There’s a truism around this USA team, which I tend to subscribe to, that runs: “as goes Michael Bradley, so go the USA.”
So important has “the General” become, over the last World Cup qualifying cycle in particular. Yet when you look at the midfielders in the team and how they did against Ghana, of all of them Bradley looked the most indecisive.
Outside him, Alejandro Bedoya and Jermaine Jones played smartly on both sides of the ball, making crucial interceptions to relieve pressure and driving into the attack on the few occasions it was appropriate. Jones, so long seen as the likeliest player to have a Pepe-style rush of blood to the head, even showed great coolness late on to draw a foul and eat up the clock when there was half a shot on. That was not a key moment but it did illustrate his new discipline – his booking-free run now extends to 10 games.
And when you look at the centre of that midfield it was Kyle Beckerman, not Bradley, who caught the eye as he patrolled the area in front of defence, shoring up gaps, tackling repeatedly and maintaining concentration and composure over a tense 90 minutes.
Beckerman, playing near the limit of his abilities, was great all night, as was Geoff Cameron behind him in his muzzling of Asamoah Gyan – even as his task got more difficult when his partner, Matt Besler, was forced off.
But the US might have expected more from Bradley – who was a curiously peripheral figure for much of the night and whose wayward passes from some of the warm-up games carried into the first World Cup match.
Bradley could fairly argue that the game plan went out of the window almost as much as Ghana’s did, with the first-minute goal and Jozy Altidore's injury. Before the game, the smart money was on the USA trying to get a quick and dominant start while remaining compact in defence. Bradley’s timing in that regard – his decisions on when to counter and when to sit – are usually one of his strong suits.
But with the surprise goal came a scenario nobody had anticipated – defending a lead for 89 minutes, and as first Altidore went down to rob the US of a hold up man, then Clint Dempsey became barely able to breathe through his nose, Bradley found himself compensating by sitting too deep to be an effective outlet, but not always deep enough to stop Ghana bypassing him in midfield.
Late on, Bradley did try to carry the ball up the field, but by his own high standards there was often something off with his final ball or decision. Far from dictating the game, he rather inherited it from others.
Altidore will be a huge loss
One of my favourite analysts of the American game, Matt Doyle, had it about right over at MLSsoccer.com when he suggested this could yet prove to be a truly pyrrhic victory for the USA, not least with the likely loss of Altidore for the rest of the tournament.
It’s not just that Altidore had started to score again – it’s the fact that there is no other striker on the US roster who can play the advanced role like he can, something that became abundantly clear when Aron Johansson came on after Altidore’s injury in the 21st minute.
It’s not that Johansson is a bad front man – indeed in his nine appearances so far he has shown that there is definitely something about him when it comes to having the confidence to try something around the box. But when his team was as under pressure, as they were for long stretches of the game, Johannsson was way too easily isolated.
The dots that Jürgen Klinsmann likes to speak of joining were too far forward (Johannsson), too slow moving (post-injury Dempsey), or too deep (Bradley), to work coherently. Had Altidore been on the field, he would have kept the Ghana defence a lot more wary about pushing up, and created the kind of space behind him his team like to spring into at their best.
As it was they had to depend on the type of depleting rearguard action that might have got them through this game, but will be almost impossible to execute successfully against Portugal in Manaus – not just because the Portuguese surely can’t be as bad again as they were in their 4-0 defeat by Germany earlier in the day but because the conditions will be too cruel to play for 90 minutes without the occasional relief and space Altidore provides.
The USA will be praying it’s not as bad as it looks for Altidore (or indeed Besler, withdrawn as a precaution with tightness in his hamstring), but as they face an anxious wait for Altidore's scan in a Sao Paolo hospital this morning, they’ll also face a difficult look at the system they have arrived at, and the remaining personnel available to occupy it, and realise how much they may have lost when Altidore was carried off.
Right subs, maybe wrong roster
Klinsmann’s “fortune favours the bold” coaching approach should enjoy mixed reviews on Tuesday morning. Of his three substitutions, one was forced (Johannsson for Altidore), one was precautionary (John Brooks for Besler), and the final one was perhaps part precautionary, part bold tactical move, and perhaps the most Klinsmann-esque of the three.
Bedoya had enjoyed a very good game, but appeared to be struggling a little with injury when he was brought off for Graham Zusi. Rather than the coach introducing a dedicated defender to hold the lead it was like-for-like swap, with Zusi and his dead-ball prowess and willingness to work on both sides of the ball still signalling attacking event should it yet be needed.
It was. Zusi had only been on the field a few minutes when his team found themselves back at 1-1, and a few minutes later it was his cross from the corner that was met by fellow sub Brooks for the winner.
The corner had been won after persistent work by Fabian Johnson – harrying on the overlap down Zusi’s flank to help force the set-piece chance. It’s not that the chance wouldn’t have been won or converted had, say, a defender like Omar Gonzalez or Timothy Chandler entered the game as the final sub, but there was something about the final sub that suggested Klinsmann wanted to maintain the structural integrity of his system in attack if needed, rather than simply throwing another body into last ditch defence.
And of course Brooks scoring the first goal by a US sub in a World Cup finals tends to vindicate his introduction, even if the Hertha Berlin man was at fault in his communication with Geoff Cameron on more than one occasion in defence.
But it’s the Johansson substitution that should throw a light back on Klinsmann’s decision-making on the roster, and take some of the lustre off his reputation.
Johannsson’s movement, running and willingness to shoot is a handy weapon to throw on towards the end of games to stretch tiring defences. But playing from near the start, at this level, he didn’t look like a player to tire Ghana out. Of the other dedicated strikers, Dempsey is better from deep and Chris Wondolowski is a poacher with an eye for goal rather than a man to hold up play.
This all represents a problem. There is no ready replacement for Altidore, given the way Klinsmann wants to play. Eddie Johnson may be in poor club form but he would at least give a decent option within that set up, and while there are reasonable arguments to be made for Landon Donovan’s exclusion, he too would have been a good person to turn to when you need to shuffle attacking players into workable alternatives.
Dempsey of course, got his goal and might have been set to play his way into form behind it, had he not been kicked in the face. The health of his nasal passage, as much as the hamstrings of Altidore and Besler, should be concerning the USA this morning.
Having left his best alternatives back in the USA, Klinsmann needs an animated Dempsey rather than a breathless one, to give his team a puncher’s chance.
Credit, don’t blame, the defence
DaMarcus Beasley stepped on to the field for his fourth World Cup last night, and marked the occasion with one of his busiest nights in a USA shirt, as Kwadwo Asamoah and Christian Atsu in particular tried to torment him down the touchline.
But while Beasley was stretched at times, and occasionally needed interventions from the players around him, he was far from carried by those players – if anything he consistently reminded them of one of the macro strategies teams should remember when facing Ghana: if you can isolate the supply through the middle to Gyan, and force them out wide to deliver their crosses, they can be frustrated.
Atsu at first looked confident as he ran at Beasley, then gradually looked puzzled as he was repeatedly forced wide then back inside to deliver balls into the box that the USA defence were able to deal with fairly comfortably.
Eventually it was Atsu rather than Beasley who was subbed out. Ghana had sent in 30 crosses, mostly from areas the USA wold have chosen as the least worst option. Atsu may have repeatedly run at Beasley, but he rarely ran past him.
If anything the key worry is Fabian Johnson, who was at least partly culpable in the build up to the Ghana goal. Johnson’s ability to get forward is one of the most useful alternative weapons the USA have – early in the game he overlapped to meet a Bedoya ball for a low cross and a decent chance for Altidore, in an almost carbon copy of the goal he made against Nigeria.
While there’s always an acceptable risk with an attack-minded full back, and while Beasley’s willingness to stay disciplined and deep on the other flank permits some latitude for Johnson, as we’ve said before – he still needs to defend.
Another good result for Concacaf, with a caveat
After the first round of games involving Concacaf sides, only 10-man Honduras folding against France stands as a blot on the federation’s record.
With Mexico beating Cameroon, Costa Rica stunning Uruguay and now the USA prevailing over Ghana, this has been a good start for one of the federations which traditionally endures sneers, from Europe in particular, about its qualifying rounds. (A fairer assessment might set the fact of some admittedly weak teams against a gruelling schedule and inhospitable venues, plus teams who know each other to the extent that shared history creates its own challenges).
Of course, the Concacaf teams are pretty close to home in this World Cup, and the USA staff and players have even spoken about the conditions of travel and weather as being a possible advantage, due to their familiarity with testing conditions. Yet if anything, looking at the confirmed and suspected injuries picked up by the USA in Natal, they were the team who looked to be struggling most with the conditions.
Klinsmann has worked his team hard in camp, and if there are further casualties in Manaus on Sunday he may yet face tough questions. For now, though, his team are still part of a regional success story.