Preview: Netherlands’ turn to solve Messi, Argentina

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As a head coach, Carlos Queiroz’s reputation is mixed, albeit one that’s been bolstered at this World Cup. Though his team, Iran, failed to advance out of its group, the defensive performance it put in against Lionel Messi brought back memories of 2008. Then, as an assistant with Manchester United, the former Real Madrid boss helped implement a plan that kept the Barcelona star scoreless over two games in UEFA Champions League’s semifinal. Were it not for a long range, 91st minute goal in this summer, Queiroz would have solved Messi once more.

The key, it’s since come out, is space. Contest his first touch, and if you can’t win the ball, make sure he ends up moving away from goal. Don’t let him turn with the ball, pick up speed going at the defense, and have a chance to read his teammates’ runs. Don’t give Messi the space to be Messi.

For most teams that would be easier said than done – a tactic that would risk throwing the defense into turmoil as it tried to keep track of La Pulga (the Flea). Not so with the Netherlands. Instead, this is where Louis van Gaal’s team benefit from being grouped with Spain.

Against a team that plays so much like Messi’s Barcelona, van Gaal went with three central defenders, giving him a huge numerical advantage at the back. Yet instead of staying in place to mind Spanish striker Diego Costa, the likes of Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan de Vrij, and even veteran Ron Vlaar took turns tracking attacking midfielder Andrés Iniesta into midfield.

They did the same with David Silva. When those two playmakers got the ball, often they were forced into playing negative pass, touching back to deep midfielders Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. When Iniesta and Silva were denied possession, Costa had to drop back from the defense to provide an outlet. Spain’s attack sputtered.

[ MORE : From 1974 to 2006: History of Argentina and the Netherlands at World Cups ]

Argentina and Spain are different teams, but as Alejandro Sabella’s become the latest coach to try to replicate Messi’s club form, the Albiceleste have continued to evolve toward Barcelona. As it concerns tomorrow’s game, that would mean Messi as the focal point, in a free role, planted behind one forward (Gonzalo Higuaín). Instead of the Dutch defense having to worry about two men (Iniesta and Silva), they may have the luxury of focusing on one.

The slow fade of Messi’s final critics

But oh, what a one. After two World Cups that gave detractors license to pick apart performances, Lionel Messi’s 2014 brilliance is undeniable. Never mind that he was only 19 at his first World Cup (Germany 2006) and actually very good, if short on goals, at his second (South Africa 2010).  A naive criticism had taken root, portraying a player who has 68 career UEFA Champions League goals as troubled by the World Cup’s occasion.

Title-minded
source: APThe Netherlands are two steps away from the country’s first world title, while Argentina, having claimed the crown in 1978 and 1986, are looking for their first win since the days of Diego Maradona:

Nation Titles
Brazil 5
Italy 4
Germany 3
Argentina 2
Uruguay 2
France 1
England 1
Spain 1

Four goals and one assist later, and Messi’s crafted a World Cup to make his doubters into fools. The idea that Messi, so great at Barcelona, somehow became an inferior player for his country never made sense. The want to look beyond a strong 2010 only confirmed that bias. Messi was always working against critics that were only interested in bottom lines, ignoring the fact that Argentina had often used him in different, sub-optimal roles. Now, between his raw production and his team’s semifinal run, he’s ruined his critics’ summer.

[ MORE: With Angel Di Maria out, what other options do Argentina have? ]
[ MORE: Robin van Persie could miss Netherlands’ World Cup semifinal vs. Argentina ]

Whether he can ruin the Netherlands’, too, may end up in his teammates’ hands. If the Dutch use Queiroz’s approach and focus on Messi, it will be up to Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia, Argentina’s two deep midfielders in the quarterfinals, to find others who can make a difference going forward. On one side, that will likely be Ezequiel Lavezzi, a player who can make Dutch markers pay with his ability to beat them one-on-one. On the other, it would be Enzo Pérez, Maxi Rodríguez, or Rodrigo Palacio. Regardless, Sabella will need a Plan B – some other way to find forward Gonzalo Higuaín, should Messi draw too much attention.

Send your hopes directly to Arjen

The one thing Mascherano and Biglia won’t be able to do, however, is leave their defense unprotected. Even though Robin van Persie, one of the Netherlands’ two main threats up top, looks doubtful for Wednesday’s game, the Dutch still have a weapon that’s been as dangerous as Messi. Thanks to three goals, one assist, and the constant threat he’s posed the Netherlands’ opposition, Arjen Robben’s put himself in contention for the Golden Ball.

With their new propensity to play long and direct — potentially drawing in an Argentine team that’s keeping 61 pct. possession — the Netherlands have gotten the most out of Robben, who also drew a game-winning penalty in the Round of 16 against Mexico. One of the fastest players in the world, the 30-year-old can win this game on his own Dutch if he’s allowed to challenge José Basanta, Ezequiel Garay, and Martín Demichelis. A worry coming into the tournament, Argentina’s defense will become a nightmare if Mascherano and Biglia can’t provide support.

In that way, van Persie’s absence may not be decisive. Same with Messi’s command, though the Dutch will certainly try to account for it. Instead, it may come down to Ángel di María, the versatile Argentina midfielder who tore his thigh in the Albiceleste’s quarterfinal. It may come down to Sergio Agüero, whose return to Sabella’s team will likely come at the expense of somebody who can help protect the defense. It may come down to tall the ways Argentina can augment Messi without compromising their ability to stop Robben.

If they can strike that balance, the Albiceleste will likely play for their third title. Else, the Dutch get a chance to claim their first, at the expense of the Germans.

State of play in CONCACAF Nations League

Photo by ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images
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Well, well, well…

Canada’s controlling 2-0 defeat of the USMNT on Tuesday adding some intrigue to the final two match days of the CONCACAF Nations League next month

[ USMNT-CANADA: Time for change? | Player ratings ]

Mexico nearly provided another shock at Azteca thanks to a relative inability to break down Panama, but young stunner Jose Juan Macias scored for the fourth time in three caps to lead El Tri to a 3-1 win on the night.

Roberto Alvarado saw his 28th minute goal canceled out by pre-halftime own goal, and Mexico had better than 75 percent possession when Macias bagged his winner. Rodolfo Pizarro rounded out the scoring in stoppage time.

Here’s where we sit in the battle for four semifinal spots. The semifinals and finals will be staged in June.

Group A

Canada’s defeat of the USMNT means the Yanks need to make the most of the Canucks visit to the Orlando next month and smash Cuba in the Cayman Islands. Overall goal difference is the second tie breaker, and the Yanks are four behind Canada. A two-goal win in Florida would mean the Yanks would simply need a victory over Cuba to advance to the semifinals. Canada advances with a draw against the U.S., while Cuba has already be relegated to League B.

Group B

Mexico now has six points to Panama’s three and Bermuda’s three. El Tri will visit Panama next and can clinch a spot in the semifinals with a draw or better. Even if Panama beats Mexico, Tata Martino’s men would need to get nothing from Bermuda at Azteca to fail to make the semifinals. Bermuda needs Panama to beat Mexico before getting a blowout win at Azteca. Not looking good.

Group C

Honduras is onto the semifinals. Whether Martinique or Trinidad and Tobago, both on two points, can avoid relegation by getting a superior result against Honduras in November. Honduras heads to Martinique before hosting T&T.

Group D

Curacao had five points compared to its rivals two each and can advance to the semifinals with a home defeat of Costa Rica. If Los Ticos claims the three points, then it will have at least a two-goal advantage on Haiti heading into a home finale.

Three things from ugly USMNT loss in Canada

(Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
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We were warned after Couva that perhaps, somehow, the United States men’s national team still had some ways to go before really hitting rock bottom.

It seemed absurd, but after 10 months of the Gregg Berhalter era, which followed the least interesting manager search of all-time, perhaps the warning was needed and should’ve been heeded.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT had no answers and no options on Tuesday in Canada, showing no urgency and getting bossed off the pitch against a team which may not qualify for the Hex.

Time for a change? It’s not insane to consider it. The team Berhalter rolled out, with several players who aren’t even standouts in MLS, was inept in Ontario.

Either the plan or players the problem, and both point one way

Canada’s John Herdman and his desperate team were ready for a fight, and the visitors apparently thought their talent and reputation would win the day.

Nuh-uh.

The book on Canada was electric attackers and suspect defense, so what did Gregg Berhalter spring for his opening salvo? No pressing on the back line and two plodding center backs. Tim Ream could work with an athlete like Matt Miazga. Aaron Long, too, but Berhalter put both players together (Long certainly grew into the game).

The result was that Alphonso Davies was shifted mainly to the side of the field with Daniel Lovitz, and man did he run wild.

So did Canada’s midfield who out-worked the Yanks up-and-down the center of the park. It was sad, and littered the match with doubt heading into the break.

Granted the U.S. is short several injured players and lost Jozy Altidore just before the international break, but Berhalter had no answers on his bench, or at least couldn’t manufacture one.

And that’s a huge part of the issue here. If you don’t have any sugar, might wanna prepare something other than cookies.

He removed Christian Pulisic at the hour mark, who had been poor and reportedly sick (see below) but still represents the best playmaker in his pool. Aside from the Chelsea man’s missed 1v1 duel with Borjan, there were no real attacking moments.

This was so bad, and absolutely according to plan by Herdman. No, not Tata Martino this time… John Herdman.

There is every reason to doubt Berhalter right now, and just as many to think that U.S. Soccer hierarchy wouldn’t consider remedying the situation on account of pride.

Given the way national team soccer works, it would not be off-color if the federation pulled the chute on Berhalter. The only possible excuse is injury, but Berhalter knew what he had in this camp and still rolled this plan out there in Toronto.

Pulisic frustrated, off-color, sick, and subbed?

Christian Pulisic didn’t have to do much in Friday’s demolition of Cuba, and he couldn’t do much of anything on Tuesday when asked to carry the team.

The Yanks were absolutely bamboozled in the first half which often had the match asking Pulisic to run wild once the ball actually found its way to him.

But he was dispossessed too often in any event, and missed a necessary goal when Jordan Morris sent him alone 1v1 with Milan Borjan. Yeah, that’s a Champions League goalkeeper with Milan Borjan, but this is the pride and joy of the program and it’s best product maybe ever.

Still, for Berhalter to pull him after 60 minutes begs the question of whether there’s an injury here. If not, well, there are a lot more questions than answers.

EDIT: Berhalter said after the game that Pulisic had been struggling with flu-like symptoms.

Davies roars, Steffen saves USMNT from blowout

While the Yanks’ best players wasn’t in rhythm, Canada’s was borderline symphonic.

Former Vancouver Whitecaps phenom and current Bayern Munich youngster Alphonso Davies was a problem for the Americans from Moment No. 1, and the only thing that could slow him was a 53rd minute leg injury.

Davies had the U.S. back line on its toes all night, and cooked Tim Ream early in the match before doing the same to Aaron Long on a play the Red Bulls man did very well to recover and slide to safety.

Fortunately for Gregg Berhalter, Zack Steffen is used to being put in bad positions due to his starring stint on loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf. The goalkeeper made a phenomenal 1v1 stop on Davies in the first half and was often forced to command his box under duress.

USMNT player ratings from a dismal night in Toronto

Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
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Oh no.

The United States men’s national team had its worst performance since, well, last month.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

Were there bright spots? Well, at least one.

Let’s dig into an ugly 2-0 loss to the Canadians in Toronto.


Starting XI

Zack Steffen — 8 — Couldn’t do much on the goal, and was the only reason this wasn’t a blowout.

Daniel Lovitz — 5 — Couple of nice slide tackles. Steady enough on a bad day.

Tim Ream — 4 — Slipshod after two-straight notably good caps.

Aaron Long — 4 — Some really good moments and joined Steffen in saving the day despite a few glaring errors, and almost made amends for Yedlin’s awful effort on the goal. That said, out to lunch on Cavallini’s second.

DeAndre Yedlin (Off 73′) — 3 — Another unforgivable lack of attention and intensity on a conceded goal at the back post from Yedlin. Really, really poor.

Michael Bradley — 4 — Poor on the opening goal. Industrious but a step slow on the evening. Not what we expected from TFC’s captain at BMO Field.

Weston McKennie  — 3 — Left all his momentum somewhere between Friday and here. A step back and one that begs if he knew the plan.

Cristian Roldan (Off 73′) — 3 — An awful giveaway would’ve put the Yanks down 1-0 if not for Steffen’s heroics. Not on the level.

Christian Pulisic (Off 60′)  — 4 — Maybe his worst day in a U.S. shirt, bodied up often before missing a point blank chance to give the U.S. a lead. Berhalter said after the game that the player was suffering from the flu, so he gets an extra point for gutting it out.

Jordan Morris — 6 — One of the few bright spots in attack, should’ve had an assist on Pulisic’s missed xG.

Josh Sargent (Off 73′)  — 5 — Industrious but on an island.

Substitutions

Paul Arriola (On 60′) — 6 — Made some decent plays but isn’t a game breaker and didn’t have an outlet for his efforts.

Gyasi Zardes (On 73′) — N/A — This was the time to bring him on, hoping his athleticism and work rate could provide something that was missing.

Nick Lima (On 73′) — N/A — Deserves to start over either full back.

Disheveled USMNT out-muscled by Canada

Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Gregg Berhalter’s doubters found a lot of fuel for their fire as the United States men’s national team was out-worked, out-thought, and out-played in an embarrassing first loss to Canada in over 30 years.

Alphonso Davies and Lucas Cavallini scored for the Canadians in a 2-0 win at BMO Field in Toronto, as Christian Pulisic was removed after 60 minutes.

The Canadians now hold the keys to the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals after improving to 3-0 on the campaign to the Yanks 1-1.

[ MORE: Time for a change? | Player ratings ]

Mark-Anthony Kaye lasted less than 10 minutes with a hamstring injury as Canada was forced into subbing one of its top midfielders early in the fray.

And Davies was all over the U.S., and could’ve had a breakaway were it not for a ridiculously poor offside flag when Ream tried to play him offside.

Davies forced Steffen into a save on a bounding shot in the 12th minute. He then cooked Tim Ream but was stifled by Long.

That’s when Cristian Roldan made an unfathomable back pass to Davies, only to be bailed out by Steffen and then Davies pushing the rebound wide of the far post.

The U.S. finally got pressure on goal in the 18th minute as Pulisic set up Jordan Morris for a left-footed shot that was diverted for a corner kick.

Pulisic had two chances in the last 15 minutes of the half, but both didn’t reach the keeper.

The second half saw some early promise but it became property of the hosts when Davies tore down the left of the pitch following a sleepy pass reception from Morris. Davies turned two defenders but one of them, Long, recovered to make a fine last ditch sliding tackle.

Jonathan David should’ve made it 1-0 as Richie Laryea fed the Gent man, who had taken advantage of Long but couldn’t get the ball inside the near post.

At the other end, Morris fed Pulisic for a point blank chance but the out-of-form Chelsea man rifled a shot right at Milan Borjan.

Long grew into the game and made another fine intervention when Davies was sprung down the right at the hour mark.

Berhalter then took off a sick Pulisic for Arriola, and the Chelsea man was visibly emotional on the bench.

There wasn’t much time to stew on that, because Canada scored.

Bradley bungled a ball in his own third and Ream couldn’t get purchase on his clearance. Canada sent the ball to the back post, where Yedlin was absent for another lazy concession in a U.S. shirt.

Morris headed a Yedlin cross to Borjan in the 72nd, but Canada right back at it when Long misjudged a lost 50/50 ball from Ream and Steffen made an outstanding save on David.

Cavallini put the game to bed when Ream and Long made a pair of hesitant plays in the U.S. third.