If you’re still basking in the joy of last night’s victory, you may want to come back to this post a little later, because this is where we starting picking things apart. The first stop is attack. After three straight one-goal performances, it’s worth considering whether goal scoring a problem for the United States.
And, of course, there are two ways to look at the issue. The U.S.’s six goals through four qualifiers is tied for third in the region. Only Mexico and El Salvador have scored more in third round play, and with the U.S. closing the round with two games where they’ll be reasonably heavy favorites, you’d expect the States to increase their production.
But that’s the relative view. The absolute view sees one goal performances against Guatemala and Jamaica (twice) and asks what that means for the hex, when competition will be tougher. The only match this round where the U.S. has found multiple goals was hosting Antigua and Barbuda, who lost 3-1 in both Tampa and Guatemala City. Antigua and Barbuda is the least hex-y team in the group. Can the U.S. expect to increase their production when the games get tougher? That’s usually not how things work.
Subtly concerning: the scorelines against Antigua and Barbuda are not the only similarities between the U.S. and Guatemala. The teams have identical records, equal numbers of goals scored and allowed, and both lost 2-1 in Jamaica. It’s a faltering comparison for Guatemala, who have never qualified for a World Cup, but the U.S. is trying to make their sixth straight finals. Most fans wouldn’t be happy with insinuations the U.S. is playing at Guatemala’s level.
Back to the one-goal games. Even if the rest of the region were scoring exactly one goal per match, it would still present a tactical problem. As we were reminded in Jamaica, a team doesn’t necessarily need to dominate a game in order to turn around a one-goal deficit. A couple of set pieces, a defensive mistake, or just the fluke nature of the sport could see that lead disappear, particularly if you have to defend it for 89 minutes. Clearly, second goals are good.
So how does the U.S. go about getting more second goals? If we knew that, we’d be on Klinsmann’s staff. But getting Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan healthy will help. If Klinsmann and Jozy Altidore can find a role for the prolific AZ man, that would help, too. And once he’s fully settled in at Tottenham, Clint Dempsey will improve (though goal scoring wasn’t a problem for him this week).
The biggest issue might come back to style. On Tuesday, the U.S. generated a number of chances on Dwayne Miller but still weren’t able to get an open play goal. It’s something we’ve seen throughout Klinsmann’s tenure: The Arsenal-esque inability to convert good build up into goals.
The answer may be something Klinsmann told Monica Gonzalez at halftime on Tuesday. He wanted his team to play faster, to pass and moved with a higher tempo. In theory, that would help alleviate one of the issues faced by teams who rely on short passing to build play: Allowing the defense time to set up (regain their shape) as they’re being pushed back. Get rid of the ball quicker, run into the spaces before your defenders get there, and you’ll start taking advantage of the style.
All of that comes down to comfort in the system. The U.S. has gotten used to what Klinsmann wants, but they’re not experts, yet. We’re still not seeing the off-the-ball movement that opens up defenses. We’re still not seeing quick passes being strung together. We’re still not seeing a familiarity with each others’ movements.
Even though we’re over one month into the Klinsmann era, these things are still going to take time. The U.S. hasn’t played many matches that have mattered. Now, with the pressure of World Cup qualifying, the learning process accelerates.