Bruce Arena went too defensive against Panama

By Mike Woitalla

It’s true that the USA has a Panama problem. Los Canaleros are the only team that ever beat the USA in a first-round Gold Cup game, in 2011, in the tournament launched 1991.

More recently, at the last Gold Cup, in 2015, the USA tied Panama, 1-1, in group play and lost to Los Caneleros in the third-place game in a penalty-kick shootout after a 1-1 tie.

The 2011 loss came under Coach Bob Bradley and the other two games in the Jurgen Klinsmann era. Since Bruce Arena took the helm, in his second competitive game in charge, the USA tied at Panama, 1-1, in a World Cup qualifier three months ago.

Panama has established itself as an opponent that’s difficult for the USA to beat and a team that the USA can’t score more than one goal against.

But disappointing, and puzzling, was Arena’s approach to the USA’s Panama problem. In the 2017 Gold Cup opener on Saturday, he started only one forward.

And we got another 1-1 tie.

Dom Dwyer played the lone forward role. After spending most of the game surrounded by Panamanian defenders, he scored a brilliant goal in the 50th minute. One can imagine how much more damage Dwyer could have caused if he had a frontline partner.

Where else did Arena expect the goals to come from with the lineup he started? Besides Dwyer, he didn’t start a goalscorer.

Not one of the midfielders behind Dwyer, although they have their own attributes, is a consistent scorer for club or country.

There are only two other forwards on Arena’s Gold Cup roster, Juan Agudelo and Jordan Morris. That there are only as many forwards on a roster as goalkeepers is in itself, depressing. As for Saturday’s game, Arena waited until the 62nd minute to bring on Agudelo and the 85th to bring on Morris.

It was too late as Panama had equalized in the 60th minute and increased its attacks against a tiring U.S. defense under the hot Nashville sun.

Before Panama’s goal, the USA’s attacks depended much on its outside backs coming forward.

Left back Jorge Villafana set up the two biggest first-half chances for the USA.

In the 26th minute, after an excellent sequence of passes -- Kellyn Acosta to Dwyer to Joe Corona to Alejandro Bedoya to Corona to Dax McCarty -- Villafana got ball from McCarty and played a one-two with Corona. Villafana then juked past Michael Murillo in the penalty area and passed to Kelyn Rowe, whose 15-yard shot was saved by keeper Jose Calderon.

In the 33rd minute, Acosta intercepted a ball in the U.S. half and hit it to Villafana. He exchanged passes with Rowe at the halfway line, had a one-two with Dwyer, and after Villafana beat a defender, he passed it back to Dwyer, whose seven-yard shot Calderon saved.

Dwyer’s goal came on a play that started with right back Graham Zusi’s cross that ended up being settled on the other wing by defender Edgar Barcenas. Villafana, deep in Panama’s half, forced Barcenas to kick it out of bounds.

After Villafana’s throw-in, Rowe evaded Murillo and Barcenas with some nifty touches before hitting the low pass to Dwyer.

It bodes well that the USA has shown in recent games its ability to attack out of the back, especially when DeAndre Yedlin (not on the Gold Cup roster) is on the other side from Villafana. It’s a positive that the U.S. outside backs are so frequently deep in the opponent’s half.

That should remain a part of the USA’s tactics and we look forward to seeing more of it.

But on Saturday, playing at home against a team that has never qualified for a World Cup, Arena’s tactics looked like those an underdog would take. We expect a bolder, more clever, approach.

18 comments about "Bruce Arena went too defensive against Panama".
  1. Wooden Ships, July 9, 2017 at 2:40 p.m.

    Two good observations Mike. Aside, from Dwyer where are the goal scorers (unless we were hoping for the old restart header) and an equal number of forwards and Keepers. I understand getting a glimpse of players to see how they might factor for the next year, but, we need to put the ball in the back of the net. Forever we've emphasized not conceding, going anywhere requires scores. In my opinion there has never been a talented enough forward, wearing our jersey, to be a lone 9. There just aren't that many in the world.

  2. beautiful game, July 9, 2017 at 2:53 p.m.

    Same old arguments. Problem is that USMNT had no "engine' to make things happen. It only has one engine in Pulisic. Most good national teams have several engines. IMHO, the last global NT with multiple engines was France (1986) fielding Platini, Tigana, and Giresse.

  3. R2 Dad replied, July 9, 2017 at 7:18 p.m.

    if you liked '86, you're gonna love 2018 France: Loris in goal, Koscielny, Varane, Digne, Umtiti, Mendy, Zouma at the back, Matuidi, Sissoko, Pogba, Kanté in midfield, Giroud, Griezmann, Payet, Lacazette, Dembélé, Mbappé up top? Sounds like a football manager wish list all the way across the board--as long as there isn't some coach p1ssing contest that destroys team chemistry like in 2010.

  4. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, July 10, 2017 at 10:38 a.m.

    You say that most good national teams have multiple engines but then say no team has had multiple engines in 30 years. Which is it?

  5. Bob Ashpole, July 9, 2017 at 4:28 p.m.

    Not that it means that the points in the article are not true, but this is 20/20 hindsight. The only thing defensive about the 4231 formation is the 2 holding midfielders instead of 1. A 4132 is probably more what Mike had in mind. While I don't like 2 DM systems, I won't say it was a coaching mistake. A tie with Panama leaves the US in good position. A win would have been better, of course, but an opening loss would have been a disaster. On top of that this was essentially an inexperienced team. Although Panama was missing some of its starters too, six of the Panamanian players played in the March qualifier.

  6. Miguel Dedo, July 9, 2017 at 4:28 p.m.

    Zussi and Villafaña, neither is a strong defender, they earn their time by supporting the attack. Several guys who can punch the ball into the goal would be a productive complement. Moreover, without strong defenders in the center back and midfield to cover for them we are vulnerable. How to get the best out of the trade-offs − and the assets – we have? Bruce is more likely to figure it out than I am.

  7. Kris Spyrka, July 9, 2017 at 5:10 p.m.

    I can only judge as someone watching with the air conditioning on and from the comfort of my couch. I'm sure the hot and humid conditions took their toll, I'm guessing that this would have also played to the Panamanians advantage. They did look like the more animated side. But, here we are, another four years rolling around, and I can't see where the USMNT is any closer than they were at any point in their history as being in the hunt for any elevated glory next year at a World Cup. Heck, we'll be happy to have once again just qualified, it will be like, "yippee, look at us, we qualified!". Like some kid who half-heartedly studied for a school exam, and is happy to get by with a passing grade.

    For all the investment, MLS league play, playing in foreign elite leagues, development, and, and, and....I'm still not certain I saw an eleven that played as if their collective or individual careers depended on it. Casual, low energy was my take away here. Other than Dwyer and Lowe offensively, not much connected here other than a myriad of technical and tactical breakdowns, especially in the back line, calling out the two center backs!

    We saw a German side of prospects (a legitimate 'B' squad) coming off of a tournament final win that will serve as the benchmark for teams for next Summer in Russia. Who shocked a Chilean side deemed to be a South American powerhouse with real, if not now imagined chances for success next year. Put this in perspective for a moment: A, B, C, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and then Central America: Mexico, always right there on the cusp, and sometimes Columbia, and then sometimes even Costa Rica. But, you see Mexico easily get dismissed by Germany 1-4 two weeks ago at Confed Cup. So, one could argue not a whole lot going on in the western hemisphere when it comes to national teams right now.

    I have no real point here, other than the cycle repeats itself again and again, as does my disgust with the program. As US Soccer continually copies, mimics, and re-invents itself to develop coaches and youth for future glory, the needle falls deep in the groove of the USMNT's broken record. The USMNT program, really need to be put under the magnifying glass at this point and it's insufficiencies called out. Either that, or reallocate it's funding to areas where there is quantifiable ROI, the USWNT and furthering the youth game.

  8. Kris Spyrka replied, July 9, 2017 at 5:52 p.m.


  9. frank schoon, July 9, 2017 at 5:16 p.m.

    Too defensively???? Who cares..I rather see some decent soccer played, not this U14 garbage

  10. Daniel Clifton, July 9, 2017 at 5:54 p.m.

    I thought Bruce played it too defensively in the away WC qualifier at Panama. I agree with the writer. This 4-2-3-1 was too defensive. I don't see the US doing much scoring with a one forward formation.

  11. Kevin Leahy, July 9, 2017 at 6:13 p.m.

    I think that Xavi & Iniesta might qualify as multiple midfield engines.

  12. John Hofmann, July 9, 2017 at 6:29 p.m.

    Some comments about lack of improved fortunes for the U.S. Let's flip-flop that for a moment - I believe a completely Western Hemisphere, B-Level team with relatively little internation-al experience coming up with a tie against the more experienced, toughest opponent in the opening round of the Gold Cup. Does that make it seem a bit more reasonable that it may have made more sense to be more defensive? Would have definitely been a problem if this had been our A-team, etc. Would it be fair to say that the formation used may have been more supportive to keeping us competitively in the game and thus been a better contributor to identifying the strengths (and weaknesses) or the players being evaluated at this point, the point Arena emphasized was his priority.

  13. R2 Dad, July 9, 2017 at 7:36 p.m.

    That was the game Bruce could have played someone other than Zusi at right back, without much sacrifice. Gold Cup isn't World Cup qualifying where experience gets you a long way, and you can't take risks. This is one of the few chances (along with Ghana) where Bruce could have tried out someone other than the limited old guy that is Zusi. Since BA DIDN'T play anyone else for both matches, Zusi is the backup behind Yedlin and THAT should concern people. McCarty seems like a hard-working guy, but all Bruce has done is slot in a backup to Michael Bradley that plays the exact same, limited, back-passing game (but maybe turns the ball over a little less). How is this desirable? "We turned the ball over way too much and didn't do a good job establishing a rhythm, getting our team more involved in the game". Why doesn't anyone say this after Michael Bradley turns over the ball all match long?

  14. charles davenport, July 9, 2017 at 7:53 p.m.

    Opening game of group play, against toughest opponent in the group. Classically, both team happy with tie, and will both move on to next round. Focusing on World Cup qualifying, many 2nd and 3rd level players were looked at. No big deal here, folks.

  15. Ric Fonseca, July 10, 2017 at 11:14 p.m.

    One thing the US MNT always, I mean a-l-w-a-y-s- doesn't disappoint, is their lack of willingness to remember wqatching or playing against ANY, A-N-Y- Latin American team is that they will always play hard, if not harder against the US. Whether it is animosity, dislike, social-political, whatever, they will ALWAYS try to knock the US MNT off-stride, play a very difficult and knock-em around style, beat them to the ball, and probably knock some soccer-futbol sense into them. I lay the blame strictly on the preparations, the coaching staff that seems to also forget to remind the players that they will come atcha with both barrels blasting. and then what do we do? Cry foul, moan, groan and complain hoping the referee will call a fouls against the opposition. The weather a factor? The fact BA didn't call up the "big boys?" Nope, just lack of abdominal fortitude and some cojones to go head-to-head against the Canaleros. So we'll see what happens next game, and let's hope the guys wake up and smell the coffee and play some hard-a..ed futbol!!!

  16. R2 Dad replied, July 11, 2017 at 2:27 p.m.

    Ric, while I agree and you are factually correct, this is also the reason that CONCACAF remains a second-rate confederation. The officiating exacerbates this situation by being uneven in calling fouls. I don't mean unfair to the USMNT but irregular in foul application-- referees have differing opinions on which fouls are trifling vs careless/reckless/excessive force. Until a Honduran referee calls the same fouls as a Mexican or Canadian, is it any wonder there are so many matches that boil over? An elbow to the neck in one match isn't even a foul in one game, but it's a red card in another? Hysterical coaches on the touchline that don't get sent off regularly? Mobbing of officials, which was something the Confederations Cup was supposed to address, is allowed to continue unabated? Fans of other nations in the stands at USMNT matches throwing objects at players? Homophobic chants? We are a long way from UEFA, and it starts with the quality, performance and reputation of the confederation's own officials top to bottom.

  17. Goal Goal, July 12, 2017 at 7:40 a.m.

    Two dynamics to the game. Offense and defense. It seems we can't put both together consistently.

    If you don't score chances are you ain't gonna win.

  18. Bob Ashpole replied, July 12, 2017 at 9:16 a.m.

    I like the classic Dutch view, that offense and defense are not separate concerns, but rather defense begins with how you attack. How are midfielders supposed to develop a sense of good positioning if their position is always dictated by their assigned "role" in the coach's "formation" (a DM for instance rather than a CM).

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