Preview: Nats vs Belgium

Preview: Nats vs Belgium

Submitted by Brian on June 30th, 2014 at 12:26 PM

belgium_in_rio___go_red_devils__by_spritegirl-d7mmpsz[1]THE ESSENTIALS

WHAT USA vs Belgium
WHERE Arena Pernambuco
Recife, Brazil
WHEN 4 Eastern
Tuesday
LINE Si Se Puede
TV ESPN

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.

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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.

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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"

While I can't find a quote for this anywhere, Vermalen is said to be "doubtful" by anyone who has an article on Belgian health.

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.

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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.

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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.

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Mertens vs Russia

The area just inside the box towards the end line that Mertens got to repeatedly is assist central.

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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.

THE US(A)

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.

GOALIE: Howard.

DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.

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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.

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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.

FORWARD: Dempsey

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via

Well, yeah.

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.

THE REF

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.

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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

DIVBYZERO

Preview: Nats vs Germany

Preview: Nats vs Germany

Submitted by Brian on June 25th, 2014 at 12:49 PM

Mural_Germany[1]THE ESSENTIALS

WHAT USA vs Germany
WHERE Arena Pernambuco
Recife, Brazil
WHEN Noon Eastern
Thursday
LINE Ack
TV ESPN

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

THE US(A)

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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.

GOALIE: Howard.

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.]

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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.

FORWARD: Dempsey

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.

THE REF

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

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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

DIVBYZERO

You'll Have To Kick Harder Than That

You'll Have To Kick Harder Than That

Submitted by Brian on June 17th, 2014 at 12:17 PM

6/16/2014 – USA 2, Ghana 1 – 1-0-0

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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.

Highlights

Bullets

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.

16f2c6a7-6340-4e30-81a5-e8e0ddd8016c-460x276[1]

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.

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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.

image

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:

image

please ignore the ones coming from the corners

Beasley coped, and only just. Here are defensive events from the outside backs and outside mids:

image

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.

Looking ahead

424704_heroa[1]

nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

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.

Nigeria Recap: Ready As You Can Be

Nigeria Recap: Ready As You Can Be

Submitted by Brian on June 9th, 2014 at 12:23 PM

HOT. Jozy scored a scorcher, the team worked a beautiful goal, and Tim Howard was all but untroubled until Omar Gonzalez entered and the US flailed about ineptly with three central defenders. That was like the Panama game I love referencing except against a World Cup-quality outfit, the most recent African champions at nearly full strength. At the moment I'm not even mad about Landon Donovan. That's how good that was.

Highlights.

    The alternate universe. After a dismal performance from Brad Davis against Turkey I suggested that the alternate universe version of the USA lineup might forget all about having a nominal winger guy at left mid and just field ALL THE CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS because hey, why not. This happened, and it was terrific.
    And it had the opposite effect you might expect on the USA's width. They were able to cover the flanks much better in this game and because of that, the fullbacks—both fullbacks—were comfortable getting upfield. It's a lot easier to make that surge when you've got Beckerman and Jones looking for it and offering to cover instead of just one.
    Speaking of Jones…
    sm64-bob2[1]

Pictured: Jones, pre-Beckerman

Off the chain. Even if you don't appreciate the things Beckerman does himself, the fact that his addition lets Bradley and Jones range about the field pressuring opponents with their endurance and athleticism was a revelation and demands his inclusion going forward.

Jones felt like a wonderful player for most of this game. I have spent the last four years going "bleah" about him and demanding that he eat bench so that Bradley can be the offensive force the US needs him to be. But what if I told you Bradley was up the field and Jones was roaring around the field and it was all just fine? ESPN presents 30 for 30: Kyle Beckerman, The Man Who Didn't Move.

Jones did. Goddang he did move. There were multiple instances where he flew in at speed and removed a ball from Nigeria's possession. While his positioning as a pure holder is questionable, his defensive instincts and effort are top-notch, as he demonstrated after a dangerous Beckerman turnover when he recovered to clear a ball that would have been totally uncovered if this was the Turkey game. And then there was the 70-yard run to end a Nigeria break where Jones went from the potential target of a through ball just outside Nigeria's box to an interception on the edge of the USA's. Once you realized it was the same guy on both ends of that play it was… I be like dang.

The one-game turnaround from Davis/Chandler to Jones/Beasley was incredible. What happens on that turnover if Davis in in the game? It doesn't go out of bounds harmlessly, that's for sure.

There's a clear and large gap between Jones's ability going forward and Bradley's, but when freed up to go get the ball he was the bald eagle's equal. Two of those guys in one midfield suddenly seems tough to deal with, especially since both were going full blast 85 minutes into a friendly that had seen Nigeria wither.

Something weird: check. Poke a USA fan on the internet today and you'll get an exclamation about Jozy's second goal and then a comment about how the formation worked well. Everyone will tell you a different formation, though. MLSsoccer.com has back-to-back articles labeling it the "Christmas Tree" 1-2-3-4…

In USMNT's new "Chrismas tree" formation, Kyle Beckerman plays starring role

…and the diamond

Three Things: USMNT commit to the diamond and it finally starts to shine

…while ESPN and various other people on the internet asserted it was Klinsmann's standard-ish 4-2-3-1. If you ask me that was… weird. Everyone's right, and everyone's wrong.

On defense the shape was generally the Christmas Tree that was briefly unpopular a couple years back: either Dempsey or Altidore was up top with the other withdrawn next to Bradley; behind that there was a line of Jones-Beckerman-Bedoya.

iGMUyh5[1]

Except when it fell into a diamond for folks who wanted to advocate for diamondness.

diamond-2[1]

Functionally, Bradley would apply high pressure while the back line of three provided shielding and covered for the backs when they advanced. The withdrawn forward very occasionally did some covering on the left, mostly when it was Jozy.

In possession it was hugely mutable and definitely asymmetric, with Bedoya ranging upfield as a winger and Bradley pulling centrally as the withdrawn forward pushed higher. Bedoya's upfield run put him in position to get the hockey assist on the first goal, with Johnson cutting inside of him. Approximate location chart in possession:

                            Dempsey                    Altidore

                                             Bradley                              Bedoya

                     Jones      

Beasley                                Beckerman                         Johnson

                           Besler                         Cameron

Jones did surge upfield from time to time anywhere on the left two-thirds of the field; generally he was more withdrawn.

imageimage

Jones left, Bedoya right

So what is that? I've seen it described as just about anything; it felt like a 4-3-3*, but with one of the wingers flipped with Bradley on defense, so I guess a diamond, except not. Which is not something I've ever seen before. I will probably resort to calling it "Nigeria" in the event it lasts. Which it should, right?

*[Distinguishing characteristic of the 4-3-3: three central midfielders with one playing behind the other two.]

Spiritual formation. Forgetting the positions for a moment, the US featured:

  • two offensive players with minimal defensive responsibilities, one of whom would link with the midfield
  • two box to box midfielders
  • one defensively-oriented right winger
  • one holding mid
  • a wide fullback
  • an in-cutting fullback
  • two central defenders

If you forced me to put a name on it I would call it an asymmetric 4-3-3. A slightly less weird version of that has historically been my preferred Football Manager formation, so obviously Klinsmann has found something here.

Rope a dope. The US soaked ineffectual pressure for about 20 minutes before finding its stride, and by ten minutes into the second half they were running rampant over an exhausted Nigerian squad. The US has twin advantages here with so many of their players based in MLS (or, in Beasley's case, Mexico): unlike Euro-based gentlemen, MLS players play in the summer, and play where it is hot. Also unlike Euro-based gentlemen they're coming off a recent opportunity to rest. Hopefully fitness will be a key advantage in the sweltering heat of Brazil.

Beas with ease. Even before the game, Klinsmann was telling reporters that "Beasley is the starter at left back" in response to questions about why Beasley over Chandler, and then that game happened. With a big assist from the relentless Jermaine Jones, here's both the key passes and crosses from the first 80 minutes (ie, until Gonzalez entered and the US lost its shape in an unfamiliar 3-5-2) mashed into one graph:

image

That is one pass that got to the box for a shot and one cross that even made it in, for 80 minutes. Fabian Johnson and Bedoya had a bit more trouble but only a bit—none of those crosses were completed and most of the things resembling danger were off corners.

Part of this is the fact that Nigeria's left winger, Victor Moses, is their best attacker, sure. Beasley and Jones completely shut off the US left wing of an offensively-oriented World Cup foe. Beasley's understanding with both Jones and Besler was a world apart from the acres of space Turkey was given.

Johannson T-shirt FTW.

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Checking in with irritating striker confidence meme. Jozy had a great flick-on to Dempsey that passed without anyone saying anything about Altidore's confidence level. A few minutes later, he scored from two feet. A few minutes after that, he had another threatening flick-on to continue 180 straight minutes of being a handful and chance-generator up front; Twellman attributes it to the goal he just scored from two feet. Argh, argh.

Now, the second goal, that's a confidence booster, if you believe confidence has much to do with it.

Your eleven for Ghana. I wouldn't make a change. The only US player under threat is Bedoya since Zusi does have a skill set the rest of the roster does not, but Bedoya's corners were superior to a couple of weak Zusi efforts in the last game, and even though Bedoya's final ball wasn't quite there most of the day he did make a lot of correct decisions.

The problem comes if and when someone gets the hook because of card accumulation or injury. It's clear Klinsmann was not expecting to have both Beckerman and Jones on the field simulatneously; if that was the case then Maurice Edu would be on this roster. If someone does go out with injury he now seems like the most logical callup, but save chicanery and bad/good luck the US's options are like so if Beckerman goes out:

  • Put Jones back on the chain.
  • Move Cameron into the midfield and play either Brooks or Gonzalez on D.

Who loves those ideas? Nobody.

This doesn't really exacerbate things otherwise because Jones and Bradley are not replaceable in the pool. It does add another cog that can't get out of whack without damaging the machine.

Depth is an issue. Another Gonzalez appearance ends with the impression that if Gonzalez sees the field in the World Cup it's collar-tugging time, and that's the case around the field. Other than Zusi for Bedoya and possibly striker for tired striker, is there anywhere else a US substitution doesn't make you think "uh-oh?" Large chunks of the roster seem unplayable.

I guess I am still a little peeved about Donovan. I have no faith in Davis or Green to do anything positive if inserted, and that's one too many guys to not have confidence in. Meanwhile a couple others are awkward fits, like Diskerud. Diskerud is Bradley's injury cover, and that's necessary. Unfortunately he doesn't quite fit in any other spot on the field, so when you bring him in it's suboptimal.

Turnovers are another. The US is trying to play like a possession team and isn't quite good enough at it yet. They get caught out a bit too often. Beckerman had a couple of turnovers in bad spots, and the central defenders had issues in previous games. That looms as a potentially devastating issue. It's one the US has to risk, as they have to be able to retain possession better if they're ever going to progress to past the quarterfinal of a World Cup.

Jones is really good at putting out fires, at least.

LET'S GOOOOOOOOO. Let's go, man.

Elsewhere. The great Zonal Marking has started their tactical previews of the World Cup. Directly relevant teams haven't been posted yet, but you can get some schadenfreude from the Mexico analysis. SI on Jozy. Wahl thoughts. Analysis of Portugal-Mexico.

Turkey React: Withering Back And Forth

Turkey React: Withering Back And Forth

Submitted by Brian on June 3rd, 2014 at 12:39 PM

6/1/2014 – USA 2, Turkey 1

Got damn. The best soccer goals come with a kind of low OHAAAAWWWWWW from the crowd. That particular noise comes when half the crowd is cheering normally while the other half goes "OHHHHHH" because they've just seen something about as difficult as the moon landing in person. Bradley to Fabian Johnson was a moon landing of a goal.

Clint Dempsey's was not, but they all count.

Full highlights.

Paging World Cup horrors past. That ref had better not approach a USA game that counts. Whether he was ignoring a zillion clear fouls on Altidore or elbowing a Turk in the face when he should have been 90 feet closer to the Turkish net in case Dempsey had earned a penalty, this game was an exercise in frustration similar to Slovenia 2010 or Ghana 2006.

Jozy is fine. I generally like Taylor Twellman but his incessant harping on Jozy Altidore not putting a ball in the net (despite putting a ball in the net that was disallowed by a shaky and definitely irrelevant foul) drove me nuts in this game.

Twellman waxed to his worst on second-half "opportunity" he didn't hear whistled down but everyone watching ESPN did, and it seemed like Altidore and the Turks also mostly did. Altidore put a shot off the keeper and Twellman went into his usual refrain about confidence and mystical fairies and all that stuff that people who haven't thought about how brains work always do. Sometimes things happen, random things. Especially when you're Jozy Altidore and you've seen about six quality scoring opportunities since your goal drought started.

It got worse. A few minutes later, Twellman praised Altidore for blasting a shot off a charging keeper that would have been a simple tap-in for Bradley if Altidore had laid it off. Altidore did well to create the chance, but if there was a problem with Altidore's game in this one it was not his lack of ruthlessness but that pressing for goal that caused him to make a wrong decision.

Not that he was the only US player with that issue. After the Davis handball play saw Graham Zusi run on to a ball at the back post, this was a shot:

image

A tap-in for Jozy if Zusi gets it right. Does that make him a better player in this game?

This was not a problem for the Dutch in the first five minutes against future US foe Ghana. Faced with a similar opportunity, Arjen Robben laid it off for Robin Van Persie, who passed it into the back of the open net. Robben proceeded to blow an absolute sitter and a couple other grade-A chances, but because he's not part of a culture that yells at LeBron James for kicking it to a wide-open Donyell Marshall for a game-winning three* that he happens to miss, no one's going "blah blah blah confidence strikers blah."

Take the shot when it's the move; pass when it's the move. Heroball is garbage. San Antonio Spurs, you know?

*[Dated reference but the perfect one.]

RIGHT: JOZY IS FINE. I know I said he wasn't a hold up guy and never will be but he's really trying. He does lack that flick-on and isn't technical enough to be great in that role, but he's the only one with anything resembling that skillset. It's clear now that the US is going to need it from time to time, and he's trying.

As much as they would like to be a possession side there are going to be times where the US does have to blerg it upfield. Jozy's going to be the guy who turns that into anything. Unless you think Johannsson can do that there's no substitute.

image

Davis + Chandler on D in one image

Chandler is not fine. For some reason the USMNT internet has been desperately trying to replace DaMarcus Beasley since he became the USA's starting left back by default. I acknowledge he is not world-class but for Christ's sake he's gone three years without anything near as bad as two different things Tim Chandler pulled in the Turkey match. There was the pathetic turnover that led to the Turkey goal and the alarming 50-yard ball that led to a quality Guzan save on which Chandler and Davis were both vastly out of position. The same thing led to a corner in the first half.

Meanwhile, Chandler is right footed, so it is awkward pairing him with an in-cutting left midfielder like Bedoya. Chandler should be at the back of the bus now. Beasley and Johnson are your starting outside backs and if one of them is unavailable I'd rather see Brooks (with Cameron sliding outside) or Yedlin than Chandler.

Also not fine: Brad Davis. If you're going to play a diamond your outside midfielders need to be defensive presences. They end up narrow, usually, and need to track back because the second central midfielder ends up way up the pitch as a third dedicated attacker. In this game the US had to pull Bradley back in the second half because neither outside midfielder had any interest, really, in tracking back. Zusi was at least positioned in a place where he could do something most of the time; Davis was not. Turkey spent the day destroying the USA's left flank.

The first truly dangerous Turkey chance came off a corner kick that got reset; Chandler was asked to defend two guys.

image

left side of your screenshot—two Turks, one USA guy

I know it looks like Jermaine Jones was available to deal with this but he is not; he ends up having to apply emergency pressure on a Turkish player who ends up cutting it back to the shooter. Davis is at the top of the 18; he heads a ball forward, sees it turned over, and walks the rest of the play instead of tracking back to the position he's vacated. His guy puts one off the post. (Fabian Johnson is out of position as well, but overall his flank was way less threatened.)

Another Turkish scoring chance came because Davis vacated the entire left side of the field.

image

While the diamond midfielders do tend to pack in tight, Davis was generally a lot narrower than Zusi, leading to attack after attack down the left flank on which Chandler was asked to shut down acres of space; a primary reason that the US was conceding huge chunks of space was Davis's failure to exist without the ball. He had neither the pace nor the interest to show up.

17th-3[1]

Zusi is at the bottom; look how wide he is compared to Davis despite the ball being to Davis's wing.

You'd think the guy obviously on the roster because Landon is not would show on defense. I found myself missing Herculez Gomez in this game.

In the second half, Bradley was withdrawn when the US was without the ball and the chances stopped coming so fast and furious, and maybe that's how it has to be. Someone's going to have to cover a pile of space in the World Cup. Brad Davis clearly isn't. Bradley is going to have to be that guy, with Dempsey dropping to provide a link from defense to attack.

So don't judge Jones too badly. The post I just linked prefers Beckerman to Jones but I don't think they make a particularly convincing case. Jones was given too much to do in the first half since neither US winger made any defensive impact; Beckerman came on at the same time the US started dropping Bradley to provide more cover. Notably, the turnover they approvingly note Beckerman caused came as Bradley pressured a guy in a similar position to the guy with acres of space above.

It would have been just as bad in the first half with Beckerman, because Chandler cannot replicate himself.

I don't want to toot the ol' horn too much, but the second half setup is something I suggested would be the USA's best look:

I would prefer something like the 4-4-2 diamond they tried out in a recent friendly, with Bradley dropping back when faced with opponent possession and  Dempsey moving under Altidore to provide an outlet and link to Altidore up top.

This game showed both that the US does need Bradley's defensive abilities and cannot spare him from attack. It's going to be a long, tiring WC for Bradley, but that's how it has to be.

The Shin Guardian does have an instance where the midfield's general cluelessness is an issue, and Jones is one of the problems:

screen-shot-2014-06-01-at-9-06-27-pm[1]

This gets played square away from all four midfielders; Jones ends up going upfield at the guy, and Turkey is on a break off what initially looked like an innocuous play. Bad decisions all around here; TSG is right that Jones's instincts to attack rather than hold were dangerous to the US at times here.

Green: nope. He won't play at the World Cup.

Brooks: maybe. But Brooks overcame some nervous moments early to put in an impressive performance that demonstrated he has a pretty rare combination of agility and aerial ability. He has been playing well for his club of late, in contrast with Green, and at the position he's being asked to play here, in contrast with Chandler. With Gonzalez in something of a funk he might be your third option at center back.

Conclusions.

  • Davis and Zusi cannot play together. They're very similar players; the US needs more defense from the wing. IMO, Davis just disqualified himself from the first two games of the group stage. He is a disaster waiting to happen against Ayew or Nani, and his service is only marginally better than Zusi's.
  • Viva Beasley. He's a little malformed but he's ours, and if he gets run over that's life. At least he'll be in the right spot, not making an utter hash of things.
  • The diamond cannot be on defense unless Bedoya works like a donkey. While the idea—get Bradley upfield—is the right idea, leaving him upfield is only tenable if you're able to apply smart, high pressure consistently. The US doesn't have the wingers or forwards to do this, so against teams who aren't bunkered in Bradley will have to shuttle back or it's going to be a lot of what we saw against Turkey. Bedoya's presumed start against Nigeria will be the most interesting thing about that game.
  • I'm agnostic on Jones or Beckerman. Seems obvious that it will be Jones, but that seems like a 50/50 battle as to whether that's the right decision.
  • Leaving Donovan off this roster looks pretty bad right now. Whatever his flaws, Donovan has been a committed defender throughout his USA career and provides something other than "Graham Zusi but left-footed."

Preview: Nats Versus Turkey

Preview: Nats Versus Turkey

Submitted by Brian on May 31st, 2014 at 4:29 PM

200px-Turkish_Football_Federation_logo[1] THE ESSENTIALS

WHAT USA vs Tukey
Send Off Series Friendly
WHERE RB Arena
New York, NY
WHEN 2:30 PM Eastern, Sunday
LINE I don't know man
TV ESPN2

Man, my Armenian friend is just all about these friendlies.

THE THEM: LAND RATHER NEAR LAND OF FIRE THAT ALSO HAS FREQUENT TIFFS WITH ARMENIA

Flares-Copy[1]

Turkish soccer fans are nuts, in the best way

Things step up in class for the US after a CONCACAF redux warmup against Azerbaijan. While The Turks aren't in the World Cup they have been in the recent past; they were +7 in goal differential in group D but finished fourth.

Both FIFA and ESPN's BPI metric have them 38th in the world, still some distance behind the US. CONCACAF comparables include Honduras (36th) and Panama (46th), though that former looks a little shaky after Honduras opened its own Send Off Series with a 2-0 loss to Turkey. That may have been a little deceiving, though, as Honduras had plenty of chances on which they just did not convert:

Hull City defender Maynor Figueroa, former Sporting KC standout Roger Espinoza and current New England Revolution striker Jerry Bengtson all had chances during the game's opening stanza but failed to convert.

Turkey played with hesitancy and managed only a handful of opportunities throughout the opening 45, seemingly content to fall back and weather the storm.

Honduras faded in the final 45, probably for the same reasons the US game against the Azeris slowed to a crawl in the second half: teams headed to Brazil are pounding themselves to get in shape for what promises to be a sultry world cup.

Turkey was pretty leaky in the back in World Cup qualifying, conceding in every game against the four real contenders (Estonia and Andorra are just around to get kicked) save one against Romania.

The vast majority of the Turkish team plays in their domestic league, with a few guys scattered around in Germany. Atletico Madrid's Arda Turan is the star… but he's nursing and injury and out, robbing the US of an opportunity to see how they matchup against a world-class threat. Galatasary striker Burak Yilmaz would be the guy they build around now… if he hadn't gone home a couple days ago.

Your detailed and educated Turkey bits can be found at The Yanks Are Coming and The Shing Guardian but take it lightly. This is a young, experimental Turkey team that could do just about anything. They are supposed to be the Portugal stand-in, as they've traditionally run out the same 4-3-3 Portugal uses.

THE US(A)

imageimage

left: 4-4-2 diamond; right the 4-2-3-1

The same debate about the 4-4-2 versus the 4-2-3-1 persists. The diamond looked sluggish against the packed-in Azeris; teams that actually try to attack may also force the US into a more conservative formation with an extra defensive midfielder. Personnel-wise these things are near interchangeable as long as Jones is keeping station in front of the central defenders, so we may see both.

GOALIE: Whoever.

DEFENSE: Chandler, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.

Cameron and Besler are seemingly the USA's top options at center back. They have not played together much—the Azerbaijan game was just their second start together—so Klinsmann will probably spend his precious competitive time before the World Cup on strengthening that partnership.

Johnson should reprise at right back as Klinsmann tries to get him comfortable with the right side of the US formation. In one game he's gone from "maybe the right back?" to obviously the right back.

And it's 50/50 whether Chandler or Beasley gets the start here. I'm guessing Klinsmann takes an extended look at Chandler, possibly flipping him to the right in the second half to give Johnson a breather. Can Chandler put in a strong 90 against a dangerous opponent? This is an opportunity to find out.

I would guess Klinsmann takes a look at Brooks in this one, and Yedlin will probably get a late run out.

MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Bradley, Bedoya, Davis.

Kyle-Beckerman[1]

nothing says Utah more than Beckerman

Guessing here; Beckerman and Bradley paired well in the Mexico friendly and he is a natural holding midfielder who has a ton of familiarity with the diamond. Bradley is MB 90.

Davis had a couple of bright moments in his substitute appearance and here's a guess he'll get a look at the starting left mid. His service is wildly overrated in the context of the US team because Zusi has been dropping balls on his teammates' heads for years now, but it becomes vastly more important if Zusi is dropped for some reason.

In that event, the need for crossing from the right goes down and the US can look at Bedoya on his more natural right side. And as to why you might drop Zusi: with Cristiano Ronaldo looming, Bedoya's workrate and tracking back look attractive as a right mid. If he can help shut down the Turkish left flank in this game he may displace Zusi for at least one game.

Diskerud and Green should also get looks. Green may offer that je ne sais quoi the US lacks, and while it's hard to envision Diskerud displacing either Dempsey or Bradley for one solitary World Cup second, that left flank is open for someone to do something with.

FORWARD: Altidore, Dempsey

Dempsey is reputedly hale and ready to go, so the US will probably try to try the thing they were set to try before Dempsey's groin acted up.

Altidore had a couple of instances of quality hold up play against the Azeris, but that was still clearly an awkward thing for him. When paired with Wondolowski, though, that is his role. With Dempsey the two forwards can interchange, and Dempsey is technical enough that once the ball gets to his feet he can hold it up and lay it off for a charging Bradley effectively.

He changes the entire dynamic of that front triangle, and that's why I'm not getting too bent out of shape about the lack of chances from the run of play against Azerbaijan.

Wondo and Johannsson are likely to come on. Johannsson might get a run out on the wing.

WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR, OTHER THAN EVERYTHING

Diamond versus 4-2-3-1. I think we'll see both, with Klinsmann trying to see what he's got with the diamond when he's got his most dynamic attacking player available and an opponent that might venture one or two guys onto the US side of the field. If it's not working, a mid-game shift is in the cards, whether it's with a substitute or not.

How does that defensive midfield hold up against an offensive threat? If it is still Jones in a diamond, is he disciplined enough? If it's Beckerman, is he quick enough?

Seriously, what is the US going to do on the left wing? Bedoya probably had his best game in a US shirt against the Azeris, but even so his contributions did not help the team as much as Brad Davis's single deep cross did. If the US does go back to their 4-2-3-1 it would be nice to get a look at Johannsson in the Eddie Johnson role on the left wing. Portugal's right flank is supposed to be weak defensively.

How does Dempsey work with Jozy up top? The two have rarely been paired as out-and-out forwards together. Jozy scored a bunch of goals in Holland by running about the pitch instead of being a single hold-up guy trying to lay balls off or turn on defenders. Their partnership is of a different character than the Jozy-Wondo pairing and has to be one in which the guy with the ball has a good idea of what the guy without it is going to do.

SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES

DIVBYZERO

Azerbaijan Recap: Familiar Mild Frustration

Azerbaijan Recap: Familiar Mild Frustration

Submitted by Brian on May 28th, 2014 at 11:40 AM

I WAS NOT KIDDING ABOUT MORPH YOU GUYS

5/27/2014 – USA 2, Azerbaijan 0

This was a CONCACAF game. The frustrating 90 minutes of set pieces and 11 Azeris behind the ball was very familiar. The US plays a dozen of these every cycle in Panama or Honduras or El Salvador. There were even adverse conditions, as the wind at Candlestick was fierce enough to blow free kicks away from their designated spot. The thing ended like various CONCACAF games, with the US making a set piece breakthrough and then finishing the game out.

So what was the point of that? I don't know. A game like that makes all the sense in the world before the start of the final round of World Cup qualifying. Now it is a wasted opportunity.

For what it's worth, there's no shame in struggling to assemble a goal against Azerbaijan. Group winner Russia scratched out 1-0 and 1-1 games in qualifying against them. They are a tough nut to crack.

Except on set pieces. It is literally impossible for a striker to be more wide open on a corner than Johannsson was on the second.

WHOOPS

This reminds me of one of two goals I scored in my brief adult rec soccer career (which ended when my ACL went bye). That's how bad that was.

A few minutes into the game they set Wondolowski loose on a free kick and I marveled that things like that keep happening to Wondo. While I do think his movement is brilliant and he doesn't get enough credit for it… uh… maybe not the best opponent to make his case.

And the other goal. Just one of those things that happen when the ball falls in the right place a couple times.

The most important thing from the night.

Not having your most creative attacking player also contributes to the inability to unlock the Azeris. As long as he's fine, it's fine. Fine.

That last bit was a joke. But "fine" is apparently our watchword today.

“Everyone did fine. They did what they were supposed to do,” Klinsmann said. “Overall it was fine.”

It was. It was fine, as long as you say "fine" in a tiny bit of a snit.

The Jones experiment. Jones was deployed as a solitary defensive midfielder for the first time in his USA career and I didn't even hate him at all. There was one mildly dangerous surging run in the first half that is probably a bad idea against higher levels of competition; other than that I think he fulfilled his role well.

Jones was very smart about when to apply pressure to get the ball back and when to commit fouls to prevent Azeri breaks off of turnovers. He even got one of his long shots in when a rebound popped out of the box. His passing wasn't really off, as the swirling winds made it impossible to judge anything longer than about 15 feet. It seemed off relative to the rest of the team because DMCs tend to make long passes to either wing. In this game that meant "make an obvious turnover." Aside from that, thumbs up.

Level of competition is an issue; so far so good. He is a lot more proactive than Beckerman, which is good until it's really not good.

The Fabian Johnson experiment. Johnson felt like the best player on the field for large chunks of the game, surging up the right side like we've seen him do on the left for some of the USA's best sequences of play. I know he's been playing there for his Bundesliga club and in the World Cup training camp; I did not expect him to seem so natural there and play so well.

He didn't get tested defensively, but defense is defense no matter what flank you're on. He provided a threat going forward that the US has not had from that spot the last four years.

The substitution pattern revealed Klinsmann's thinking when Chandler came in to replace Beasley at halftime: Johnson is all but locked in at right back and Klinsmann's working with Chandler on the left to see what he should do if his first choice guys aren't available.

Too many turnovers. The Klinsmann era has been one long attempt to turn the USA into more of a possession side against anyone. I particularly remember a friendly before the last World Cup against Holland in which the Dutch had the ball 80% of the time because the USA could not play their way out of the high pressure being applied. Time and again they resorted to the soccer equivalent of icing wherein a panicky center back would wallop the ball upfield in the vague hope the lone striker could do something with it.

There is a ceiling on that sort of play. (That ceiling is the 2009 Confederations Cup.) Klinsmann has been so desperate to break that mold that he's played almost nothing but midfielders at outside back; in this game three of the four defenders played midfield for significant chunks of their careers. The US now tries to deal with high pressure by playing through it and keeping the ball. It raises their ceiling.

In this game it led to a number of alarming turnovers that gave the Land of Fire their brief moments of offensive threat. Wind (more in the fact   and lack of familiarity with the formation had something to do with it… but I wonder if part of the reason was that the US back line couldn't find options because Jones wasn't providing them as well as Bradley or Beckerman does.

Can't take anyone on, but never could. There were few instances where a US player facing an Azeri defender created something dangerous by going by him. Johnson did relieve some pressure by popping up the wing; Altidore had one run into the box from the left wing; Brad Davis (of all people!) got to the end line and got in a dangerous cross. That was about that for mano-a-mano chance creation.

This has always been the USA's lot, especially without Dempsey, and Landon Donovan doesn't fix that. While I share the dull-eyed frustration of various pundits today it doesn't mean much other than this is what happens when the USA plays a deep that is bunkering down hard. In a trash tornado, even.

In all. Okay. Kind of useless. Good to see Fabian Johnson play so well. Left mid now biggest question mark. Bring on the Turks.

Preview: Nats vs Azerbaijan

Preview: Nats vs Azerbaijan

Submitted by Brian on May 27th, 2014 at 4:00 PM

azer-MMAP-md[1] THE ESSENTIALS

 

WHAT USA vs Azerbaijan
Send Off Series Friendly
WHERE Candlestick Park
San Francisco, CA
WHEN 10 PM Eastern
LINE I don't know man
TV ESPN2

 

FINALLY, THE TIME HAS COME TO GET REVENGE ON—uh…

well my one Armenian friend is totally pumped?

THE THEM: LAND OF FIRE

Golden-Eagle-Silk-Road-The-Door-to-Hell-in-Darvaza-Turkmenistan[1]

The "door to hell" is actually in Turkmenistan, but call yourself Land Of Fire and this is what you get

When not getting way more mileage out of their Atletico Madrid shirt sponsorship than they expected, Azerbaijan specializes in being on fire. This generates tourism? I am unclear on the way marketing works.

The Azeris finished fourth in their World Cup group with a 1-3-6 record (note: using standard American win-loss-tie notation here) and a –4 goal differential. They weren't good, finishing only ahead of Northern Ireland and Luxemborg, but they weren't terrible either, scoring a 1-1 tie and 1-0 road loss against group winner Russia. Their only multi-goal defeats came against USA group stage foe Portugal, which won 2-0 and 3-0.

This represents a high water mark for the country in their short history as an independent entity. Their current FIFA ranking of 85th is an all time high; ESPN's less dumb SPI metric has them 97th, one spot below Canada. Other nearby CONCACAF teams include Trinidad and Tobago and El Salvador.

As to the players themselves, I have no idea. The goalies and entire defensive corps plays in the Azeri league; the forwards who play abroad generally do so on the lower levels of the Turkish and German ladder. Judging solely by club stats, midfielder Ruslan Abishov, who plays for midtable Russian Premiere League outfit Rubin Kazan, is the best player available. He's a CB/DM hybrid like Cameron.

If you would like to know more about the Azeris I guarantee you that The Shin Guardian's preview is the only informative commentary on them on the entire internet.

THE WHY

So why is the US playing a game against a team far below the caliber of opposition they'll face at the World Cup? Their head coach, Berti Vogts. Klinsmann knows him and is about to steal him for two months:

Berti Vogts is literally working both sides.

As soon as he's done coaching Azerbaijan against the Americans in an international friendly Tuesday night, Vogts will start his temporary job as a special adviser to U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

Vogts of course played Portugal twice in European qualifiers; he is also a former Germany coach. After this friendly Vogts is going to flit around the world taking in the USA's opponents in their WC friendlies, and thus deliver the US a Decided Schematic Advantage™.

THE US(A)

Projecting a lineup, which is mostly a guess but there is this tweet:

Zusi plus Bedoya is bizarre; Bedoya did play well for Nantes in the French top division this year, but mostly as the right winger he's always been (at least when he's scored).

And this shot of the locker room featuring something that looks like a 4-4-2 diamond on one chalkboard; the other one is not distinguishable but is probably the 4-2-3-1 Klinsmann has used most frequently.

GOALIE: Whoever.

DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.

I've seen many people knocking Beasley off the team sheet, but I just don't see how it happens. Johnson's been playing right back for "all of the scrimmages," and if he's not there the Donovan-shaped hole at left mid veritably looms. Johnson is very capable with both feet, FWIW, which is one of the reasons he's so attractive on the left—gentlemen who have the option of crossing or cutting in are rare. But the hole at right back is just too big to not look at him there.

Besler's no surprise; Cameron has played very well for the US when deployed at CB and has more ball skills than any other defender in the pool. With Gonzalez shaky of late it won't take much of an excuse to yoink him for a guy who facilitates keeping the ball.

timmmy-c[1]

#1 thing you want from these three friendlies: Tim Chandler looking great.

Substitutes are likely to include Chandler and Brooks as Klinsmann tries to get a handle on two guys who reputedly played very well over the last couple months of the Bundesliga season but have not played much for the US in the past six months—and not well. For reasons the next section will make clear, you really want Chandler to impress over these three games.

MIDFIELD: Jones, Bradley, Zusi, Donovan-shaped-hole-at-left-mid.

Bradley and Zusi are obvious.

Assuming 4-4-2 diamond is the preferred formation, the question is: what happens when Jermaine Jones is tasked with being a single midfield destroyer? He certainly has more range and bite than Beckerman, but his penchant for silly, card-drawing tackles will only be exacerbated when he is put under more pressure to shut things down himself.

Discipline may be an issue; I say "may" because Jones has never been explicitly cast in a holding role for the US. It's hard to imagine he'd just abandon it. Guy may be a bit of a loose cannon but he is a professional and the DM in a diamond is a know-your-role kind of player. This is the kind of game to give it a shot.

And then left mid, which Galarcep implies is Bedoya's spot. The Shin Guardian agrees. I guess I have to as well, because your other options are a cardboard cutout of Landon Donovan Klinsy is trolling everyone with, Brad Davis, the starting right back, the starting left back, Julian Green, Mix Diskerud, or I guess maybe Johannson. (I know I posited Johannson as a left mid but that was in a different formation where he is pretty striker-y.)

Subs should include Beckerman and then one of a parade of guys they throw out at the Landon-Donovan-shaped-hole to see what happens: Green, Diskerud, Davis.

FORWARD: Altidore, Dempsey

Questionable form brothers, unite! Dempsey's recent form is anything but… in MLS. I mean you guys:

He's been less impactful for the Nats after a torrid two-year run that saw him named captain and end up in this picture.

tumblr_mc0h92xsGc1rv072k[1]

Altidore is much the same except he was in the EPL this year, and when Altidore is in the EPL he suffers through a miserable season where he barely gets a chance, is asked to be the hold-up guy he looks like but isn't and never will be, and gets disinterested, whereupon his place at the club is threatened. If he was still pounding them in for the Nats you could blame Sunderland and be done with it, but his impact streak stopped a while back as well.

Putting two guys at the top takes some of the pressure of Altidore to hold and gets Dempsey at the front, where he can do the evil things he does. For both, it's "please please please look good, please."

Substitutes should include Aron Johansson, who replaced Altidore at AZ down to the pile of goals, and Chris Wondolowski. Wondo's role is pretty obvious at this World Cup: come on at 70' and find the pockets of space tiring defenders will leave him. Johansson could be the previously-mentioned Winger In Name Only in a single-striker formation or he could push Altidore to the bench at some point.

WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR, OTHER THAN EVERYTHING

Is the diamond the new thing? I assumed as much above; the 4-2-3-1 is available and will be deployed based on matchups. With the US looking to win the opener they will likely go with the aggressive diamond, but it'll depend on whether it performs. I'm expecting they switch between the two, either on the fly or based on substitutions. Bradley's versatility allows them to change on the go.

Will Klinsmann see the same thing eveyone else sees in re: Bradley? I'm far from the only US soccer commentator pleading for Bradley to be released upfield, but it's been seemingly obvious that is the best version of the USA for a long time without Klinsmann seeing it. We are all assuming this is the goal, but we all thought Donovan was going to the World Cup.

Left mid: who? I guess Bedoya is getting the first shot. Color me unimpressed. Bedoya's USA career has been minimally impactful. He's like Kljestan for the outside.

Right back: who? Fabian Johnson is a fine choice, but he's pretty obviously the best choice at left mid, so if someone can free him up to play there I'm in favor. Timmy Chandler, come on down.

How does the chemistry between Besler and Cameron look? Individually, Besler and Cameron have been the best central defenders of this cycle. They have not played together much, though, and communication issues are a possibility. If they look good together Klinsmann will be doing a secret jig, as that hypothetical pairing is about 1000x better able to keep possession than the 2010 cycle's hoofers. (No offense to said hoofers, but yeah man.)

Are we secretly hoping for a mild but disqualifying injury amongst the attacking players? Maybe.

SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES

DIVBYZERO

World Cup Roster React

World Cup Roster React

Submitted by Brian on May 23rd, 2014 at 1:03 PM

ALL RIGHT FINE IT STARTS NOW. If you weren't around four years ago or four years before that, when the World Cup rolls around I cover the USMNT like it is the subject of this blog. I'll be interested to see if the ratio of people pleased by this to people disgusted because 'Murica has gone up.

But whatever man. It's the offseason, and I like the World Cup a lot.

Unceremonious

landonalgeria[1]

goodnight

That's that for Landon Donovan, who didn't even make the 23. This made me a little EMOTIONAL last night, because I mean seriously.

This man was in a Mexican lottery commercial trying to sneak into Mexico wherein he says "it's easier to win in Mexico," which brings a threat of violence until he explains he's just talking about the awesomeness of Gana Gol. And then he gets kicked out because Mexicans hate Landon Donovan.

Before the existence of Donovan it was impossible to envision Mexican fans hating any specific USA player more than he hated whatever it was the jerseys stood for in their minds, because he killed them in a way no USA player was capable of before. Because Donovan was a little weird, a little effeminate he got saddled with unflattering nicknames like "Landycakes" as soon as anything went wrong with his career. And he may even have (momentarily) lived up to that nickname when he went a little stir-crazy last year. But never forget: Mexico feared Landon Donovan.

And then there's all this other stuff.

The Analytical Hat in re: Donovan

I still don't get it unless Klinsmann's doing it for You Must Step Up purposes. Brad Davis's inclusion is solely because he can play Tiny Beckerman on set pieces and the (very) occasional cross a high-level opponent will let him swing in. He's a legit A in that department; Donovan is at worst a B+ and is also Landon Donovan.

The only thing that makes sense other than hand-waving motivational stuff is that Donovan's performance on the infamous "beep test" was so bad that they couldn't look the rest of the team in the eye and bring him. I don't mind dragging Green along since player #23 is never going to play, so locking that guy down and prepping him for 2018 is worthwhile.

Brad Davis, though? I look at this roster and see no way he's getting in a game. Might as well bring Landon.

The unquestioned man, then

Michael Bradley of USA

Not that there was much of a question before, but minus Donovan and coming off this display of Keyser Soze-level will…

…Michael Bradley is the engine the team is built around. I mean.

"This will be a World Cup where teams that do well will suffer. We want to be the team that can suffer the most."

This is a man with an armband whether he has it or not.

I've expressed my opinion on this repeatedly elsewhere, but to reiterate: the USMNT looks its best when Bradley is paired with an outright holder and allowed to range upfield as far as he wants. With someone else maintaining a screen to help prevent breaks, Bradley has the fitness to recover when the US is caught out. When Bradley can become part of the rushes upfield on the regular, his passing, vision, and late runs into the box give the US attack verve it lacks otherwise. Bradley also does excellent work providing the kind of high pressure that leads to dangerous turnovers and central backs hoofing it upfield. There is no substitute.

Unfortunately, Klinsmann fave-rave Jermaine Jones is around and likely to start despite his inability to be that player. When paired together it's Jones flying up the pitch more often than not, and generally to little effect other than taking a long shot. Bradley stays back and plays well, but has much less impact on the game. And at this point it's clear that Klinsmann either can't or doesn't want to rein Jones in.

I would prefer Cameron or Beckerman, but with Goodson cut and Gonzalez shaky Cameron is at least the #3 center back and will compete to be #2. Meanwhile Beckerman struggles mightily against speed. The thing he has going for him is that the US has clearly focused on having quick outside backs, which may allow for Beckerman to do his positioning and passing thing as others cover for his lack of range.

Outside backs: fast

image

Yedlin also brings hair to the table, so much hair that GIS asks you if you'd like to search for not just "Yedlin hair" but "Yedlin hair 2013."

The US cut Parkhurst and Evans to include DeAndre Yedlin, a 20-year-old with one cap to his name, and Timmy Chandler, who hasn't been on the team in six months. And, yeah. Had to do it. Evans and Parkhurst were consistently exploited by low-level players because they simply could not keep up with them, and since they were no less likely to get skinned by the likes of Ronaldo you might as well roll with the guys who can catch up to him after.

Pair with DaMarcus Beasley and you've got a set of gentlemen who can keep up when pressed. Are things going to go spectacularly well there? No. But Evans seemed like a disaster waiting to happen at the World Cup level and I'm saying there's a chance things are okay with Chandler and Yedlin.

Again, I would prefer Fabian Johnson at right back but with the cut of Donovan he is the most obvious choice for left wing. In fact, he is about the only choice.

Who's on the left?

Johnson and Beasley have played a lot on the left side of the US formation. Nobody else on the roster has. And nobody else on the roster seems like a natural fit there. Bedoya and Zusi are right-sided players, Johannsson and Green are striker types, Diskerud is a central player… what happens if injury or cards knock out either one of the presumptive left sided starters?

A: the other one plays left back and the US tries something along the lines of what it was doing with Eddie Johnson playing "left wing" as an in-cutting player trying to get a shot off with his stronger right foot. That could be Dempsey if the US is in a two-striker formation with Bradley its defacto attacking mid; it is most likely to be Johannsson, who has a combination of speed and deftness on the ball that no one else on the roster does except possibly Green, who is… wait for it… really green.

Johannsson does have experience on both wings, and while he says he wants to play closer to the box, in-cutting wingers opposite crossing specialists (hi, also hi) are very close to strikers anyway.

The only thing about that in-cutting formation is that it does place demands on your left back to be a high-placed defacto winger… and demands on your right back to be quite good defensively. (Like the 4-3 under is halfway between a 4-3 even and a 3-4, a setup like this is kind of halfway between a 4-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1.) In the event that Johannsson ends up as a left winger that might be a spot where you play Cameron at right back.

Chance to start against Ghana rankings

  1. Michael Bradley
  2. Tim Howard
  3. Clint Dempsey
  4. Fabian Johnson
  5. DaMarcus Beasley
  6. Matt Besler
  7. Jozy Altidore
  8. Jermaine Jones
  9. Graham Zusi
  10. Geoff Cameron
  11. Timmy Chandler
  12. Omar Gonzalez
  13. DeAndre Yedlin
  14. Aron Johannson
  15. Kyle Beckerman
  16. Alejandro Bedoya
  17. Mix Diskerud
  18. Julian Green
  19. Brad Guzan
  20. Chris Wondolowski
  21. John Brooks
  22. Brad Davis
  23. Nick Rimando

WAG at what it looks like

Don't take this bit too seriously, as Klinsmann has shown a penchant for changing things based on opponent. Bob Bradley would settle on a thing and roll it out over and over; Klinsmann has been experimenting.

But the most likely things is the 4-2-3-1 he's been rolling out on and off since his arrival:

                                     Altidore

Johnson                       Dempsey                          Zusi

                            Jones           Bradley

Beasley               Besler            Cameron              Chandler

I would prefer something like the 4-4-2 diamond they tried out in a recent friendly, with Bradley dropping back when faced with opponent possession and  Dempsey moving under Altidore to provide an outlet and link to Altidore up top.

WITH THE BALL

                              Altidore          Dempsey

                                          Bradley                   

Johnson                                                              Zusi

                                       Beckerman

Beasley                Besler          Cameron             Chandler

WITHOUT THE BALL

                                       Altidore

                                       Dempsey

Johnson                                                                Zusi

                            Beckerman       Bradley

Beasley                Besler               Cameron            Chandler

I do think the Johannson-as-left wing scenario is in the mix, in which case Johnson would likely bump Beasley at left back and Cameron may flip to RB and allow Gonzalez to enter.

How I'm feeling

Nervous, man. This was supposed to be the last hurrah for this generation of players, but there are only five guys on the whole team who were at the last World Cup. This is uncharted territory for everyone save Dempsey, Bradley, Beasley, and Howard. I mean:

But I guess I'd be nervous anyway.