Last night, the US Men’s National Team played the first of five games in eighteen days, culminating in the first two games of World Cup Qualifying, against Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala. The US were coming off three straight 1-0 victories, including an historic win against Italy, in Italy, back in February, and the defense was expected to be solid. But with no Clint Dempsey and no Jozy Altidore, there were questions about where the offense would come from.
The team sheet didn’t give many answers. Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, and Jermaine Jones are all fine players, but none of them are prolific playmakers. Jose Torres got a start on the wing opposite Landon Donovan, but Terrence Boyd led the line. By all accounts, Boyd is a promising talent, but he is unproven at the highest levels. With Herculez Gomez in camp, coming off a fine season in Mexico, it was an unexpected choice.
Scotland haven’t played in an international tournament in years, but they are a solid outfit, so you could be forgiven for expecting another functional, 1-0 or 2-1 victory for the US.
Instead, we were treated to a 5-1 demolition, with the US putting on one of the finest offensive displays in recent US Men’s National Team history.
With no Dempsey and no Altidore, how did the US manage it?
Juergen Klinsmann, instead of trying to swap in a striker who could replicate what Altidore or Dempsey do, took a chance and put in Boyd, a tall, strong, athletic player, and surrounded him with ball-handlers. In fact, that was the defining feature of the team, from back to front. Geoff Cameron was given a surprise start in central defense, and with Fabian Johnson continuing at left back, half the back line was made up of converted midfielders comfortable with the ball at their feet. With Edu, Jones, and Bradley swapping places at will in the center of the park and controlling play, and Torres and Donovan both running the wing and coming inside when the space allowed, the US dominated possession, holding the ball for long periods.
The other key attribute to the US game was pressure. This is nothing new. The US has always been an athletic team, and they used that athleticism and drive to great effect all game long, constantly harrying the Scottish players to win the ball back in the short periods when they didn’t have the ball at their feet.
Finally, the finishing was excellent. When the US got chances, it finished them, from the third minute to the seventieth.
All five of the US’s goals were the result either of fantastic midfield play or sterling counter-attacking soccer.
Jones, Bradley, Donovan, and Torres often seemed as if they were putting on a one-touch clinic, making triangles and putting each other into space.
Donovan scored a hat trick, putting him on 49 international goals. All three were fine efforts, yet what was impressive about them was that each came through team play. Bradley, in addition to assisting Donovan’s second, scored a 30-yard half-volley, with Donovan and Jones combining to set him up. Jones scored the fifth from a Donovan cross after a counterattack. Are you sensing a theme? The US bossed the midfield, and streaked up field at speed any time they forced a turnover.
In short, this was one of the best performances I have ever seen the US put in outside the World Cup. Following the win in Italy, the team has to feel good.
Some final pros and cons
- Geoff Cameron had a good game. Yes, he scored an own goal, but like the rest of the back line, we hardly noticed him otherwise, which is to say he and his compatriots were in control.
- The fullbacks, Fabian Johnson and Steve Cherundolo, were effective at getting up the wings to be involved on offense, especially late in the halves.
- Terrence Boyd had an energetic, committed performance. With a better first touch or quicker thinking, he might have had a couple goals himself. I doubt he’s displacing Dempsey or Altidore any time soon, but it was a promising debut.
- The midfield trio of Jones, Bradley, and Edu was fantastic. Clearly our first-choice central midfield.
- Who said Landon Donovan was slowing down? A hat trick speaks the lie to the idea that his career is on the downswing.
- Scotland is not Brazil. Heck, Scotland isn’t even Wales. (Wales’s current FIFA rank: 41. Scotland is 48.) Better teams would have given us more of a test. At times, the US passing wasn’t slick; it was sloppy. Our defensive pressure prevented that from hurting us, but other teams will make us pay.
- This performance was fantastic, but what happens when Dempsey and Altidore are available? Will the shape change? Will we be able to keep possession as well?
- That was one of the worst national anthem performances I have seen in a long, long time.
Oh, who am I kidding? That was impressive. (The game, not the anthem–the anthem really was terrible.) Can’t wait for Brazil on Wednesday.