Possession is Nine-Tenths of the Game
By: Jon Townsend
We can look at the United States’ victory over Ghana in Natal through rose-tinted glasses and be happy with a job well done. Three points in the bag against all odds (cue Phil Collins) and on to the next game. Clint Dempsey scored a classy goal and John Brooks scored off a set piece against the run of play to kill off the game. Such is the resounding joy that not only American soccer fans, but American sports fans have expressed since the final whistle that one could come to the conjecture that America slayed a resistant foe in a tough Ghanaian side with confidence. This result along with Germany’s destruction of Portugal alters the complexion of Group G before the next set of matches, but not much has changed.
If one were to live by the aptly-used phrase, “You’re only as good as your last game,” then the United States will have to reevaluate what this match really showed. When we strip away the American media plaudits and baffling punditry that has become so commonplace and synonymous with U.S. Soccer, a plethora of issues become talking points that need to be addressed. For the casual observer, the match versus Ghana had everything we’ve come to expect from the USMNT—hard work, grit, dogged defending, a bit of luck, a touch of class (albeit far too infrequently), and the chance to live to fight another day.
But as this match put one demon to rest (defeating Ghana in a World Cup), it breathed life into a slew of others that will undoubtedly need to be remedied before Sunday’s match against a ravenous Portugal side in Manaus.
Prior to the World Cup, the biggest talking point outside the Landon Donovan soap opera was how fit the United States was coming out of camp. Some pointed out that the European-based players were already match fit having come off their season, while the homer crowd raved about the fitness of the Major League Soccer contingent—who were supposed to be fresh having only started their season in March.
The evidence, however, is fitness is still an issue. A big issue. The heat and humidity are a factor, but they are a factor for both teams. The United States did themselves no favors by opting to chase the game with reckless abandon. Jozy Altidore’s unfortunate injury may be due a lack of minutes at a game of this pace (yes,this pace is faster than the three friendlies), but hamstring injuries are common. Matt Besler’s hamstring trouble is indicative of a few things: he hasn’t chased an opponent as fast and strong as Ghana.
Or, these are all signs that the USMNT was over-trained prior to the World Cup. Alejandro Bedoya ran himself into the ground and did his job tonight. DeMarcus Beasley was exposed all-too often on the wings, but kept the Ghanaian attack at bay.
This, for many astute observers—Portugal and Germany included—is the kicker (pardon the pun). A team that fails to hold onto the ball and force the other team to chase is asking to be punished. Had Ghana decided to keep the ball on the deck and sharpened their finishing instead of crossing the ball incessantly, we might be talking about a lopsided score line favoring Ghana.
Michael Bradley might as well have had a cloaking device on tonight as the American many consider the best player on the team (debatable) was invisible and failed to retain the ball and settle the game down by playing composed passes and giving Ghana a problem to solve.
As much as Bradley’s long ball that sent Jozy on his way down the pitch (and onto a stretcher) seemed like a great idea, it was too cavalier against a side with more athleticism and speed. Decisions like this are integral especially against technically superior teams where the game necessitates responsibility on the ball—when to counter and when to control the tempo. Bradley has been tasked with this responsibility and he must do better to both find the ball and hold it for his team.
The American midfield, when it plays simple—is a formidable collection of players. We know they’ll tackle and work like a pack of dogs. When that same midfield chooses to chase the ball instead of cutting off passing lanes, they look a disorganized bunch. But to lay blame solely on the midfield isn’t fair. The backline is guilty of coughing the ball away and the players up top don’t hold the ball nearly well enough.
We must also ask if this is what progress really looks like? Jürgen Klinsmann, in his post-match interview, was honest in his recognition that the team didn’t possess the ball enough. Looking at this performance it’s very easy to get caught up in the moment—and fans of American soccer should celebrate a wonderful result in a tough group.
As an aspiring footballing nation, we cannot let a result like this paper over the cracks that exist in this national side and more importantly, in that national program. The technical side of the game is still absent and is evidenced by the U.S. team failing to string any serious combinations of passes together. Even other teams in CONCACAF have shown the composure to possess the ball and create.
Costa Rica and Mexico both played with tact and possessed the ball well enough to string passing combinations together regularly to relieve pressure, open the other team’s defense up, and ultimately score goals. These are teams the United States outperformed in qualification, so perhaps the issue could come down to nerves and the importance of getting a result against Ghana. In that regard, the USMNT did itself and the nation proud—but the stage is set and the bar will only continue to be raised.
The United States is a capable team, but it can’t be its own worst enemy going forward. We expect Clint Dempsey to lead and perform through the lumps (and kicks to the face) he’ll take. Tim Howard is going to make excellent saves and everyone is going to put in an honest shift. But I think we’re at the point where hard work, effort, determination, and all the clichéd buzzwords associated with “trying hard” should be expectations, not accomplishments.
It’s an exciting time for American soccer because we should demand better from the USMNT and best part is—they have the ability to deliver on that demand.
This article first appeared on http://www.12soccer.com/ on June 16, 2014