By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 13, 2018) US Soccer Players – The cross initially looked unthreatening, maybe even under hit. It stayed low as it left the foot of Antonee Robinson, who was just a couple of yards from the USMNT’s left touchline. Mexico had five defenders goal side, and only one US player in their penalty box to track.
The ball slipped into an empty and thus dangerous pocket, wrongfooting El Tri center backs Hugo Ayala and Edson Alvarez on its way. Catching the midsection of Mexico’s lineup unaware, it sat up invitingly for Tyler Adams, who’d motored some 40 yards from near the midfield stripe to arrive at the top of the box at the perfect moment. His calm, textbook side-footed finish was his first USMNT goal, and the game-winner in Tuesday’s friendly in Nashville, Tennessee.
“It was good timing, and the ball just trickled right to me,” Adams told ESPN afterwards. “It was one of the weirdest things. Watching it was like in slo-mo, the ball just came to me and I was able to finish it.”
Postgame discussion has largely revolved around the Matt Miazga-Diego Lainez faceoff, and not without reason. That moment transformed the game’s energy, rousing the rivalry ghosts of old and set the stage for the Angel Zaldivar red card that put the USMNT in the driver’s seat. It could yet prove to be the latest iconic flashpoint of this history-laden matchup. Adams’s winner may offer a more substantive base to build on in the day ahead, however.
It wasn’t a complete performance from USMNT coach Dave Sarachan’s side, who struggled in possession in the first-half. The identity of the next head coach remains unknown, and thus so does the philosophy that will guide the program for the next four years. Friday’s 2-0 loss to Brazil in New Jersey was a sobering reality check. Tuesday offered more to build on, at the very least in its display of fire and resilience.
With all that in mind, here’s three takeaways as the program shifts towards October meetings with Colombia and Peru.
Work to do in attack
It’s not clear whether Sarachan and his staff had orchestrated the pattern of the game-winning play on the training ground. Either way, the decisive sequence had a welcome air of premeditation to it. This was the third straight game Adams and Robinson have played in together, and that can foster key moments of chemistry in situations like this.
The goal was much-needed, considering how few the USMNT has scored this year. Adams’s strike was just the USMNT’s seventh tally of 2018 in as many games. The squad needed attacking inspiration after the loss to Brazil. The win over Mexico sends players back to their clubs in a better state of mind. Sometimes one play really can make all the difference in an international window.
Why have goals been so hard to come by under Sarachan? He’s stated his belief that the forward corps is the shallowest area of the depth chart. Bringing in a steady stream of new players also tends to complicate efforts to foster the collective understanding and speed of thought found on elite teams. His preference for generally conservative tactical outlooks like the 4-1-4-1 used in most of his games in charge, including Tuesday, is also a factor.
Like many would in his position, Sarachan seems to have prioritized organized defending to provide a sturdy foundation for this US youth movement. That made sense. Now it looks time to graduate to more complex ideas and execution, even if he remains a caretaker boss. Whether it’s new faces, a formational tweak or better partnerships in the final third, evolution is a must.
Flashes of the old way
With several strong outings over the past year, Adams had already announced his presence on the USMNT scene. This week’s goal was the capper. The New York Red Bulls midfielder combines a rugged throwback mentality and work rate with a very modern tactical awareness and versatility. His game-breaking moment also harked back to a time when the US had a clearer stylistic identity as a counterattacking team, able to change the tenor of any game with opportunistic transitions.
El Tri won the possession battle and showcased new additions to their fleet of skillful, elusive attackers, most notably Lainez. Yet as with so many past editions of USMNT vs Mexico, they found themselves on the losing end because of the Yanks’ comfort in defense, and superior efficiency in front of goal.
That formula helped the USMNT grow into a Concacaf giant in Bruce Arena’s first stint in charge and particularly under Bob Bradley, peaking with the 2009 Confederations Cup and 2010 World Cup runs. That success unfolded in stark contrast to the Spain-led rise of “tiki taka” and a worldwide fascination with its possession-heavy tenets, though. The Federation’s search for the next step, a more proactive approach, led to Jurgen Klinsmann’s hiring in 2011.
With reactive approaches having earned more global legitimacy since then, have the ground rules changed? That’s an angle for USMNT GM Earnie Stewart to contemplate.
Time for direction
Stewart is now fully in the fold and looking for the permanent new coach, a post he says US Soccer will fill by year’s end. If that proves to be the case, the program will have gone more than a year without one. This month’s games underlined why that hire can’t come soon enough.
Sarachan has made the best of an awkward and challenging situation. Apparently given little to no guidance or direction from above, he’s introduced many young, rising players and provided a steady hand in a tumultuous time. There are limits to that sort of stewardship model.
There are rational justifications for why it’s taken this long to proceed on the matter of USMNT leadership. The end of the 2018 qualifying cycle prompted all sorts of fallout, starting with a change of US Soccer president. That plus the reality of institutional inertia has gotten us to where we are now. Is this the best way to handle the vacancy? Would it have really mattered either way? Perhaps time will vindicate the Fed’s extremely measured pace.
In the meantime, Sarachan has introduced a promising crop of young talent. Now they need pointing in the direction they’ll travel for the next four years or so, and instructed in the tactics and methodology their long-term coach sees as the best way to get there.
The period in which holding patterns are acceptable or necessary is just about gone.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Young USMNT wade into deeper water against Brazil and Mexico
- Deuce calls time: A Dempsey appreciation
- The MLS developmental model and the appeal of European soccer
- As Crew edge closer to Austin, has MLS crossed a new threshold?
Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com