On Tuesday evening, the USMNT and Canada played out a dour and largely lifeless nil-nil draw in Houston. While many watchers, including me, were expecting a much freer-flowing game, considering the good vibes coming out of the USMNT training camp and Canada’s 4–0 defeat to Denmark just days previous, to see such a low-speed, low-energy game was a shock.
The story of the first half was simple: U.S. dominance of possession, but Canada had the two best scoring opportunities, both the result of Dwayne De Rosario’s individual skill.
In fact, the first meaningful action of the game came in the sixth minute when Canada’s two best players, Tosaint Ricketts and De Rosario, nearly combined to put Canada ahead. Ricketts had the ball wide right and put in a delicious, incredibly accurate cross deep to the left side of the U.S. six-yard box, where De Rosario was afforded too much space by Tony Beltran, the U.S. right back. Still, De Rosario had a lot to do to take a high, swerving ball out of the air and put it on goal at the full volley. That he did so will come as no surprise to MLS watchers, and De Rosario spanked a laser beam toward the near-post upper ninety, which Sean Johnson, in goal for the U.S., did very well to keep out.
The rest of the half consisted almost completely of U.S. possession in Canada’s half, but without meaningful goal-scoring opportunities. The U.S. was dominant, and yet had nothing to show for it. Chris Wondolowski did good work throughout, getting on the end of flighted balls, and once had a run at goal after good one-two work in midfield, but was unable to put any venom on his shots. Brad Davis, on the field for his set-piece delivery, failed to produce anything useful when he had the opportunity.
Late on, the U.S. nearly paid for its lack of production. Canada was awarded a rare free kick, thirty yards from the U.S. goal, central, which De Rosario lined up to take. Instead of putting the ball into the box or on goal, he played a pass on the ground out left, then took off toward the six-yard box, where he stole in unmarked to meet a lofted ball over the top. In other circumstances, he’d have put it away, but mishandled the ball and put it out for a goal kick instead.
The problem for the U.S. was that, while they owned possession, they played too slowly, allowing Canada time to get eleven men behind the ball. Canada’s defensive display was impressive, given the humbling that Denmark had just given them, but one got the feeling throughout that if the U.S. could simply step it up a gear, good things might happen. That step up never came.
I could tell you about specific events in the second half, but why bother? The only real difference to the first half was that the game got even more chippy and uneventful, with Canada eventually resorting to physical play to stop any U.S. momentum from building. Here’s the short versiom: subs Benny Feilhaber, Joshua Gatt, Alejandro Bedoya, and Juan Agudelo (international friendlies allow for six substitutions by each team) livened things up somewhat, but the U.S. still had no creativity or useful speed (I say useful because both Gatt and Bedoya can burn, but they didn’t use their pace effectively) to unlock the massed and increasingly physical Canadian defense.
It was truly maddening to watch. The U.S. had more than enough talent on the field to put something together, but whether it was from lack of familiarity with teammates or the system, or nerves and the desire to do too much, nothing came together. Any promising move broke down at the decisive moment, or was broken up by Canadian pressure.
In truth, no one shone very brightly for the U.S. in this game. The star performer was probably Kyle Beckerman, who had one of his best showings in a national team jersey. As the announcing crew told us repeatedly, Jurgen Klinsmann had told Beckerman to be disciplined in staying as a shield in front of Omar Gonzales and Matt Besler, which he did, and was very effective. While Danny Williams has come on strong in recent months, Beckerman will have done his chances a world of good.
As I said, Gonzalez and Besler lined up in central defense and played the full ninety together. They looked good in that they never seemed troubled in the least by what Canada threw at them. Stronger opposition awaits, but the signs were promising. Gonzalez also was a presence in the air offensively on set pieces.
With the news that Steve Cherundolo will not be fit for the first game of the Hexagonal, on February 6, it appears Michael Parkhurst will come into the side. Tony Beltran and Brad Evans each played okay at right back last night, but did not do enough to displace the two men ahead of them in the pecking order, especially now that Geoff Cameron has been converted to a right back for Stoke City in England, and could theoretically line up there, too.
However, the question of left back has become something of a concern. Evidently, with Fabian Johnson not playing regularly for Hoffenheim in Germany, Klinsmann is having doubts whether he should get the start. Such a notion seems shocking to anyone who has watched the USMNT for the past year, but if that’s the case, Justin Morrow looks a solid, if unexciting option.
In the end, Klinsmann wasn’t shown anything special in what was a surprisingly bad game from the U.S. The players already in the full squad picture (like Graham Zusi and Eddie Johnson), did nothing to lose status, while also not increasing their stock value. As for newcomers and those trying to break in, like Wondolowski and Davis, they will be disappointed not to have moved the needle at all.
While I wouldn’t be overly concerned by this showing, it was far, far less than we all were hoping for. Klinsmann can have learned little, and it was anything but encouraging going into the Hexagonal. The only silver lining is that the U.S.’s best players, like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, weren’t there, and are performing well for their clubs. As for last night, I said in my preview that anything less than a comfortable U.S. win would be a disappointment, and that’s very much what it was.