United States-Russia: What we learned from Wednesday’s draw

9 Comments

A 2-2 draw might slightly flatter Jurgen Klinsmann’s team, but a road draw against a quality European team is always a good result for the United States.

Tim Howard and Michael Bradley were the stars of this one, which went all kinds of sideways in the feeble first 30 minutes. But the U.S. gamely regrouped, providing room for Bradley to hit a fabulous equalizer and later for late sub Mix Diskerud to claim a late leveler once the Americans had slipped behind again.

Here are the important, early elements we can take away from Wednesday’s draw with Russia in Krasnodar.

(MORE: Man of the Match, Michael Bradley)

This is not Guatemala or Antigua or …

We have all spent so much time over the last few months analyzing matches, dissecting the collective performance and the individual abilities in varying situations. But here’s the rub:

The games are getting more difficult. So are the choices.

The lesser CONCACAF teams have been dispatched. The opposition in World Cup qualifiers ahead will be closer to Russian in terms of collective ability. And they will ruthlessly punish mistakes – just like Wednesday.

Young Danny Williams, for instance, seems to have taken hold of the central, holding midfield position. And he has previously performed those duties adequately against … Guatemala and against Antigua and Barbuda, etc.  But these are better players, faster, stronger, more tactically astute. And under the guidance of better managers. Fabio Capello may not have gotten it done for England, but he’s certainly got something between his soccer ears.

Wednesday, the young midfielder looked overwhelmed.

Here’s another good “for instance:” We saw Eddie Johnson excel in a wide role, roughly the same role where Herculez Gomez failed to make an imprint in the first-half Wednesday. But we simply cannot make too much of Johnson’s performance against such unequal competition.

In some ways, we can take a lot of what we learned in the last qualifying round and toss it out. The stakes are rising – and so is the quality of opposition.

Center backs. We are still talking about center backs …

Geoff Cameron did enough in his latest start centrally. We can nitpick here and there – a few too many “thump aways” that needed be controlled and spun into attacker starters, for instance. But generally, Cameron was solid against a quality bunch.

Past that? Just not good enough – to the point of being alarming

The midfield shape and performance left the American back line with lots to do, admittedly. (More on that below.) Still …

Carlos Bocanegra started but soon left injured. Coming in cold was no easy assignment for Clarence Goodson, but he was still erring late in the match, after plenty of time to warm up, adjust and take control.

Rather, he gave the ball away too much, sometimes too casually, lost his position too often and gave away a potentially devastating penalty kick (at a moment when Howard seemed to have the situation covered).

Is Goodson still the U.S. third choice center back? That’s probably the bigger question. Omar Gonzalez, not available for this one due to MLS playoffs, cannot get back into the U.S. fold quickly enough.

The three-man midfield still a work in progress.

Results have been mixed, at best, when Jurgen Klinsmann deploys some version of a 4-3-3, using three across the middle who are more or less defensive-minded. It seems to work at home when Bradley’s starting positions are slightly more advanced, where he can perform a little more as a playmaker and linker, a little less as a redundant defensive screener.

(Actually, the three man midfield probably isn’t going to work at all , in any form or alignment lean, if Bradley isn’t in the mix. Again, I say, he’s the most important U.S. man these days, not Clint Dempsey, not Landon Donovan and not Howard.)

(MORE: Video of Bradley’s breakthrough goal)

But on the road, when all three midfielders are saddled with heavy defensive duty, it tends to fall apart. As we saw in some of the qualifiers, the shape and organization can get shoddy. Where is the pressure and where is the support? Who is tracking whom? Who is organizing?

Williams, for his talent and potential, may not be the commanding presence to hold things together and ask teammates to be accountable. And we can ask questions about whether he gets too timid in the 50-50 challenges.

Distribution out of the back looks untidy — but some of that is down to midfield shape, where outlets seem less available than they should be. It seems to be all improvisation, less plan and pattern.

Important point here: Maurice Edu certainly has his flaws as a midfielder. But the moment he replaced Williams in the second half, things began to look more settled and organized. He wasn’t getting drawn out of position as Williams was.

He looked like the leader that Williams, 23, isn’t quite ready to be.

(MORE to come from ProSoccerTalk, including thoughts on Josh Gatt, who earned his first U.S. cap Wednesday)

It’s confirmed: Club Leon parts ways with Landon Donovan

Getty Images
1 Comment

Landon Donovan’s four-month adventure in Mexico appears to be over.

Club Leon announced on Sunday that it had parted ways with Donovan, despite the 36-year-old having a contract through the end of the calendar year. Donovan made just eight appearances for Leon, with just one start, and failed to score or assist on a goal as Leon slumped to 13th place in the Clausura season.

[READ: England squad reconnects with fans]

“…both parties have decided not to (keep the contract) for the Clausura that united us,” Leon said in a statement. “The departure of Landon from our team has been exemplary in all aspects. The club loses a legendary professional from the world of sports that leaves an indelible institutional imprint.”

It’s unclear what’s next for Donovan, but he stated in an interview with PST’s Matt Reed that he intends to continue playing in Mexico.

Donovan recently drew the ire of U.S. Men’s National Team fans and Donovan’s former teammates when he revealed he was rooting for Mexico at the World Cup this summer as part of a Well’s Fargo campaign.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

Photo by Trond Tandberg/Getty Images
Leave a comment

SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
2 Comments

It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images
Leave a comment

VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”