By JOSIAH TAKANG (@jtakang22_7)
Photo credit goes to USA Today.
It may not be the Miracle on Ice, but the United States Men’s National Team is, against many predictions, into the semifinal of the 100th edition of the Copa America, held for the first time on American soil.
The USMNT is the only representative on CONCACAF among the final four sides, which also includes Argentina, Colombia and defending champion Chile, who is coming off a jaw-dropping 7-0 thrashing of the United States’ main rival Mexico on Saturday night (a match that give rise to a veritable gold mine of memes and a source of unending mirth for American and Chilean supporters alike).
On a warm Thursday night in Seattle, a hotbed for USMNT fandom, the boys in white eked out a 2-1 win over an Antonio Valencia-led Ecuador side in a wild affair. Ecuador pushed for a late equalizer, but the yellow -- red, in Valencia’s case -- cards went flying.
Thursday’s performance was equal parts clinical finishing and scrappy, dogged defending. Dempsey provided the first goal in typical Dempsey-esque fashion: on a poorly-defended header. He also provided the assist on the second tally, put in by LA Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes.
A 65th-minute break saw Dempsey drive strongly into the penalty box, from whence he was able to draw two defenders and Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez. He struck a ball across the goalmouth that Zardes slammed home to make it 2-0. Unfortunately, the Copa’s (in my opinion, obtuse) yellow card accumulation rules left the United States without three key starters for the clash with the boys from Buenos Aires: forward Bobby Wood, winger Alejandro Bedoya and midfielder Jermaine Jones, all under mightily foolish and entirely avoidable circumstances, might I add.
The win was not particularly aesthetically pleasing football, but it was one in which the Yanks should be roundly congratulated. Now in the semifinals, this does qualify as one of the top American achievements on home soil.The squad exudes a positive energy for the first time in a while, and the men are gelling particularly well as the team has hit its stride at the right time.
Mercurial U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said prematch that he wanted the U.S. to take the game to the opponent.That objective was achieved early in the match, but the American attack tapered off as the game progressed. We did, however, see timely finishing from the American men, and Klinsmann’s emphasis on fitness for the team seemed to come into play, as the effects of consistency in the teamsheet -- i.e. the same lineup over four matches -- began to show. The Americans simply had more left in the tank than the Ecuadorians at the end. It was a typical ground-out American performance.
Now that the Americans are in the final four of the 16-team field at the Copa America Centenario, they have a prime opportunity to pull off one of the biggest upset wins in the 131-year history of the national team program. When they step onto the -- turf: ewww -- pitch at Houston’s NRG Stadium on Tuesday against Argentina, the U.S. will be decided underdogs.
“La Albiceste” is a side full of world-class talent, not limited to the presumptive best player on the planet, Lionel Messi, who has put on a masterclass this tournament, turning in four goals including this wicked strike against Panama, the first of his hat-trick in 19 minutes(!).
At least captain Michael Bradley was steadfastly optimistic with the Washington Post’s Steven Goff:
For the semifinal on Tuesday night -- when the U.S. will face the Lionel Messi-led Argentina -- the U.S. will be without Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya and Bobby Wood. Here, the depth of Klinsmann’s squad will be tested. As it happens, Bedoya’s suspension in particular may be a blessing in disguise, as he looked gassed late in the Ecuador match.
Against the Argentines, Klinsmann likely goes with a 4-4-2 formation, as he’s lost the third prong of the attack with the suspension of Wood. As such, here’s my prediction for how the US will line up under the lights in Houston:
Here, you have Zardes and Sounders man Dempsey up top. Dempsey has had a brilliant tournament thus far, with four tallies. A lingering concern with Zardes remains his inconsistent -- oftentimes abysmal -- first touch. However, he at least partially makes up for it elsewhere on the pitch.
He’s got strong offensive instincts, and he hustles back often to defensively help out the likes of Fabian Johnson and Deandre Yedlin, who love to push far up the pitch from their fullback spots on the offensive attack. Furthermore, the Hawthorne, California, native possesses a knack for sliding into dangerous positions and making big plays in the 18; he makes brilliant diagonal runs that can open up the field. In addition to being scrappy, he can cover an incredible amount of ground and retains his fitness and pace late into matches.
As the Yanks will spend an inordinate amount of time defending the relentless Argentine attack, striking fast and concisely off the counter will be key for the Americans. Fortunately, they have the pace requisite to catch Argentina off guard. If Bradley and Clint Dempsey are able to build up possession in the center of the park, they should be able to feed Yedlin and Johnson out of the back or Zusi and Gyasi Zardes out on the wing and up top, respectively.
If Yedlin and Johnson receive the ball on the flank, they could create dangerous chances in the final third with their pace, which could lead to set pieces or a deadly chance in the box from a well-placed cross.
In the midfield, Bradley will likely be paired centrally with Darlington Nagbe. Of course, this would be contingent upon Klinsmann’s willingness to give the Timbers man a shot in such a consequential match. An alternate would be the more experienced Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who’s been useful late in games as a defensive bulwark and a tackle machine.
At 37 years old, one could realistically question his ability to deliver a complete 90-minute performance against a top team in Argentina, especially considering “La Albiceste” runs its attack through the world-class dynamo known as Lionel Messi, who would run through the center of the park all night long.
As Argentina love to play through the middle, one would think Beckerman would be perfect. However, his lack of pace and unfortunate penchant to pass backwards -- particularly under pressure -- doesn't help us out in a game versus Argentina. The U.S. will need to hold possession and pressure Argentina high up the field, so you’d be inclined to put the pacier and more possessive Nagbe into the midfield with Bradley and Zusi. In addition to controlling the flanks, the Yanks must close down the 18 so as to prevent Messi and Napoli sharpshooter Gonzalo Higuain from getting open shots.
In the aforementioned center of the park, the steadfast man in the middle and team captain Michael Bradley will, as usual, lineup in the center of an American midfield in flux. Here, he runs the show, controlling the transition of play from defense to attack, hitting long diagonal balls to runners on the wings and driving past defenders with the ball on his foot. As the deepest-placed U.S. midfielder, Bradley has room to unfurl those long balls and can use his anticipation to snuff out attacks at their most dangerous point.
Everything flows through him; even from a relatively deep position, he still might be the team’s most valuable offensive player. As key midfielders Jones and Bedoya are both gone, the American bench will have to come up big on Tuesday night. It’s likely that Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi will slide right into the left winger spot vacated by Bedoya, giving the United States another weapon on set pieces, a necessity against an Argentina side that won’t allow many chances through the run of play.
On the right side, it appears the best option would be the 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund wunderkind Christian Pulisic. Pulisic’s ability to create chances out of seemingly thin air and score goals even in the tightest of spaces has allowed him to excel despite his lack of experience at the highest level. His instinctual ability to evade tackles and his tight control of the ball at his feet allow him to glide by Bundesliga defenders.
In April, he became the youngest non-German to score a goal in the Bundesliga, displaying an almost serene composure and cool-headedness on the ball that American players by and large, lack. On May 28, in the USMNT's final tuneup for Copa America, Pulisic became the youngest player to score a goal for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
Christian Pulisic. Photo credit goes to Deadspin.
Klinsmann's men must repeat their star turn on defense from the Ecuador match on Tuesday night, but it will be a much harder task given Argentina's prodigious skill on and off the ball. If -- when -- the ball does reach the penalty area, the continuously rock-solid defensive duo of Stoke City stalwart Geoff Cameron and rising star Bundesliga John Brooks must exude the same confidence they have shown over the last three matches.
If the ordained center-back pairing is able to deal with the pressure that Argentina brings, the Americans could limit the number of quality chances the Argentines send on goal. Argentina did show that they are not impervious to error on Saturday against Venezuela. Late against the Argentines in Foxborough, Venezuela, the Cinderella side of the tournament pushed for a goal consistently, but simply showed a lack of clinical ability; a failure to finish. However, Venezuela swarmed the Argentine defense early as well; take away one inexplicably foolish back pass and a failed panenka penalty attempt, and they are right back in that game, which ended 4-1 in favour of Argentina.
On defense, Zusi and Johnson would help gum up Argentina's ability to play outside-in, since they both defend so well. Possession would flow through Nagbe. Zardes would help extend the field. This lineup would preserve the United States' ability to counter effectively but still maintain a strong defensive presence. Besler acquitted himself well in his performance at left back against Ecuador, so he may be a positive option off the bench for Klinsmann -- assuming he doesn’t choose to start him, move Fabian Johnson up to that left winger role and leave Zusi for later in the match. As we all know, Coach Klinsmann is an enigma when it comes to his lineups, and Tuesday’s clash in Houston maybe prove to be a reverting back to his ways of -- relatively -- old.
While the team has accomplished the goal originally set for this team (a semifinal appearance on home soil), there are still plenty of lessons going forward that both the players and the coaches have learned from the four matches played to date:
(1) Players need to recognize the liabilities associated with picking up utterly stupid and entirely avoidable fouls and cards. Yedlin, Jones and Wood all showed they need to learn to control their emotions. It’s brilliant to see the passion manifested, but they’ve got to keep it under control. Picking up stupid cards is a detriment to the team.
(2) Klinsmann and Co. need to be smarter about situationally appropriate substitutions. Granted, the Yedlin and Jones red cards likely derailed plans somewhat, but JK needs to recognize the fatigue level of players and make subs in a more timely manner.
(3) Player depth is still a bit of an issue. Playing the same players each game during a tournament with quick, turn-around matches is still a thorn in the American side. Finding quality players and establishing a rotation is desperately needed if the United States is ever going to make serious runs in any tournament. Hopefully, some of the young(er) guns can make some serious advancements over the next 12-16 months and push their way into the squad. FC Utrecht man Rubio Rubin, New Bournemouth boy Emerson Hyndman, the oft-injured Joe Gyau of Borussia Dortmund, Frankfurt’s Jerome Kiesewetter, the embattled Bayern Munich winger Julian Green, Desevio Payne of Groningen in the Dutch Erdivisie and highly-touted Arsenal forward dual national Gedion Zelaem really need to step up to fill the voids -- both extant and upcoming -- in the American depth chart.
(4) Dempsey and Jones are still major cornerstones of the team. But how much longer can they keep it up? Dempsey, 33, and Jones, 34, are not getting any younger as the drum beats closer to the Russian World Cup in 2018.
(5) The days of Wondo, Beckerman and Michael Orozco as part of this team likely need to end after this tournament. They don't bring anything to the squad that other, younger players can't provide. In particular, I can’t see the 33-year-old and rather one-dimensional Wondolowski, and the 37-year-old Beckerman making it to Russia for the World Cup. It's time to move on from these players.
America is making strides.... but there is still a long ways to go, and an (unlikely) win against Argentina would go a long way toward reaching ever-higher goals for the program.
Onward the team marches to Houston, where golden opportunity beckons uno más and a wholly unlikely journey is given another chance to flourish on home soil, as Klinsmann so colourfully ensured: