By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 15, 2012) US Soccer Players – Anyone who follows club cup competitions knows that sometimes the overmatched team manages to win. It’s the ‘giant killer’ cliché of English soccer, when the mighty topflight club rolls into town and exits the tournament courtesy of a third division team. What that proves in the big picture sense is that the games are always worth playing and take nothing for granted.
That’s the point worth stressing from Friday night at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound, Antigua. The difficulty of qualifying in CONCACAF and away games that aren’t easy is quickly becoming its own cliché. Still, these games aren’t easy or even predictable. The visiting team cedes the basics of control, and that can turn a win into a draw or worse. Antigua & Barbuda did a good job playing up their advantage within the guidelines of the competition, but it’s also worth stressing that gamesmanship only applies to qualifying.
World Cup hosts are required to meet a standard that won’t resemble the tiniest field possible pressed into service in the middle of a cricket oval. Those kinds of conditions aren’t part of the deal at World Cup level, but they’re almost a requirement to qualify. One of the basics of the game, the playing surface, isn’t a given.
Even in the age of the Goal Project funding soccer stadiums all over the world, a team can make it deep into qualifying using a facility that isn’t soccer-appropriate, much less soccer-specific. In fairness, it wasn’t long ago when Major League Soccer faced the problem of filling in baseball diamonds with turf in some of their stadiums. It’s a technical difficulty for teams looking for points on the road, a home field advantage in the practical sense.
It also ended up not being a stumble for the United States over a stress inducing 90 minutes. Transitioning to a gem of a soccer-specific stadium is almost a reward considering how many adjustments were required to get through Friday night. The weight on the passes makes sense, there’s enough room on the wing, and midfield matters. For a team used to playing with adequate space, their game makes sense again.
That’s the problem with taking too much from Antigua & Barbuda. You can stake up a litany of charges against USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s vision for his club and what it does on the field, but you can’t leave out that field. Is that enough to temper any and all criticism directed at Klinsmann? No, some of his choices opened him up to the talking points that have become the story before and after the game against Antigua & Barbuda. Call ups, positions, and tactics are the basics of coaching at international level, and all of those are in question.
What solves these issues for Klinsmann is also in question. What most expect is a free flowing attack oriented United States capable of imposing their game home and away. That hasn’t happened, and we can point to call ups, positions, and tactics as the obvious reasons. Klinsmann left himself short of choices to fill the slots in his preferred lineup for the October qualifiers. In turn, that limits his tactical options. The response to the lineup announcement shortly before the Antigua & Barbuda game was to be expected. Players started out of position in a setup that had no obvious distinction between midfielders and forwards with a patchwork backline that lacked familiarity. Does that about cover it?
On the field, it took significant time for the basic moves to work, and some never showed. Wing play was a struggle in the confines of that field. Antigua & Barbuda played to the field’s limits and put enough players in the box to disrupt the US attack. They also took full advantage of that US back four, scoring off a defender slipping and keeping the pressure up as the US tried to regroup after that equalizer. It was smart soccer, played in the moment.
The US response took more time than expected, and there wasn’t the feeling that the US was in control. Eddie Johnson’s second goal was a team effort at the right time. That’s a separation point, and it’s important. The United States did enough for the win in a difficult environment. Personnel and tactical decisions didn’t make it any easier. Going into Tuesday’s game against Guatemala, that’s what should be on the mind of every USA fan.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
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