Armchair Analyst: Quick and steady wins the race for US vs. T&T

The issue was, you see, that the US weren’t playing quick enough. Bruce Arena said as much on the FS1 broadcast going into halftime, and he was right.


“We need to play a little quicker, there’s gotta be a greater sense of urgency in the final third of the field. And naturally the last shot [and] pass has got to be better,” he said. 

It sounds like a banal and meaningless quote – the type of thing that any coach would say after a particularly dreary half from his team in a must-win game. But it wasn’t meaningless, and given the way the second half unfolded, it certainly wasn’t banal.

Arena’s USMNT played a scoreless first 45 in which they allowed Trinidad Tobago too much of the ball and too much time to set themselves after any and every turnover. Then they came out in the second 45 and opened the floodgates.

Nothing was perfect, but it all turned out to be good enough. The US were the much better team, and they eventually won 2-0 thanks to a pair of goals from their best player, Christian Pulisic.

Some bullet points:

• There was some predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth on social media after that first 45 minutes, about how it didn’t really feel like a qualifier because the US were so slow to get into transition or even to pressure the ball. It was problematic.

The big issue with that? If you don’t transition the ball from defense to attack as quickly as is reasonable, you let the opposing defense set itself and keep its lines straight through both midfield and the backline. It’s not fatal – you can still generate good chances against a set defense, and Jozy Altidore should have had a goal when he got a header from seven yards late in the first half that he pushed over.

But this is true anywhere: It’s easier to score goals against a team that’s scrambling than it is against one that’s set. Want to know why everybody loves to play either high pressure or pure counter-attack soccer these days? Because those are the two best ways to get chances against a scrambling defense. Chances that are built out of possession tend to be of lower quality, even when you’ve got Darlington Nagbe skinning fools out on the wing.

When the ball turns over, you do not give the other team a chance to reset. The US weren’t doing that. Arena told them to do that. The US did that. The US scored, and won.

• I loved Pulisic’s first goal for the very reasons that color commentators Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden elucidated: He was so smart about the timing of his run. He popped into that little gap before the TT defense even realized he was there:

Notice how the defense manages to be both spread out and jumbled at the same time? That’s because the US had just won the ball back. Michael Bradley forced a bad pass at midfield that DeAndre Yedlin intercepted and – this was excellent – he didn’t take the ball down safely.

He played it one-time, from his own backline, into Darlington Nagbe‘s stride. The awareness and touch to do that is special, and obviously the overlap (into space that nobody was defending, again, because TT were scrambling) and one-time cross right into the honeypot was exactly what the doctor ordered.

• The transition on the second goal started even deeper, as Geoff Cameron won a ball off of Kenwyne Jones 100 yards from the TT goal. Again the defense was stretched out but jumbled, and none of the backline were capable of pressuring Pulisic, or understanding Jozy Altidore’s movement, or then track Pulisic after Altidore played him through:

Is this the ruthless, clockwork transition that Pulisic plays with his club team, Borussia Dortmund? No. But the point is you should never, ever let the opposing defense set itself if you can help it.

• The big worry for the US in this one came in the 32nd minute when John Brooks fell asleep and lost Jones in the box, while Tim Howard lost himself in no man’s land. The crossbar came to the US’ aid, and here’s some numerical context:

Jones’s header was worth .30 expected goals. It was three-times more valuable than any other chance TT created all night.

Brooks was great last year in the Copa America, and the $20 million Wolfsburg just paid for him tells you what you need to know about his club form. But he has frequent, worrying lapses for the US in qualifying, and this was a real let-off.

I don’t expect to see him suit up against Mexico. It won’t be as punishment for one egregiously bad play, but rather because the turnaround of just 72 hours is going to be too tough, especially when you add the altitude and atmosphere on top of it.

And honestly, as high as I am on Brooks, and as much as I think he’s going to end up being the best USMNT CB in the history of the program by the time it’s said and done … I’m relieved we won’t see him at the Azteca.

• I’m still not sold on the 4-1-3-2 that the US have played now in both home qualifiers under Arena. It leaves a ton of work in central midfield for Bradley:

That’s a network passing graph made using Opta data. Each circle represents the corresponding player’s aggregate touch, while the thickness of the lines connecting them represent the volume of passes exchanged. Bradley was, quite often, all by himself, which quite often meant he was playing prevent defense instead of getting on the front foot and pressuring the ball.

It’s a tough balance to strike in that spot even when you have help, and to both Arena’s and Bradley’s credit (as well as Nagbe’s, and Cameron stepping off the backline into the play), they eventually figured it out “good enough.”

Don’t expect that part of the field to be so barren against Mexico, though. There’s a reason the US played a 4-2-3-1 for the final 25 minutes.

• Overall, the US were the better team, and the expected goals count above does tell the story more than adequately.

Beyond that, though, there’s the story the scoreboard tells: Goose eggs. The USMNT have now played six games under Arena, and they’ve yet to concede a single goal from open play. They’ve conceded just two goals overall, and are unbeaten.

The US won, they now control their own destiny in World Cup qualifying, and the memories of last year’s defensive breakdowns can be memory holed. It hasn’t been perfect, but that’s certainly good enough for now.


A few more thoughts…

4. The US managed not to give up any set piece goals, or to look particularly vulnerable. That’s a relief after the follies against Venezuela last weekend, and Panama in the last qualifier. It’s also a relief given how good Mexico have been on set pieces.

3. Fabian Johnson had a quiet game, while Clint Dempsey outright struggled. Deuce’s touch was off all night and his runs were… weird.

The fact that he came off after 60 minutes leads me to believe he’ll see a good chunk of time at the Azteca, which I’m good with. I just hope he’s able to watch the tape and figure out what was missing tonight.

2. Both Yedlin and left back Jorge Villafaña were very good on both sides of the ball, though Villafaña did seem to run out of gas in the second half, which surprised me. He was beaten pretty handily for pace.

1. My wager is that Omar Gonzalez comes in for Brooks, Kellyn Acosta for Dempsey, Bobby Wood for Altidore, Paul Arriola for Nagbe and Alejandro Bedoya for Johnson against Mexico. We could also see Tim Ream or – please, please, please let it happen! – DaMarcus Beasley at left back if Villafaña is spent.

That leaves Pulisic, Bradley, Yedlin, and Cameron as the holdover starters from one game to the next. This presents as a wonderful and potentially painful depth test.


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