The United States Must Start a Playmaker

The shambolic performances against Costa Rica and Honduras proved that the United States still needs a playmaker. At the very least, Bruce Arena needs to always actually play Christian Pulisic as a playmaker.

To be clear, Arena definitely fielded players that should have been able to keep possession and slice up Costa Rica and Honduras. The players definitely deserve the bulk of the blame.

Arena and the United States had a formula that worked. That formula was Michael Bradley as the lone defensive midfielder behind three attacking midfielders and two forwards. The U.S. players should have been able to adapt to the 4-4-2 formation and still possess the ball well, but they didn’t.

Against Costa Rica and Honduras, U.S. coach Arena went with the empty bucket formation, and the team’s passing suffered. In both games, Pulisic was playing wide without Mario Götze there to be the playmaker like at Borussia Dortmund.

Christian Pulisic Has Impressed as a Playmaker

Pulisic has been impressive in the past as a playmaker for the U.S. It’s hard to remember another American player besides Benny Feilhaber who showed real artistry and boldness in his final balls.

Probably the biggest evidence of Pulisic’s playmaking abilities for the U.S. was how in the past he knew exactly how to feed Clint Dempsey and executed it. Pulisic saw and executed passes to Dempsey a second or so faster than other American players were able to do. Pulisic has quickly chipped the defense to find Dempsey, and he has hit him on the break in stride.

Darlington Nagbe at Playmaker Hasn’t Worked

Arena has tried to force Darlington Nagbe into something of a playmaker role, but it doesn’t work. Nagbe doesn’t have many playmaking qualities. That’s not to say that Nagbe can’t pass. It’s simply saying that Nagbe doesn’t play the balls that Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, Sebastian Lletget, or Kelyn Rowe play.

Nagbe doesn’t dictate that the team play through him by presenting himself as a return passing option once he releases the ball. The Portland Timbers midfielder also doesn’t play the type of incisive passes needed to slice up an opponent.

Nagbe mostly makes dribbling forays, and he’s good for a spectacular goal every once in a while. Nevertheless, looking to orchestrate the team’s passing more is likely in his wheelhouse.

The United States Has Other Playmaker Options like Lee Nguyen

After seeing the United States’ inability to pass against both Costa Rica and Honduras, Arena would be wise to recall Lee Nguyen, who is a gifted playmaker who also has quickness and 1v1 skills. Nguyen also knows how to score. Nguyen can’t be accused of not having the pace or intensity needed for international play.

Even when Pulisic plays wing he will have plenty of freedom to cut inside and play centrally. Calling up Nguyen gives the United States both a backup playmaker and a playmaker to start if Pulisic plays wide.

 

Reaction to the United States 1-1 Tie with Honduras in World Cup Qualifying

The United States displayed no ability to pass the ball well or keep possession against Honduras on Tuesday, and only a handful of U.S. players looked like they were trying to win. The performance was so devoid of collective passing or positives that analysis of the game is virtually pointless.

Christian Pulisic, Clint Dempsey, and Jordan Morris played very direct from the beginning, and Kellyn Acosta was also looking to build up a passing rhythm and advance the ball with incisive forward passes.

Darlington Nagbe and Michael Bradley were not involved enough or impressive.

Pulisic was certainly direct and aggressive against Honduras, and the Borussia Dortmund midfielder pulled off at least two nutmegs while most of the team looked disinterested.

Dempsey and Acosta were involved and looking to keep possession and attack the goal, but Nagbe was virtually invisible without any trademark dribbling bursts. Morris starting at first striker was the other U.S. player who played like he wanted to win.

Where the goals came from

One again a defensive mistake caused a goal. Omar Gonzalez missed a tackle close to goal that allowed Honduras to score an easy goal at the far post, and he either didn’t have the pace to get down fast enough on his slide tackle or he just mistimed or whiffed his slide tackle. Bruce Arena still has Graham Zusi playing right back despite not really equipped to play the position at the international level, as Zusi is after all really a midfielder.

With some five minutes left, Bobby Wood brought a ball down off his chest and stabbed the ball off the bounce into the back of the net. It was a composed and cool finish off a bit of a melee after an excellent Kellyn Acosta free kick where Matt Besler kept the ball alive after a richochet.

Final Thoughts

All in all, not being able to keep possession and create more scoring chances against Honduras or any CONCACAF opponent for that matter is still unacceptable. The United States has the players to play better soccer, but there wasn’t enough urgency and directness against Honduras with the exception of several players. Nagbe was pretty flat for a player of his ability, and the outside backs didn’t provide much in the way of attacking down the sidelines.

Once again a 4-4-2 was used by the U.S. and there was a big gap between the midfield and the attack where Pulisic tried to fill the hole by attacking people off the dribble.

The United States had a formation that work, and it was an attacking formation where Bradley featured as the lone defensive midfielder behind three attacking midfielders and two forwards. Certainly, using a 4-2-3-1 would also work well with the U.S.’ talent pool, but reverting back to the 4-4-2 is causing the U.S.’s play under Arena to regress.

 

Isco Has Reached Superstar and World-Class Status

Isco recently destroyed Italy in a World Cup qualifier with two goals and one memorable, ruthless, and disrespectful sole-roll nutmeg on Marco Verratti, one of the best midfielders in the world. Isco’s two goals were against Gigi Buffon, perhaps the best goalkeeper of all time. One was a free kick with his right foot and one was a left-footed goal to the far post from the run of play that he created out of nothing.

After the loss to Italy and speaking to AS, Italy’s coach Gian Piero Ventura had this to say about Isco, “All I can think about is that nutmeg he pulled off in midfield – and the coolness and integrity you need to do something like that. When I saw it, all I could do was applaud – he’s a rival, he’s on the opposing team but I am just as much a lover of the beautiful things in this game as anyone.”

In the last year or so Isco has gone from an underappreciated star to a superstar playing for the best club team in the world. But, there wasn’t always room for Isco in Real Madrid’s starting lineup, but now Isco has become a player that Zidane cannot leave on the bench at Real Madrid. Rob Train’s article for ESPN FC linked to above was particularly entertaining and educational in detailing Isco’s rise.

The Spanish attacking midfielder used to be somewhat one-footed, favoring his right foot, but now he really uses left foot and scores with it.

His directness makes him deadly, and he quickly advances play with his dribbling or incisive passing. He also has a rocket of a shot, but his placement and mastery of ballstriking techniques is world class as well.

As good as Spain are and as many great players as they have, Isco is the best Spanish player unless Andrés Iniesta is feeling truly inspired, and like Iniesta Isco has a combination of world-class passing and dribbling ability that give him few equals.

Isco is now starting as the playmaker or Number 10 for both Spain and Real Madrid, and that shows you just how great he is.

 

Who Should the United States Start vs. Honduras in World Cup Qualifying?

“The United States are not good enough to be arrogant about how they play.” Those were Alejandro Moreno’s words for ESPN about the United States after the loss to Costa Rica, and it was presumptuous on Bruce Arena’s part to think Clint Dempsey didn’t need to start.

The last time the United States played Honduras the U.S. used a 4-1-3-2 formation, and using that set-up again makes sense. The U.S. should look to attack Honduras rather than trying to beef up their defending in the midfield. The injection of Dempsey with Christian Pulisic should improve the U.S.’s passing and attacking because Dempsey and Pulisic have a great understanding and thrive when playing together. Not using Pulisic as a playmaker feels like a mistake, and against Costa Rick, Arena had him out on the wing.

Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream were scapegoated for the U.S.’s loss to Costa Rica, but maybe starting the two center backs together again after they’ve just played together will pan out. Cameron and Ream were too far apart last game leaving the middle too open, but that’s an easy fix that they are well aware of.

Fabian Johnson and Darlington Nagbe were criticized last game, but Johnson was pretty active and aggressive in his passes and runs  into the final third. If Nagbe is reverted back to his left wing position where he can cut in from the left off the dribble and advance the ball into the attack, then he should be more effective than in the loss to Costa Rica where he played as a center midfielder without any real playmaking ability.

Here is World Soccer Source’s preferred lineup vs. Honduras on Tuesday:

Goalkeeper: Tim Howard

Right Back: Eric Lichaj

Center Back: Geoff Cameron

Center Back: Tim Ream

Left Back: Jorge Villafaña

Defensive Midfielder: Michael Bradley

Right Wing: Fabian Johnson

Center Attacking Midfielder: Christian Pulisic

Left Wing: Darlington Nagbe

Forward (First Striker): Bobby Wood

Forward (Second Striker): Clint Dempsey

 

Takeaways from 2-0 United States Loss to Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying

For some reason, right after the United States’ 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, Kasey Keller on ESPN declared that the United States hadn’t fouled Costa Rica enough. Many people have a hard time accepting the fact that better soccer with better passing and more technical ability directly leads to more wins. Bad passing and not a lack of fouling led to the U.S. loss.

Here are my takeaways from the USA’s 2-0 loss to Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying:

The United States’ passing against Costa Rica was poor

The U.S. didn’t seem capable of stringing more than two or three passes together against a Costa Rican side who bunkered. The space was there for the United States to play through balls or build up a passing rhythm, and Fabian Johnson, Darlingon Nagbe, and Christian Pulisic all had the dribbling ability to open up space for incisive passing and final balls.

Not starting Clint Dempsey took away the creativity and attacking threat of Pulisic and Dempsey playing together

Once Pulisic started playing for the United States with Clint Dempsey, the level of the U.S.’ creativity, technical ability, and attacking play improved dramatically. Why Bruce Arena would not field those two players together when he could is anyone’s guess. Surely, using Dempsey as a substitute when Arena doesn’t need to is a bad idea.

There’s also still a sense among too many that the United States is good enough to not really need Clint Dempsey, or at least there’s a sense that not playing him when he isn’t tired is some how a good idea.

Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream were scapegoated

The two U.S center backs didn’t play as bad as many people believed they did. Certainly a bad pass from Geoff Cameron allowed Marco Ureña to have something of a breakaway and score easily on Tim Howard for the second goal, but the first goal was something of a billiards shot from Ureña, which Howard probably should have stopped.

Darlington Nagbe isn’t a playmaker, and he didn’t provide incisive passes from his central midfield position

Darlington Nagbe has showcased plenty of individual dribbling skill and scoring ability, but he’s yet to showcase much in the way of final balls and through balls. This might be an area where Nagbe can improve, but he hasn’t shown himself to be a playmaker as of yet. When Arena used Nagbe out left, he was able to cut inside and blow past defenders, but as a central midfielder with Michael Bradley, he didn’t make sure that the team played through him. Pulisic is really more of a playmaker, and the 4-4-2 Arena used relegated Pulisic to too much of a wing role where Nagbe didn’t have the passing ability needed to pull the strings from the center of the midfield.

Bobby Wood’s movement, pace, and directness were on full display

The Hawaiian striker hit a couple of passes too heavy in the beginning of the game, but he did start combining well with his teammates and getting behind the Costa Rican defense. On at least two occasions, Wood blew by the Costa Rica defense, and on one of those occasions a non-existent foul was called on him, and on the other his shot was blocked by a Costa Rican defender immediately after it left his foot. Nevertheless, Wood was again showed how dangerous he is, and how the United States has never had another striker with his combination of pace, skill, and movement.

Fabian Johnson looked dangerous and active despite receiving criticism

On multiple occasions, Johnson played dangerous diagonal balls in front of the penalty box and continued his runs only to not receive the ball back. Johnson was active the whole game looking to push the pace and get the ball into Zone 14.

 

Who Should Start for the United States against Costa Rica in World Cup Qualifying?

 

The United States takes on Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying on Friday, and the biggest decisions for Bruce Arena will be in the defense with two of the four normal starters injured. The injuries are to right back DeAndre Yedlin and center back John Brooks.

Goal and Defense

Tim Howard should start in goal, but the right back selection is a tougher one. Arena has favored Graham Zusi at right back, even though this is Zusi’s first season playing his new position, but Eric Lichaj is the more experienced right back with years of playing professionally in England.

Geoff Cameron will be one of the two starting center backs, and Arena has to decide whether he’s going to start Omar Gonzalez with Cameron or whether Matt Besler or Tim Ream will start. Whoever will or should start with Cameron at center back is anyone’s guess, but Jorge Villafaña is the first-choice left back.

Midfield

In the midfield, Michael Bradley will start as the lone defensive midfielder, and the United States appears set to start a line of three attacking midfielders again. Christian Pulisic will start as the center attacking midfielder, and Darlington Nagbe will start as the left wing. The right wing position is more of a toss up. On the one hand, Paul Arriola has been playing well for the U.S. recently at this position, but Fabian Johnson is widely regarded as one of the very best players in the pool. There’s a chance Alejandro Bedoya could start at right wing, but maybe Arriola has the inside track, based on his recent performances for the U.S. and D.C. United.

Forwards

World Soccer Source favors Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey starting as the two forwards. Nothing against Jozy Altidore, but Wood and Dempsey are the more fluid, active, and clinical players. Wood always looks more dangerous and direct than Altidore, and Dempsey is too good not to start.

Here’s who World Soccer Source thinks should start:

Goalkeeper- Tim Howard

Right Back- Eric Lichaj

Center Back- Geoff Cameron

Center Back- Tim Ream

Left Back- Jorge Villafaña

Defensive Midfielder- Michael Bradley

Right Wing- Paul Arriola

Center Attacking Midfielder

Left Wing- Darlington Nagbe

Forward- Bobby Wood

Forward- Clint Dempsey

 

Why Christian Pulisic is Different than Other American Players

What distinguishes Christian Pulisic from Landon Donovan and even Clint Dempsey is that Pulisic is faster than Dempsey and more skilled and creative than Donovan.

Dribbling

If Dempsey had the same electric pace that Pulisic has, he would have been more capable of eluding defenders and getting into even more scoring positions.

Pulisic is a dangerous and aggressive attacking player who can beat defenders going right or left. He even tends to go side to side on defenders until they are off balance, and then he takes off in the other direction.

This last quality makes him much different from Donovan. Donovan could beat defenders with change of direction or change of pace, but Pulisic can beat defenders with more of the trickery and skill that elite attacking players around the world use.

For the first time ever, there is an American player who can dribble straight past international competition or elite European club competition with real directness and score. Dempsey would have given anything to have that extra gear of speed that Pulisic has.

Passing

From all appearances, Pulisic is a more creative and adventurous passer than Donovan, but Dempsey as never hesitated to hit an audacious first time pass with accuracy.

Pulisic excels at quick combination passes and incisive final balls through the defense, and he has the vision to see openings in the defense quickly.

As much as Pulisic is a great 1v1 player, he’s equally as good as a passer where he creates goals and scoring chances every game. Pulisic already looks like a better playmaker than the United States has ever had, and when he first started for the U.S. in a playmaking role, the United States started playing a more creative and technical style of soccer than they had ever played.

Shooting & Scoring

Dempsey has never had any hesitation about attacking the goal or shooting, and Pulisic too has no problem pulling the trigger when he gets a foot of separation from his defender.

Like Donovan and Dempsey, Pulisic can score with both feet. You don’t see Pulisic waiting to get the ball back on his stronger right foot before shooting. He’ll unleash the shot off his left foot as soon as there’s an opportunity.

Pulisic has been scoring consistently for both the United States and for Borussia Dortmund, which is even more impressive.

Pulisic is only a teenager, and although his career has just started, we’ve seen enough to declare that he’s a level above Dempsey and Donovan, if only because he combines elite skill with elite speed.

 

Here are just a few highlights of Pulisic:

 

 

Breaking Down the United States’ September World Cup Qualifying Roster against Costa Rica and Honduras

 

Bruce Arena selected 26 United States players (three extra players) for his 23-man roster for September’s World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras. The only real surprise on the roster was Chris Wondolowski, who was selected despite the roster having three other center forwards and Clint Dempsey.

Formation 

The roster appears set up to use a 4-1-3-2 formation with Michael Bradley playing as the lone defensive midfielder and Christian Pulisic playing as the center attacking midfielder behind two forwards.

Goalkeeper

Tim Howard and Brad Guzan were the first and second choice goalkeepers respectively on this U.S. roster, and Howard will probably start both games.

The Defense

With starting right back DeAndre Yedlin and starting center back John Brooks injured, Arena has two hard lineup choices to make. At right back, Arena seems to favor starting Graham Zusi, but, since it’s a World Cup qualifier, Eric Lichaj is the more experienced right back who has played the position longer.

For John Brooks spot, look for Omar Gonzalez or either Tim Ream or Matt Besler to start. Geoff Cameron as the team’s best defender will be starting at one of the two center back spots, and Besler might be the likely starting left center back because Cameron has been playing right center back for the United States.

At left back, Jorge Villafaña is the first-choice starter, and he has provided the U.S. with constant attacking play down the left sideline and plenty of balls played into the box or into dangerous positions at the top of the penalty box. Villafaña has a good understanding with Nagbe at left wing, and Nagbe frequently cuts inside where he can be more dangerous and Villafaña overlaps him down the left sideline.

Look for Lichaj, Cameron, Besler, and Villafaña to start as the U.S. Back Four.

Midfield

The U.S. midfield is pretty set as of right now. Bradley will play as the defensive midfielder behind a line of Paul Arriola, Christian Pulisic, and Darlington Nagbe from right to left as the line of three attacking midfielders.

There’s a chance that Fabian Johnson could start at right wing over Arriola, but Arriola has built up some momentum and credit with Arena at right wing. Johnson’s recent U.S. performances haven’t stood out enough to make him a lock as a starter.

Arena was smart enough to also include Kellyn Acosta, Dax McCarty, and Cristian Roldan on the roster. There’s a possibility of Acosta starting with Bradley, but that would change the formation to a 4-2-3-1, which would force either Dempsey or Pulisic to play wide. Alejandro Bedoya is also on the roster with Kelyn Rowe injured.

Forwards

Up top, World Soccer Source predicts Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood starting as the two forwards. Dempsey is simply too good and too in form to not start, and Wood is a more dangerous, more talented, and faster forward than Jozy Altidore. Wood provides more movement than Altidore, and he’s more direct and clinical than Altidore.

It’s possible Wood and Altidore could start up top with Dempsey on the bench, but that’s risky considering how much the U.S. needs to get six points from these two games to get closer to first place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

 

Complete USA Roster

GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC; 14/0), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids; 36/0), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake; 0/0)

DEFENDERS (9): DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo; 34/6), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City; 11/1), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/ENG; 22/2), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca/MEX; 15/0), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas; 0/0), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest/ENG; 0/0), Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG; 5/0), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna/MEX; 3/0), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City; 18/3)

MIDFIELDERS (9): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas; 4/0), Paul Arriola (D.C. United; 3/1), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union; 9/0), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC/CAN; 35/7), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach/GER; 16/1), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire; 0/0), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers; 7/0), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund/GER; 9/5), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC; 0/0)

FORWARDS (5): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC/CAN; 38/16), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC; 39/18), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC; 3/0), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes; 0/0), Bobby Wood (Hamburg/GER; 10/4)

Darlington Nagbe Must Become More Selfish

Darlington Nagbe has been told that he must be more selfish numerous times by many coaches. His club coach Caleb Porter has told him, and his U.S. National Team coach Bruce Arena has also told him.

Yesterday, Nagbe scored a wonder goal against United States goalkeeper, Tim Howard. What made the goal a wonder goal was how Nagbe sent the ball up over Howard and back down quickly and from close range. Nagbe also scored the goal from basically a standstill, which required him to put so much curve and spin on the shot without a run up to the ball. In fact, the shot was so good and so unstoppable that Howard didn’t even move, rather he just watched it go over his head and drop into the net.

 


Nagbe’s goal resembled a ping pong shot hit with lots of top spin, and the degree of difficulty on the goal further showcases how Nagbe must get into the penalty box for the United States more and take more shots. The fact that Nagbe scored the goal on a goalkeeper of Howard’s quality and experience just further adds to the level of the goal.

So far for the United States, Nagbe has mostly used his individual skill to surge forward with the ball into the attack, but he’s hesitated to get into the penalty box to hit quality shots on goal. Christian Pulisic in comparison or of course Clint Dempsey don’t hesitate to really attack the goal with more boldness or aggressiveness than Nagbe.

The Portland Timbers midfielder isn’t exactly a playmaker, but he does have the skill set to play this role. In the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, Arena will hope to see Nagbe surge into the penalty box and attack the goal with the same flair and spontaneity with which he left Howard for dead yesterday.

Nagbe has repeatedly been called one of the most talented players in the pool by many of the best American players, and his game could use more selfishness and more use of his left foot, which he rarely uses. In the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, Nagbe should look to combine more with Pulisic and Dempsey, and Nagbe should attack the penalty box and take more shots.

 

Milan Would Be Wise to Keep M’Baye Niang

Maybe this is a hot take, but even with all of Milan’s summer signings, it would be a shame if Milan let M’Baye Niang go instead of incorporating him into the team.

As a player, the French forward has world-class speed, excellent technical ability and creativity, and a frenetic work rate. Niang’s 1v1 abilities are first rate, and he also has an excellent left foot despite being right footed. Anyone who has seen Niang play can testify to his electric style of play, and it’s a wonder that Milan are even open to selling him. It sometimes feels like clubs are too quick to push good players out on an ice flow.

Watching Niang at full speed with or without the ball is a sight to see, and when you combine this with outstanding technical ability, you have to give the Frenchman his due.

Even for a forward playing in Serie A, you would have to describe Niang’s skill level as first-rate. The dribbling, passing, and shooting showcased by the French attacker stands out from others on the field, and he is also a dead ball specialist who can score off a free kick or put in excellent balls off corner kicks.

In today’s modern football, clubs are willing to buy and sell players so quickly, and a talent like Niang obligates the coach to put in some extra time to cultivate a special talent. No one has ever accused Niang of not running enough or not playing hard enough, and if you combine that with his individual dribbling skill at pace and from a stop, you have to wonder what exactly Milan is doing.

Niang has received some criticism for not scoring more goals, and others have made the claim that Niang must improve his finishing. But, based on several of Niang’s excellent goals with his weaker left foot from the run of play, you’d have to question whether or not the French striker even has a problem with finishing. Someone can question his finishing, but it gets harder to support such a claim when you rewatch several of his goals.

Niang once missed a goal in the Champions League vs. Barcelona when his shot nicked off the post, but it was just a close miss off the post that even a blade of grass or a drop of water on the field could have caused.

He is a flashy player, but Niang’s play always creates problem’s for opposing defenses and opens up games. He isn’t a player whose fancy tricks hinder his team from building up a rhythm. When Niang plays he makes Milan more dangerous and direct.

No matter what you hear or read about Niang, don’t forget to watch him for yourself. The Frenchman has an ease with executing tricks and blowing past defenders, and many of these tricks are tricks that very few players can actually pull off at pace in games against strong competition. Niang’s tricks and moves aren’t fruitless, but rather they are highly effective at eluding defenders and getting into the penalty box.

Niang has been called a prodigy and a phenomenon for a reason, and his electric and creative play is always accompanied by non-stop running and working for the team. The French striker can’t be accused of walking around the field or checking out of games.

Maybe it’s an opinion in the minority, but selling an extremely fast and technical player like Niang seems like a shortsighted decision of the “grass is always greener” mentality, especially since the Frenchman isn’t a burner but an attacker with elite skill on the ball.

Below is a video of his highlights from last season, and his electric play and skill are on full display: