Through the middle: Looking at what the U.S. midfield produced against Jamaica

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I spent most of Sunday morning starting at chalkboards at MLSSoccer.com, obsessed with one idea: “That pass Maurice Edu played (to Herculez Gomez) in the first minute. Why didn’t they try that more often?”

That’s easier said than done, though the concept is pretty straight forward. The team saw something that worked right off the bat: Herc running; midfield hitting him; profit. Why didn’t we see more of that?

That gets into a bigger, more subjective debate than I want to tackle here. For now, all I want to do is present some numbers to try and answer an implied question: Did we really see a lack of Edu-esque passes on Friday?

Starting with the premises that the first minute pass from Edu was a good thing, players try to perform that task, and teams would want to see more of that, I looked through the last four U.S. men’s games (three World Cup qualifiers and game in Mexico). I wanted to see how often Jurgen Klinsmann’s side is playing those types of passes, whether those numbers look high or low, and which players are playing the most passes of that type.

What are we looking for?

First, I need to define what type of passes I’m talking about. Check out how Edu’s Friday ball looks on the Opta-fueled chalkboard:

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Fascinating. If there’s a more boring way to represent that pass, I can’t imagine it.

Regardless, there are four characteristics of this ball that I think are important:

  • It’s a forward pass,
  • outside of the final third,
  • into the opposition’s final third,
  • and within the width of the penalty area.

That’s the criteria I’m using. How many times has the U.S. (and, to get context on each match, their opponents) completed passes that meet that criteria.

Disclaimer time: These Opta numbers can’t be taken that as gospel, especially if you’re not willing to re-watch a game and confirm them. In addition, the numbers without context are pretty useless.  A lot of these passes I’ll be citing may have no significance, and there are surely some that were important which don’t fit the criteria I’ve established.

So why even do this? Because if we get enough observations together, it does alleviate concerns that one or two deceptive passes can skew the whole endeavor. Plus, the Opta data and chalkboards gives us a way to establish some objective criteria (in this case, direction and location) that mitigates other subjective factors.

Opta has a number of different ways they characterize passes: Chip, dropped from hand, flick on, goal kick, headed ball, launch, and pass. Almost all of those can also be from a free kick. I’m focused on events from open play that are passes or short chips (trying to tease out crosses).

I’m also only looking at completed passes, even though tracking attempted passes might better capture a team’s intent. There are a number of other factors that come into play when collecting a negative result (all surrounding whether it was appropriate to play the pass at all). I decided to exclude them.

Jamaica vs. the United States

On Friday, the U.S completed nine passes that met this criteria. Jamaica had 10. Jermaine Jones’s four passes was tied with Jamaica’s Jason Morrison for game high. Maurice Edu (two) was the only other U.S. player with more than one:

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The numbers confirm that idea that Jamaica and the United States were on somewhat even footing. Jamaica never scored from open play, while the U.S. went 89 minutes without beating Dwayne Miler. But among the many things the number don’t do is provide context. Are 10 and nine (or, on the individual level, four) large or small numbers? What should we have been expecting from the U.S.?

Recent matches (Antigua and Barbuda, Guatemala, Mexico, Jamaica)

Looking back at the matches the U.S. has played since World Cup qualifying began adds a little more to the picture:

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It’s impossible to draw conclusions from this table, but it looks like defending was as much a problem as attacking. Jamaica didn’t score an open play goal, but both Beckerman and Edu’s fouls came after Jamaica had established possession in the U.S.’s end.

Regardless, the U.S.’s entries into the final third seem in line with what you’d expect, based on these four games. Mexico’s a superior side, while Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala offered far less resistance. Jamaica proved slightly tougher than Guatemala, though perhaps we wouldn’t have expected the final third passes to jump from three (at Guatemala) to 10 (again, insert relevance caveat here).

Individual numbers

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This is like looking at stats in the first week of the baseball season: Fun, but not very informative. There are some things here that jive with our instincts, like the downgrade from Bradley to Beckerman It’s also interesting to note where Edu and Jones sit on this list, particularly given 90 of Edu’s minutes are in defense. While this sample is small, they have better rates than their potential replacements, Torres and Beckerman.

Back to the initial point, which was about the Jamaica game. Why didn’t we see more passes like the one that put Gomez through? Looking across at the U.S.’s previous games, it’s not clear we should have expected more.

Though perhaps the point. Whatever the numbers were on Friday, they weren’t good enough. They led to the U.S.’s first loss in Jamaica. Perhaps looking at these and saying “they’re when we would have expected” may be too close to saying “the U.S. should have expected to lose in Jamaica.” For many people (including, probably, U.S. Soccer), that’s not acceptable.

Vidal rips Ronaldo ahead of Confederations Cup semifinal

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Chile hopes to make a statement on Wednesday when it faces EURO 2016 champions Portugal and Ballon d’Or champion Cristiano Ronaldo.

The 2015 and 2016 Copa America champions can lay claim to another inter-confederation title with two more wins in the 2017 Confederations Cup, beginning with the semifinal in Kazan.

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Chile finished behind Germany in Group B but didn’t lose a match and only allowed two goals. That’ll be tested by Portugal and its seven goals in three matches.

Two of those goals came from Ronaldo, but don’t tell that to Arturo Vidal. Chile’s hard-edged midfielder doesn’t like him much.

From Goal.com:

“Cristiano is a smart ass,” he told reporters. “For me he does not exist.

“I have already told my Bayern Munich team-mate Joshua Kimmich that we will meet again in the final.”

Germany will have to take care of Mexico to make that happen, though we have a feeling a certain smart ass will have a thing or two to say before it’s all said and done.

Vidal has spoken loudly of his desire to get Chilean teammate Alexis Sanchez, a former Barcelona man, at his club Bayern Munich. If Ronaldo is on the market, this isn’t a great recruiting tool. Ah, jokes.

Trio of Crew players in Ghana roster to face USMNT, Mexico

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Ghana’s team to face the United States men’s national team on Saturday in East Hartford will look somewhat familiar to fans of Major League Soccer.

Columbus Crew players Harrison Afful, Mohammed Abu and Jonathan Mensah join David Accam of the Chicago Fire, and Gershon Koffie of the New England Revolution on a unit with Kwadwo Poku of the NASL’s Kwadwo Poku.

John Boye, Asamoah Gyan, and Mensah are the only three players from the loss to the USMNT in the 2014 World Cup.

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Like the U.S., this is a less than full-strength squad. Missing are a number of Black Stars standouts, with Andre Ayew, Jordan Ayew, Afriyie Acquah, Daniel Amartey, Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu, Christian Atsu, Jeff Schlupp, and Baba Rahman not with the team.

Saturday’s match is the last USMNT outing before the Gold Cup begins on July 8 in Nashville against Panama.

Goalkeepers: Addo Joseph (Aduana Stars), Richard Ofori (Wa All Stars)

Defenders: Lumor Agbenyenu (Munich 1860), Harrison Afful (Columbus Crew),  Nicholas Opoku (Berekum Chelsea), Jerry Akaminko (Eskiserhispor),  John Boye (Sivasspor), Rashid Sumalia (Al Gharafa), Jonathan Mensah (Columbus Crew), Samuel Sarfo (Liberty)

Midfielders: Mohammed Abu (Columbus Crew, Isaac Sackey (Alanyaspor), Ofori Ebenezer (Stuttgart), Kwadwo Poku (FC Miami), Winful Kwaku Cobbinah (Hearts of Oak), Frank Acheampong (Anderlecht), Thomas Agyepong (NAC Breda), Gershon Koffie (New England Revolution)

Strikers: Asamoah Gyan (Al Alhi), Raphael Dwamena (FC Zurich), Majeed Abdul Waris (Lorient FC), David Accam (Chicago Fire)

Timo Werner abused in Germany but key to World Cup defense

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) The abuse has followed Timo Werner for months, gathering pace as rapidly as the striker has amassed goals.

No German player was more prolific in the Bundesliga last season. No player was as ostracized.

But Werner is now a full-blown Germany international, scoring his first goals at the Confederations Cup on Sunday, and he could hold the key to the World Cup defense next year.

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That could require Germany supporters to forgive a player they jeered at during his first competitive game for Joachim Loew’s team earlier this month.

“Kobe Bryant has also been booed everywhere and he always been the best,” Werner reflected ahead of Germany’s Confederations Cup semifinal against Mexico on Thursday, seeing a kindred spirit in the basketball great. “I do not want to say that I am the best like him, but (the abuse) is a bit of an incentive.”

If playing for the ascendant but deeply unpopular Leipzig wasn’t bad enough, a dive in December by Werner provided a focal point for the animosity – jealousy, perhaps – toward the Red Bull-funded team.

The insults have even been hurled far from Germany, far from soccer stadiums. The dive won a penalty against Schalke, and provided Werner with one of the 21 goals that helped to propel Leipzig into second place and a Champions League debut next season.

“There was a dive, he made a mistake and he admitted it,” Loew said, “but he is very, very young player.”

And a potentially very important one for Loew at the World Cup in Russia next year. Germany’s striking options are being assessed at the eight-team Confederations Cup as Loew still seeks a long-term successor to Miroslav Klose as target man for the world champions.

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Werner opened his account for Germany on his fourth appearance, scoring twice in a 3-1 victory over Cameroon on Sunday in Sochi.

“Werner put in a lot of legwork,” Loew said. “He showed how dangerous he is and that he’s got a great nose for goal. Both of his efforts were very well taken.”

Werner’s rivals for a place in the squad next year include fellow squad newcomers Lars Stindl and Sandro Wagner. They are both close to 30, while the 21-year-old Werner has youth, strength and speed on his side. Even Wagner said he has “never seen such a good striker at that age.”

That’s a result of Werner fusing his pace with intelligence on the ball, mastering dribbling at high speed first with Stuttgart and then at Leipzig.

“There’s no recipe for it,” Werner said. “The quickest players just know how to do it automatically. I like to knock the ball three or four meters ahead of me when I’m on the counter or have space in front of me, that way I can increase the distance between a defender and myself.”

Such proficiency should help Werner win over fans beyond Leipzig. Time, he hopes, will heal the fractures, and there’s certainly support from his new international teammates.

“I wish him well because of the issues he has had to endure,” captain Julian Draxler told Germany’s ARD television.

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

More AP Confederations Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/ConfederationsCup

USMNT Gold Cup 23-man roster leaves some questions

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We have Bruce Arena’s 23-man United States men’s national roster for the Gold Cup, and there are more than a few surprises left out of the bunch.

Often a chance to experiment, those who thought this year’s Gold Cup roster would be one aimed at reclaiming glory with authority may be surprised to see the status quo.

Jurgen Klinsmann brought most of his big guns to the 2015 party — which didn’t go well for Brad Guzan and Co. — but Arena will roll into this summer’s tournament without most of his big names. There’s no Geoff Cameron, John Brooks, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, nor Jozy Altidore.

Those aren’t huge surprises, though who Arena neglected from his original 40-man short list is a bit of a shock to the system (Players can be called into the mix after the group stage, which is a fairly simple affair for the USMNT to navigate versus Panama, Martinique, and Nicagarua).

Arena is going with Brad Guzan, Sean Johnson, and Bill Hamid in a trio that fails to impress. Hamid does have a big crowd of fans who’d like to see him get a chance to assert himself as the future, and hopefully either Johnson or Hamid finds time between the sticks against a serious opponent like Panama. No surprise that Tim Howard and Joe Bendik didn’t leap into the trio (EDIT: This post initially questioned the omission of Jesse Gonzalez, but his one-time switch from Mexico to the USMNT has yet to go through).

We’ll ignore the omission of Danny Williams for the most part considering he was absent from the 40-man list, but he must have said something seriously awful to Arena or someone at U.S. soccer.

The group of forwards leaves little to complain about, as Juan Agudelo and Dom Dwyer very much deserve their chances to compete for playing time with Sounders star Jordan Morris, but the midfield provides some head-scratching. Gyasi Zardes may be a longtime Arena favorite, but the Galaxy man has been ice cold in MLS. The 25-year-old has a single assist in almost 1000 minutes of play this season, and that came back on April 8. Tommy McNamara has not lighting the league on fire and Chris Pontius and his six assists are 30 years old, so much of the grief should be directed at the 40-man again, but Zardes has to embrace this opportunity. And maybe it’s a way to help the Galaxy and Zardes get a little mojo.

As an aside, Wil Trapp is among leaders in several MLS passing stats, which leads me to believe Arena is going to play Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta a ton and doesn’t see much of a need for Trapp in this tournament, not ever.

Defenders Steve Birnbaum and Jonathan Spector were not rewarded with looks, though Graham Zusi was included in what must be an arm reaching out for USMNT experience. Birnbaum is leading MLS in aerials won per game and Spector is by far Orlando’s top rated player since returning from England. Yes, Spector is 31 but this is about still qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, not the 2022 cycle. Spare a thought for Matt Polster, who has been decent since returning from a knee strain. This is nothing against Zusi, a consummate professional who won’t kill the team by any means and will be an tremendous asset in leadership.

What about you? Any other gripes? Or do you love the bunch?