The cycle leading up to the 2018 World Cup started off with an encouraging victory in Prague during which head coach Jurgen Klinsmann used 17 players, only one of whom -- goalie Nick Rimando of Real Salt Lake -- plays in MLS. Considering the little time many of the players have shared in a match, breakdowns were relatively few and some polished play was shown.
Here are three thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the match.
GYAU’S GOT GAME. Thought he started off rather shakily by knocking a ball over the sideline as he launched a dribbling run, debutant Joe Gyau used the 90 minutes granted him by Klinsmann to enhance his reputation.
Playing mostly on the right wing of a 4-3-3 formation, Gyau ran at the Czech Republic on numerous occasions but didn’t rely solely on speed. There were looks inside to find teammates though he seldom veered into the middle as did Julian Green. And unlike Green, he didn’t prompt a promising attack by the Czechs by losing the ball as did Green in the first half.
Gyau showed his skill and confidence by tight-roping along the sideline while using juggles and flicks to keep a ball in play and under his control. Gyau got the first U.S. shot on goal though Petr Cech easily stopped his right-footed effort in the 17th minute, and the Czech keeper also held a driving cross from Gyau a few minutes later.
Despite his advanced position, Gyau did some effective work defensively. In the 61st minute, after a poor U.S. clearance of a free kick, Gyau raced back to put a shoulder into Ladislav Krecjl as he got off a shot that Rimando saved with his left foot. His speed at times forced a hasty opposing pass that was picked off by a teammate and he kept up his energy level for most of the match.
Gyau, 21, plays for Borussia Dortmund II in the third tier of German soccer. As he has done several times in the past and continues to do so, Klinsmann is not reluctant to pluck players from the lower divisions, and he has plenty of time to bring young talent along slowly. There are many holes in Gyau’s game and he’s certainly raw but against the Czechs he showed some sense of reading the game, especially going forward, which as a winger in a 4-3-3 is his primary responsibility.
GOOD FEET IN THE BACK. The match began with the U.S. centerbacks John Brooks, stationed in the left-central slot, and Michael Orozco playing the ball between them and looking to move it forward at the appropriate moment. They seldom opted for the long ball, preferring to get it wide or to a central midfielder, such as Mix Diskerud, and let the attack develop further up the field.
Like Matt Besler, Brooks has a strong left foot, and in Prague he showed a touch that had only been seen sporadically since he debuted for the U.S. under-20s against Paraguay four years ago. He dribbled upfield several times to break Czech pressure and get balls to the midfielders, and one of the early USA shots was was a Brooks attempt that buzzed past the post. He defused a threatening situation by sliding to clear a centering pass off the foot of Vaclav Pilar that Krecjl was waiting on to smash into the net. Like Gyau, Brooks went the full 90, and is obviously a player Klinsmann needs to develop to build and increase the depth of the national-team pool.
Klinsmann paired Brooks with another lefty, Tim Ream, for much of the second half. The angles available for passes out of the back increase with players who can use both feet -- as can starting outside backs Tim Chandler and Fabian Johnson -- and if Klinsmann is to instill a bonafide possession game, it must start among the defenders.
GOOD GAMES FOR MIX AND NICK. Improvement on the defensive side by Mix Diskerud has been unspectacular yet steady over the past year or so. He doesn’t rattle an opponent’s teeth when he challenges for balls but he can win them, and did just that to make space for a shot that was saved and bounced perfectly for Alejandro Bedoya to bang into an open net.
Diskerud also brings range and a good work rate to the table, and along with his guile and skill that makes him a viable box-to-box option going forward. He’s talented and clever enough to unlock defenses but casting him strictly as a playmaker, as many have done, is off-base. He works both sides of the ball for Rosenborg.
Don’t tell Rimando that Brad Guzan has an inside track to take over as No. 1 during Tim Howard’s national team hiatus. Rimando brings his infectious enthusiasm and zealous work habits to every training session, and he’s still got the instincts and reflexes that have earned him the distinction as the MLS all-time shutout king. A gap at the edge of the U.S. defensive third provided the Czechs opportunities in the second half that Rimando repelled.
He kept the zero in Prague with a few excellent saves, including that left-footed stop, and as he does regularly for whichever team he plays for, Rimando exuded that invaluable confidence a team desperately needs in its goalie.