US continue to struggle to turn possession into goals

Daniel rightfully pointed out that my previous post gave far too much credit to Jurgen Klinsmann for making what any professional soccer coach would have realized was a necessary move away from Bob Bradley's 4-4-2 and introducing three-man central midfield formations. During Bradley's tenure, it became rather obvious his favored 4-4-2 was allowing the opposition too much space in the center of the park- Klinsmann can hardly be considered a brilliant tactician simply for recognizing that fact. While his tactical shifts have created a more solid spine down the center of the field, the US continues to struggle to translate midfield dominance into genuine goal scoring opportunities. A 92nd minute goal from Eddie Johnson against Antigua & Barbuda spared Klinsmann the blushes of what would have been one of the most humiliating defeats in the team's history but signaled the team has to improve quickly if they want to avoid a nervous final phase of qualification.

Some of the US's offensive difficulties can reasonably be blamed on the challenges that accompany playing CONCACAF opposition on the road- playing on dreadful pitches in front of hostile crowds is no easy task (although it would be quite a stretch to say the 8,000 fans that attended Sir Vivian Richards Stadium Friday created an intimidating atmosphere), particularly in torrential weather when the opposition defends with all 10 men in their own defensive third. However, it's still deeply concerning that the US has had such a difficult time converting dominant possession figures into genuine goal scoring opportunities against vastly inferior opposition. Despite holding 72% possession Friday against Antigua & Barbuda, the US could only muster four shots on target. The frightening truth is that the US has not looked good on the road once in this phase of qualifying. In fact, you could reasonably argue the first half of the 1-0 home win over Jamaica was the only decent half we've played thus far.

One good half out of ten played does not bode well for the team in the final hexagonal phase of qualification, assuming the US get a result over Guatemala tonight and qualify. Based on current standings, the hexagonal would consist of Guatemala, USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Canada. With the possible exception of Canada, those are all very difficult places to play. Given current form, it doesn't seem inconceivable that the US could struggle to finish in the top three and secure automatic qualification.

How responsible Klinsmann is for the recent run of unconvincing performances is difficult to say. While he can take credit for the fact his controversial roster inclusions of Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson proved to be a difference maker against A&B, legitimate questions should be raised about how the US put themselves in a position where they needed a last minute winner in the first place. This phase of qualifying was expected to be a cakewalk for the Americans and it probably should have been. That they've left themselves with work still to do in the final game against Guatemala to ensure passage to the next stage suggests the US may not be adjusting to Klinsmann as quickly as had been hoped. We knew from the outset Klinsmann wanted to introduce a patient, possession-based system and has done so. But while his style has certainly allowed the US to dominate possession, too much of that possession occurs in the middle third of the field. As we move the ball into the attacking third we often lack the technical ability and inventiveness required to unlock compact defenses. Throughout the field, the ball moves from player to player too slowly, allowing defenses to easily shift and retain their proper shape. There's a sneaking suspicion that Klinsmann's ambition for how he wants the team to play does not much the technical ability of the players at his disposal. While I applaud his ambition of bringing a more modern brand of football to the USMNT, his job is, first and foremost, to qualify for the World Cup. Qualifiers are not the time to be dogmatic about your ideals, sometimes pragmatism is necessary.

This isn't to say Klinsmann is doomed to fail. The world of international football has its examples of teams that have struggled in the buildup to major tournaments but gone on to achieve great things. Carlos Bilardo won only three of his first 15 games in charge of Argentina and only one of seven in the buildup to the 1986 World Cup. Argentina would go on to win that tournament. The US is obviously less talented than Argentina and no one is expecting them to win the World Cup in Brazil but the point is that Klinsmann will ultimately be judged on how he performs at the World Cup if the US qualify, not on how convincing they were in qualification. Poor performances in qualifiers and friendlies would be quickly forgotten if Klinsmann can get the team into the knockout stages in Brazil. The challenges of playing in a World Cup are very different than those of a CONCACAF qualifying campaign and may actually better suit Klinsmann's style of play. Pitches will certainly be wider than 70 yards so there will be better opportunities to stretch defenses laterally and play with more width. Few if any teams will be frightened enough of the US to defend with nine men in the defensive third so there should be more opportunities to get in dangerous pockets of space in and around the 18 and more opportunities to counter. Opponents will be more talented but will also open themselves up. This should allow the US to rely less on technique and clever passing-which they've been forced to do against compact CONCACAF defenses and isn't the strongest aspect of the American's game- and more on athleticism.

Getting ahead of myself though. Let's get a result tonight first.