September 9, 2012
By Michael Lewis
No time to panic, but we can be worry warts with the U.S. team
It's certainly no time to panic, at least not yet. But it is certainly time to be concerned and even to worry.
Jurgen Klinsmann's decisions on the starting lineup for the 2-1 loss to Jamaica have to be questioned.
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
It wasn't that the United States lost to Jamaica, 2-0, in its CONCACAF Group A World Cup qualifier on Friday night, it was the way it was accomplished.
The Americans looked slow and lacked a midfield leader who could slow down or speed up the game as coach Jurgen Klinsmann did not use the correct alignment or players.
Except for those problems, there were no problems.
Here are some thoughts about the U.S.'s performance:
It's the midfield and it always will be
Remember that political slogan from years ago, "It's the economy, stupid?"
Well, I will borrow the spirit of that message for the beautiful game:
"It's the midfield, stupid."
Many, if not most, games are decided in the midfield, which team can impose itself, send more accurate passes into and through enemy territory, set up teammates, intercept passes and turn them into counterattacks, and defend well. A midfield can make up for a shaky forward line or cloak problems on the backline (by not allowing the opposition to get into dangerous positions).
The midfield is the engine room of the team.
Saying all that, the U.S. engine sputtered through the game on Friday night. Some of that was because of Klinsmann's tactics, even though he said the Americans lost because of free kicks not because of strategy. Well, they did, But the midfield put them in that situation. For example, midfielder Kyle Beckerman lost the ball and wound up fouling a Jamaican to set up the first free-kick goal.
After fouling Jamaicans outside the U.S. penalty area a few times, the American players had to realize they were putting the ball on a platter to the Jamaicans, who connected for the game-winner in the 62nd minute.
But Klinsmann's tactics have to be questioned, starting with appropriately, the Starting XI.
Three defensive mids and two forwards?
Strange, strange format, especially using two defensive midfielders -- Maurice Edu and Kyle Beckerman -- in the middle and a third on the flank in the presence of Jermaine Jones, who is better known for his physical ability than running at pace, especially with the speedy Reggae Boyz. It did not work.
I would have used four or even five midfielders on the road with one forward -- Jozy Altidore, who did virtually nothing, or Herculez Gomez.
It was not veterans' day
No doubt whatsoever that the U.S. missed midfielders Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley. While Donovan provides plenty of attacking power from his passing, shooting and all-around abilities, the Americans probably missed Bradley more. As a holding midfielder, Bradley can dictate more of the pace of the game, when to slow down or speed up. He is the best ball-winner on the U.S. and the transitional player who has linked the front and lack lines consistently.
While Clarence Goodson and Geoff Cameron did OK in central defense -- again, I am single guessing -- I would have gone with veteran leadership in the back in Carlos Bocanegra. He's been there and done it before, and someone with his background and international resume might have to settle things down.
The Americans are heading back to familiar ground in Columbus, Ohio, where they are undefeated in qualifiers, including three 2-0 results over archrival Mexico. There are no two ways about it. The U.S. is in a must-win situation. A tie -- one third of a loaf at home -- barely will be sufficient to keep the Americans' hopes going. At the moment, they are chasing the game and the table. They need to run the table in their final three games to make sure goal-differential does not determine their fate.
So, let's play the what-if game scenario game.
* Scenario 1: Let's say the U.S. defeats Jamaica on Tuesday and Guatemala overcomes Antigua & Barbuda on the road. There would be a three-way tie for first place between Jamaica, the U.S. and Guatemala with 2-1-1 records and seven points ahead, with Antigua (0-3-1, one) bringing up the rear.
* Scenario 2: OK, let's say the Americans and Jamaica tie and Guatemala wins. The standings would look like this entering the final two games: Jamaica (2-1-2, eight), Guatemala (2-1-1, seven), U.S. (1-1-2, five) and Antigua (0-3-1, one). This is definitely workable. The U.S. will be forced to win its final two matches -- at Antigua on Oct. 12 and vs. the Guatemalans in Kansas City four days later -- to qualify.
* Scenario 3: And let's go to the extreme and the unthinkable happens and the U.S. loses in Columbus. The standings would look like this: Jamaica (3-1-1, 10), Guatemala (2-1-1, seven), U.S. (1-2-1, four) and Antigua (0-3-1, one). Again, the Americans would have to run the table. Defending on the results of the final three games, goal differential could play a role in deciding who moves on to the hexagonal and who stays at home. I am not going to go through all such scenarios because the possibilities are endless.
* Scenario 4: It's also known as the worst scenario. If the U.S. somehow gets eliminated in the semifinal round, heads will roll, starting with the head coach. Such a development would be devastating for the Americans for so many reasons. Now, I am not advocating or hoping for anything, just pointing out all the possibilities, from the best to the worst. Quite frankly, I can't believe I have to address this option.
Let's face it, the U.S. has not played inspired or even good soccer in qualifying. They were mediocre in their 3-1 home win over Antigua & Barbuda. They struggled to get a point in Guatemala and now the Kingston fiasco.
Regardless what transpires, the final three semifinal matches will be nail-biting games.
Fasten your seat belts, folks, the ride could get more than a little bumpy from here.