(Credit: AP/ Charles Rex Arbogast)
The Yanks come up clutch in a must-win against CONCACAF foes in a match that featured the best half of US Soccer in recent memory.
CHICAGO, IL — The Perfect Storm was a 2000 biopic about a nor’easter which tore into the US, wreaking havoc and destruction wherever it went. The film, however, “suffers from a lack of any actual drama or characterization” according to Rotten Tomatoes. That description seemed to fit the US Men’s National Team as they walked off the pitch in Santa Clara after suffering a 2-0 loss to Colombia last Friday. The attack was flaccid at best, putting up only two shots on target. The Colombians dominated the midfield, and forced the US back line to play on their heels for the entirety of the match. But most poignant was the US’s inability to make passes. The Americans failed to complete 79 out of 496 passes. The majority of these incompletions came in the attacking third, where the US only connected on 15% of their crosses, as opposed to Colombia’s 40%. The ways the US could improve tactically can be analyzed infinitely, but US skipper Michael Bradley said it best when he told reporters that, “More than talking about little things, details, my point is that … to win a big game in a basic way we need more guys to play better and we need to play better as a team. It is very simple.” Thus, when the USMNT walked onto the pitch in Chicago on Tuesday night, it was evident that they needed a “Perfect Storm,” but this time, with the starring characters to be, you know, better.
A Perfect Storm in the Windy City
The starting XI for the US’s tie with Costa Rica remained unchanged from their first match. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann remained confident in his choices, choices that have drawn criticism in the past (see: Donovan, Landon). And for the first seven minutes of the match, it appeared Klinsmann had made the wrong choice again. Costa Rica’s 5-4-1 formation controlled possession absolutely from their strong back line, launching attack after attack from their flanking wing backs into the box. This was partnered with extremely high defensive pressure from Costa Rica on the US. Pressing the American back line while they had possession forced them to make bad decisions, including a DeAndre Yedlin clearance which almost proved disastrous when it fell at the top of the 18 to a Costa Rican attacker. It seemed the Central Americans were setting a familiar tone to the match until the Ecuadorian referee Roddy Zambrano made his own statement. On the first true US counter attack, DeAndre Yedlin sent in a looping cross, bound for the head of forward Bobby Wood. Wood received a shove in the back from Costa Rican defender Cristian Gamboa. This type of tussling is not uncommon in the box, especially on crosses and corners. However, Zambrano’s whistle and point to the penalty spot changed the tune of the match by declaring that he would not stand for excessive physical play. This physical type of soccer is much more common in Central and South America than in the US, and historically the US has struggled to play physically, especially in the midfield. Zambrano’s decision to prevent this type of play opened up the game for the Americans and allowed them to bring elements to their play that were missing against the Colombians.
(Credit: Getty Images/ TASOS KATOPODIS)
Building from the Fullbacks
One thing Colombia executed effectively was taking Fabian Johnson out of the match. Johnson primarily plays left midfield for Champions League-bound German side Borussia Monchengladbach. One of his best weapons is an accurate cross from the left wing. However, against Colombia, nearly all of Johnson’s passes were backwards, eliminating him from the attack. Tuesday night, Johnson delivered much more forward mobility on the left side, assisted by Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones consistently tracking back to cover for him defensively. A 31st minute cross in from Johnson almost found Gyasi Zardes on the back post, and started a string of attacks that would lead to two more goals in the next fifteen minutes. On the other side, DeAndre Yedlin was routinely countering up the right, his pace on full display. He was aided by an extremely strong showing from US center backs John Brooks and Geoff Cameron, whose relative anonymity during the match was a sign of their security. The fullbacks were able to funnel the ball into the midfielders, which leads to the next element of the perfect storm…
Dominance in the Midfield
You read that correctly. The US outplayed Costa Rica in the midfield. Once again, this is partially thanks to the referee’s active whistle, which kept Costa Rican defenders at bay for much of the match. Michael Bradley was allowed to sit back in his more traditional CDM role, assisting the back line and building US counter attacks from the defensive half. Alejandro Bedoya showed up as well with some incisive runs, but he was completely overshadowed by veteran midfielder and Man of the Match Jermaine Jones. Jones was a constant presence all over the pitch, but he had his biggest effect on the left side in the attacking half. His large frame allowed him to keep Costa Rican defenders at bay, and get into positions at the top of the 18. But it was Jones’s persistence and fire that set him apart from his teammates. This was best exemplified when Clint Dempsey dished a pass to Jones at the top of the 18 in the 36th minute. Jones tried to finesse a shot into the top right corner, just sending it over the bar. Only a minute later, when Jones found himself in the exact same spot, he remained confident in his shooting ability, and buried a swerving shot into the bottom right. Jones went onto play a full ninety minutes, and never let up his intensity. This allowed to find their final element…
(Credit: Getty Images/ OMAR TORRES)
Decisiveness in the Attacking Third
This factor took some time to develop. Time and time again during the first thirty minutes of the match, the front three of Clint Dempsey, Bobby Wood, and Gyasi Zardes were repeating themselves. They’d find themselves at the top of the 18, in a perfect attacking position and—they’d pass. They’d pass between themselves, hoping their teammates would have a better shot. Instead, they often led to turnovers in the attacking third, a monkey on the back of the Americans they couldn’t shake during the Colombia match. This all changed when Jones buried the second US goal in the 37th. With a two goal-lead, the front three gave themselves license to be confident and trust in their shooting ability, and it paid dividends almost immediately. In the 42nd minute, Dempsey once again delivered a key pass to Bobby Wood, who had his back to the goal at the top of the 18. Without thinking, Wood quickly turned and buried a shot near post to put the US three goals to the good. It showed an attacking instinct that Wood put on display for his club side Union Berlin, where he netted seventeen goals during his last campaign, but had yet to bring out during Copa America.
The first half of USA versus Costa Rica was undoubtedly the best half of soccer the USMNT have played in the last ten years. A strong back line with incisive flanking runs from its fullbacks paired with dominance in the midfield on the part of Bradley and Jones created plenty of chances. Once the front three were confident in their ability to shoot, there was no stopping the Yanks. A late goal notched in by substitute Graham Zusi sealed the deal for the Americans, and this match will serve as template going forward for the US not just in Copa America, but in Russia in 2018. There were some stray negatives in this match. For one, Gyasi Zardes seemed to be a shell of his usual self when he plays for the LA Galaxy. Zardes missed wide open opportunities to score, and lost possession multiple times in the attacking third. Another factor that might upset critics was the absence of 17 year-old midfielder Christian Pulisic. Pulisic is seen by many to be America’s next star, already with a spot on the senior squad of Bundesliga titans Borussia Dortmund. Klinsmann’s decision to sub Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski instead of Pulisic was a missed opportunity not only for the youngster to get valuable playing time, but also to give the American midfielders a rest after a long and hard match. Overall, the US will have a ton of momentum on Saturday when they take on a Paraguayan side who is all but eliminated from Copa America. It was a perfect storm on Tuesday night in Chicago for the USMNT. One can only hope they can keep it thundering this weekend, and for the rest of the tournament.