Frailty and fragility: young U.S. defense exposed in 4-2 loss to Belgium


The summation of spring events for a young, rebuilding U.S. back line is the very disquieting “one step forward, one step back.”

All the good work in the snow of Denver and the cauldron of Azteca, two enormously valuable shutouts in  World Cup qualifying, weren’t exactly washed away amid the Belgian foursome, but no one can feel good about a night of sliced and diced regression in Cleveland. One of Europe’s rising powers cut up a young U.S. back line, reminding manager Jurgen Klinsmann and his team that rebuilding a rear guard smack in the middle of a World Cup qualifying cycle is risky business, indeed.

Belgium’s 4-2 win laid bare all the defensive frailties, the communication issues, the limitations of the (hopefully) emerging crop of current center backs, the lack of depth that required Geoff Cameron playing out wide, the slow reactions all the way around, etc.

Ironically, the top defender was DaMarcus Beasley, the converted winger. He was identified as the biggest potential problem by fans and media before Wednesday’s muggy night at FirstEnergy Stadium; but the man earning his 100th cap was the least of the U.S. rear guard in disarray.

Two important caveats here: It’s just a friendly, and we can never assign too much value, good or bad, to results that don’t matter. And certainly this: Belgium is for reals. The midfield looked like men-against-boys stuff as a U.S. team missing its brain, Michael Bradley, mostly couldn’t cope. Plus, we’ll be hearing about this fabulous Belgian crop of attacking midfielders, spry flankers and powerful forwards for years.

That said, the U.S. defensive errors are alarming, to say the least. (And Germany is up on Sunday. Yikes!)

Everyone but Beasley looked bad as the visitors took an early lead, leaving U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard screaming in frustration.

(MORE: Belgium takes apart mistake-prone United States, 4-2)

Cameron, Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson were all painfully slow to react as Romelu Lukaku slipped through, only to be foiled by the onrushing Howard.  That “leak” was bad enough; the communication just wasn’t sharp enough all night between the defenders as they tried to pinpoint the big, physical and surprisingly slippery Lukaku and the outside-to-inside runs of Belgium’s wide men, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin De Bruyne.

When Howard couldn’t hold the ball, he needed help from … well, anyway. Gonzalez and Cameron were nearby spectators. Goodson was even more culpable, having stopped completely to wave about for the offside call. Had he simply followed the play, protecting Howard’s vacated goal, Goodson surely could have been the hero, rescuing the moment.

Was it a mistake to replace Matt Besler, who had replaced the injured Goodson for the result in Mexico? We’ll see on Sunday.

The second goal started with Brad Davis’ turnover and ended on the easiest of finishes for Christian Benteke  – with Gonzalez’s giant booboo forming the meat of this mud sandwich.

Gonzalez’s options as he intercepted a ball near replacement goalie Brad Guzan included shielding Benteke to create an easy Guzan scoop, or crushing the ball well off into the Cleveland night. Instead, he chose to play out on the dribble, and his heavy touched turned into absolute disaster.

source: Getty Images

This is where Gonzalez must grow. He is so physically dominant in league play that he doesn’t always have to “think” his way around the game. In international play, he will live or die by combining the functional brain with the brawn.

The third goal came off a corner kick – but go back to how that set piece was created. The back line was all kinds of out of shape as another turnover happened along the left, with Lukaku quickly finding himself with inside position on Goodson, who was miles away from his central partner Gonzalez. Guzan could only parry the big striker’s shot for a corner – and further disaster ensued on Marouane Fellaini’s far post header.

Klinsmann stresses getting the team in shape with the ball so the Americans are in good spots if possession is fumbled away. Well, it didn’t take on that one.

The midfield was culpable on Belgium’s fourth, as Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan failed to communicate on which player should go pressure Steven Defour. When no one did, there was the fourth on Defour’s wonderful ball out to the left.

Allow England defender Alfie Mawson to charm you

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Swansea City’s Alfie Mawson is at England national team camp, and the young man is conducting himself in downright adorable fashion.

It seems the 24-year-old London defender cannot quite believe Gareth Southgate called his name for the Three Lions.

[ MORE: Key newcomers for USMNT friendly ]

“A lot of people wouldn’t have even heard my name until this call up,” Mawson told the BBC. “You know it’s down to performing well at certain times, it’s down to doing the right things and sometimes it’s down to being a nice person.”

Mawson has played every minute for Swans this season, picking up two goals and an assist. More importantly, he’s won 3.3 aerial battles per game and 6.3 clearances.

While this won’t necessarily serve him well against the Netherlands and Italy in this week’s friendlies — they don’t put a lot of hopeful balls into aerial or clearing positions — it’s kept Mawson on the England radar for this summer’s World Cup.

Mawson is two seasons removed from playing in the Championship, and was loaned to lower league clubs like Maidenhead United and Welling United. At the time, he was going to “car boot sales with my girlfriend” which from my limited Googling seems the English equivalent of a yard sale and flea market combined.

“We are in a good position now where we don’t really have to do the car boots unless she wants a bit of excitement on a Sunday morning.”

Pretty good position, yeah.

FIFA urges Russia to hasten work on delayed World Cup arena

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SAMARA, Russia (AP) FIFA has urged Russia to speed up World Cup preparations at a stadium which needs “a huge amount of work” to be ready on time.

With less than three months to go until the World Cup, the 45,000-seat Samara Arena is the only one of 12 stadiums which doesn’t yet have a pitch installed.

The stadium in the Volga River city of Samara was already badly delayed due to a complex roof design, but now cold weather in the Russian spring is causing further problems. The pitch can’t be installed until the weather warms up.

“Obviously we would expect further progress than this,” FIFA’s chief competitions official Colin Smith said on a visit to the arena Wednesday. “We don’t yet have a pitch, and obviously we need to wait for some warmer weather conditions in order to get this pitch installed.”

As of Tuesday, instead of a field, there was an area covered with tarpaulins and snow. Temperatures are forecast to stay slightly below freezing for the rest of the week.

“There’s a huge amount of work still to be done,” Smith added. “From the information we’ve received there’s nothing stopping all these areas being completed on time. It just requires commitment and more manpower to get it done on time, and when we talk about on time, we’re talking about the commissioning date of the end of April.”

If that date passes, it could restrict FIFA’s ability to test the stadium with Russian league games and install World Cup equipment. Outside the arena, deep snowdrifts cover much of an area that is due to be landscaped for the tournament and will host some facilities for fans.

Alexander Fetisov, deputy governor of the Samara region, said the stadium will be ready.

“I’d like to avoid unnecessary dramatization of the situation,” he said. “Everything is being done so that the stadium is commissioned in the time required.”

Samara isn’t the only World Cup field which has drawn attention in recent weeks. The stadium in Kazan has been widely criticized by Russian fans after a brown, muddy surface was used for league games after the winter break.

Smith said FIFA was offering Russia help to get its fields ready, adding, “We’re doing everything possible and we’re convinced that we’re going to have a very, very high standard of pitches at this tournament.”

Key newcomers for USMNT friendly

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While the excitement potential is high amongst big club USMNT call-ups like PSG’s Tim Weah and Everton’s Antonee Robinson, there are several other relative newcomers who are facing a more acute focus.

So yes, of course, we’re most excited to see the young guns fire away, but a few others will be under the microscope for different reasons.

[ MORE: Best PL summer buys ]

Paraguay is leaving some big names behind — Dario Lezcano, Jesus Medina, Edgar Benítez — but won’t be using as “B” or “C” of a squad as the USMNT. Key defenders Junior Alonso (Lille) and Gustavo Gomez (AC Milan) will be staring down the U.S. attack, while Atlanta United star Miguel Almiron will try his luck against the Yanks’ backs.

  1. The goalkeepers — With full respect to Bill Hamid and his five caps, the trio of backstops who could play against Paraguay are unknown entities on the senior international level. There are reasons to be excited about Alex Bono (Toronto FC) and Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew) going against Los Guaraníes — and Hamid, too — and standing behind a young and untested group of center backs should give plenty of chances to make a name for whoever is chosen (If Sarachan is more “woke” this go-round, it’ll be multiple keepers).
  2. Andriya Novakovich — The Telstar striker is checking all the boxes: 6-foot-4, productive on the youth level, and now succeeding overseas. The 21-year-old has 17 goals on loan from Reading in the Dutch second tier. While that’s far from a “Woah” figure considering the top-tier in the Netherlands isn’t exactly a defensive hot bed, it’s intriguing for Tuesday in North Carolina.
  3. Rubio Rubin — We’re hopeful Sarachan goes with a 4-4-2, which would allow both Rubin and Novakovich to get runs next to Bobby Wood. Rubin is seeing some time at Liga MX side Club Tijuana after his European adventure stalled following a hot start for Utrecht. He had an assist in CONCACAF Champions League play against Red Bulls this month.
  4. Tyler Adams — Speaking of that match, the Red Bulls got a goal from Adams. It’s fair to say he’s got the chance to be as special a player as Schalke youngster Weston McKennie (and would apparently like to join his USMNT teammate overseas). Adams and McKennie together could legit be an engine room for years. Will that begin on Tuesday?
  5. Cameron Carter-Vickers — The 20-year-old center back has shown resilience in England. His hot start to life at Sheffield United, on loan from Tottenham, cooled enough to have him sent back to North London, but Carter-Vickers has rebounded to become a key part of Ipswich Town’s back line. With 22-year-old Matt Miazga the only clear center back on the roster and older than him, CCV can quiet a lot of doubters.
  6. Kenny Saief — This guy has excited at nearly every turn since bursting onto the scene with Gent via the Israeli national team, and an injury cost him some momentum with the USMNT. Now healthy and on loan with Anderlecht, the same side which refined the fire of Sacha Kljestan, the once-capped Florida-born man is as intriguing as ever.

Season strugglers: Some ignominious PL performances

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Tuesday found us breaking ties on our “Most Impactful Premier League Summer Buys” rankings by digging through some advanced statistics sites.

In doing so, something struck us: We rarely if ever check out which players are faring the worst when it comes to those next level numbers.

Ah, the international break: Good for off-the-wall posts.

[ MORE: Alonso, Pedro have Morata’s back]

At the risk of kicking a player while he’s down, here are some negative numbers that stand out from the pack.

Of the 358 players who’ve played at least 10 Premier League matches, Joe Hart is having the worst season of the bunch according to Squawka. That’s a bit misleading due to how the site’s metrics operate, considering eight of the bottom 20 players are goalkeepers (and several, like Jonas Lossl and Jordan Pickford, are having outstanding campaigns).

So the unfortunate honor goes to Swansea defender Martin Olsson, who edges James McClean of West Brom for the infamy. Since the site does heap numbers on players by action accumulated, perhaps it’s better to single out the per-game and per-90 strugglers. Olsson and McClean are still very much near the bottom, but surprisingly Yannick Bolasie is the worst per game, and Swansea’s Wayne Routledge is having the least effective season per 90 minutes.

As for WhoScored, its metrics are hammering forwards, with Lys Mousset, Andre Gray, and Benik Afobe at the back of the back (ahead of McClean, again, who is a multi-site struggler).

These stats aren’t perfect, of course, and I like the idea of having McClean on my squad. But there are some other odds stats in the pack.

 These players might want to pass their next opportunity to the keeper. Of players with 10 or more shot attempts this season, Adam Lallana (11), Renato Sanches (12), Lewis Cook (14), and Dale Stephens (15) have failed to put a single shot on target.

— Of the 81 players who’ve tried their luck 30 times or more, these are the worst accuracy rates

— For perspective, Harry Kane has put 56 percent of his league-leading 162 shots on target, while second place man Mohamed Salah is 61 percent of 118.

— Defensive errors also can be increased significantly by the times a player is put under pressure by his team, which is why goalkeepers are high on Squawka’s list. Take them out, and you get a list with Spurs’ Eric Dier up top. Two of his six errors have led to goals against Tottenham, with Zanka (Huddersfield Town), Alfie Mawson (Swans), Andreas Christensen (Chelsea), and Shane Duffy (Brighton) next with four errors.