Darlington Nagbe

Three things from the USMNT’s draw in Honduras

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It wasn’t a good night for the United States men’s national team, but the point it stole from San Pedro Sula puts it back on track to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

[ MORE: Match Recap | Player ratings ]

The Yanks will finish the international break outside the automatic qualifying places if Panama wins vs. Trinidad and Tobago later Tuesday.

Jims and Joes, not X’s and O’s

If there’s anything to glean from this miserable night at the San Pedro Sula, it’s that two coaches have failed to figure out how to get through to this batch of USMNT players.

Jurgen Klinsmann clearly had lost the team following losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, and Bruce Arena was given credit for steadying the ship over a 14-match unbeaten run leading that included a Gold Cup title.

But even that tournament with a mostly B-team wasn’t convincing, and Arena — admittedly a U.S. Soccer legend — got the plot completely wrong twice in the last week with World Cup hopes on the line.

Looking past Friday’s mess in the midfield and porous defensive set-up, Tuesday’s performance was again about lineup choices. Arena pulled the plug on Geoff Cameron coming off a poor Friday, and also left Bobby Wood and Fabian Johnson out of the lineup.

Arena didn’t have the option of Jozy Altidore, the CONCACAF killer whose foolish yellow card cost him a one-game suspension, and there was logic to starting Clint Dempsey next to Sounders teammate Jordan Morris. Dempsey also happens to be the best attacker in USMNT history, so there’s a possible pass to be given there.

But Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi were miserable on the right side of the defense, and Darlington Nagbe was bossed out of the game aside from one early and electrifying dribble.

Arena plugged in high-motor Paul Arriola and Cameron with not much cooking in the second half, and put eventual equalizer Bobby Wood into the fray with under 20 minutes to go. The subs fixed things, in a sense, but in a way there’s little credit for that: At least Cameron and Wood should have been given a starting role.

Here’s Morris on Wood, who understandably seemed a bit put-off after the match:

“He’s a great player. I love playing with Bobby. He fights, he works. He’s good in the box.”
Yep, like he was before the match. Full disclosure: at halftime I questioned the use of Morris over Wood, and the former ran his shorts off in the second frame. The equalizer doesn’t happen without both players.
All that said, and it needed to be said, it’s paramount we look past the manager and directly at these players. The performances for these last two qualifiers, and really five of the eight, have not been good enough for where the program believes it should be. Debate those expectations all you will, but it’s just not good enough.

Soft first half, especially in the middle

(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

The United States looked motivated to start the match, but the pace and hustle slipped away as the half wore on. The Yanks completed a total of 37 first half passes according to the CONCACAF site, and had just 40 percent of the ball.

The midfield was largely non-existent. Bradley completed eight of just 13 passes in the match, and Kellyn Acosta failed to complete a single pass (0-for-2). Darlington Nagbe was tidy with his passing (14-of-15), though we’ve covered his flaws elsewhere. Winning 50-50 balls was a daunting proposition against a Honduras side which very much deserved three points on the night.

Third is a must

For everyone assuming that a Top Four finish will be enough for the U.S. because of a fairly soft Asian confederation, those thoughts got a swift kick to the rear end following Australia’s failure to hammer Thailand on Tuesday.

That, coupled with sent the Socceroos into the third place game against Syria, one they’ll be expected to win, and Australia is the sort of team that can go heart-for-heart with a typical U.S. side and perhaps bring a more talented side to the party (one that could hardly be a longer trip for the away sides).

And given the political climate in both countries, Syria would be a trickier test than it appears on paper (or on the Internet). Get it done versus Panama at home, and breathe a sigh of relief that the country’s soccer status hasn’t been set back a decade.

Throw in one more thing: Major League Soccer’s regular season ends on October 22, meaning some players will be in the throes of a playoff race but only eight MLS teams will have been active in the previous 2.5 weeks.

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USMNT faces must-win trip to Honduras as World Cup qualification hangs in balance

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The United States’ loss to Costa Rica was a wake-up call, one that has raised yellow flags all around the U.S. soccer community, but not one that has doomed their 2018 World Cup hopes. Yet.

No, that loss has not deterred the hopes of the United States, but with Bruce Arena and the United States level on points with Honudras and just three games to go, this game in San Pedro Sula on Tuesday evening is now a must-win.

According to ESPN stat expert Paul Carr, the qualification chances for the United States still currently sit at 80%, but a loss to Honduras would plummet those chances to under 50/50, near 43%. Plain and simple, the US must win. Should they fail, not only would they be at best even with Honduras still, but Panama – currently just a point back – would likely be ahead, with a home date against Trinidad & Tobago on the docket.

[ MORE: UEFA qualification sees blowouts dot the map ]

They must get a result, and they must do it without their third all-time leading scorer Jozy Altidore, who is suspended for yellow card accumulation after his caution in the Costa Rica loss. Altidore left U.S. camp, returning to Toronto FC and leaving Clint Dempsey, Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, and Chris Wondolowski the remaining strikers for Arena to pick from.

Arena must also address the numerous problems from the failure at Red Bull Arena, which include both tactical repairs and underperforming players. The most glaring issue was the spacing between center backs Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron, the latter of whom had a disastrous game, wandering aimlessly and giving the ball away profusely. Also an issue was the midfield, which was porous manned only by Michael Bradley and the offensively-minded Darlington Nagbe. Fabian Johnson was nearly invisible on the wing, moved up from his usual national team spot along the back line. Finally, Christian Pulisic was ineffective out wide, hacked repeatedly as many CONCACAF opponents have decided to do.

Meanwhile, Honduras is where they are thanks to a road victory over T&T last time out, with a quick 2-goal start and a solid finish. Midfielder Alexander Lopez was fantastic in central midfield, passing with a 95% accuracy including a trio of key passes and scoring a goal. They attacked with success down the right flank through Alfredo Mejia and Alberth Elis, the latter of whom also scored. Jorge Villafana will need to have a better game, after being substituted off after an hour with the U.S. struggling.

The heat and humidity in Honduras is also a factor in determining Arena’s lineup. On Monday, highs in San Pedro Sula reached 91 degrees with 82% humidity. The forecast for Tuesday is more of the same. Arena told reporters on Monday that domestic players could play a larger role since their fitness is at a heightened level being further into their season.

All these issues need to be navigated or corrected – and quickly – or else Arena’s job as stopgap manager will have fallen flat on its face.

Three things: USMNT fails in bid for revenge on Costa Rica

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Three things we learned from the U.S. national team’s 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica on Friday…

[ RECAP: USMNT fails in bid for revenge on Costa Rica ]

Arena’s tactics a handicap from the start

Bruce Arena’s decision to play a two-man midfield — Michael Bradley and Darlington Nagbe — was a tough hole for the USMNT to dig itself out of. For starters, I’ll say this: it’s obvious what Arena’s thinking was in going with the two-man midfield — with Costa Rica playing three across the back, it’ll be two-versus-two in the middle of the field, and a fourth attacker is needed to pull those three center backs out of their shape. In reality, Los Ticos pressed like crazy, and without a third body in the center, Bradley and Nagbe were often left without an emergency outlet.

As for the defensive side of things, it was an unmitigated disaster. I briefly explained why Nagbe doesn’t work in a two-man midfield as opposed to a trio, here, and while Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream each had nightmares at center back, the wide open space in midfield played an equally massive part in both goals — especially the second. With no one free to step to David Guzman, Nagbe’s Portland Timbers teammate had all day to carry the ball through midfield, or, as he opted to do, slip Marco Ureña through with a simple through ball.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USA 0-2 Costa Rica ]

Playing through, not to, Altidore is the way forward

My headstone will one day read, Jozy Altidore is a playmaker, not a target man, why can’t any of you get this? Again on Friday, it was Altidore who held the ball in between midfield and defense, played runners through on the wings, dribbled at (and beat) defenders one-on-one, and set up two of the USMNT’s three best chances when acting as the fulcrum of the attack.

Trust me, I’m aware that a 6-foot, 180-pound physical specimen like Altidore isn’t supposed to be a creative genius facilitator, but life doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to do. Here’s the realest problem resulting from that, though: he really needs a partner up top, as he had on Friday in the form of Bobby Wood. Remember that midfield thing we just discussed, though, about Bradley and Nagbe not really suiting the two-man midfield? To appease the former, you must also concede the latter. With one or two breaks — the no-call on what should have been a penalty in the first half, namely — the other way, the reward ultimately outweighs the risk in this game; with those breaks all seeming to go Costa Rica’s way, you end up on the wrong end of 2-0.

[ MORE: Late drama for Germany; Kane starts scoring on Sept. 1 ]

The never-ending search for a left back

Here’s an excerpt from my Three Things post, dated July 15, 2017:

This was Jorge Villafaña’s chance; it was to be his Gold Cup; it was supposed to be his coming-out party; it was his audition for next summer’s World Cup — the one where he needed to step up and say, “I am the left back,” thus solving the USMNT’s biggest, longest-running problem. After starting the first and the third games of the group, we’re no closer to having found a full-time starter. It would have been nice, but at this point, we all knew better.

All of the above still rings true a month and a half, and another uninspiring shift at left back, later. At this point, I’m resigned to the fact that DaMarcus Beasley will start at left back, a position which he only started playing prior to the last World Cup, next summer in Russia, at the tender age of 36.

Player ratings: USMNT’s 2-0 loss to Costa Rica a big setback

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Player ratings from the U.S. national team’s 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica on Friday…

[ RECAP: USMNT fails in bid for revenge on Costa Rica ]

GK — Tim Howard: 4.5 — The 38-year-old was shaky playing the ball out of the back, which is largely par for the course, and was wildly out of position and slow to react on Marco Ureña’s goal in the 30th minute.

RB — Graham Zusi: 6 — Here’s a thing I said about Zusi, the right back, a month and a half ago, and I stand by it today:

During the first half, the USMNT played through Zusi on a number of occasions, resulting in two of its best scoring chances.

CB — Geoff Cameron: 4 — Struggled mightily in the first half, the first time he’d ever started alongside Tim Ream in a four-man backline. Cameron’s poor decisions compounded Ream’s struggles, and vice versa.

CB — Tim Ream: 4 — While much of Cameron’s issues appeared to be Ream-related, Ream was quite poor all on his own. His gaffe in the 7th minute nearly resulted in a goal, and he was the one turned inside and out, failing to see Ureña wide enough, on the opening goal.

LB — Jorge Villafaña: 5 — As a left back, it’s really tough to play with Fabian Johnson in front of you. The same issues which prevent Johnson from being a good left back play out further up the field, and you’re too frequently left on an island all by yourself. Unfortunately, there’s still no one better.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from USA 0-2 Costa Rica ]

CM — Michael Bradley: 5.5 — Asked to play, essentially, by himself in the middle of the field, Bradley did everything he could, but was ultimately outnumbered and overrun on numerous occasions. His long-range balls into the channels remain a top-two attacking strategy for the USMNT.

CM — Darlington Nagbe: 5 — Here’s the thing about Nagbe, the central midfielder: it works with a dedicated no. 10 playing ahead of him (see: Valeri, Diego; and, Portland’s MLS Cup 2015 run), but you’re asking far too much of him to play centrally without a creator further up the field. He’ll push ahead way too frequently and leave his partner all by his lonesome, which is exactly what he did to Bradley on Friday.

RM — Christian Pulisic: 6.5 — The kid’s a huge talent, but the most impressive thing about him is how consistently he’s in the conversation for best player on the field. The majority of clear chances had his fingerprints all over them, whether it was his dribbling through midfield, his vision and crossing, or making the necessary run into the box as a target himself.

LM — Fabian Johnson: 5 — What’s Johnson’s best position/role? He was asked to shield Villafaña from the front and press high when Costa Rica try to play out of the back, but he did very little or none of either of those things.

[ MORE: Late drama for Germany; Kane starts scoring on Sept. 1 ]

FW — Jozy Altidore: 7 — Best player on the field, especially during the first half. Finally properly cast as a playmaker, dropping into the hole and creating for others. I know, it’s hard to imagine a striker with his build being a finesse player, but that’s the reality everyone must finally accept.

FW — Bobby Wood: 5.5 — His hold-up play is really important for the USMNT, as is his speed which stretches defenses beyond any semblance of comfort. Only, the latter didn’t happen against Costa Rica, and their three center backs remained in lockstep for 90 minutes.

Sub — Clint Dempsey: 5 — 65th-minute sub did exactly what you’d ask of an impact sub: find the ball early, find it often, and create chaos, which is precisely the situation in which Dempsey thrives most. That’s a tall task against a defensive unit like Costa Rica, though. His petulant elbow in the 91st minute should have been a red card.

Sub — Jordan Morris: N/A — 84th-minute sub unable to have any real impact on the game.

Sub — Paul Arriola: N/A — 87th-minute sub unable to have any real impact on the game.

Bruce Arena must change tactics to win Gold Cup

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If last night’s 2-0 “win” over El Salvador proved anything to USMNT fans, it’s that Bruce Arena has plenty of work to do if the United States is to seriously challenge for the 2017 Gold Cup title.

Lowly El Salvador has beaten one CONCACAF opponent in its last 10 tries. That victory came over Curaçao. Nevertheless, the United States struggled to deal with the Central American nation, as El Salvador sported multiple stretches of good pressure, and the U.S. back line was unbelievably lucky to come out with a clean sheet they did not deserve.

Given the performance, Bruce Arena has only one option going forward. With the B Team he’s put together on the current 23-man roster, the USMNT manager cannot stick to his usual 4-4-2 formation. He must adapt.

[ MORE: West Ham signs Chicharito ]

With a significantly worse defensive line than the U.S. is used to, Michael Bradley is unable to play by himself in a central defensive midfield role as he did against El Salvador. With just Bradley and Darlington Nagbe in the middle of the pitch, the United States sported a gaping hole down the center, begging their quarterfinal opponent to counter up the gut, which they did to great effect.

Arena knew the U.S. strength was down the flanks, and that’s where he chose to attack. You can see by the halftime touch map that the United States chose to move the ball up the edge, particularly the left with Justin Morrow and Gyasi Zardes.

Arena knew his midfield was thin, and attacked accordingly. Nevertheless, defensively it failed to hold up. Without the more superior John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, and DeAndre Yedlin behind them, a midfield pair of Bradley and Nagbe just isn’t enough to cut down the counter-attack.

So what is Bruce Arena to do? Change his tactics; it’s the only option. Instead of his favored 4-4-2, he must change to a 4-2-3-1. While that cuts down on room for more attacking players, it allows Bradley to partner with Kellyn Acosta in the midfield hole. In front of the pair can either be Clint Dempsey or Darlington Nagbe in the ACM role depending how Arena plans to attack. That leaves Jozy Altidore alone up front, and while that’s less than ideal for a striker who plays better with a partner, it’s the necessary sacrifice that must be made so the U.S. midfield isn’t carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey by the better attacking teams left in the Gold Cup.

Bruce Arena’s preferred tactics may work with better players on the first-choice USMNT roster, but with a significantly downgraded selection at his disposal, especially along the defensive line, the United States coach must adjust his tactics against Costa Rica and likely Mexico to even have a chance.