The Need For Speed

I’m a big fan of DC United’s Chris Pontius. He’s a creative attacking player, able to play wide and also play a center forward.

I also understand why he may never get a real shot at playing for the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT), because we have a lot of those players.

Graham Zusi is skillful and confident in possession and if you give him half a yard of space, he can loft some beautiful, accurate balls into the box towards his fellow attackers or even get off a sweet shot himself. The much maligned Freddy Adu has that same ability to hold onto the ball and give his teammates time to get in place before he slips a pass through. Jose Torres, when he’s been played wide left, also uses that position to set the tempo.

What we don’t have much of are players who can burn you for pace. Go flying up the wing or drive towards goal with frightening speed. Really, just Brek Shea comes to mind and he’s been something of a head case for the last six months.

Donovan still has that quick first step, but that’s about creating some separation between himself and a marker, rather really than running up down for a game. At thirty, that’s not his game, not anymore.

Dempsey’s game has always been about brute force and timing, rather than speed, because he’s never been exceptionally speedy.

So Pontius will go down on the same list as Danny Pena: talented American players who rarely played for their country because, as good as they were, they weren’t what their country really needed.

DCU Disappointment.

DCU – as in DC United. As in that travesty Saturday night.

Leaving aside that phantom goal that the Red Bulls scored, there was no reason it should have been allowed to reach that point.

We were pressing and keeping possession throughout the first half while the Red Bulls were more or less content to fight for a draw and try and win this thing at home. But we were just… disconnected.

Players like Nick DeLeon, Andy Najar, and even Branco Boskovic were playing good long and cross field balls to Lionard Pajoy and Chris Pontius.

Pajoy was tending to play the center right channel, between the right sided central defender and the right full back – or at least, that was where he was picking up the long balls sent his way. But when he got those very well placed passes, he had almost no help. No runners from the midfield anywhere near enough to help, forcing him to try and make something out of nothing with at least two defenders on him.

Chris Pontius found himself in the similar situation, except that he was forced to play pretty wide on the left (Nick DeLeon on the right could pinch in a bit more because Andy Najar was playing right back and using his stamina and pace to cover the outside brilliantly, but Pontius, the most important offensive player, had no such luxury and spent most of the match way too far from goal) and so he was too far to even think about shooting.

Pontius missed a PK near the end of the first half, leaving the teams to go into half time scoreless and with DC United having a nasty taste in the mouth after the miss.

We finally scored a goal when, finally, a midfield player bundled into the box to push a loose ball over the line.

Yes, Red Bull struck back, but it should never have come to that. We should have had other goals.

Then, Andy Najar made a bad tackle, earning a yellow, and then compounded it by throwing the ball at the ref, getting himself a second yellow and an ejection.

There was plenty of bad refereeing (though not Najar’s red – he 100% deserved it), but we are close to digging our own grave.

The one good tactical decision was to play Najar at outside back, where his youth and pace let him cover his defensive duties, while also giving him time to play some lovely, accurate long passes and providing a outlet for players on the right. But he’s going to be suspended for the second, deciding game.

It should have been obvious that Pajoy needed help, but I didn’t see any tactical changes or substitutions to help bring Pontius closer goal or to push Boskovic closer to Pajoy.

If we do eke out a win and move on in the playoffs, my bet is that it comes from the work of Perry Kitchen. A defensive midfielder for DC, when we were down a man and needed a goal, he pushed higher up and showed some amazing footwork to hold possession and look for little seams at the edges of the box, skills I didn’t realize he had.

But let’s be honest, unless we can goad Rafa Marquez into getting a red card and making the Red Bulls play a man down, the combined artistry of Thierry Henry and Tim Cahill feeding Kenny Cooper will cut us down before the first half is over.

In Praise Of The DC United Front Office

I wanted to buy tickets for my father-in-law and I to see tonight’s playoff game against the Red Bulls, but my computer (this was yesterday; I was at work) was not letting me do it.

I called DC United and left a message and got a personal call back from a fellow named James. He walked me through everything and when I still struggled (the trouble was, as it turned out, the office server wasn’t letting me get into Ticketmaster which… I probably shouldn’t be buying tickets at work anyway), he called back in response to my email and even gave me his direct number. And all this, even though I was upfront about intending to get the cheapest available tickets (he even told me which ones those were).

The game isn’t until tonight, but the folks who run the team are pretty awesome.

Bayern Munich

I’m watching a replay of the Bayern-Lille Champion’s League game. And with a central midfield of Javi Martinez, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Toni Kroos, Bayern has the sort of possession based, tempo setting lineup that could (maybe?) think about going toe to toe with Barcelona. Especially when you toss in Lahm, who right now is a better fullback than Alves, and Ribery who likes Iniesta right now, except he plays wide rather than centrally and has a burst of pace that Iniesta lacks.

Should note that Javi hasn’t really grown into the team yet. At Bilbao he was a combination of Franz Beckenbauer and Andrea Pirlo. But the generalissimo role he played there belongs to Schweinsteiger at Bayern. The logical solution is to let the German player push a little higher while Javi plays the regista but that shift will take time.

Hyperbole? Probably. There’s a freaking hurricane! I’m bored.

The Mancini Conundrum

Roberto Mancini was let go by the management at Inter Milan for his failure to do enough in the Champion’s League. He was a near sure thing to lead the side to domestic titles, with AC Milan on a downward stretch (which is now threatening to become less merely downward and more downright plummetous) and Juventus taken down by dubious match-fixing scandals, but never seemed to really threaten the big guys to reach the next level.

But he was a good bet for the oil-rich sheikhs to take on at Manchester City. He knew how to handle expensively assembled teams and could achieve that critical first step of domestic dominance. He was also a good bet to flounder when it came to big matches in European competition.

Mancini doesn’t know how to take it to the next level. And when he tries, the results are often tragicomic.

For a stretch at Inter Milan, he knew that the talented and egotistical striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, could get them the points, week in and week out in those workaday games the team needed to win to stay top of the league. But come those midweek games in the Champion’s League, when every game is against the best teams each league has to offer, where every team has the players and tactical nous to isolate Ibrahimovic, he stumbled regularly.

And it’s happening again.

When Jose Mourinho took over Inter Milan, he got rid of the big striker in favor of harder working, team players who, while less outrageously skillful, would also buy into a tactical scheme designed to build create multiple danger points so that opposing teams would struggle to close down them all.

Mancini has done some important things. Reinventing Yaya Toure as a new kind of no. 10, surging from deep as what some commentators have taken to calling a ‘plongeur’ (plunger), using physical force to drive through and create space. Toure also uses his underrated passing skills, but he’s certainly no artiste de pass like your classical trequartista (Totti, Zidane, Sneijder).

But mainly, he has depended on a handful of super talented players to bail the team out. When the player he’s depending on has a bad game or worse, a bad patch, he is at a loss for ideas.

Actually, that’s not true. He has ideas. Just bad ones. The only good idea he ever has is to toss Edin Dzeko onto the field and hope the talented striker bails him out. Mancini has famously been experimenting with a 3-5-2 formation. While he theoretically has the players for it, the players never looked prepped for it, with the result that the team looks scared and uncertain.

He knows he needs to take the team to the next level, where they can go toe to toe with the best teams in the world with something approaching regularity. He’s not doing that and he’s taken the approach of throwing things at the wall and hoping something sticks. They’re not sticking.

Because It Never Ceases To Be Awesome

Klinsmann Gets It Right(er)

I sat down with some soup and cheap table wine and later some cheese and crackers to watch the USA-Jamaica rematch. And it was much more fun than last time, I can assure you.

Obviously, there was Clint Dempsey making that face (see video):

But there was also some nice tactical decisions by Klinsmann to get the some good, intelligent play out of his team, as well as address the tactical issues of the last game.

Dempsey was kept in a central role behind the striker (though he tended to drop deeper than last game).

Zusi and Torres were kept on the wings, but rather than playing as traditional wingers, running up and down the sidelines, burning the field with pace, the took on a slower roles, more focused on tempo than speed. They played operated as outlets on the wing, slowing the play down and picking out passes. They maybe played a little narrowly, but definitely as outside midfielders.

Actually, that’s very similar to the 4-2-2-2 formation that Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bob Bradley played. But Bradley played Donovan and Dempsey as the middle ‘2.’ They played as somewhat narrow wide midfielders, but each is more of a driving player, using acceleration, quick first touches, and the ability to ghost in the area to attack. Zusi and Torres played much slowly, focusing on possession and also being more willing to play longer passes (though not long balls, per se).

In the midfield, only Danny Williams was tasked to stay deep and defend, while Jermaine Jones stayed around the center circle.

For the first time in a long time, Torres looked good for the USMNT. He was a steady, patient outlet for teammates who were under pressure and played some decent balls into dangerous areas. He wasn’t as good as Zusi, but Zusi benefitted by playing with Steve Cherundulo behind him at fullback, whose smart runs gave Zusi a lot more cover cut inside slightly while Cherundulo overlapped. Fabian Johnson on the left didn’t make nearly as man good runs from fullback, so Torres had to be more careful about coming inside.

What I Want To See Tonight

I didn’t get anything I wanted last time. Let’s hope tonight is better, else we’re looking at potentially missing out on the 2014 World Cup and there is no excuse for either the US or Mexico to miss out because of the relative weakness of our group. Seriously. Every four years, CONCACAF needs to send us, Mexico, and then one or two other random teams (probably some combination of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Jamaica, and Canada).

A lot of folks pointed out that the UMNT lacked width  against a team that doubled up on width by playing a hyper-aggressive 3-4-3 (with two wide midfielders/wingbacks and two wide forwards).

But I’m going to give Klinsmann some leeway here, because we simply lacked the players. Only Brek Shea, Clint Dempsey, and Fabian Johnson were healthy and also (reasonably) natural wide players (albeit, with different interpretations of the role). But Dempsey almost certainly lacked the match fitness to run up and down the sidelines for the game (who, in one obvious failure by Klinsmann, should never have been asked to play the full match) and Johnson was needed to help with our lack of decent left fullbacks.

So Klinsmann made a justifiable choice in trying to play through the middle. If done well, the Jamaican strength on the wings could have been nullified by putting pressure on their back line and forcing the midfielders to drop back and cause the team to lose it’s attacking shape.

We played in 4-3-1-2 formation (sometimes also called a 4-4-2 diamond, in reference to the diamond shape of the midfield), but we lacked the players (or the players lacked the instruction or the will) to play in the necessary style to make the formation work.

Dempsey could work as a trequartista, but it doesn’t seem like a completely natural role and he wasn’t match fit – which means that the key to the entire offensive output was put in the hands of someone who was almost certain to run out of gas and whose touch was likely to be a little bit off.

But he shouldn’t have been the key to the offense. There were three players behind him who should have been doing something useful, but weren’t.

Kyle Beckerman has long been one of my favorite MLS players. With his smart play, leadership, and those awesome dreadlocks, what’s not to love? But he is not of sufficient quality to play for the national team. And, at his age (29 or 30, I think), he never will. On paper, he seems like a great, deep lying midfielder; primarily there to break up attacks and make those tackles and interceptions, but also with an admirable passing range. The problem is that he has not shown that he can handle the speed at which these games are played. He gave away possession and conceded too many free kicks, plain and simple.

Jermaine Jones, on paper, sounded like a great addition, too. An experienced, hard nosed midfielder with experience playing as a regular in one of the Europe’s top leagues. But all he’s done for his national team is give away stupid fouls, spend entire games looking like a red card waiting to happen, give the ball away, and generally show decision making skills so insidiously bad that you assume there is some complex, Illuminati-esque plot at work behind it all, because, seriously, no one with his pedigree could play so consistently bad for his country and continue to be picked to play, right? I mean, that would be just crazy, wouldn’t it?

Maurice Edu is a player with huge upside and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt because, while I can’t remember much he did, he couldn’t have had much time for anything else besides trying to staunch the hemorrhaging wound that was the other two thirds of the central midfield.

So, what do I want to see?

I want to see Dempsey not being forced to shoulder the entire burden for the offense and coming on as a substitute in the second half, rather than starting.

I want to see Maurice Edu played as the deepest midfielder, with Danny Williams and Jose Torres playing just in front – Williams being tasked with shuttling up and down the field, staying in motion and helping the defense and Torres spreading the ball around from a midfield position and also taking positions to allow him to be outlet to receive a pass and keep possession with other players are under pressure. I also want to see what Joe Corona can do by putting him on in the second half (probably for Torres, if we’re leading; instead of Williams or Edu if we’re not).

I want to see our three attackers bring some width and give our main strike, Jozy Altidore, some service by some combination of playing Hercules Gomez (and asking him to play wide, but knowing he’ll cut in and use his movement to create space for Altidore) and/or Graham Zusi (who will drift centrally and act more like a playmaker, but without the burden of being asked to play as a trequartista) and/or Brek Shea (to be a more traditional wide player, using speed, acceleration, and crossing ability to torment defenses).

Speaking of Graham Zusi, he’s been amazing for Kansas City in MLS and Klinsmann needs to give him a solid run out and see what he can do. He did a decent job for us in a friendly; some nerves, but that’s to be expected.

Of course, I’d rather not be having to do any of this in what is very nearly a must-win match, but the team is low on options. We could do a 4-4-2 with Shea on the left and a either a half fit and probably tired Dempsey on the right, but the options for substitutions are limited and would probably require changing formations half way through the game. Not ideal.

Oh, and finally, I want to see a g-d damn win!

What I Hope For Tomorrow Night

Tomorrow night is an important World Cup qualifier against Jamaica, to be played in Kingston, Jamaica. It’s an important game because a win or at least a draw puts us in good shape to not exactly cruise through the rest of this part of qualifying, but at least to have the freedom to try out young players and new strategies in hard fought games and not just meaningless friendlies.

So, I hope for a win.

I also hope to find a good place to watch the damn game in DC because it’s not going to be readily available on television. Any recommendations for which bar to go to? And not the Lucky Bar. That place is too crowded for me.

Mostly, I hope to see Jose Torres justify the coach’s faith in him.

The US Men’s National Team (USMNT) is fast and physical, but sometimes, it’s nice to actually keep possession of the ball for stretches of time. Michael Bradley can do that, sort of, but he’s more of a driving force than someone who can tweak the tempo of a game.

Torres is supposed to be that guy. The problem is, his role isn’t immediately obvious. He’s not a defensive midfielder – he’s not particularly strong in the tackle and doesn’t have that sixth sense for putting himself into opposition passing lanes. He also isn’t a trequartista, that final, killer pass or ghosting into the box to score the odd goal or providing a shooting threat from medium distance.

But even Klinsmann, who is more forward thinking that either of his two USMNT coaching predecessors, keeps trying to shoehorn him into the wrong role.

He’s been played on the wing, where he lacks the speed to be effective or the eye for the cross. Most recently, he was played at the top of a 4-4-2 diamond (or as the ‘1’ in a 4-3-1-2, whichever nomenclature you prefer), which isn’t his spot either because he likes to drop deeper, which leaves the forwards isolated.

The closest thing to Torres is Luka Modric (or at least the Luka Modric of the last several seasons at Spurs) and Xavi (the Xavi of Barcelona; the role he plays on the Spanish national team is a little higher up the field, closer to the forward) – which is not to say he’s remotely close to their quality. They don’t score many goals (not usually anyway; Xavi actually racked up some good scoring numbers last year) and they don’t even get many direct assists. What they do it keep possession and keep things carefully ticking.

Modric’s play especially is illuminating, playing next to a more purely defensive central midfielder, giving him freedom to sit near the center circle and play smart balls out to the wingers. Torres can do that.

On another note, I’d also like to see Freddy Adu given more chances. He is actually better for the roles that Klinsmann keeps shoehorning Torres into. He can keep possession (though he doesn’t set the tempo so well) in either a trequartista or winger role – playing the winger as more of a playmaking winger (think Sebastian Larsson or David Beckham a dozen years ago) who doesn’t burn you with speed, but with calmness and vision and a sense of when to play the ball into the strikers and when to keep it for an extra two seconds.

Monday Morning Staff Meeting – Cronus Swallows His Children

The world eater.

The future of women’s soccer in the United States.

Do you feel free?

Never the twain shall meet.