A 2-1 win over Turkey on Sunday wasn’t much of a World Cup tune-up for the U.S. National Soccer team.
If they can’t defend better than that in Brazil later this month, they’ll be coming home early.
That said — and I wrote this a month or so ago — there seems to be a sea-change of sorts going on with the U.S. team, as it’s finally starting to look like our offensive group is superior to the defensive group. For the better part of 25 years or so, the American side was always heavy on backline players and thin in the goal scoring department. Goalkeeping was always a strength, too, and that formula led to a lot of 1-0 nailbiters.
Now, though, it’s looking more and more like this U.S. team might actually be threatening going forward. Defending the goal? Well, that could be an issue beginning on June 16 when Ghana provides the first World Cup ’14 test for Jurgen Klinsmann’s side.
None of the four starting backline players excelled — or came close to excelling — in Sunday’s win over Turkey. True, Fabian Johnson scored a sensational goal and, honestly, was probably the best defender, too, but time and time again the Turkish side dominated their half of the field with dangerous crosses and problematic through balls that the Americans had difficulty reading.
If Chandler and Besler play active roles in the three Group play games this month in Brazil, the U.S. is in trouble. Like Fabian Johnson, Chandler is a decent offensive threat, but more times than not his inability to read the play leaves him isolated and vulnerable in the back. He’s quick though, a necessary tool for a player who gets caught out of position a lot, which Chandler does routinely. Besler, in my opinion, just isn’t good enough at this level. More than anything else, he just needs more seasoning. The play around him is too fast and his adjustment to it all often leaves him in no-man’s land.
The subs who came in as defensive replacements didn’t do much, either. Like a lot of his backline brethren, the youngster DeAndre Yedlin likes to go forward with spirit, but in doing so he disregards his defensive responsibilities.
The U.S. midfield and forwards are looking more and more respectable, which is something we haven’t said all that often over the last thirty years. Engineered by Michael Bradley, the Americans are constantly on the attack. Graham Zusi outworks everyone on the field and continues to provide dangerous balls into space that will be threatening in Brazil if he’s left unattended. The only negative on Zusi? He’s not much of a finisher, which is why Landon Donovan’s absence is so notable when someone like Zusi takes his role.
Clint Dempsey and Brad Davis provide a nice compliment to one another. Dempsey is a constant thorn in the side of anyone he opposes while Davis is becoming the team’s go-to-guy on set pieces. One of those two will need to do more defensively, though, and it’s likely not going to be Dempsey, which means Davis will occupy more of the traditional defensive-midfield role in an effort to help the inexperienced American backline.
Speaking of needing to do more, young phenom Julian Green saw some late-game action on Sunday and looked completely out of his element. Why Jurgen Klinsmann chose this young man over Donovan is beyond me. He might very well be an American mainstay for the next two or three World Cups, but right now he has no business at all playing at this level.
Jozy Altidore buzzed around like he was interested on Sunday, but once again came away with nothing on the stat sheet. He’ll play in Brazil because he has to, I assume, but don’t expect much of anything from him. He can’t finish his chances.
With two weeks to Ghana, the U.S. still has work to do. Finding the four players who will comprise the backline is paramount to their success. I don’t see the team’s defensive group being good enough to go far in Brazil, but a midfielder or two like Jermaine Jones and Brad Davis helping out back there could go a long way in solidifying things.
As long as Michael Bradley stays healthy, the Americans will always have chances to score. Bradley has become a terrific player and is a legitimate force-to-be-reckoned-with now as his passing and distribution are as good as any U.S. player I’ve ever seen.
I still say this group will miss the experience and fortunes of Landon Donovan, who had the knack for being in the right place in the right time at the moment you needed him most.
But, with Bradley and Clint Dempsey in there for 90 minutes, the U.S. will always have chances to score.
Let’s see how it all unfolds two weeks today when Ghana provides the first test for Klinsmann’s group. If ever they needed a defensive mind-set, it will be in that affair, as the Ghanians come at you in waves and present a physicality issue in the box with their willingness to muscle their way into goal scoring chances.
If the U.S. can get a draw or win in the opener, they’re on their way. A loss won’t doom them, but it will put them behind the eight ball right out of the gate.
Klinsmann’s lineup in the Ghana game will tell you a lot about how the team will play.
Whatever he decides, I hope he has some defensive tricks up his sleeve.
This team just isn’t that good in the back, unfortunately.