaced him in the 59th minute and took over on the left side of midfield, where Dempsey had moved with Johnson up top alongside Jozy Altidore in a 4-4-2 formation.

The absence of Donovan cost the Americans dearly for reasons other than his talent and offensive threat. During his career he hasn’t always been capable of slowing down the play when necessary, but he’s an accelerant par excellence, and those long, languid periods when the American sputtered cried out for his energy and audacity.

Using up his subs for fatigued players deprived Klinsmann of an offensive sub, per se, such as Herculez Gomez, who also could have injected some pace. He might not have been effective, since the Americans seldom strung together enough passes to service any kind of forward, yet with a stagnant attack he’s the best choice to chase balls into the channels or played over the top.

If Klinsmann has indeed decided to forego Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson as starters in favor of Gonzalez and Cameron, there will be plenty of shaky moments during the Hexagonal. These talented players need time to learn the ropes and establish the understanding and communication absolutely critical for centerbacks at this level.

Is there enough cushion in this Hexagonal to allow for growing pains? Yes, if the Americans can again hold serve in their home matches, but this will be tougher than in past editions. Top to bottom, this looks like the most balanced Hexagonal since the format debuted in 1997.

In the last Hexagonal, the USA topped the group with 20 points, Mexico placed second with 19, and Honduras and Costa Rica tied for third with 16 points, twice as many as fifth-place El Salvador (8). In the 2009 and 2001 editions, the bottom two teams won a combined total of three games. In 2005, Panama earned just two points. There don’t appear to be any minnows in this installment.

8 comments about "Hexagonal opener was a learning day for USA".
  1. Miguel Dedo, February 8, 2013 at 6:13 p.m.

    Good analysis -- well done. As you say, the learning curve is critical, perhaps the most important part of it is how much Jurgen Klinsmann grows. If he maintains his ubermensch view of Germans, continues to preach a much better strategy than he puts players on the field to play. Except for using the new center-backs, he has not displayed himself as a risk-taker. The midfield and forward, selection and deployment, was not risk-taking, it was simply wrong.

  2. Chris Sapien , February 8, 2013 at 6:33 p.m.

    Miquel,....wrong, slow, unwilling to commit forward, and too easily dispossessed.....recipe for disaster! We had no pace on the flanks Wednesday, and we will never provide service from out-wide cause Jones and Johnson can't beat anyone 1v1....I'd much rather have an experience Boca and Goodsen solidifying the back anyday at this point.

  3. David Sirias, February 8, 2013 at 6:45 p.m.

    I bash Ridge's analyses quite a bit. But this piece was excellent. Yes jones is a turnover machine.
    I have written on other boards that JK must use jones as a dedicated destroyer or not at all He's better than edu beckerman Williams etc as a # 6. But he is a bad bad partner for Bradley I'm afraid if JK does not wise up starting now, we may not qualify ! It all starts there. ......Having no wings and not playing guys used to the conditions , not playing Cameron where he makes a living. . Is just icing on bad cake ...This loss was all on the coach ..... Time is running out for the coach to wise up to his own mistakes

  4. Paul Stierle, February 8, 2013 at 7:24 p.m.

    I still believe the mexican based players would fared better in this heat. And we needed to play with more heart. Hercules, I have been impressed in his hustle. On our national team and against the Sounders. I am German but don't believe we need to play like Germany. Yea for the Red, White, Black and Blue. Yes I miss Donovan too

  5. Steven McDonald, February 8, 2013 at 10:46 p.m.

    Closer to reality than usual but still off the mark. This was a total failure by the coach and I am a big fan of his. Just so many bad choices were made. First Jozy needs someone to set the table for him . He had no service. He isn't at the stage to do it alone. In Holland he has better skilled help. Ric, you were being nice. This wasn't a lack of progress but a full jump backwards. I still can't understand why Herculez and Torres were not in this match. Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, and Eddie Johnson all chose the same day to play their worst match in years. Several others struggled too. I'm a big fan of Maurice Edu , but he had no business being out there. The way Stoke treated him with only 1 appearence before loaning him out, there was no way he would be ready. As a coach, I would think that your job is to put your players in the best possible position for success. This was not done at all. Bradley is not a playmaker. Holding mid with a little offense at best. Klinsman should listen to Strachan--"We need to be even braver, to find the good players who can take people on instead of playing it square so often - get these good players on the ball early" (Torres&Gomez)

  6. Eric Dibella, February 9, 2013 at 7:23 a.m.

    Midfield playmakers were not invited to this match: Diskerud, JB Corona and Feilhaber all watched like we did.

  7. miguel abisaab, February 9, 2013 at 9:59 a.m.

    Hello Ridge, well to much extent I can concur, however Ridge I want to point out some things prior to the match that again that are not addressed or taken into cosideration. Prior to the match the the three week training camp consisted of a closed scrimmage against Atletico Tijuana and a match against Canada. Preperations in similar climate and field conditions would have benefited the MLS and Liga MX players. As far as the European based, the USMNT coaching staff could have gone with the Tippenlagen based players in the camp and put in Bradley, Bocanegra, DeBeasley, Gomez and Onyewu. The USMNT coaching staff could have made decision to play a conservative match with a blend of expireanced veterans with first time players playing their first hex. Onyewu with Gonzalez, Bocanegra with Besler in defense, Bradley with Cameron and DeBeasley with Zusi in the flanks/midfield, Gomez with Johnson up front. A 4-4-2 to start the first half to acclimate for the hot&humid climate and field conditions, again a call for the USMNT coaching staff. Then perhaps in the second half bring in Chandler for Besler,Jones for either Bocanegra, or Onyewu,Dempsey for Johnson(keeping with the expireance players). If the plan is to find the right blend of expireance with the new comers playing their first hex, being a little conservative would be okay with most US fans in the first away match. In the first home match with conditions and field favorable the USMNT, take that chance with a young backline, midfield that has the home support. In hindsight by Klinsman giving those players a "baptism of fire", in his mind this matters the most. Reguardless of the result,they will play again in the same hot,hostile,and field conditions in Costa Rica,Jamaica,and Panama. The players in their first hex final did not play to expectations,which in most circles means were lacking. They got their first taste of the "hex", so by the next go round, put that first match aside and come out playing to a different taste that taste's like a winner!

  8. Daniel Clifton, February 10, 2013 at 1:27 p.m.

    Altidore needs service as someone pointed out. Something he receives on his club team but not on this team. There aren't enough offensive minded players picked by Mr. Klinsmann. I am a big believer in Klinsmann also. I just don't understand the choice of 3 defensive midfielders. He has done this before and it didn't work before (Jamaica). He has the courage to start Gonzalez and Cameron in the back. He needed more guys like Klejston and Zusi on the field. I would like to see Feilhaber given a chance. Why bring in the guys from Mexico to sit them all on the bench. As almost everyone has pointed out, they would know how to deal with the hot conditions. It is going to be interesting.

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