By Kevin Koczwara
First Half Thoughts
Spain won the World Cup in 2010 and Euros in 2008 because it’s one of those rare national teams that works as a unit and is loaded with über-skilled players. The side has a style of play, and all of the players understand how it works. It’s remarkable to see them work as a unit and build the attack from the back while never losing a defensive shape.
The attacking shape Spain has isn’t anything any other team outside of Brazil and the Netherlands — when its best player stop fighting with one another — can play. There is not form or answer. Players keep switching, moving into space, moving out and filling. It’s like a beautiful blob that keeps creating and always looks to go to goal.
For the U.S. Men’s National Team, it needs to tighten up at the back and get the midfield some help. Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones are out numbered and out-classed trying to mark and play against Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets — who’s barely had to do anything — and David Silva in the middle of the field. Santi Cazorla is swapping flanks and opening up space for either Sergio Ramos on the left side or Alvaro Arbeloa on the right to overlap and get in behind the defense.
Spain has also taken advantage of the funny bounce on the grass laid over the turf at Gillette. The ball sits up nicely for an attacker when the ball lands and dies on the sod. Because of this, Spain has sent over a few balls into space and to an attacker making a run because the ball won’t continue to roll or bounce all the way to Tim Howard in goal, instead the ball settles nicely on the foot of an attacker. The U.S.’s high line in the defense isn’t helping either. The high line is allowing space in behind and Tim Ream and Oguchi Onyewu don’t have the pace or the communication, or so it seems, to keep up with the through ball.
Second Half Thoughts
The United States just couldn’t cope in the midfield all game, but it did improve in the second half. Spain’s possession game wears a team out, and it just killed the U.S. Michael Bradley — who came on at half-time — Sacha Kljestan and Jonathan Spector — moving into the midfield after starting at right back — couldn’t swarm the ball or force mistakes with pressure because they were worn out from chasing the game.
Bob Bradley finally felt the need to bring on Clint Dempsey and move Jonathan Spector out of defense and into the midfield in the second half. Things clicked a bit better for the USMNT at that point, but it all didn’t work.
Dempsey playing high in the center of the midfield with Michael Bradley, who also came on at half-time, and Spector behind him gave Dempsey the freedom to open things up and hold the ball for the U.S., something the team lacked in the first half with Agudelo and Altidore up top as neither is particularly adept at brining other players into the game or holding the ball.
Kljestan was also impacted by Dempsey’s arrival and the Fulham player’s ability to get on the ball. Kljestan was almost invisible in the first half (I had to check with reporters around me to make sure he was a second half substitute). Kljestan had some positive moments on the ball when he came back and found some space because Dempsey was able to grab hold of the ball and allow Kljestan time to move into space to receive a pass, which is encouraging for Bob Bradley going into Gold Cup games because Kljestan will give him a positive player who can pass the ball and move in the midfield coming off the bench when something new is needed.
Spector looked more comfortable in the midfield than he did on the right side of the defense. At West Ham, he showed more potential and ability in the midfield as a ball winner who found himself ghosting into the box at the right time. Too bad for him that the depth in the midfield is the one area the U.S. actually has some. He needs to improve his game at right back, still, or get it back to the level of the Confederations Cup in 2009 — where he was a notable addition and stand-out — to find playing time during the Gold Cup.
Steve Cherundolo seems to be aging backwards and doesn’t look like he’s giving the spot up on the right side of the defense anytime soon, which is good for Bradley because he is short of options there. But the U.S. needs cover for the 32 year old, and if Spector doesn’t pick up his game he might see Eric Lichaj jumping ahead of him, as well as Timmy Chandler — who isn’t on the roster because of fatigue from his club season in Germany.
As for Lichaj, he looked uncomfortable on the left, but he hasn’t been playing there for long and he’s right footed, not an easy transition, especially against the best team in the world. There is still promise for him, though. As a right back, we might be able to see more of his ability to get forward and cross the ball.
The key for the game against Canada will be the U.S. ability to create, and its obvious that Clint Dempsey gives them the best chance at creating through the middle and holding play up. Bradley may look for him to be the catalyst in Detroit, Mich. against Canada in the opener if Landon Donovan has to miss the game because of the illness that kept him out of today’s match with Spain. When Dempsey was on the field, the parts all seemed to move and his skill on the ball allowed other players to find space and get into better spots to receive the ball. Which is something this team sorely needs right now.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesocerguysonline.com.