Previously: Strikers and attacking mids.
Brad Davis is gone. Zusi and Bedoya will be 31, plausible but perhaps not ideal. Since neither is exactly the first name on the team sheet it's 50/50 whether they hang on for the entirety of another cycle. The guess here is no.
I won't be splitting the wings into different bins, because these days so many of them play inverted. Oddly, most of the available talent for the next cycle is more comfortable on the left, but especially here take right/left with a grain of salt. The US projects to have a couple of bombers at fullback, so cutting in will be at least as important as crossing.
JULIAN GREEN – left wing – Bayern Munich (Germany) – 23 in 2018 – 3 caps:
The USA's most hyped prospect ever already has as many World Cup goals as Wayne Rooney, even if it doesn't seem like he's quite ready yet. Ideally he'll break through into the Bayern first team. Pep Guardiola says they want him on the first team this year, FWIW. That would be terrific if he actually sees time; more likely perhaps is that he gets loaned out to a mid-table Bundesliga team.
Whatever happens on a club level, US will integrate him with the players he'll be combining with over the next four years as early as possible. One dollar he gets his first start against the Czechs in September. (It is a FIFA date.)
JOSH GATT – right wing - Molde (Norway) – 26 in 2018 – 2 caps
Lightning quick, Gatt was gathering attention from big clubs after a stellar introduction at Molde. Then back-to-back ACL tears hacked him down. He is on the shelf until 2015 (like the US, Norway plays over the summer). Multiple serious injuries are always a concern, but the latest one was a 'clean' ACL tear that he's projected to recover from fully.
A fixture in the Norwegian champions' side when healthy, the best case for Gatt is that he recovers from his ACL, has a strong 2015, and transfers to a second-tier European league like Holland. As long as he maintains his speed he's a good bet for the US, as he's ahead of his competitors in age and experience.
After Green this is all a WAG, but the prospect of the US starting Green/Johnson/Gatt/Yedlin would give the US the fastest flanks in the 2018 World Cup unless Holland has an army of Arjen Robben clones on the way.
MARC PELOSI – left wing – Liverpool (England) – 24 in 2018 – 0 caps
Pelosi skipped the US system for a youth contract with Liverpool and was promising enough to ink a long-term contract despite a nasty broken leg. Pelosi is also a prospect at left back and potentially in the center of midfield, a versatility that gives him the nod here, for what little that's worth right now.
He returned to the field for Liverpool's U21 side in April; before the injury he was named to the 18 for one of Liverpool's Europa League matches.
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JOE GYAU – left wing – Borussia Dortmund(Germany) – 25 in 2018 – 0 caps
enjoys a dance
Gyau just moved to Borussia Dortmund, a Champions League regular, despite a lack of playing time so far. He is explicitly in their U23 reserves. Even so, that's a good sign, as Dortmund has a habit of scooping up talented young guys and making them stars.
Gyau is one slippery little bugger who immediately caught my eye when I saw him play for the US on some youth level or another, an excellent example of the what-if-slot-receivers-played-soccer thing. He has produced in buckets in the lower German leagues (in Germany there isn't a separate reserve league; instead there's a Dortmund II that plays in the third or fourth tier).
BREK SHEA – left wing – Stoke (England) – 28 in 2018 – 26 caps
The enigmatic Shea has proven he's got the ability to turn games around as a substitute, and at 6'3" with wheels he has a tantalizing physical package. Unfortunately he hasn't been able to do anything with that package since his move to Stoke, with just three appearances in the EPL.
Shea's departure from Dallas was acrimonious and a brief loan into the Championship was terminated after a blow up between Shea and some opposing fans, so he may not be a great fit on the USMNT. If he finds a club, establishes himself a regular starter, and performs then we can start talking. Now that seems a long long way off. Shea should in fact be in the next section but I wrote this up so here he is.
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Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya should feature on and off for the next couple years as the young guys mature. You wouldn't go amiss predicting one makes the roster, if you're pessimistic. Fabian Johnson could also figure in here if the situation at outside back looks suddenly rosy—his existence is why I'm projecting only three winger types on the roster.
Younger fringe options include DC's Nick DeLeon, who had a great rookie year in 2012 before hamstring issues submarined his sophomore year. If he doesn't get a look pretty soon he'll probably play for Trinidad & Tobago. He'll be 27 at the next World Cup, time to decide.
The brutal physical demands of defensive midfielder will excise Jones and Beckerman, who will be 36 in 2018. Either might hang on for a year or two as the US tries to lock down a Confed Cup slot in next year's Gold Cup and prepares for the Super Copa America or whatever they're calling it in 2016, but the US should start blooding a new generation immediately.
MICHAEL BRADLEY – Toronto FC – 30 in 2018 -
I think this: Bradley needs a guy with him if he's going to play at the top of a diamond. The US's possession got much better when Wondolowksi came in and Dempsey dropped back to help out. Whether that's a 4-4-2 of some variety or Bradley moving back into a second D-mid slot to provide a true #10 a spot on the field I don't know.
I also think this: in the next cycle it seems like a 4-3-3 suits the US best, as they can go with one true holder and put Bradley and the next gentleman in front of him.
WIL TRAPP – Columbus Crew – 25 in 2018 – 0 caps
One sentence description: the exact opposite of Maurice Edu.
I split these into attacking and defensive mid sections for simplicity, but Trapp doesn't really fit either category. He's got Damarcus Beasley's frame but plays central midfield for the Crew, where he is a homegrown player and vice-captain. Yes, at 21. He's a key component of Gregg Berhalter's possession-based approach, popping up on a number of MLS stat leaderboards. Soccer stats never tell you the whole story, but this one is eye-popping:
American Xavi! Or Pirlo! Or something, anyway. Gonzalez being #2 on this list is bizarre; as always, take soccer stats lightly.
Even so, in April he manufactured a 90th-minute equalizer with an inch-perfect pass from his side of midfield to the 18-yard box. Trapp's technical quality will get him a look, probably as soon as September.
SHANE O'NEILL – Colorado Rapids – 24 in 2018 – 0 caps
O'Neill has been starting for his club at central defense, but with those slots likely in older hands for 2018, O'Neill should get a look in central midfield, which he has the skillset for—before breaking through in Colorado he was a midfielder and sometimes a forward.
One note: O'Neill is an inverse Johannsson, born in Ireland before moving to the US at a young age. He has suggested he would accept a call-up from the FAI if the US wasn't forthcoming. Expect him to get capped sooner rather than later as a result.
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CALEB STANKO – Freiburg (Germany) – 24 in 2018 – 0 caps
Stanko is on the verge of breaking through to the Freiburg first team at 20. He was the USA's first choice central defender in the most recent U20 World Cup, a competition in which the US gave up piles of goals as they tried to press the likes of France and Spain—not really his fault.
At Freiburg he's a defensive midfielder, sometimes captain of their reserve team, and he's made the bench for a couple of games.
MAURICE EDU – Philadelphia Union – 32 in 2018 – 46 caps
Edu should have been on this year's World Cup roster if Beckerman and Jones were going to play together, but was omitted. He's been a pure destroyer for the US for years; fast and physical with limited ability on the ball, he's a stereotypical USA D-mid. Ideally he'll get passed by younger players.
DANNY WILLIAMS – Reading (English 2nd) - 29 in 2018 – 13 caps
Williams had a run of caps in the middle of the last cycle at D-mid and sometimes in an odd right wing role that didn't fit his skillset. He's dropped from the Bundesliga to the English Championship. He is getting plenty of PT at Reading and should be in his prime in four years.
Like Edu he's not the most technical guy. His best bet is if the US is still in the market for a pure destroyer; his problem is that there are a number of promising CB/DM hybrids who seem like they can fulfill that role and do a better job of retaining possession.
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DC United mainstay Perry Kitchen was also on that Akron team. He's turned into a pretty good MLS player but not the star some were projecting he'd be. Philadelphia's Amobi Okugo is a younger version of Edu. Both will be in their mid-20s and could slide onto the roster.
There is a pile of guys who move back and forth from central D to defensive mid covered in the central defense section. O'Neill is one; there's also Will Packwood, Tim Ream, and Jeff Cameron.
This three part series and then we're done for four years, haterz. This three part series: projecting the USA's 2018 roster. All sections ordered by likelihood of inclusion.
The USA's single outfield player older than 32 since 2002 was Brian McBride in 2006, who was a starter at 34. That should eliminate Brad Davis, Chris Wondolowski, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, DaMarcus Beasley, and Clint Dempsey, along with various others in the player pool (Gomez, Donovan, etc) who didn't make the 23.
In addition, Tim Howard will be 39 in 2018. It's not unheard of for a goalie to make it that long, but with the US in possession of Brad Guzan it seems likely Howard will retire internationally, as will Nick Rimando.
Then there are three guys in the age danger zone: Bedoya and Zusi were already weak points at 27. If they're on the roster in 2018 the US will not have progressed as far as we want them to. Cameron will be 32, obviously workable but less than ideal.
There is some chance one or two of the old guys hangs on. Dempsey is the most likely, as there seems to be an obvious we-need-a-goal sub role for him. Beasley, amazingly, would be next since left back is a bitch to fill and he may be immortal.
That leaves the US with approximately 10 spots to fill, 8 of them outfield players.
- The US plays a four-man backline.
- Michael Bradley returns to a defensive mid role, because he can't cover as much ground at 30 and the shape of the player pool changes pretty dramatically this cycle.
- The end result is either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.
- There is a kid no one's ever heard of who will be on the team.
JOZY ALTIDORE – Sunderland (England) - 28 in 2018 – 71 caps
Jozy's obvious. Hopefully he'll get away from the crap end of English football to someplace where the ball comes to him every once in a while.
TERRENCE BOYD – RB Leipzig (Germany 2nd) – 27 in 2018 – 13 caps
Assuming that the US does go with a single central striker most of the time, Klinsmann won't make the same mistake he made in this cycle by leaving without a like for like replacement for his starter. The 6'2" Boyd is capable target forward coming off scoring nearly a goal every two games in the Austrian league who's just transferred back to Germany. While the fact that he's in the 2.Bundesliga is a bit of a disappointment, RB Leipzig is ripping up the divisions after Red Bull purchased them and gave their director a pile of money to rip up the divisions. By 2018 they very well could be a Bundesliga club.
Anyway, Boyd's the most like-for-like guy on the US radar right now, and as a bonus he's pretty good.
JUAN AGUDELO – free agent – 25 in 2018 – 18 caps
Agudelo's in a bit of limbo at the moment since he couldn't get eligible for his club. England restricts non-EU players to exceptional talents. If you've got some percentage of your international team's recent caps they'll let you in, and they'll also make exceptions for particularly young players who have broken through. (Players like Marc Pelosi avoid this process thanks to possession of an EU passport.) Stoke thought Agudelo counted; the board has said no twice. He was forced to play in Holland on loan as a result.
That and ill-timed injuries (he was supposed to be on the 2013 Gold Cup squad) have seen him drop out of the national team picture. He's too talented to remain out of it. His 14 appearances for Utrecht saw him collect three goals and three assists for a relegation-threatened club in desperate need of offense. As of late May he was supposed to be joining Bundesliga outfit Hannover 96.
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ARON JOHANNSSON – AZ Alkmaar (Holland) – 27 in 2018
It's 50/50 whether Johannsson gets on the next roster after only being deployed against Ghana, and then passed over for one of the USA's marginal wing midfielders. Has been bagging goals in Holland, but that's just what happens in Holland.
GYASI ZARDES – LA Galaxy – 26 in 2018 – 0 caps
Despite a late debut as a pro after a four-year career at UCSB that in fact featured a redshirt(!), Zardes has impressed with a combination of size and speed at LA Galaxy. He may be a prime example of a guy who the US development system hurt, but looking through the pool for Lukaku types who can change a game by being large and mean and fast and you land on Zardes.
RUBIO RUBIN – FC Utrecht (Holland) – 22 in 2018 – 0 caps
Speaking of Holland, Rubin is there for a mid-table club trying to break through, impress, and get sold. It's not a bad plan; Rubin was a youth star for the MNT.
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Jack McInerney had a couple of promising years with Philadelphia before hitting a rough patch and getting traded to Toronto; he could be a 25-year-old version of Wondo if things break right for him.Harry Shipp has made an instant impact in MLS after a brief career at ND.
Bobby Wood's been playing in the second tier of German football as a 21 year old and got a Gold Cup callup before his team requested he pass on it. 18-year-old Lynden Gooch is impressing on Sunderland's youth side; similarly barely-legal Paul Arriola is playing for Tijuana in the Mexican league. A kid named Dembakwi Yomba is at Atletico Madrid, having popped up on everyone's radar when he signed there.
The US loses no one from this spot since they don't really have anyone. With a lot of the D-mid depth chart dropping out due to age and the clear problems the US had maintaining possession in this World Cup, goal #1 is going to get something resembling a true #10 on the field so Bradley can slide back.
Fortunately, there are a number of attractive options here. There is in fact a pile.
I don't think anyone's necessarily in or out yet. These guys are ordered by likelihood to show up on the 2018 roster.
DARLINGTON NAGBE – Portland Timbers – 27 in 2018 – 0 caps
Nagbe was born in Liberia and moved around the world a bit before landing in Cleveland as an 11 year old; you may remember him from Michigan's trip to the soccer Final Four. Nagbe was the super-skilled attacking-mid for Akron. A few years later he's become the focal point of Portland's attack. He does crazy, crazy stuff. I would like him to become an American citizen.
Fortunately, Nagbe recently married a citizen. That pushes his timeline forward to 2015. Count on him getting a call-up at the first available opportunity. He'll be in the heart of his prime in 2018.
MIX DISKERUD – Rosenborg (Norway) – 27 in 2018 – 20 caps
Diskerud made this most recent World Cup roster and then didn't get a game. Brad Davis got a game. I am worried about him. Diskerud is talented but physically slight and not extraordinarily fast. He's also still in Norway at 23. If he's in Norway at 27 I don't think he's on the roster.
LUIS GIL – Real Salt Lake – 24 in 2018 – 1 cap
Gil has a shocking number of MLS appearances for a 20-year-old: he's currently on 95, all with RSL. He was the focal point of youth national teams for three or four years—he has a whopping 51 youth caps—and showed incredible craft on the ball.
He's found the transition to MLS a little rougher than you'd like, but he is still a regular starter for RSL and, remarkably, is entering his fifth season as a pro. He got a call-up in the last cycle and will get a heavy look in this one.
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JUNIOR FLORES – Borussia Dortmund (Germany) – 22 in 2018 - 0 caps
Flores was impressive enough to sign a four year deal with a major German club when he was just 16. Since U18 kids can't transfer abroad he had to wait until just a few months ago to sign. Flores led the US to a 3-1 win over Brazil's U20s in some Nike thing or another in which he was clearly the man of the match; he is a true #10, if he can only develop.
Flores can also play for El Salvador but turned down a call-up from them.
GEDION ZELALEM – Arsenal (England) – 21 in 2018 – 0 caps
Zelalem is the other hot prospect USA fans are in vapors about. Born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, Zelalem spent a good chunk of his childhood in the US before Arsenal signed him. His citizenship quest was thought to be a lost cause, but a few months ago someone figured out that if his dad became a citizen before Zelalem turned 18 he would automatically become one without losing the German passport that allows him to skate by England's restrictive foreigner laws.
Zelalem's already made his debut for Arsenal in an FA Cup match and was on the substitutes bench for three league games. That is kind of a big deal at 17. Here's a completely reasonable evaluation of him:
'dribbles like Iniesta and passes like Xavi'
All right then.
Obviously, acquiring US citizenship is hurdle #1 here. Then it's getting a good loan somewhere and establishing himself a EPL-level player.
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Joe Corona has 11 caps and will be 27 in 2018 but I just don't see it happening for him. For one, Nagbe's about to blast ahead of him in the pecking order. For two, he just doesn't seem to have that je ne sais quoi.
The "I can't believe you're still that young" twins: Jose Torres and Freddy Adu are just 26 and 24 at the moment, respectively. It could still happen! Really!
There's also this generation's John O'Brien, Stuart Holden. Holden is 28 and what with all the injuries seems highly unlikely to get to 2018 without seeing his physical abilities drop below the international level, but you never know. Fresh legs, that's the ticket.
Diego Fagundez would not be in this category except for the fact that he's not a citizen yet despite having been in the States since he was five. He recently acquired a green card and will be eligible for citizenship in 2017. That's hypothetically long enough to slot in the team before the World Cup, but at that point he'd have to climb over a number of other aspirants. Also, Uruguay could come calling before then.
7/1/2014 – USA 1, Belgium 2 (ET) – out of World Cup
I never really forgave the guy. Admittedly, it's not like there was a huge amount to forgive. I just thought that after I'd indulged his desire to go to a couple of shows that I normally would not have he would reciprocate. Instead, he sulked through the entirety of a fun Robert Earl Keen show that I should have enjoyed about 15% more.
We were 20-ish, in Austin, Texas. We were engineers on summer internships, suddenly stripped of our friend networks and ill-equipped to forge new ones. In such circumstances, horizons broaden rather quickly, which is how I'd ended up at a Smashing Pumpkins show a few weeks earlier.
I know exactly what I wore: a terrible replica Michigan hockey jersey forged from whatever that fabric is that comes with large, regular holes and feels more like plastic than anything else that humans put on their bodies. I know this because after the show this material was absolutely soaked with sweat. Some of it was mine; the majority was from the writhing mass of humanity that had surged to and fro for the duration of the show.
I had no idea the thing could even get so sodden. I'd washed it several times and knew it was the kind of material that exited a washing machine as dry as it entered. After that show the thing was ten pounds heavier than it was two hours before.
I sat on a stoop in the bright Texas sun and tried to process the weird communal thing I'd just gone through. It was, above all, exhausting.
On the day that hooked me for life, I force-marched myself down to the pub at halftime. I was in Ireland for a summer mostly because a girl had dumped me and I wanted to broaden the ol' horizons and the United States had just roared out to a 3-0 lead against impregnable invulnerable super-skilled Portugal. My place was about 20 minutes from the city center at reasonable pace; I got myself down there in 15, huffing and puffing as the second half kicked off.
To the Irish, the USA game that had just blown my mind was just an appetizer to Ireland-Germany. Group stuff meant that a draw would just about see the Irish through—they had Saudi Arabia last. Germany scored, because Germany. A loss was deadly. Everything was desperation and death until stoppage time, when Niall Quinn knocked a ball down to Robbie Keane and Kahn was finally breached.
Pandemonium. I ended up hugging a guy who was definitely not Irish. 12 years on I can only say he was Pakistani-ish. We hugged like we'd known each other since birth and jumped up and down and I was permanently in the power of the World Cup.
Ireland decided to take the afternoon off to drink by the river.
Four years later I watched the USA get blasted off the field by the Czechs. Six-foot-one-hundred Jan Koller pounded in a cross in the first ten minutes and things got worse from there. I sat across the table from Anthony, who'd moved to Ann Arbor and read my blog and knew I liked the USMNT. He'd emailed me because he needed someone to watch them with.
A number of months later, a guy who'd just moved to Ann Arbor named Jerry joined us at Charley's for some match or another—Gold Cup?—because he needed someone to watch the USMNT with. I don't remember what it was. It doesn't matter. From there it the web expanded to encompass most of my friendships forged after college. When I got married three years ago, Jerry was our officiant and Anthony was the best man.
Four years later I was in Chicago for the very exciting Blogs With Balls conference; the World Cup was in South Africa and the USA was playing a tune-up friendly against Australia on the premises, which meant the thing was at approximately 7 AM. I met a guy I'd known as Orson and kind of now know as Spencer (but who is still mostly Orson) at a bar somewhere proximate to Wrigley Field and watched Robbie Findley round the goalkeeper and shoot about 20 feet wide.
When I started this blog, there were two other college football blogs, period. Orson ran one. As college football blogs developed it gradually dawned on a large percentage of the early adopters that we had another, odder obsession: the US national soccer team. I think it's because the kind of person into college football enough to start a blog about it prefers his emotional gambling on sports to be as high-stakes as possible.
We gathered it ourselves in weird ways. I watched the 1994 World Cup in my basement on a 14 inch TV, just like FIFA wanted, and then helpfully forgot about it in 1998. I honestly have no idea what drew anyone else to the national team other than Orson, who's written about it. At the moment I was force-marching to the King's Head in Galway, Orson was running up a darkened street towards a lunatic screaming "WE'RE UP ON PORTUGAL" at five in the morning. I imagine all of us were, in some manner of speaking, running towards a lunatic at some point.
We were together then. I saw Landon score against Algeria in a bar with my best friends, both the half-dozen I knew already and the two hundred who just happened to be there.
I love the US national team. I love it in the way you can only love your wife: I chose it. It was not given to me by my father, like Michigan was. As something approximating an adult I made a decision. It stuck in a way that the Red Wings did not stick, that the Oilers did not stick, that every single other attempted non-Michigan affiliation did not stick. I chose it, and somehow it chose me.
Now I am in so deep that in some weird way the anger cannot stick. If I saw Chris Wondolowski today I'd buy him a beer and say "it's okay, man." I wrote a column earlier this year about how I invented a slur for people who annoy me by being even slightly incompetent. And yet here I am after getting crushed and all I want is for September 23rd to roll around. That's the next time the USA takes the field.
So I'm under this table. I'm under it because the US has just worked a brilliant drawn-up-in-the-dirt free kick that results in a goal a universe where being really clever is everything. I am aware I am not in this universe. If I was being a teenager would have gone a lot better. Therefore the US is still down a goal with five minutes left.
I am under this table an unusually long time. I am the kind of person who screams SHOW ME THE GAME when, say, a basketball broadcast cuts away from a point guard bringing the ball up the floor uncontested. I am still under the table, though. If I remain under the table I will not have to see the clock ticking inexorably upward. I know that I have to stop being under the table pretty soon, but I like it under the table where time has stopped.
Eventually I undo the emergency squat and stop being under the table, and time resumes. I'm not soaked in sweat but it's not for lack of trying. I have lurched to and fro only metaphorically this time, with a mass of humanity that extends to the table I had to abandon to get to the spot where I could stop time, to Atlanta and Alabama and Denver where Orson and Jerry and Jess are, to that setup in Kansas City or Chicago they keep showing on TV in an attempt to catch that Landon-vs-Algeria video live.
Above all, it is wonderful. Except for the score, of course, which is a crime and a lie. But I would not trade the horrible roiling feeling of doom for anything. As Michael Bradley said, the World Cup is about suffering well. We do, together.
I ain't got nothing. I mean, I could, but I can't. Instead, some goodbyes to guys who probably aren't going to see 2018:
BEASLEY. I may have been excessively strident in my attempt to stab anyone who said anything bad about Beasley, and then Beasley goes and redeems all excessive strident-ness. Amazing career, terrific player, terrific story arc, still weighs about 65 pounds. Most underrated USMNT player ever.
HOWARD. YOU SHALL NOT PASS, he said. He had an incredible beard as he did so. "Distribution… brilliant."
DEMPSEY. 1000% Anthemface. 1000% Deuceface. Scored goal after goal and stood as an eagle-riding, gun-waving avatar of America. Made it impossible to accuse USMNT of being euro floppers for duration of career. A hard man for hard times.
JONES. Anyone who says this is not an American is going to get run into the ground and then lashed in the face by a shot. Jones may not have known it, we may not have known it, but the man was born in Kansas and never left. He has overalls, and has always worn them.
BECKERMAN. Sanneh 2014. The guy who you're just like "remember when Beckerman played out of his mind?" Legacy is being that guy in the movie who gets on the Sports Or A Capella Team just at the end and kills it.
DONOVAN. Mexico feared Landon Donovan.
|WHAT||USA vs Belgium|
|LINE||Si Se Puede|
WIN OR DIE. Image via a "spritegirl".
THE THEM: IT CAME FROM GERMINAL BEERSCHOT
Belgium is ludicrously talented for a nation with about the same population as Michigan, especially since this is not a country like Holland that has a rich history in the game. The Flyin' Waffles haven't so much as made either the World Cup or the European Championships since 2002. This has not stopped them from growing a generation of talent that has seen them rocket up the FIFA rankings and the bookies' odds. Pre-tourney, Belgium was fifth-favorites.
This is because the team is full of club-level stars. If you took each World Cup team and sold them on the transfer market right now, only Brazil would cost more.
Part of that is because Belgium is so danged young. The other part is because they are good.
This hasn't really shown in the group stages. The Waffles haven't scored before the 70th minute of any of their games despite fielding an all-star team in a group that was kindling waiting for a match.
There are two main reasons for this. One is the absence of striker Christian Benteke, who was injured just before the World Cup. Romelu Lukaku, his replacement, is a big name himself, but for whatever reason the team seems to lack je ne sais quoi when he's the main guy. The second is Belgium's lack of outside backs. Without overlapping runs from them, teams have been free to double up on Belgium's talented wingers.
There hasn't been a whole lot to learn about Belgium in two of their three games. They faced an Algeria team that was parking the bus virtually the whole time, and in the group finale against South Korea they played a heavily rotated lineup against what may have been the worst team in Brazil.
The Russia match is the closest thing to what will transpire against the US. Russia had half the possession and matched the Belgians in shots, finally ceding a goal in the 88th minute as the defenders on Eden Hazard faltered.
And then there was the friendly about a year ago in which Belgium thrashed the USA backline to a 4-2 win. The US started a back four of Beasley-Goodson-Gonzalez-Cameron in that one and Christian Benteke, who is out of this World Cup, was around to harrass the USA… but if they play anything like they did in that friendly it's going to be ugly.
GOALIE: Thibaut Courtois has spent the last three years as Atletico Madrid's goalie, during which time Madrid's stingy defense saw them win La Liga, shockingly. He's a strength.
Kompany and Vermalen (background) are doubtful, apparently
DEFENSE: Health issues abound. Anthony Vanden Borre, the Zangeif-lookin' mofo you may have noticed menacing his way around the field against South Korea, is out with an injury. While he was not a likely starter he may have been called on as a substitute if Belgium found themselves trailing; as a natural outside back he offers more going forward than their other options there.
That's because the rest of those options are center-backs. Like Germany, Belgium have entered this tournament determined to play a back four entirely consisting of naturally central players. In Belgium's case it's because they have a pile of excellent CBs and no fullbacks.
The first-choice central defenders are supposed to be Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermalen, but both of them are nursing injuries. Kompany has a groin issue, Vermalen a hamstring problem. Kompany missed the South Korea game, for whatever that means. It does sound like he's having issues that might make him a risk his coach may not want to take:
"Now we wait for the reaction, the training and the development day by day, but you saw the last game too – he tried hard in the last training session and had to stop after half an hour"
If one of those guys can't go, expect 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten to get a start. Van Buyten has played all of Belgium's games so far; at 6'6" he is obviously a force in the air, but he may be susceptible to getting outrun. He is a backup at Bayern Munich who's gotten about a dozen appearances per year for the last three. If both are out Zenit's Nicolas Lombaerts is likely to draw in. He's is a downgrade but only because Kompany has a claim to be the world's best central defender. He actually scored against the USA in 2011, but that USA lineup had Howard and Dempsey and no one else who will play tomorrow.
As previously mentioned, the outside backs are a bit of a weak point. Toby Alderwereld is the right back; he's a backup center back for Atletico Madrid. The left back could be Vermalen but is more likely to be Jan Vertonghen. Vertonghen had an up and down group stage, giving up the penalty that put Algeria up and scoring the lone goal against South Korea.
These guys aren't hoofers or anything…
these are talented technical footballers who impress at centre-back because of their ability to bring the ball out of defence, so they certainly aren’t useless clodhoppers. Amazingly, Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertonghan had almost identical footballing educations, raised at Germinal Beerschot before moving across the border to Ajax, where they were encouraged to play proactively in a high defensive line, and bring the ball out of defence intelligently.
…but while they can help the team get it out of the back, overlapping is not in the cards. Against Russia they barely approached the final third.
Belgium outside backs versus Russia
Belgian outside backs did get a bit more forward in the other games. If the US gets trapped in their own end with 30% of the possession or just flat sucks, fullbacks popping up on offense will be a symptom, not a cause.
MIDFIELD: Belgium is likely to field Alex Witsel in their version of the Beckerman role. Insert the usual "except he's paid a bucket of money by a major Euro club" here. In this case it's oil-gorged Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg. Witsel as described by Zonal Marking:
The primary holder is Axel Witsel, a strong, reliable and commanding midfielder that doesn’t advance into attack, but can move up the pitch to shut down opponents and leave space between the lines – as mentioned, the centre-backs deal with anyone in that zone.
The primary attacking midfielder will be Kevin De Bruyne, who shredded the US with through balls in that friendly and has easily been Belgium's most dangerous offensive player aside when allowed to play in the center of the field behind the striker. (He was anonymous as a right sided midfielder for about 60 minutes against Algeria, then became a huge threat as soon as substitutions shoved him into the middle.)
The third midfielder is in question. Marouane Fellaini made a major impact in the Algeria game as an out-and-out striker looking to pound things in with his head. He also scored a thundering header against the US a year ago. He was deployed against Russia in Belgium's most important group game, so it seems like he'd be the obvious pick. But then there's a calf injury that forced him off the field early yesterday. That would open the door for Mousa Dembele, except he's suffering from basically the same injury. The Ghana witch doctor may be on our side now.
Anyway, pick between these gentlemen:
They’re very different options – Fellaini is a physical destroyer who lacks guile on the ball, and Dembele is a peculiar, converted forward who is excellent at dribbling forward and evading challenges, but offers surprisingly little end product, preferring to keep his passing simple.
Fellaini's ability to hit things hard with his head gives him the edge, health being equal.
De Bruyne (left) and Lukaku (right) haven't been able to hook up so far
FORWARD: Belgium's been looking for something more impressive than what 21-year-old Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku's been able to offer so far, but they don't have great options. Kevin Mirallas is not a physical presence at 5'10" and Divock Origi is promising but just 19.
The wingers will be problems. Dries Mertens has consistently gotten into dangerous areas coming in from the right.
Mertens vs Russia
The area just inside the box towards the end line that Mertens got to repeatedly is assist central.
Premier League assist density, last three years
Mertens could not find the final ball against Russia, or his strikers weren't in a spot to run on to it. Mertens may just be a guy who isn't too good at making goals right now.
Even so the US will be playing with fire if they allow anything similar—Russia finally got bit when Eden Hazard, the left winger, got into that spot on the other side of the box and set up Origi for an easy slam home. Hazard is the most expensive and highest-regarded of any of Belgium's players—he was just named Chelsea's player of the year at the ripe old age of 23—but he hasn't had much impact with the national team. He's scored just six times in 47 caps and for much of the tournament he's been anonymous. That's where Belgium's lack of full-backs really shows. Defenses can overplay him and take him away. Expect the same from the US, with a defensive mid shaded to him.
Facing down another 4-3-3 with super dangerous wingers and question marks at outside back, expect a reprise of the Portugal game plan: a 4-5-1 with defensive responsibility on the flanks and Johnson bombing forward in an effort to exploit the lack of defense provided by the 4-3-3.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Beasley and Besler are locks if healthy; Johnson is going to start. There is a faint chance that he gets moved up into the midfield, allowing Yedlin or Chandler to start. Faint, though.
While Gonzalez had his best game for the US in a long time against Germany, Cameron is likely to return to the lineup. He provides more ability with the ball at his feet and the USA is going to need more possession than they did against Germany in a game they actually have to win. Also, his mobility will be a major asset against Hazard.
The US has a little bit of a luxury here, as they can afford to give their outside backs cover since Belgium won't be overlapping much. Job one for the US outside backs and midfielders is to keep Belgium's wingers out of the danger zone. If they cross, they cross. The US has decided to live and die with crosses by jamming the middle, and with Fellaini in question all the more reason to double down.
time for meep meep?
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Yedlin
Beckerman, Jones, Bradley are locks. Jones has been the USA's player of the tournament so far. This is the game Bradley's touch returns, I promise. Beckerman is going to be absolutely critical as he strives to prevent De Bruyne from playing Belgians in on Howard's goal. If he can quiet the Belgian #10 as the US reaches the quarters hell have cemented an unlikely place in USMNT lore.
The wing spots are in doubt. Davis was invisible and lifted early. Zusi's touch has been off and his service poor aside from the winner against Ghana; Bedoya seems like he's about ready to fall over and expire on the regular. Given what we've seen so far, Bedoya makes sense. He's the only guy who's given you two-way play on the left this tourney, and he's relatively fresh.
Aaand… this could be a spot where Klinsmann does something wacky like start Yedlin. It's easy to see Yedlin zooming past the Belgians' left back, whoever it is, into the assist zone he got to for the second against Portugal. Yedlin's speed will also help the US cover on Hazard. Meanwhile any individual defensive issues he has are not likely to come into play.
Zusi is of course a possibility.
What about Jozy? There have been reports he's doing some running, and Klinsmann has said he's "very optimistic" again:
‘‘We are very optimistic,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Every day is a big step forward with Jozy. It’s 11 days now and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.’’
"A part" is one thing. A start that might go 120 minutes with a still-lingering muscle injury is unlikely.
SUBS: If the US finds itself down they'll have to go for it, so expect some sort of midfielder-for-striker swap with Beckerman the most likely to go out since he offers the least going forward. This is a recording.
In a tie game pushing towards extra-time, the US might lift one of the wingers for Wondolowski, and then if things get very deep Dempsey will probably be cashed out, allowing Johannsson to enter.
If the US is fortunate enough to be protecting a lead, bringing in Gonzalez will make sense. Fellaini is truly terrifying in the air, and Belgium's response to Algeria suggests they will go 4-4-2 with Fellaini up front if they need to. Whether that's a straight swap for Cameron or something else I don't know, but whatever it is it should not be Gonzalez as some sort of ostrich defensive mid.
Algerian Djamel Haimoudi has drawn the game. He did the most recent African Cup of Nations final and a Confed Cup semi; so far in this tournament he's done the Costa Rica-England and Holland-Australia games.
The latter featured a pretty ridiculous PK call for Australia when a Holland defender's arm hit a cross that came from about two feet away and seemed an obvious case of ball-to-hand. On the other hand, Haumoudi has a number of opportunities to bite on dives in the box and passed.
I'd mention cards but at this point it's clear that the refs have been instructed to be very lenient with yellows. That's no doubt an attempt to keep suspensions down since yellows now clear after the quarters instead of the group stage.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
Good goddamn Bradley. This is not the Michael Bradley I know. The above is. Bradley's history with the US when allowed to forward is one of constant activity, through balls that come off, and late runs into the box that are a danger few outfits are adequately prepared for.
He hasn't exactly been terrible in this tournament, but he has not provided the attacking edge he has for the last four years. It's probably just bad luck and bad form at the wrong time, but it's unlikely the US wins this game without Bradley having a hand in a USA goal.
Fitness will be tested… again. The US got an extra day of rest compared to Germany, but unfortunately they are going up against a team that rested a bunch of guys in their final group match.
However, the tests will go both ways. Belgium has a number of guys in various states of injury. If Kompany or Vermalen or Fellaini play there's a chance that one of them has to use up a substitution early, and as the US learned four years ago you really do not want to have to use early substitutes in a game that can go 120 minutes.
Keep the ball, have the ball, keep and have the ball. The US has gotten boxed in by two of its three opponents so far, and while the situations they found themselves in (up a goal thirty seconds in and soon without Jozy; playing Germany needing to not lose by lots) lent themselves to that kind of cagey play, now it's win or die time.
This means keeping the dang ball and playing Belgium like an equal. The good news is that Belgium is not particularly good at pressing. Algeria and South Korea abandoned any idea of possession pre-game, but a not particularly technical Russian side had exactly as much of the game as Belgium did, with relatively few Aimless Upfield Punts.
Center backs and goalie unsuccessful passes, Russia vs Belgium
The Shin Guardian's take on Belgium's panini game:
Defensively, Belgium claim to be a pressing team but that’s a dangerous description for it. They’ll occasionally go through spells when they’ll press high when commanding the run of play; but, if not, they’ll usually just retreat behind the halfway line and attempt to loosely swarm the ball. <– i.e. not pressing defense. Sampaoli would be mortified.
The first pass or two out of the back will be crucial, especially without Jozy. Bradley should be dropping deep to provide an outlet on the regular.
Fullback offense. The US fullbacks didn't have much impact on the Germany game aside from a couple of slaloming Beasley runs on which Run DMB seemed a decade younger, but this was largely because the US couldn't hold the ball long enough for them to get upfield. Once the US clears Belgium's pressure, the best offense they'll have is their speedy wing backs against the Belgium flanks.
WIN THE GAME. #winthegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES
|WHAT||USA vs Germany|
It's simple for the US: tie or possibly go home. Things get complicated if they're losing. So let's not do that.
THE THEM: DIE MANNSCHAFT SOUNDS LIKE A JOKE BUT IS ACTUALLY WHAT THEY'RE CALLED AND WHY NOT
From 1,000 feet, the German national team is the US national team: great goalkeepers, hard-working, tall, disciplined, organized, relentless, not given over to the kind of petulance that affects quite a lot of people after they've been running around for 70 minutes and think they might collapse at any moment.
The problem comes when you zoom in, and all the American stuff about German holds true and then they happen to be smarter, faster in spots, and just generally better. The hypothetical endpoint of USA soccer is Germany. Teams like Italy and Holland occasionally crash out in the group stage. Germany never does. Michael Ballack summed it up best when the final bit of the Group Of Death fell into place during the World Cup draw: as America panicked and set its pets on fire, Ballack monosyllabically droned "we. don't. care."
They don't care because they'll win anyway. Imagine Michigan, 1989. That's Germany.
GOALIE: Manuel Neuer is generally regarded as the best in the world right now. He's done nothing to give anyone a different impression so far.
more like Per Mertesoccer amirite
DEFENSE: The usual collection of giant robots direct from that Pixar-y Nike commercial. Central defenders Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels are 6'6" and 6'4", respectively, and while Mertesacker can be exposed by speed somewhat, Hummels is usually able to compensate. They're in the running for the best pairing in the tournament.
The problem, such as it is, comes on the outside. Phillip Lahm has been drafted as a defensive midfielder, leaving Germany a collection of outside backs who are generally deployed on the interior at their clubs. This was a major issue in Germany's 2-2 draw with Ghana, as Christian Atsu was able to fire in shots and crosses considerably more dangerous than the ones he got off against DaMarcus Beasley; Andre Ayew was able to score on a back-post header and Ghana fired in a ton of crosses.
Ghana chances largely came from the German left
The left back, Benedikt Howedes, is a right-footed central defender by trade. The right back, whether it's Jerome Boateng or Shkodran Mustafi, is a slightly less awkward fit since they're on their natural foot. But only slightly; both are central defenders at club level. As a result the German outside backs rarely venture beyond the edge of the final third.
Howedes, Boateng, and Mustafi against Portugal (left) and Ghana (right)
That Portugal chart is pretty remarkable what with Portugal's wingers so uninterested defensively and the team playing narrowly after the Pepe red card.
As a unit, these guys are large, organized, and reasonably fast enough. Outside back, though, is a place where the US does seem to have an advantage.
MIDFIELD: Lahm, Sami Khedira, and Toni Kroos are the backbone of the entire side, and will give the USA problems. The US has a couple of guys who are a physical match for the burly Khedira, and Beckerman may be the tactical equivalent of the heady Lahm, but really it comes down to Bradley being Bradley and not the off-brand version we've seen so far.
That's because Kroos is Bradley minus doubts. Jonathan Wilson:
Kroos is dynamic and hardworking. He can play at the back of midfield or at the front, in the centre or on the flank. He could almost certainly play as a box-to-box midfielder in a 4-4-2 if he ever were asked to do something so archaic. He is creative without being flash, breaks up play without being violent. He is physically robust without being a monster and astute in possession without over-reaching. He has an understated efficiency that means he probably isn't appreciated as much as he ought to be.
Wilson does seem to think more of Kroos than many people. Not a ton more—dude is a starter on Germany, after all.
Meanwhile, if Kroos is German Bradley, Khedira is German Beckerman:
Khedira is in many ways Löw's key player. In a team characterised by outstanding attacking prowess he holds the defensive midfield together and is very much a player out of the "coach's favourite" mould: a good reader of the game, disciplined and perfect at implementing his respective manager's instructions. No wonder, then, that his coaches at Real Madrid, José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, also value Khedira's style of play. In the midst of a host of artists he plays the unpretentious conductor and with the German national side not having a Pirlo or a Xavi, it needs at least a Khedira.
Because he's German Beckerman he's like Beckerman except a super elite athlete.
Lahm is a fixture with Germany and Bayern Munich, generally at outside back. Last year he was moved to defensive mid by his club, though, and he has taken up the same position for Germany. He had issues against Ghana's high press—he was involved in the sloppy German build-up to the Ghana pirate schooner of a goal. That was an aberration for Lahm's career and recent form.
FORWARD: You can look at a tactical thing that says Mehmet Ozil is here and Muller is here and on average they'll be right-ish, but everyone goes everywhere. Ozil in particular roams across the width of the field just in front of the opposition defense, offering outlets to any German who happens to have the ball and playing in guys from anywhere.
Ozil vs Ghana
He has virtually no defensive responsibility.
Mario Gotze is a very similar player, a natural #10 who roams around looking for the ball. With Ozil on the field he functions a bit like a winger and a bit like a withdrawn striker. Thomas Muller is the most striker-y of Germany's dedicated attackers, at least in this tournament. Normally one of the three attacking mids in a 4-2-3-1, an injury has forced him into the striker spot. He relies on intelligent movement more than raw power to get his goals; all three attacking players interchange constantly.
The overall effect is odd. None of Germany's attackers are physically overwhelming or even particularly deft on the ball—no Messis or Ronaldos here—but because of collective understanding and anticipation they rain in goals.
If Germany's chasing the game, ancient Miroslav Klose will likely enter. Klose is a combo target forward/poacher who just tied the all-time World Cup scoring record; he's done so without scoring a goal from outside the box.
ALTERNATIVES: Germany has many of them.
Without Altidore, the US switched to the 4-2-3-1 they'd gone with through most of qualifying. Dempsey was the lone forward with Bradley the attacking mid; Beckerman and Jones were D-mids behind. I felt some foreboding about it and not entirely without reason, as neither Zusi or Bedoya had much impact on the game until Zusi's cross off a scramble gave the US their second.
But situations being what they are, it makes sense to reprise that formation. Jozy is still out and the US get through with a draw. Given the roster, the question is who replaces Jozy: Zusi/Bedoya or Johannsson/Wondolowski? The answer against a 4-3-3 was a midfielder; the answer against what's pretty much a 4-3-3 is likely to be a midfielder.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Any thought that the US should switch things up because Cameron had a bad couple plays needs to compete with the fact that apparently it would be Omar Gonzalez replacing him. Even if Gonzalez was supposed to be playing some sort of defensive mid spot late against Portugal, he has been shaky for the US in his last half-dozen appearances.
On a down to down basis, Cameron offers more. He has not provided many moments of worry except the terribly bad one to Nani—I buy Jesse Marsch's explanation of the Portugal equalizer that spreads blame throughout a bunch of players*. Focus on the consistency instead of the accidental severity of mistakes and Cameron is obvious.
As discussed in the Germany D section, this is a spot where the US should have a tactical advantage. Johnson can bomb forward without worrying that his opposite number will catch him on the break. As long as the US has cover, and with Cameron and Beckerman they do, the outside backs should be the freest guys on the field.
*[Marsch points out that Varela is Fabian Johnson's mark and that Cameron has two guys slowing up at the edge of the box in front of him that he is looking at. By the time Cameron sees the cross he's got little chance of getting to it, because it is perfect.]
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Diskerud
The three defensive-ish mids are locks. Bedoya is highly probable.
Then the fourth guy is in question. Zusi had a bad game outside the assist, constantly losing possession thanks to a wooden first touch. Davis is probably not in the cards since crossing won't be at a premium against Germany and Davis was absolutely miserable defensively against Turkey. The US will want guys who at least try.
Diskerud is a strong possibility. He is the most possession-y option in game in which the US would like to grab the ball and thunk it around quite a bit. The Germany wings are threatening, but not quite in the same way that Ronaldo and Nani are; the German fullbacks do not provide a whole lot of threat. A centrally-oriented possession midfielder makes sense given the situation and opponent. Diskerud is that, and he's fresh. Also his hair is amazing.
Dempsey did a credible imitation of a target forward against a couple of burly but not particularly agile center backs and he's got a version of that again in this game. Hummels in particular is a step above anything Portugal has to offer, but given the situation it makes sense to play things conservatively and add attacking verve if the situation demands it.
SUBS: If the US needs a goal, lifting Zusi or Bedoya for Wondolowski or Johannsson, makes sense, possibly both if you want to drop Dempsey into an attacking midfield role. If the US is shepherding a win or draw to the finish line, Yedlin should reprise his speed merchant role from the Portugal game.
Ravshan Irmatov is from Uzbekistan, but he's not one of the randoms from tiny countries included to disallow Maurice Edu goals. He's a veteran of many high-profile matches with few complaints lodged against him. He did the 2010 World Cup opener and a semifinal.
The most controversial thing on his profile was an incident where he whistled for a penalty kick the moment before a goal was scored and decided to allow the goal.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
is a tired Jones even possible?
Fitness will be tested. I'm not entirely sure I buy the game-after-Manaus-is-doom meme being tossed around. Yeah, England lost to Uruguay and Italy lost to Costa Rica, but after the crapfest they put up in their final matches it's possible those teams just suck. And a look deeper than the score indicates that most teams coming off a game in the jungle weren't exactly overrun:
- England vs Uruguay: England outshoots 12-8, has 63% possession, almost scores about five goals, gives up derf derf goal to Suarez to lose.
- Italy vs Costa Rica: Shots tied, Italy with 61% possession and about 200 extra passes.
- Croatia vs Mexico: 11-10 shot edge for Mexico, Croatia with 55% of possession.
Cameroon—possibly the worst team in the competition—was always going to get ripped by Brazil. So there's only one game in which the Manaus effect really looks like much of anything. That's Mexico-Croatia. Is that a Manaus effect or just the obvious effect of putting a bunch of Mexican dudes up against people who think 75 is time to flip on the AC?
That said, the US has had their defensive midfielders run their ass off for full 90s and has one fewer day of rest. If they're pressing for a goal, things are going to get seriously stretched.
Touchline crosses and "underlapping" runs. The aerial doom provided by the German defensive Luftwaffe makes trying to head in goals a difficult proposition. Setting up against a set defense and trying to put it on Dempsey's head is a wasted possession.
Despite this, the US has a couple of speedy outside backs that can and should have an impact. This can come either by beating the slower German outside backs to the endline, where crosses can be fired in low and hard, or diving inside when the USA's wingers provide them room by stretching Germany horizontally. See: Yedlin versus Portugal, Johnson versus Turkey, etc.
Low tempo, high possession. With fitness a concern and a draw good enough, the US should be content to dawdle on the ball if not presented with a clear chance to break. This may not be a wink-wink draw but neither is it going to be a wide-open attacking goal fest.
It'll be interesting to see how much pressing either team does. Germany certainly has the ability to do so, but they're also vulnerable, what with a number of defensively-oriented guys in awkward positions. Sulley Muntari's tackle in Germany's defensive third led to a trademark goal from Gyan.
An eye on the other game. Depending on how the other game goes, the US may not need to react if they go down a goal. If Portugal is leading the other game they can take a 1-0 defeat and get through. If Portugal-Ghana is 0-0 in the 80th they're feeling pretty good.
But Ghana already in the lead against the Portuguese or even 1-1 would mean the US would have to go all out for a goal even if that left them exposed to counterattacks from Germany. The best way to avoid all this is to not go down, of course. But… yeah.
A lot of people are predicting that Portugal falls over and dies. That is a possibility. But Ronaldo is highly concerned with his legacy and has zero goals in this World Cup as Neymar and Messi pound 'em in. He's going up against a shaky, disorganized backline. Pepe should return with an eye on redemption, as well. They'll at least give their all for 45; hope for an early Portugal goal and then they'll be energized to hang on.
TIE THE GAME. #tiethegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES
6/16/2014 – USA 2, Ghana 1 – 1-0-0
HOW MANY EAGLES CAN INTIMIDATE ON THE HEAD OF A PIN
Clint Dempsey had just been kicked in the face, hard. He'd jumped to head a ball; the Ghana defender he'd made infamous 30 seconds into the game decided he'd challenge for it by kicking Dempsey really hard in the face.
It was obvious from the first shot that Dempsey's nose was broken, even more obvious in the post-game press conference. Someone asked him about it. He said he couldn't really breathe through the thing anymore.
At the time, though, Jozy Altidore had already done something bad to his hamstring and there was nothing for Dempsey to do but spit blood, shoot murder from his eyes, and carry on.
It turns out yesterday's post was unnecessary. All questions about how American USA soccer is under Klinsmann have been resolved in 90 minutes. The verdict: even when the guys still running when normal folk would be in a heap and pounding in the set piece goal are pretty much German, they are so, so American.
Anyone who's followed the US national team for a while can point to a game like that, a frustrating exercise in soaking pressure and trying to pop up on the counter. The US has a knack for bleeding profusely and winning games they have no business doing so via sheer doggedness. This game shoots to the top of that list, the blood and dogs list.
It'll take some doing to top it. They lost their main relief valve to injury 20 minutes in and were forced into a halftime substitution when Matt Besler tweaked his hamstring; by 70 minutes it seemed like half the roster was grasping a leg muscle when afforded the opportunity. When Ghana finally broke through ten minutes later, it felt like the floodgates were about to open.
Instead the US grinds out a corner by running real hard. I mean… if we are trying to move away from the cliché that national teams are avatars for their countries, trying to move away from the faintly ridiculous notion that a country that grows Michael Phelps in a lab is a plucky underdog… if we are attempting to have a straight-faced tactical conversation amongst serious people… I mean, you just can't. I can't.
I'm dying and Fabian Johnson manages to grit up a corner by being annoyingly effortful like he's the right back version of David Eckstein, and it doesn't matter that Fabian Johnson is pretty much German. I have been here before. I have seen this corner before in this game before; I know we've got some tall guys in there and even the guys who aren't tall, like Carlos Bocanegra, have a tendency to fling their head at the ball even if it's at a level where you could reasonably get kicked in the head.
I have been here before. I muster up every last bit of focus and try not to forget to stand. I have seen this on brutal Central American fields where batteries are flung out of the stands. Zusi stands over the ball. Zusi scored to tie Panama in stoppage time when doing anything but would have put Mexico out of the World Cup. They won that game a minute later, because what the hell, why not.
This is a thing they do. Frankie Hedjuk against El Salvador. Donovan against Algeria. The US played a friendly against Italy they won 1-0 because the ball refused to go in for the Italians and the US parlayed their moment into a goal. I have been here; they do this.
I am hoping against hope and remembering not to fall over; Zusi is kicking the ball, which is low enough and high enough and hard and curving into a dangerous area, and I have seen it before.
Must improve. The game got out of whack early because of the shocking goal and the Altidore injury, plus whatever the US screwed up to have big chunks of the team doing terrible things to their muscles. But they've got to do better in possession if the Ghana game is going to mean anything. Bradley in particular had a game far below his usual standard, tossing balls out of bounds.
When Bradley's off, the verve goes out of the US attack. Verve was almost beside the point here. I would have given a kidney for some extended spells of possession, but balls just kept getting plowed into the sideline. I don't know why. I do know that if they try to soak that much pressure in the next two games they're unlikely to get out of the group.
The goal. The bad one. It was mostly just one of those things that occasionally happen when you're watching the opponent have the ball most of the game; a good pass into the box and an excellent one-time backheel right into the path of a teammate, followed by an equal finish.
I've seen some people criticize Howard for getting beat at the near post. I'm not going to put any of that out Howard. Given the angle—Ayew was close to dead center—and the distance there was little he could do. Ayew's finish was brilliant as well. He hit it with the outside of his left foot, causing the ball to curl away from Howard from an unexpected starting spot.
Zusi should have tracked Ayew. That's the main problem. He's a sub; he should be tracking that run flat-out.
He did make up for it. Zusi's corner that led to the goal was perfect, driven, high enough to get over the guys he needs to get over, low enough for Brooks to get on top of it.
What in the flying hell. Pre-match I was thankful that a Swedish guy was the ref instead of someone from nowheresville who'd never taken on a match of that significance; not so much at halftime. Clint Dempsey's nose was broken by a flying boot applied to his face as he was three feet off the ground, an obvious straight red card for dangerous play. Boye, the same defender Dempsey turned into goo in the first minute, didn't even see yellow.
That in and of itself is unacceptable; then Jermaine Jones is hammered from behind mere minutes later and the guy who did it got an accidental boot to the head. That resulted in the same kind of aggressive physical action that saw Pepe sent off just a few hours before. Again, not even yellow.
Both the tackle and the reaction afterward are easily card-worthy. Ghana should have been down to nine men by halftime.
But hey, at least the US got totally boned by the refereeing in a game they won for a change.
Jones: the man. Tireless and active, Jones was the USA's best player on the night. He wasn't particularly helpful going forward, because he's generally not, but he was everywhere. Besler's first half was also excellent; hopefully he can return.
Obvious Ghana plan is obvious. Ghana spent most of the game isolating Christian Atsu on Beasley. For their troubles they got a bunch of crosses that didn't result in much.
There was that one terrifying Gyan header that Howard had to save despite the fact it was going wide, and then some shots that would have had to been as brilliant as the Gyan chance. Key passes were more balanced, with the Ghana breakthrough coming from the USA's right flank, at Zusi's expense:
please ignore the ones coming from the corners
Beasley coped, and only just. Here are defensive events from the outside backs and outside mids:
Tackles are green; Beasley(#7) had none; he had a pile of clearances and "recoveries," which are events when you get the ball after it's popped loose or someone sends it directly to you. He played off, didn't let Atsu by him, and let the crosses in. It was reminiscent of the Spain Confederations Cup game.
What now? Altidore's World Cup is almost certainly over, leaving the US in a difficult situation. With Eddie Johnson and Terrence Boyd left off the roster, there is nothing approximating a like-for-like substitute. Johannsson's the closest thing and the Ghana game was a good indication he's not much of a target guy at a World Cup level.
The USA's options:
- Use Johannsson like Charlie Davies. IE, have him run onto long balls to the side of the field, hopefully outdistancing the centerback he's matched up against. With Pepe out and Germany relying on the enormous but a bit ponderous Per Mertesacker, this is a viable option.
- Use Dempsey as a target guy. In this situation Dempsey leads the line with Johannsson or Wondolowski playing off of him. I am not enthused about this possibility.
- False nine time. The "false nine" you hear so much about is a striker who isn't really much of a striker. He often comes back into the midfield and then plays balls at gentlemen running past him. Dempsey is a potential fit in that role; he can maintain the ball if it's played into his feet; then Johannsson and Bedoya can be runners past him. That's yet another tactical departure, though.
I'm guessing they go with the first option, but I'm afraid we're about to find out that Jozy does a bunch of things you don't appreciate until he's not out there doing them. Keeping possession better than they did against Ghana is even more critical.
Portugal situation. They've been whittled down by injuries, which momentarily made US fans giddy until Altidore and Besler went out. Pepe is out after taking a red card; left back Fabio Coentrao and striker Hugo Almeida left with injuries that will hold them out of the remainder of the group stage.
Almeida's replacement will (probably) be Eder, a strapping gentleman who plays in the Portuguese league. He is in the Jozy Altidore vein: a physical guy with flashes of brilliance who is maybe a little lacking on the technical side. Almeida wasn't exactly lighting the world on fire, and Eder has made some impact when he's gotten in recently. That dropoff won't be severe.
On the other hand, Coentrao's replacement is a major step down. Coentrao is a fixture at Real Madrid and has excellent chemistry with Ronaldo; he was replaced by Andre Almeida (not that Andre Almeida). The other Almeida plays for Benfica, mostly in the midfield, and only moonlights at outside back. He's only got six caps.
Pepe's replacement is likely to be 33-year-old Ricardo Costa of Valencia. Costa drew into the lineup during Portugal's pre-WC friendlies when Pepe was held out as a precaution. Costa played about half of his club's games as Valencia finished 8th in La Liga. He's no pushover, but neither is he first choice at Real Madrid.
Group situation. The US is in good shape as long as they don't lose to Portugal. Win and they are obviously all but in. A draw is still looking pretty good. If the US and Portugal tie, then the situation based on the result of Ghana-Germany:
- Germany win. Ghana is eliminated; US advances if they either get a point from Germany (who knows they are through) or they lose and Portugal does not make up the goal difference against Ghana. That would require making up five goals.
- Tie. US and Germany enter final game knowing a draw gets both through, and Germany knows they are top of group. Desultory 0-0 draw beckons.
- Ghana win. The US would be at the top of the group but this is the most dangerous situation. Ghana would enter the final game with an opportunity to advance with a win over Portugal, and Germany would have to go all out to beat the US. A US loss then puts them in danger.
So root for the Germans against Ghana.
What if the US loses? Not all is lost but then things are much tougher. A win against Germany would put them through; a tie then puts your fate in the hands of the Ghana-Portugal game.