By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 8, 2015) US Soccer Players – If anything about USMNT 2 – Honduras 1 from Frisco, Texas on Tuesday night surprised anyone, it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention. That was the Gold Cup as it tends to be. That was CONCACAF as it usually is.
Honduras took the game to the United States, throwing in a healthy dose of physical play for good measure. At no point did Jurgen Klinsmann’s team look comfortable. Rarely did they look in control. Over the course of 90 minutes, the Americans managed to do twice what Honduras could only manage once. Score.
When needed, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey rose to the occasion, providing the service and finishing respectively, that led the USMNT to victory. Bradley, the new captain, delivered the balls that Dempsey, the old captain, put into the net. That’s veteran leadership doing its job.
A few words seem necessary on Bradley, who not only took over the captaincy for this tournament, but reached the 100 cap plateau in Tuesday’s game. Once a talented, but sometimes quick-tempered, young midfielder dogged by the notion that he made his way into the team based mostly because his father was in charge, Bradley has become a fixture in the team that is fast approaching iconic status. If the United States goes on to win this tournament, particular if it comes at the expense of rivals Mexico, it will be difficult to keep Bradley off the top of a list of the greatest central midfielders in US soccer history.
The Gold Cup group stage tends to be more an exercise in scraping by than looking good. By virtue of their group and the schedule, this was always going to be a difficult way for the USMNT to start the tournament. Not only is Honduras adept at making life for their opponents miserable by playing a rough-and-tumble physical style, but new head coach Jorge Luis Pinto (the former top man with Costa Rica) has turned them into a more aggressive team on the attacking side of the ball as well. The Central Americans took the game to the United States from the opening whistle. It took quite a bit of time before Klinsmann’s team gained some semblance of balance in the game. They spent the first 20 minutes on their heels.
Some of that is certainly down to the lineup Klinsmann chose to put out in the Gold Cup opener. With plenty of experience in the center of the field and at the forward position, the head coach chose to turn to two 22-year olds at center back. John Brooks, he of 13 total caps, and Ventura Alvarado, appearing for the first time ever in a competitive match for the United States, took up key defensive positions in front of new number one goalkeeper Brad Guzan. It went about as well as expected.
Both Brooks and Alvarado are talented players with bright futures. Klinsmann sees that, hence their inclusion in this team. Until Tuesday night, neither had experienced the odd chaotic intensity of the CONCACAF and the Gold Cup.
In the Gold Cup group stage universe, the laws of the game have a tendency to go sideways. Contact that is by all rights a foul elsewhere goes uncalled by CONCACAF refs. Moments that don’t seem to be fouls at all garner a whistle. Most troublingly, CONCACAF teams have the unique ability to harry defenders into rather simple mistakes they wouldn’t make anywhere else.
The education of Alvarado and Brooks was just one part of the difficulty presented by Honduras, the conditions, and the pressure of the tournament. Gyasi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin also learned on the job. Taking into account that neither is a natural midfielder, and that the shared defensive responsibilities of the flanks stretched their effectiveness in the game, and the Americans might have come out better than could be expected. Whatever benefit Klinsmann was looking for by playing the two speedy but green players, his team and his midfield instead struggled because of it.
In that way that all soccer teams are interconnected units made up of eleven individual parts, the Americans performance on Tuesday wasn’t its best. Bradley and Beckerman needed to put in extra work to cover for Yedlin and Zardes, who may not have had the instructions to help make up the numbers in the midfield at all. If that’s the case, rate their performance accordingly.
Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler, fullbacks who pushed forward as they usually do in Klinsmann’s teams, created holes behind them as Yedlin and Zardes adapted to their new-ish roles. With Johnson and Chandler moving into the attack, young center backs Alvarado and Brooks found themselves isolated. All of that adds up to nothing near the US best.
Luckily, in the end it didn’t matter. The scoreboard is all that did, and it reflected the Americans’ set piece effectiveness. Dempsey is on the team to score goals, as Klinsmann so presciently pointed out when he switched the captaincy to Bradley. That’s what Dempsey did.
Maybe it wasn’t the best night for the USMNT, if the measure is an objective analysis of their play. Maybe it was if the measure is winning and losing. This is the group stage of the Gold Cup, so let’s go with that.
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