Wednesday, June 27, 2007

U.S. - Argentina Preview and Copa America Thoughts

By Tim Froh

Special to Climbing the Ladder

With the win over Mexico behind them and the daunting prospect of facing a stacked Argentine squad ahead of them, Bob Bradley’s U.S. Men’s National Team is set for what must certainly be the greatest test of Bradley’s short tenure as coach. It was this same Argentine squad that dismantled Serbia and Montenegro in last summer’s World Cup, 6-0. That was the same Serbia and Montenegro squad that conceded the fewest goals in UEFA World Cup Qualifying. Now imagine a U.S. backline of quick-but-positionally-unsound Jonathan Bornstein, even-faster-but-just-as-tactically-unsound Marvell Wynne, and a central combination of Jimmy Conrad and Jay DeMerit, all backed up by an aging Kasey Keller (or a green Brad Guzan) in goal. The challenge seems practically Herculean in proportion.

Still, one shouldn’t draw too many comparisons between last summer’s dismantling of Serbia and Montenegro (which featured perhaps the greatest goal of the entire tournament, here) and the challenge that awaits the U.S. youngsters tonight. It’s doubtful that the U.S. midfield and defense will give as much space to the Argentines as the Serbians did. And, despite their youth and the lack of quality finishers, the United States still boasts a more potent offense than did Serbia and Montenegro (despite his occasional laziness, Justin Mapp presents a much more technically gifted offensive presence than any one on that World Cup squad). All comparisons between the two end here though. If anything, the one lesson to draw from that game is to not bunker down. There are few national teams capable of breaking through an air-tight bunker, but Argentina, with its plethora of skillful passers and its immense talent on and off the ball, is one of them.

To go back to last Sunday’s victory over Mexico for a minute, the one element of that victory that stuck out was the United States’ unwillingness to sit back and bunker and the tenacity the team showed when down a goal (a quality rarely witnessed during Arena’s tenure). While the defensive lapses on Sunday never cost the United States the game, few would argue that Argentina is not capable of punishing those same mistakes, given that they possess an attacking force that features Tevez, Crespo, Messi, and Riquelme. Yet what Bradley’s strategy revealed was fearlessness, a total willingness to confront Mexico on its own terms. While his squad for tonight’s game may differ insofar as the relative strength of its talent, it still possesses enough skill (Clark, Feilhaber, Mapp, Johnson) to (occasionally) offensively test the Argentines. And what does Bradley learn from a bunker, other than that his players are either good or bad at executing it?

I suspect though that we’ll see very little daring in Bradley’s starting eleven. While I think he’ll ultimately go with a 4-4-2, an Arena-esque 4-5-1 may also be a possibility, a point I’ll get to later:






This line-up is probably the safest (and the most sane) that Bradley can make against what is surely going to be a very motivated Argentine squad. Allow me to reiterate that this is an estimation of what I think Bradley is going to do. While I’d feel safer with a more stay-at-home, more traditional left back in Pearce, I imagine that Bradley will once again give his favorite prodigy (from his Chivas U.S.A. days) Bornstein a chance at left back. On the right, other than Wynne the only real option is Drew Moor, a player who only moved to right defense this season with Dallas, and a position he is still in the process of learning.

Moving forward, I would be awfully surprised if Bradley did not give Ricardo Clark and Benny Feilhaber another chance together in midfield. After Clark came on for Pablo Mastroeni in Sunday’s game against Mexico, the whole dynamic of the game changed. His tireless work rate, passing, and communication with Feilhaber could at the very least mean that the U.S. isn’t spending the entire game in its own half of the field. The two midfielders’ ability to work together will be sorely tested against a possession-oriented opponent in Argentina.

On the wings, another Bradley prodigy, Sacha Kljestan will doubtless start on the right. The only other options available to Bradley are Eddie Gaven, Lee Nguyen, and Herculez Gomez. However, Gaven has failed to impress at Columbus this season, Nguyen is still green, and the Copa America is Gomez’s first U.S. camp. It’s unlikely that any of them would start ahead of Kljestan, a player with whom Bradley has great rapport and experience. On the left, Justin Mapp seems to be the only option. His passing and ability to beat players off the dribble will be useful, but he is also prone to laziness and lapses in defensive effort, always a danger against Argentina, against whom the defenders will not want to over-commit.

Johnson and Twellman are the most likely combination we will see tonight. Both had mediocre Gold Cups (perhaps worse in Twellman’s case because of the obvious lack of finishing ability he displayed), but each will be looking to solidify a place in Bradley’s squad as they are slowly pushed out of the picture. This tournament will provide each with what may be their last chance to truly establish a place in the squad. It’s imperative that Johnson use his speed and strength to break down the Argentine defense. If we see any hint of the laziness he displayed against Canada, it will be a long, long night for the U.S.

While the 4-4-2 above is the most likely formation that we’ll see tonight, it’s also possible that Bradley will lean towards a 4-5-1, throwing Ben Olsen or Kyle Beckerman into the center of the pitch as well to support Clark and Feilhaber and to clog up the Argentine passing lanes. This strategy though could make for one ugly game and even fewer offensive chances for the U.S. If anything, Arena’s use of the formation demonstrated that Johnson did not do very good work alone up top, even with superior players behind him (Donovan and Beasley, to name two).

While tonight’s game will be a supreme test for the squad, I’d like to see Bradley take more of an experimental tact in the final two group games against Columbia and Paraguay. In Columbia, the U.S. will find itself up against an opponent willing to attack and open up the game. However, against Paraguay (a very skilled team, but one prone to team defense and 1-0 scorelines) the U.S. will really need to emphasize creativity in the midfield and display a willingness to take defenders on one v. one. Against both squads, I’d actually like to see Bradley try a 4-3-3:







This line-up not only provides defensive cover, but it also gives Clark, Feilhaber, and Kljestan the opportunity to roam the midfield and exchange offensive and defensive roles and responsibilities (something similar to Clark’s role in Houston’s interchangeable diamond midfield). While up front it frees Gomez and Mapp from more strenuous defensive duties, allowing each to attack the goal, while also utilizing Johnson’s strength and speed to break down and stretch opposing defenses. However, soccer is a game that is played on the field and not on paper. No matter how much I may like the look of this line-up here, it’s doubtful that Bradley will replicate it against either Columbia or Paraguay. Still, Bradley needs to find a way to utilize Gomez and Mapp as offensive weapons rather than two-way wingers (which they are not).

The Copa America is going to provide Bradley and the U.S. with an immense test. Not only will Bradley’s pre-game and in-game tactics be even more scrutinized than they were in the Gold Cup, but the players themselves, without the on-field talents of Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, or DaMarcus Beasley to surround them, will have to step up their game against top-level opposition. Rather than look at this as an embarrassment for U.S. soccer (as some fans have), they ought to embrace it as an opportunity to see Bradley’s adaptability as a coach and these players’ abilities to take their game to the next level.

Some Post-Gold Cup Thoughts:

  • I'm happy that Bob Bradley finally got beyond his rather infantile benching of Ricardo Clark. Just because you're embarassed that you traded him to San Jose only for him to become the league's premier two-way central midfielder, doesn't mean he shouldn't be starting. Clark absolutely transformed the midfield after he came on on Sunday. I still contend that one of Arena's biggest mistakes was never giving this kid a chance in the lead up to the World Cup. Who among us wouldn't have rather seen Clark lining up against Ghana than Ben Olsen?
  • Lost in all the discussion over whether Michael Bradley is good enough to be receiving call-ups and playing time, and whether his starts in the Gold Cup were the dubious product of nepotism, is the fact that this kid is only nineteen. His ceiling is very, very high. Let's just hope he gets some quality starting time with Heerenveen this season. (P.S. He played one hell of a game against Canada - minus the red card.)
  • I actually really hope Eddie Johnson can find motivation to become the talent we know he's capable of becoming. I say this not so much for Eddie's sake, but so that obnoxious U.S. fans will leave Josmer Altidore, Johann Smith, and Gabe Ferrari alone so that they can develop on their own time. Still, the lack of quality finishing from our forwards is troubling. I'm hoping someone will step up in the next few years, no matter who it is.
  • Simek and Spector look like quality prospects on the outside, but the U.S. is really starting to look thin in central defense. Jimmy Conrad, who may be our most consistent and solid center back (as an Earthquakes fan you cannot possibly imagine how astonishing it is every time to type that), turned 30 this year. He'd be 33 in 2010. Bocanegra, while solid against Mexico, is still prone to boneheaded mistakes and lapses in thought. And Onyewu...I'm really hoping he finds a solid club, gets his confidence back, and learns to really control his strength and size. If he can do that, he'll be a solid player.
  • Quietly, Landon Donovan had a very good Gold Cup tournament. No one gives this kid any respect or credit, but he's truly turned in some fabulous performances under Bradley so far. It seems that Bradley has finally found a spot that suits him just right (a hybrid position that alternates between withdrawn forward and right midfielder).

Comments on "U.S. - Argentina Preview and Copa America Thoughts"


Blogger FC Denver said ... (11:04 AM, June 28, 2007) : 

Excellent Commentary, A nice aside from the thorough stats. Thx.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (3:43 PM, June 28, 2007) : 

The notion that Twellman had a worse Gold Cup than Eddie is laughable. Which is worse: trying hard and struggling or not trying at all?

I'm not sure what was quiet about Landon's play either. 4 goals in 6 games, All-Tournament team. Aside from the friendly against Ecuador, this was the best soccer we've seen him play. Anyone not giving him 'any respect or credit' just wasn't paying attention.


Blogger Tim Froh said ... (4:45 PM, June 28, 2007) : 

I agree to an extent about the Johnson/Twellman debate. However, I'd like to point out that Eddie is a serviceable striker in the right system (look at how Onalfo uses him as a pure finisher in KC). Twellman plays hard and I really like him as a game-killing sub (a la Cobi), but his finishing on the international level has been disappointing to say the least.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (5:19 PM, June 28, 2007) : 

In the right system, right mindset and the right players around him, there's no doubt that Eddie is a monster. The 'very good' version of Eddie runs rings around Twellman.

However, I take issue with the statement that Twellman's Gold Cup was 'perhaps worse' than Johnson's. It wasn't even close.

Eddie looked either confused or bored his entire time on the field, his best plays coming when he chose not to touch the ball. While Twellman worked his butt off on both sides of the ball, got himself in good spots going forward, but didn't finish well.


Blogger Tim Froh said ... (5:46 PM, June 28, 2007) : 

My biggest problem is that Eddie started with some of the worst midfield line-ups in the tournament. Against T & T he had Ralston and the unexperienced Mapp on the wings. He played with our defensive-minded central mids (Bradley and Mastroeni) against Canada. I'm not making excuses for him, he didn't play paritcularly well in either game (although I was at the Canada game, and thought he looked pretty good off the ball - I don't know if that picked up on TV), but I think we can agree that he has a huge opportunity tonight against Argentina to prove his doubters wrong (same goes for Twellman). But to go back to your orginal point, a striker's job isn't to work hard on both sides of the ball, it's to score goals. Both could do A LOT better.


Blogger scaryice said ... (11:49 PM, June 28, 2007) : 

Hey, I told you Olsen would start.



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