The U.S. men’s national team might have topped the “Group of Death” at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, but by most accounts, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men largely failed to impress despite amassing seven points from three games in a group containing Honduras, Haiti and Panama.
“I said from the beginning that this will be very, very tough,” coach Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer in an interview published Tuesday. “Overall, I would say the group stage had high quality, good games. There are things we have to improve going in the quarterfinals now, but the group stage was very tense and it will get even more tense in the quarterfinal.”
The U.S. will play either El Salvador, Cuba or Guatemala, which it hammered 4-0 five days before the Gold Cup began, in Saturday’s quarterfinal, depending on how the final round of games in Group C pans out on Wednesday.
When asked whether being in such a tough group is good preparation for the tournament’s second phase, Klinsmann replied, “There’s no real preparation for the Gold Cup, so it’s difficult to be in a flow, it’s difficult to be playing in a way that you’re going to see a lot of automatic things, in the way of passing flow and fine-tuning elements. You won’t get them in the group phase because you don’t have the time to train those things. Now being together for more than two weeks, hopefully we can get more and more into that phase where we combine better, we’re shifting better and doing certain things better that only come with time."
Conspicuous by their absence from the Klinsmann interview were the words “defense” and “defending.”
Just about everyone who covers soccer in the U.S. has noted how poorly the team defended in its first three games at the Gold Cup. As Soccer America’s own Paul Kennedy noted, the U.S. was collectively outshot by its first-round opponents by a margin of 50-20.
ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle says that Klinsmann is taking the long view when it comes to defense. Asked specifically about the central pairing of John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado, who started the first game against Honduras and the third game against Panama together, the German noted how the duo is basically learning on the job: "What we do is we read the potential of the players, and then we hope to help them really reach that potential one day. But they need to carry it on. They need to understand to go through difficult moments and clean things up. It's not going to be perfect ... This will be very, very tough competition. But they're going to learn a tremendous amount."
He added: "The only way for younger players to mature and get better and get stronger is to grow into these games, and have that experience. I think both Ventura and also John, they grew with every minute [against Panama]. There were some situations that were shaky in the first half and they cleaned it up. They were absolutely on top of things."
On both accounts, Klinsmann is absolutely right: the only way for younger players to get better is to play them, and Brooks and Ventura both improved markedly in the second half against Panama, as did the U.S. team overall.
Of course, one good half does not a tournament make.
Over the course of the two games where they’ve played together, Brooks has been, at best, passable, but Alvarado has been a liability. In particular, the Club America center-back’s one-on-one defending and positional awareness have been not good enough. He was guilty of over-committing on both goals conceded by the U.S. in the group stage, and those were not the only instances where he dove in and the team was made to pay for it.
To be fair, Alvarado is only 22 and has plenty of time to grow into the role, as Klinsmann says, but choosing him ahead of the more experienced Omar Gonzalez, or indeed, Matt Besler (who didn’t even make the squad) -- especially in a confederation championship where the coach has gone with experience at just about every other position -- is puzzling. As Carlisle says, at the moment, the U.S. is lacking leadership at the back. Gonzalez and Besler bring that.
But Alvarado is by no means the only U.S. defender who’s made mistakes. Right-back Timothy Chandler, who also played the first and third games, has been arguably worse. The 25-year-old is another player who at times shows real promise, but so far, the Gold Cup has not been memorable for him. Often, the Eintracht Frankfurt defender decides to bomb forward at the wrong times, leaving his defense exposed to counter-attacks. He’s also prone to mental lapses causing him to give the ball away cheaply and in dangerous positions, setting up yet more opportunities for opponents to counter.
As we’ve seen so far in this tournament -- and indeed, before this tournament -- Klinsmann’s U.S. is not exactly set-up to absorb counter-attacks easily. With a pair of attack-minded backs on either side, and Michael Bradley usually pushing forward, that the leaves defensive midfielder (Kyle Beckerman or Mix Diskerud) in charge of helping out in defense when one or more of those players goes forward. The problem is, in the event of a quick counter, Beckerman is too slow, and Diskerud doesn’t like to play deep enough, which often leaves the remaining back three with two-on-threes or worse, three-on-three situations with a lot of space in front of the attackers. We saw this over and over again against Honduras and Haiti.
Another problem with the USA’s team defending has been its high-pressing game. True, high-pressing can lead to turnovers, which is great and creates chances to counter, but it also leaves an attack-minded team like this one particularly exposed at the back. The U.S. lost a lot of balls in midfield against Honduras and Haiti, and the defense would often step up and try to win it back immediately instead of retreating into an organized shape to absorb pressure. The combination of high-pressing and a high-line, especially in the wrong areas, can leave a team badly exposed, because all it takes is one man to get beat or be caught out of position to open up a very dangerous counterattacking situation for the opponent.
Pep Guardiola’s teams often use high-pressing to win the ball back and it works for them, because his teams actually save energy in possession, able to retain 75-80 percent of the ball in every game they play. While many national teams would love to play like Bayern Munich or Barcelona, this U.S. team is not good enough on the ball to play that kind of a high-pressing game.
That being said, a lot of the USA’s poor play in the group stage came down to individual errors. The defense right now really needs leadership and experience. With that in mind, Klinsmann made a smart move bringing veteran DaMarcus Beasley into the squad for the knockout round. He can ably martial the left-side of defense while moving Fabian Johnson, who has been the USA’s best back-line player, over to the right, likely in place of Chandler. That should help.
While it might have been even better if Alvarado exited in place of Besler, too, it appears that the Club America defender is one of the coach’s favorites, which means we will likely see him alongside either Gonzalez or Tim Ream in the quarterfinal. If Alvarado can recover the form he showed in the 2-0 win against Mexico in April, then he will have vindicated himself. After all, his mistakes are correctable: more patience and better concentration would go a long way to ameliorating most of his problems—more or less like the rest of the team.