Takeaways from the United States’ 2017 Gold Cup Victory

Takeaways from the United States’ 2017 Gold Cup Victory

It felt like the United States eked out its 2017 Gold Cup victory, rather than truly outplaying its competition. There were plenty of positives to take away from the tournament and the championship, even if the rotation of players led to a lack of excellent team passing and creativity most of the time.

Jordan Morris, Kellyn Acosta, and Paul Arriola all either reaffirmed their talent or they showed more of what they were capable of. Acosta and Arriola oddly received some criticism for not showcasing enough talent and special qualities, but Acosta looked smooth, skillful, and involved, while Arriola looked fast and dangerous.

Without Christian Pulisic acting as a Number 10 behind the forwards, there definitely was a lack of playmaking and creativity in the attack that saw Jozy Altidore dropping back into the midfield to receive the ball and playmake. Luckily, Clint Dempsey was around to win the semifinal and break the deadlock in the final, but Bruce Arena deserves some criticism for cutting Kelyn Rowe after the group stage and not always starting someone to operate as the team’s playmaker. Arena has several quality playmakers to choose from in the field, and he arguably didn’t have any of them on the roster for the group stage or knockout rounds.

Against a weak CONCACAF field of B Teams, the United States should have been more dominate and impressive. Arena did what was necessary to win the tournament, but the U.S. barely won most of its games. The only rotating of players that made sense was not starting Dempsey in the semifinal when he had just played 90 minutes a few days before. Other than that, there was too much meddling with the starting lineup, which affected the team’s performances negatively. Not starting Dempsey in the final didn’t make much sense either since Dempsey only played some 20 minutes in the semifinal.

After so many years of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones not pairing well as the team’s holding midfielders, Acosta proved himself to be a box-to-box midfielder who partners well with Bradley. Acosta plays with graceful skill and easy athleticism, and he passes well. Arena now has the option of either using two holding midfielders or two forwards, and this allows him to field a more attack-minded or slightly less attack-minded lineup whenever he wants. Morris continues to be a direct and aggressive striker who scores goals and unsettles opponents with his speed, so the United States has another striker like Bobby Wood who can get behind the defense and score.

Without the first-choice center backs, right back, striker, and playmaker, the United States’ Gold Cup squad wasn’t it’s A Team, so this wasn’t a chance to see if the United States has built on its progression under Arena. Nevertheless, at least the United States won the tournament, which should have been much easier to win. The real lesson is that the United States should always be starting its very best lineup until they are more dominant.

 

Bruce Arena Taking United States 2017 Gold Cup Competition Too Lightly

Bruce Arena has been a better national team coach than Jürgen Klinsmann in terms of his player selection and tactics, but Arena has taken the Gold Cup competition too lightly. In the 2017 Gold Cup, the United States has been drawing or barely winning, and in the semifinals, it took Clint Dempsey coming on in the 69th minute to break the deadlock with an artistic assist and a masterful free kick goal to finally beat Costa Rica.

Arena’s coaching decisions in this Gold Cup haven’t been poor, but they haven’t been excellent either. Arena has been taking opposing teams too lightly by shuffling lineups and auditioning players too much while also failing to start a playmaker behind the strikers to fill Christian Pulisic’s Number 10 role. Pulisic is already back with his club team Borussia Dortmund, and the United States’ passing, creativity, and attack has been subpar compared to previous recent U.S. National Team games.

The second-time U.S. coach was close to fielding a strong lineup against Costa Rica in the semifinal, but again there was no real attacking midfielder or playmaker until Dempsey came on late in the game. Pairing Kellyn Acosta and Michael Bradley as the holding midfielders behind the more attacking players was an improvement for the squad as Bradley could sit deeper in front of the defense and Acosta was free to go forward more. On the other hand, starting Graham Zusi once again at right back was suspect at best. Arena is apparently going to insist on having Zusi as a right back option, and Arena has really dug his heels in on this questionable decision.

Against Jamaica on Wednesday in the 2017 Gold Cup Final, Arena will likely start Dempsey rather than saving him for the end like last game which was done on purpose to account for Dempsey’s 90 minute performance just a few days prior to the semifinal against Costa Rica. Look for Dempsey to play alongside Jozy Altidore up top in the attack or to play as the center attacking midfielder behind Altidore and possibly Jordan Morris. We could see the United States drop Acosta in order to go with the more attack-minded 4-1-3-2 formation, but maybe not.

Arena has been taking the United States’ Gold Cup competition way too lightly in the 2017 Gold Cup, but against Jamaica in the final, Arena would be wise to not start the likes of Zusi or Gyasi Zardes. It will be interesting to see if Paul Arriola or Joe Corona starts in the final, but with many first-choice attacking players like Pulisic, Sebastian Lletget, and Kelyn Rowe not on this roster, one of Corona or Arriola should start.

 

The United States Must Build All Lineups around Christian Pulisic

The United States Must Build All Lineups around Christian Pulisic

Christian Pulisic should be the first name on the United States’ team sheet, and he should be on the team sheet in the Number 10 role.

When Bruce Arena first deployed Pulisic as a Number 10 beneath Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, what Arena did was set the United States up to showcase its best passing and best attacking play ever.

Recently, when the United States tied Mexico 1-1 in Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, Arena was somewhat forced to not use his first-choice players because they were operating on only a few days rest from a previous World Cup qualifier, but Pulisic nevertheless started. In the 3-4-3 formation used by Arena, Pulisic was operating out on the left wing in an attacking triangle, and this lessened his impact to attack Mexico and facilitate the American attack. Pulisic didn’t have as many touches on the ball out left, and he wasn’t in a position to feed Bobby Wood up top at striker as much as Pulisic could have in the middle.

Rotating players was excusable, but there was no need to use Pulisic out left or to use one less midfielder. Arena made the wise decision to start Kellyn Acosta in the center of the midfielder with Michael Bradley, and with Acosta helping out Bradley, there was no need to use three center backs instead of two. With the set-up used, there was a big gap between where Acosta and Bradley were and where Wood was up top.

This game against Mexico, while a good draw for the U.S., nevertheless showed how much the U.S.’s passing and attacking ability weakened with Pulisic out wide instead of behind the striker or strikers, and the team’s passing was certainly worse with Darlington Nagbe on the bench as one of the rotated out players.

Given Pulisic’s abilities and importance for the U.S., some minor criticism of Arena’s tactics against Mexico is warranted. The U.S. did earn an important point for the draw, but that point likely mostly came from an incredible and sensational golazo from Bradley.

Starting Pulisic as the center attacking midfielder should take precedence in an Arena lineup for the United States, and the real decision for Arena going forward will be whether or not he starts Acosta again with Bradley in more of a 4-2-3-1 or if starting two forwards is key for Arena. Whatever Arena goes with, Pulisic must be used centrally to orchestrate the American attack and to score and create goals.

 

 

Christian Pulisic Represents a New Level for American Soccer Players

Christian Pulisic Represents a New Level for American Soccer Players

Christian Pulisic is the first American soccer player to be starting at an attacking position for a top European club team. That already makes him different than other top American soccer players in the past.

The 18-year-old attacking midfielder from Pennsylvania Pulisic is not only technically-skilled enough to play for a club like Borussia Dortmund, but he also has electric speed, creativity, coolness under pressure, and great vision. Just for clarification, Borussia Dortmund is one of the top German club teams in the Bundesliga, which is a league that is much better than say the English Premier League in terms of overall skill and quality of play.

Pulisic has mostly featured as wing for Dortmund, but he has played centrally as a playmaker, which is where United States coach Bruce Arena started playing him several games ago. Using Pulisic as a Number 10 opened up the American attack making it more dangerous, and it also allowed Clint Dempsey to have a playmaker playing behind him that could actually feed him the ball in scoring positions and play on his level. The U.S. National Team has had the problem where Dempsey and Landon Donovan were much better than all of their teammates, but now Dempsey has an attacking player player playing with him who seems even better than Donovan. It could even be said that Pulisic is a better passer and assist man than Donovan, as Pulisic has displayed more creativity and trickery than Donovan who didn’t used to attempt the kind of bold and audacious passes that Pulisic has routinely been pulling off without any hesitation.

While the players on the national team are much better than in years past, Pulisic has been a revelation for the team not only for his playmaking and ability to set up Dempsey but also for his own scoring ability. Pulisic is clinical in front of goal and he doesn’t hesitate to pull the trigger with either foot. Based on the type of skill and movement that Bobby Wood and Pulisic have shown in the attack, it’s fair to say that the United States is a more skilled and creative team than it was in the past, and Pulisic is the orchestrator and driving force of the United States now. Dempsey is still likely the best player, but Pulisic is the key to creating more opportunities for Dempsey and the teams other forwards.

When you watch Pulisic play for the United States, what you see is a player who plays with the combination of skill and speed need to beat defenders, and the U.S. didn’t used to have that. Donovan was skilled and fast, but it wasn’t at the same level as Pulisic, plus Donovan was also not quite as aggressive and direct against top competition. Dempsey was and is very technically-skilled and quick, but he lacks the extra gear of speed and quickness that Pulisic uses to blow past defenders.

 

Bruce Arena’s Forward Options for the U.S. National Team

Bruce Arena’s Forward Options for the United States Men’s National Team

Bruce Arena has five good forwards for arguably only four forward roster spots. Some of these forwards are clearly better than the others.

For starters, Clint Dempsey is the best forward in the pool, and the best American soccer player ever.

Next, Bobby Wood is the best center forward in the pool, even better than Jozy Altidore. Wood is more technical, faster, more aggressive, and more clinical, and all of these reasons make him better than Altidore.

After Altidore, comes Juan Agudelo, who is more creative and more skilled than Altidore. Like Wood, Agudelo is a more aggressive and direct player than Altidore, who himself has undergone something of a Renaissance. Altidore has vastly improved his playmaking and passing, plus he has been attacking defenders more directly and beating them off the dribble.

Finally, we have Jordan Morris, who plays like Bobby Wood, but Morris still heavily favors his right foot; Morris has also not shown the type of clinical finishing that Wood has shown, but Morris can definitely put the ball in the back of the net. Morris offers speed like Wood, but Morris has to be faster than Wood, who himself is devastatingly fast.

So, we see that Arena has a good problem, and the way the Dempsey plays makes him something of a playmaker, which allows Arena to put all five of these players on the roster. Maybe it’s too many forwards since all are center forwards, but Agudelo, Wood, and Altidore all also play like second strikers or withdrawn forwards.

Because the United States historically has had problems scoring enough goals against elite competition, there is something to be said of just making a habit of calling up four to five forwards who have no problems scoring. Using two forwards at once is common enough and often wise, and a substitute for two forwards would give the roster four forwards, plus Dempsey who of course is also an attacking midfielder.

The major story line for the United States’ next game will be whether or not Arena will be wise enough to start Dempsey and Wood together without getting distracted by all the attention and buzz around Altidore’s much improved play. There is also the storyline of Agudelo’s more consistent club play where he’s starting and scoring as a Number 9 for the New England Revolution, and leaving him off the roster would be a big mistake. If one forward has to be left off, then it might have to be Morris, but not calling up a forward with world-class speed combined with aggressive and skillful play might be a big mistake too.

Is Altidore’s improved play more impressive than Agudelo or Morris’ abilities?

We’ll see.

 

MLS Improving from Hacking to Skill Soccer

MLS Is Improving from Hacking to Skill Soccer

The level of play in Major League Soccer has improved, but the level still falls short of the top European and Latin American soccer leagues. The major difference, which stands out immediately, is that the control and smoothness of the passing is not at the same high level as those other leagues. It’s not the speed of the passing per se that makes the passing smoother because the English Premier League has almost out of control and overly fast passing where many of the teams look like there are rushing their passing and putting too much power behind their passes. But, anyone watching the passing in La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1, etc can see that each player normally takes a maximum of two touches when the ball is passed to them: one touch to control the pass and one touch to play the ball to a teammate.

MLS is still improving in this regard. MLS games feature more balls played in the air, more header sequences, and more instances of the ball bouncing around in a chaotic fashion. You could say that the passing and ball control in MLS needs to settle down without transforming into slow, listless, and boring play. By all accounts MLS continues to improve and the overall skill of the players both American and non-American continues to improve, but it is still true that too many players who base their play on physicality over technical skill and athleticism.

The next area where MLS needs to improve is curbing the roughness and dirty, violent play. There’s a difference between some pushing and taking out people’s legs from behind. There’s also a feeling that too many coaches, players, and media members believe that rough tackles are a part of the game. Nobody said slide tackles or shielding the ball don’t belong in soccer, but can’t we draw the line and slide tackling players’ legs from out from behind them without getting the ball. Can’t MLS refs give more cards for stomping player’s ankles, feet, and legs.

MLS fans can now enjoy more technical and creative players who can beat defenders with individual skill and quickly combine with teammates, and while this is great, too many talentless hackers and dirty players are uglying up MLS games with dangerous play that they feel is part of the game. The reality for these players is that you won’t see elite enforcers around the world playing quite as dirty as they do. Of course, any soccer fan can list certain elite players who are dirty hackers, but by and large, this type of thuggery is not allowed by other elite players who keep these hackers in check.

MLS has definitely seen a bump in attractive and creative play, and an excellent example of this is Jozy Altidore, who has been showcasing a new dimension of playmaking and passing to his game. Altidore is fairly or unfairly seen as a player whose play is based on size and strength, but his transformation to a smoother, more refined player signals a change to more skillful play in MLS, that is separate from the continued influx of technical players from outside of the United States.

 

 

Clint Dempsey Is Still Underrated and Disrespected by Americans

Clint Dempsey Is Still Underrated and Disrespected By Americans

At a certain point, underrating someone crosses the line into disrespecting someone, and that applies to Clint Dempsey. Many media members and fans will insist that Dempsey isn’t the best American soccer player ever, and this is very hard to understand. Dempsey has been displaying individual trickery and goals for 12 years, but there is still no widespread acknowledgment of his superiority to Landon Donovan.

Dempsey’s playing resume features some seven years of playing in the English Premier League and scoring goals consistently as a midfielder, even while playing for a mediocre Fulham team without much technical quality or creativity in the squad. At the international level, Dempsey is now just two goals short of Landon Donovan’s goal-scoring record, which is likely the last obstacle to being considered the best American player ever.

More so than the statistics, Dempsey really stands out from Donovan for his ability to always be dangerous and effective even against the very best international opponents. Unlike Donovan, Dempsey wasn’t ever neutralized be opponents or psyched out by elite international opponents, and it was this ability to always be a difference maker, no matter the opponent, that makes him the best American player ever. No matter how bad the rest of the team played, Dempsey always stood out amongst his teammates when the U.S. played.

He might be a victim of American soccer fans and media members being adverse to individual trickery and flashiness, as American soccer fans are still largely influenced by British soccer where tricks and flair are seen as pointless. Many times Dempsey was criticized for some of his 1v1 attempts not panning out, and some people viewed his play as wasteful. Anyway you look at it though, he always looked much better than his teammates, and his goals confirmed that this was in fact true.

In the most recent U.S. victory over Honduras, people kept saying that Dempsey probably wouldn’t start or that he wouldn’t be at 100%, but Dempsey scored a hat trick where every goal showcased technical skill and clinical finishing. The standard criticism of American soccer players is that they lack the skill on the ball of other elite players, but this never applied to Dempsey.

The Texan’s game has always featured stand-out individual skill combined with the mentality and athleticism to play well against any opponent, and even at two goals shy of Donovan’s goal-scoring record, Dempsey must be considered superior to Donovan for his playing resume and skill-level.

Donovan was the first of his kind for an American soccer player, but continuing to not consider Dempsey the best American soccer player ever is simply disrespectful and off-base. We continue to hear forming U.S. Men’s National Team players saying that Dempsey isn’t better than Donovan, yet they can’t support their position with any evidence. Donovan was great, but he wasn’t as great as Dempsey was and is.

Once the reality of Dempsey’s proximity to Donovan’s scoring record really sinks in, people won’t be so quick to declare Donovan better than Dempsey. Honduras isn’t a good opponent, but the United States needed to beat Honduras to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, which is when Dempsey scored three goals, none of which were tap-ins. These goals were a sliding blast into the top corner with a defender hanging all over him, a goal scored past two defenders and a goalkeeper off the dribble, and a world-class free kick to the far post from outside the box.

 

Who Should the United States Start against Honduras?

Who Should the United States Start against Honduras?

The United States Men’s National Team faces Honduras in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tomorrow, and coach Bruce Arena has several crucial lineup decisions to make. There’s a possibility that he’ll trot out a mediocre and lackluster lineup that won’t possess enough skill to impose its will on Honduras. After a rash of injuries, Arena has called up several mediocre and unexciting players like Graham Zusi and Chris Wondolowski as replacements, and only Zusi is a possible starter.

Tim Howard will definitely start in goal, and he should start in goal. Arena has to play musical chairs with his defense as his starting right back DeAndre Yedlin is injured, and this injury could force Arena to move his starting right center back to right back, which forces Arena to start someone else at right center back. These means that the Back Four could be from right to left: Michael Orozco, Omar Gonzalez, John Brooks, and Jorge Villafaña. Both Gonzalez and Brooks are tall enough to be prone to being wrong-footed and thrown off balance by quick and crafty attacking players, and Villafaña hasn’t been a regular starter for Santos Laguna, his club team. Maybe letting Walker Zimmerman start at center back isn’t as risky as using Gonzalez and Brooks in the center of the defense.

Once Arena figures out his defense, his Front Six of four or five midfielders with one or two forwards has better options. Michael Bradley will play as the defensive midfielder, and starting Kellyn Acosta as the box-to-box midfielder would be an inspired choice. Acosta has been active and decisive in all of his games, and since Acosta is even netting free kicks from outside of the box, just how risky is starting him? Acosta is exactly what Bradley needs: a skilled and athletic box-to-box midfielder who can truly play the position correctly.

If Bradley and Acosta start as the holding midfielders, then Arena can start Sebastian Lletget, Clint Dempsey, and Christian Pulisic as the line of three attacking midfielders behind Jozy Altidore or Jordan Morris. There is lots of public and media support to start Darlington Nagbe on the left wing with Pulisic in the middle, but Nagbe doesn’t really use his left foot. Starting Lletget gives the U.S. a better passer, a better 1v1 player, and more of a scoring threat.

Not starting Dempsey against Honduras seems crazy. Dempsey has played 90 minutes in each of his first three games this season for the Seattle Sounders. Pulisic will probably be the U.S.’ best player within one or two years, but Dempsey is still far and away the best American player with the exception of Bobby Wood, who is injured.

Why wouldn’t Arena start Dempsey? Whatever Arena does, he must be sure to field the players who can keep possession, create scoring opportunities, and score.

World Soccer Source backs the starting of this lineup: Howard; Cameron, Zimmerman, Brooks, Villafaña; Bradley, Acosta; Lletget, Dempsey, Pulisic; Morris.

Goalkeeper: Tim Howard

Right Back: Geoff Cameron

Center Back: Walker Zimmerman

Center Back: John Brooks

Left Back: Jorge Villafaña

Defensive Midfielder: Michael Bradley

Center Midfielder: Kellyn Acosta

Right Wing: Sebastian Lletget

Attacking Midfielder: Clint Dempsey

Left Wing: Christian Pulisic

Striker: Jordan Morris

 

Five Players the United States Should Include on its March World Cup Qualifying Roster

Five Players the United States Should Include on its March World Cup Qualifying Roster

Going into the March World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama, the United States must place a premium on selecting enough skill players to not get outplayed and embarrassed. Here are five players that Bruce Arena would be wise to call up again.

Sebastian Lletget

Sebastian Lletget is an essential inclusion on the United States’ roster because he improves the team’s passing ability, creativity, and overall technical ability. Lletget is an active player that constantly passes and moves, and he offers a proactive and refined playing style that the United States lacks. With Christian Pulisic certain to start, Lletget is a player that complements Pulisic’s quick, creative, and skilled play. Whether Lletget is used as a wing, playmaker, or central midfielder, the LA Galaxy midfielder has a skill-set worthy of a starter for the United States.

Benny Feilhaber

Benny Feilhaber is still the best playmaker in the American player pool, and in the recent international friendlies, he showed why he is a more creative and dangerous option than Sacha Kljestan, who is a level below Feilhaber in terms of skill and efficacy against better teams. Feilhaber facilitates quick combination play and scoring opportunities, which the United States sorely needs. The Sporting Kansas City midfielder is still at the top of his game, and he’s the United States’ best option as the Number 10 or attacking midfielder beneath the strikers.

Kellyn Acosta

Kellyn Acosta has really come into his own over the last year, and he’s the type of box-to-box midfielder that the United States has been lacking. Acosta brings excellent two-footed skill on the ball plus tons of athleticism and ball-winning ability. Acosta is also a very aggressive and direct midfielder who opens up space for the attacking players with his spirited runs into the attack. The FC Dallas midfielder is also a scoring threat from the midfield, and his tendency to rip shots on target from outside of the box unsettles the opposing defense and draws defenders away from American attackers.

Juan Agudelo

Juan Agudelo is arguably the best center forward in the American player pool after Bobby Wood, and he might offer some more flair and creativity than Wood, who appears to have only displayed part of his creativity so far. Agudelo can play either as the Number 9 or as a second striker, and he offers a complete forward skill-set of two-footed finishing, individual dribbling ability, heading ability, speed, and the needed physicality. Agudelo is needed on the roster for his aggressive, proactive play that helps the team more than Jozy Altidore’s deeper, more subdued play.

Jordan Morris

Like Agudelo and Wood, Jordan Morris is just more aggressive and direct than Altidore. Morris’ creates multiple scoring opportunities every game, and he goes straight to goal. Morris has a tendency to never use his left foot, but he still consistently beats defenders and scores.  Morris also has a huge, game-changing weapon in his phenomenal speed that allows him to torch almost any defender in a foot race. The Seattle Sounders forward excels at getting behind the defense and attacking the goal, and even with less experience than Altidore, Morris is a more difficult center forward for opposing defenders to contain. The physicality that Altidore brings is also present in Morris who doesn’t let himself get pushed around either.

Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood Can Form the United States’ Best Forward Partnership

Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood Can Form the United States’ Best Forward Partnership

Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood can form the United States’ most creative and deadly strike duo, which means a spot on the bench for Jozy Altidore. Bruce Arena will likely start Altidore against Honduras no matter what, but Wood is the more talented striker, who has been scoring impressive goals in the Bundesliga.

For a while now, many have viewed Wood as just a nice foil or complement to Altidore as the Number 9, but Wood is a more skilled, more active, and more aggressive striker, which makes for a better partner for Dempsey. When Wood first started playing for the United States, he surprised a lot of people by scoring impressive goals in consecutive games, but after a while, it became clear that these goals weren’t just lucky goals in international friendlies.

Dempsey has long been in a class of his own for the United States, and he hasn’t had a smooth and creative center forward to combine with. When Obafemi Martins was playing with Dempsey for the Seattle Sounders, you could see how Dempsey thrived when he had a strike partner who played his same brand of one-to-two-touch street soccer. With Wood as the center forward, Dempsey will once again have a strike partner who plays quicker and smarter than Altidore, who still slows up the pace of play too much without enough movement off the ball or direct attacking play.

The upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama are must-win games for the United States, and the U.S. must go straight for the jugular with Dempsey and Wood in the attack. Dempsey is fully fit to play, and if Wood is also healthy, then these two have a greater capacity to score on Honduras and Panama than a Altidore-Wood partnership.

When Altidore plays, the American attack is slower and less deadly, and Wood is a true Number 9, even though his style of play is facing the goal and looking for balls played to his feet or into space. Nothing says that a center forward has to play with his back to goal and hold up play, and Wood’s style of play is more effective and more impressive.

When Arena makes his starting lineup for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, he would be wise to partner Dempsey with Wood because Dempsey doesn’t need any time to get used to playing with Wood. Dempsey just knows how to play, and anyone that aggressively attacks the goal will be welcomed by Dempsey.

Starting Dempsey with Wood should bring out the most in both players, and it will cause opposing defenders to have a hard time deciding who to focus on, which will leave one attacker in a dangerous scoring position.