Preview: Argentina Comment Count

Brian June 21st, 2016 at 3:30 PM

Last time out. Facing the suspension of Deandre Yedlin, Klinsmann flipped Fabian Johnson to the right and brought in Matt Besler as a left-back-type-substance. This looked weird on the surface. When soccer folk attempt to describe an overall tactical approach with a formation those formations are invariably symmetrical and identical in attack and on defense; neither of these things are true in practice. Besler barely ventured forward when the US had the ball; Fabian Johnson bombed up the right sideline all game. Both of these decisions were suited to their play, and the US played their best first half of the tournament. It was predictable but it put people in roles they were good at.

Things went nuts in the second half after red cards to each team. Jermaine Jones put a fist in the vicinity of an Ecuador player to even things up after Antonio Valencia got a second yellow card, turning what should have been a comfortable exercise in seeing out a game a man and a goal up into a frenetic finish. Klinsmann left Clint Dempsey on the field an inordinately long time, leaving the US with just seven guys trying to defend. This paid off with a goal, and then bit the US when Dempsey continued afterwards. Klinsmann also left on a number of US players on yellow cards and got his just desserts for doing so when an exhausted Alejandro Bedoya pulled an opponent back after getting beaten. He was issued a yellow that suspends him for this game. Steve Birnbaum would come on in the 93rd minute as a middle finger to common sense.

But they're here, in a semi-final against Argentina. This is an opportunity for history.


This dude 1) scores 2/3rds of a goal per game in the EPL, 2) comes off Argentina's bench

So… Argentina. The problem is that they're not just Messi. Throw a rock at the attacking players on Argentina's team and you will hit a cornerstone of one of the elite clubs in the world. A dude with 102 goals in 150 appearances for Manchester City comes off their bench. FIFA rankings blah blah blah; #1 does mean something.

After years of frustration they've finally figured out how to deploy Messi in the context of the national team: they tell him to do whatever he wants and try to run into useful places. Messi roams from sideline to sideline, from front to back, and is extremely difficult to mark out of a game as a result.

Their defense looks elite but is part a creation of their possession; they had a shaky period against Venezuela where the Rio Tinto outside backs were bombing forward and unsettling the D's organization. Venezuela hit a post, missed a penalty, and forced a couple excellent saves out of the Argentina keeper.

Argentina's back four is not to the standard of the rest of the team. They start Gabriel Mercado, a 29-year-old Liga MX player with just six caps, at one outside back spot. The other outside back spot is a Man U player who has trouble getting league appearances; Everton center back Ramio Funes Mori has been a bit iffy in this tournament. This is still Argentina we're talking about here but they're not overwhelming back to front like a Germany is. Those center backs are generally regarded as the weak links of the team, and a quick counter attack or successful overload could stake the US to a lead. Argentina is vulnerable to the kind of goals the US scored against Ecuador. The US can have a period of similar productivity, and maybe they have better luck.

Just one problem.

Wood is the man, and he's on the bench. Wood is a brutal loss since he's been maybe the USA's best player in this tournament not named John Brooks—he is capable of runs behind the defense and hold-up play, a complete forward the US hasn't seen since the brief moment when Charlie Davies was reaching his peak. While it came to little, Wood's tenacity and speed were most apparent on a run early in the Ecuador game that had no business turning into a shot but did nonetheless:

That is a guy who puts the fear of God into center backs.

Woods had two hockey assists in that game as his runs drove the opposition back to the mouth of their own goal and opened up space for crosses against a defense that had already spent a center back chasing him.* Davies was the last US forward to threaten like this. His activity became so integral to the USA's gameplan under Bob Bradley that Bradley not only brought but started Robbie Findley during the 2010 World Cup. Since Findley was a version of Davies with cement blocks for feet this was a mistake; it demonstrates just how dangerous and difficult to find a guy like Wood is for the US. (Except they've got another one playing in Seattle, but that's another post.)

Everyone assumes that the US will slide Zardes up top and try to get the same production. Zardes does match Wood's speed and endurance but Wood is super productive at finding space, something Zardes is erratic at. His first touch has been discussed to death for good reason; he's not likely to replicate Wood's production. The US is hoping he has a moment or two where it works out and he can apply his physical gifts. The other option is Chris Wondolowski, which: no.

*[Fancy talk for this is "running the channels." To execute this a center forward runs diagonally to the edge of the field, usually when the outside back is up the field. A center back generally gets pulled into an uncomfortable spot and the defense has to rotate to cover. Just like in basketball, a rotating defense is a vulnerable one. The second goal is a quintessential example of that activity.]

What now? Wood, Jones, and Bedoya are suspended for the semifinal.  Losing the two central midfielders at the same time is rough but survivable since there are reasonable replacements; losing Wood is probably fatal for the USA's chances in a game where they don't figure to have much of the ball.

I'm operating under the following assumptions:

  • The US will continue using Dempsey as a second forward under a true #9
  • They will not be averse to asymmetry in the formation
  • Darlington Nagbe made fun of Klinsmann's hair

Klinsmann has gone with all the old guys for his substitutions so far, frustratingly. Continuing that would be a major mistake. The Argentina back line had a lot of trouble with Venezuela's outside speed. Beckerman has just about reached his expiration date. I'd rather roll with a more athletic player there.

I would stick with the unbalanced formation the US used against Ecuador and slide Fabian Johnson up. You're going to need a moment of brilliance or two and Johnson is one of the likeliest candidates to provide that if he's allowed to play on the wing. It could look like this:

You could flip Pusilic in for Zusi but the chances of that seem very low.

FWIW, this is the formation most of the USA internet has arrived at. It lets Yedlin fly up the wing like Fabian Johnson did in the previous game and puts Johnson back at the spot that he excelled in this season for Gladbach. With Argentina down Angel Di Maria and Nicholas Gaitan they don't have a ton of width. Their outside backs don't get forward much; they don't do a whole lot of crossing. They had only 12 in the Venezuela game, and one of those was the ridiculous Messi assist from 40 yards out. All this means the US would do well to replicate their gameplan against Spain in the Confederations Cup: load up the middle and clear the crosses.

The gameplan with Beckerman looks something like this:

Nagbe has been more effective in the center of midfield in the last couple years of MLS play but this would be more or less fine. Other exotic options include dumping Dempsey for a 100% bunker, bringing in DM Perry Kitchen, and deploying Pusilic. None of these seem at all likely, but Klinsmann might Klinsmann.

Nagbe is critical because he is the USA's best bet to relieve pressure and get more of the ball. His exclusion has been somewhat reasonable to date; leaving him out in this game means both Zusi and Beckerman are playing and means the US is playing to survive a 90 minute onslaught and hope for the best in penalties. Given the situation Nagbe is a better defensive player than Beckerman. He would not fare as well in a defensive mid role but he doesn't have to play it, and Nagbe is a huge upgrade in both athleticism and ability to possess the ball.

This tournament is already a success. It's hard to imagine that the continual changes in both personnel and formation will persist going forward. The back five are just about set. Wood and Dempsey are your first choice forward pairing. Jones, Bedoya, Zardes, and Nagbe will battle for midfield spots. There's one slot in the first-choice 11 that is up for grabs based on performance (Zardes) and two that may have to be revisited due to age or continued problems with red mist (Dempsey and Jones). For a team that didn't start the same center back pairing since the assassination of Franz Ferdinand until the run up to this tournament that's a quantum leap forward.

Most of the questions concern backup spots now and even a couple of those (Jordan Morris, for one) have reasonable answers going forward. Outside back, as always, is the main area of concern.

Klinsmann still behaves like a man who's petrified people will see through the emperor's new clothes and is replacement-level at best, but… hey, replacement level! I can dig that!



June 21st, 2016 at 3:42 PM ^

Eh, I wouldn't call it 'just deserts' on Klinsmann for the yellow card suspensions. Those are all on Jones. Wood doesn't try to stop play when it shouldn't have restarted if Jones doesn't get sent off. If the US is a man up, they can ease back, invite attack and hit a counter to an outnumbered defense. The sub out important guys. Instead the US is 10v10 against a team that thrives on space with talented attackers to exploit it. He has to leave Bedoya in as long as possible to ensure a win. If Jones doesn't do something boneheaded, then the US looks a lot different heading into this game. That said, I think the first line up presented is the ideal we can expect from Klinsmann, and probably the best overall the US can field right now. I for one don't think Pulisic should start. The arguments for him mirror the inevitable argument college football fans have about starting a true freshman over a seasoned vet because the vet isn't elite. Pulisic might be elite in a few years, but he's not there yet, and doesn't trump a vet's experience over a full 90 min. He should be a second half sub of the US are chasing or need a change of pace.

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Yinka Double Dare

June 21st, 2016 at 4:04 PM ^

Bedoya was exhausted, and it was obvious he was exhausted even before the yellow. Klinsmann even subbed him out not too long after the yellow. It was a dumb lapse, and it was obvious to a ton of people watching the game.

Same goes for Zardes, waiting until late in stoppage time to sub him out. He looked dead with 5, 10 minutes to go, and subs kill some time too.


June 21st, 2016 at 4:18 PM ^

but Kilnsman has to respond to the situation Jones put him in. Could easily be argued that leaving Bedoya in wasn't really helping, and potentially hurting.  That the game turned into a frenetic 10v10 meant Bedoya and others were running themselves into the ground. Some fresh bodies there would have probably been better than your exhausted starter(s).


June 21st, 2016 at 3:49 PM ^

Beckerman and Zusi. I already know I'm seeing one of not both, but God JK just roll the dice this time. Give me Nagbe in the center, Pulisic outside mid. Beckerman is fine as a defensive sub against Guatemala, but against Argentina his slow ass will get us shredded.

Klinsman finally found a stating 11 that makes sense and rolled with it, a shame we aren't at full strength especially with the extra rest. But if there was ever a house money game, this is it.


June 21st, 2016 at 4:58 PM ^

I agree with the premise of your post.  It'd be nice if Nagbe/Pulisic didn't get their first start against Argentina, but if you consider that this is basically a friendly (in that we have zero expectations) it may not be such a bad thing.

Still, you know he's going with Beckerman & Zusi, and it sort of makes sense why he's doing so.  It's just not what I WANT him to do.


June 21st, 2016 at 7:00 PM ^

Yea I agree when faced with adversity most coaches go with what they know (Beckerman and Zusi) rather than rolling with the unknown. 

The expectations are limited, however if you beat Argentina in a friendly a large segment will say, it was just a friendly. If we beat Argentina in the semi final of the Americas biggest tournament (probably the most loaded Copa field in history), it's one of the greatest victories in American soccer history. 


June 21st, 2016 at 4:00 PM ^

I will go with Arg 3-0.   I hope we play out of our minds, but even then it's a tall order.  If we can get an effort like the out right amazing play of Chile against Mexico, then we have a chance, unfortunately we have nobody like Alexi Sanchez or Vidal.


June 21st, 2016 at 4:03 PM ^

Sounded like 1st team at practice was something like this:

        Pulisic - Dempsey - Zardes
       Bradley - Beckerman - Zusi
Johnson - Brooks - Cameron - Yedlin

with Pulisic taking over for Wood, Bradley for Jones, Zusi for Bedoya, and Beckerman for Bradley. I guess Zardes would still have positional flexibility to shift to a 4-4-2. I just don't think Pulisic is a good like-for-like swap in for Wood. Can't see the team being as dangerous if he has for come shift to a holding CF role in front of Dempsey.


June 21st, 2016 at 4:06 PM ^

I think Jozy is maybe the forgotten man in this. He's out with another hamstring injury but think he could surpass Dempsey due to age for the 2018 World Cup. Dempsey will be on the team for sure and will still be able to contribute.

Aron Johannsson is the other missing Forward as he's out with a long-term injury as well. Suffice to say, if either were healthy Wondo isn't with the team. 


June 21st, 2016 at 4:17 PM ^

Why do people think Jozy will progress as a player? He's old too. I'd rather move on from him and Wondo all together. If we expect either to play a large role in. 2018 we may as well not show up in the first place.

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June 21st, 2016 at 4:44 PM ^

This isn't necessarily net goals per 90 minutes--this is just goals/appearances (whether starting, sub, etc). I don't have time to put that together averaged out by raw minutes. But here's your list, including Donovan.



34 goals in 93 matches (.36 gpm)


52/128 (.40 gpm)


10/33 (.30 gpm)


6/23 (.26 gpm)


6/29 (.20 gpm)


4/19 (.21 gpm)


57/157 (.36 gpm)



June 21st, 2016 at 4:22 PM ^

Leaving work right now to prep. Tickets were stupid expensive even before the US made it. My nose bleeds were 155ish a piece.

Should be fun. If we pull off the unlikely win*, I may diary it. Either way, this tournament has been a success and turned around my opinion on Klinnsman.

**Not really


June 21st, 2016 at 5:30 PM ^

It's much easier to pull off an upset in hockey than soccer. In hockey the best player is not always in the ice and you can take advantage of mismatches with different line changes. In soccer you have to deal with Messi, Aguero and Higuain for 90 minutes. If the US somehow beats Argentina, it will be right up there with Miracle on Ice. This Argentina team is stacked and hungry to finally win a trophy (have not done so since 1993). They've lost in the World Cup and Copa America final in consecutive tourneys... it's a must win game for players like Messi, who still hasn't won anything with the national team.


June 21st, 2016 at 5:44 PM ^

It's not 128/1, because like you mention, it's the semi-final in a major tournament. Both teams have to be playing pretty well to get here.

The comparison to the Miracle on Ice isn't totally crazy though.  The Americans were playing at home, we're playing well, and playing the best team in the world.  And hockey is a sport that is relatively high variance from talent to results. Some estimates (the NY Times) that going into the medal round the US was only a 17/1 underdog to win gold, let alone beat the Russians.

7/1 isn't crazy but it's pretty high for a semi and it also takes into a account a large home field advantage.  There is a wider talent gap than the odds indicate, so from a talent perspective, it would be more epic than from an odds perspective.