Thoughts on USA 1-0 Jamaica

The US looked impressive in the first half of their crucial 1-0 win over Jamaica last night in World Cup qualifying and kept a good enough defensive shape in a nervy final half hour to hold on for the three points. Despite failing to score in the opening 45 minutes, the US dominated possession with 79 percent and created a number of fine scoring opportunities. They struck the woodwork three times and forced decent saves from Jamaican goalkeeper Dwayne Miller. The breakthrough came via a Herculez Gomez freekick in the 55th minute. In truth Miller should have made the save, but the US had been good value for their lead.

Jurgen Klinsmann made five changes to the side that started in Kingston Friday evening. Right back Steve Cherundolo returned from a calf strain to replace Michael Parkhurst, Carlos Bocanegra replaced Clarence Goodson at center back, and Danny Williams, Graham Zusi and Jose Torres were brought into the midfield while Kyle Beckerman and Maurice Edu sat. Dempsey was moved forward to a withdrawn forward position behind Herculez Gomez, demoting Jozy Altidore to the bench.

The US played something like a 4-1-3-1 with Williams playing as a holding midfielder behind Zusi, Jones, and Torres and Dempsey operating just behind Gomez. Zusi brought width and a direct vertical threat down the right, while Torres brought composed passing on the left. He also frequently drifted inside to offer an additional passing option for Williams and Jones. Both outside backs in Cherundolo and Fabian Johnson did a fine job overlapping into space when Torres and Zusi came inside. The US looked particularly threatening down the right side with combinations between Zusi and Cherundolo, though the Hanover 96 captain struggled with his final ball.

Jamaica's defense sat particularly deep, often keeping all four defenders within 12 yards of the goal when the US were in the final third. Their deep line created a great deal of space for the US just outside the 18 and the Americans looked dangerous when they made delayed runs into this area (recall Danny Williams' strike that struck the post and Zusi's volley blasted over the bar came from this area). Their movement was fluid and they were able to penetrate gaps in the Jamaican defense with relative ease. That they failed to score despite such an overwhelmingly dominant first half came down to a combination of good goalkeeping, bad luck, and poor finishing.

Perhaps fittingly, the US's revenge came in the form of a freekick, the area of the game the Jamaicans had executed so well to shock the Americans in Kingston. After going down a goal, Jamaica committed more men forward and pressed the US higher up the field. In response, the US began playing much more direct. Faced with the threat of the pacey Jamaicans aggressively closing in on the ball, Klinsmann could be seen on the sideline frantically urging his back four and midfielders to knock the ball long into the corners.

This wasn't a time-wasting strategy the US was employing to kill the clock off; they were doing it with 25 minutes still remaining. Given Klinsmann expressed desire to Latinize American soccer and the success the US had in possession in the first half (they finished the half with 79 percent possession), it seemed a little surprising that Klinsmann would resort to hitting long balls for the forward to chase while keeping a tidy defensive shape with the other players.

However, the strategy made perfect sense. At no point in the course of three halves of soccer had Jamaica shown they could break down a compact US defense in the run of play. They simply don't have the technically ability to break down a team defending with two banks of four. By playing long balls into Jamaica's defensive third, Klinsmann was minimizing the ability of the Jamaicans to force turnovers in midfield and counter at the US defense with numbers. Even if Herculez Gomez (and then Jozy Altidore) was unable to get on the end of these long balls, the US was still forcing Jamaica to patiently build from the back against a crowded defense. In effect, they were forcing Jamaica to rely on their technical ability rather than their athleticism to get an equalizer. Despite a nervous-looking finish, the Jamaicans only really troubled Howard once.

The decision of Klinsmann to move to a more direct and defensive setup after getting the go-ahead goal also signals that he's not entirely confident in his team's ability to kill off games by knocking the ball around and preventing the opponent from getting possession (the way a team like Spain would see out an important game). He was clearly concerned about giving the ball away cheaply in midfield and giving the Jamaicans opportunities to counter. That's a concern I shared and given the US's precarious position in the group going into the game, minimizing risk seemed a wise move.