By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 7, 2013) US Soccer Players – Before we get into yesterday’s Honduras – USA game, let’s talk about Mexico – Jamaica. At Azteca, Jamaica played like the team expecting to win. That didn’t turn into three points in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, but it certainly showed that this team is in contention. It also brought a quick end to the idea that Mexico will have an easy time in the Hexagonal. After Wednesday’s opening day, there are no longer any favorites and every team in the Hexagonal has lots to think about between now and March 22nd.
Home Field Advantage
If you’re not familiar with the CONCACAF region, the degree of difficulty is never likely to resonate. It’s different here, with teams playing up any and all advantages since that could be the difference between success and failure. The draw on the road cliché looms large in North and Central America, since the home team usually takes every available step to make games as difficult as possible.
Just one example. Prior to the start of yesterday’s Honduras – USA game, reporters on site described how nice the playing surface was at the Estadio Olimpico, freshly mowed the night before. What nobody outside of the Honduran team saw coming was that the field wouldn’t be soaked prior to game time. Not only were they playing at 3pm in the afternoon local time, the field was dry.
If you’ve ever seen what English clubs do to the field just before the start of their games, you know that watering the playing surface allows the ball to move. When it’s dry grass, the ball tends to stop. Sure, both teams have to play the same surface but the home team knows what to expect from that surface. Advantage played, exactly what we should expect in CONCACAF.
To put it into big picture terms, there’s simply no expectations for anything positive. Any breaks the away team gets are just that, unexpected benefits. For the most part, the game plan should consider the worst and adjust accordingly.
Both Honduras and the United States gave up on wide play and didn’t have a lot of interest in building from the middle of the field. That favored Honduras, a team more suited to taking its chances with through balls and passes out of midfield that take defenders out of the run of play. Yes, Honduras equalized from wide play, but that sequence started with a corner kick. From the regular run of play, their game was obvious. As obvious was what the USA needed to do to stop it. Like with Canada, playing a disruptive game proved difficult.
How does this change between the issues with Honduras and facing a Costa Rican squad also fond of playing to the middle of the field? Stay at home defending, the kind of thing we’ve seen from USA squads in qualifying for the last couple of decades. That works to force the opponent to hold up at the top of the box rather than running past a high line while hoping to keep the play onside.
The United States had issues shifting the point of attack in the final third. That requires playing balls to the forwards out of midfield rather than the forwards forced to do their own work in developing chances. The US lacked the shots from distance that can disrupt a bunkered defense and the forwards had to do too much work. That’s a tactical adjustment, opting either for slowing things down in the middle of the field or taking a page from Honduras and sending in through balls for the forwards. Honduras were no better with their timing, causing themselves problems with getting the ball to their front running players. However, forcing a world class save from Tim Howard in the 33rd sent a clear message that the point of attack could shift.
Issues with substitutions at National Team level is nothing new for the United States, and you can add many National Teams to that category. A lot of high profile coaches club and country run into issues with predictable substitution patterns. It's a part of the game that still causes trouble for squads with available options.
For Jurgen Klinsmann, his plans shifted not only when Honduras dramatically equalized but also when he needed to make a change but had already used all three subs. That’s a practical lesson for fatigue playing in the afternoon heat in a place like Honduras. Players transition from winter in Europe and the United States where Major League Soccer is out of season to the intensity of a warm weather World Cup Qualifier. That’s its own challenge, and physical condition isn’t the only thing in play.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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