By Glenn Crooks
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If you take a gander at the results, it appears that this has been one of the preeminent weeks in the history of American soccer.
In the U-20 World Cup, the USA advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007 with a thrilling 1-0 triumph over Colombia.
New York Red Bulls center back Matt Miazga has been absent from his MLS team as it leaks goals in a stretch that has produced but one win in eight matches. Regardless, coach Jesse Marsch is delighted to see the rookie performing with confidence in New Zealand for the U-20 side.
The full U. S. Men’s National Team provided a pair of historic road results. Down by two during the second half in Amsterdam, the U.S. tallied three unanswered goals to upend the Netherlands, at No. 6 in the world, 4-3. Then four days later in Berlin, the Americans toppled the globe’s No. 1 side, Germany, 2-1.
A Bobby Wood strike off some of the best combination soccer recently produced by the U.S. was the game winner. Earlier, New York City FC midfielder Mix Diskerud pulled off a brilliant technical display, finishing a 40-yard service from Michael Bradley following an uninterrupted 30-pass sequence to square the match at one.
It was the stuff of Barcelona and Arsenal, no joke.
In Winnipeg, Manitoba, we were fortunate to see the U.S. Women’s National Team string together three or four passes. And while the result was favorable in their World Cup opener — a 3-1 defeat of Australia — there remain concerns over the Americans’ inability to “dictate tempo,” the credo of coach Jill Ellis.
Translated, the U.S. women suggest that they wish to control matches through possession. While the squad is filled with individuals that can play that type of game, it is becoming more apparent that these issues have not been confronted successfully on the training ground. As constituted, the U.S. is ill prepared to keep the ball in a manner that can dictate tempo, and the key element lacking to connect the attack in the 4-4-2 system utilized by Ellis, is a 6 or holding midfielder.
The clearest example I can give of an American who is the quintessential 6 is Kyle Beckerman. The holding midfielder excelled for the USMNT in the European stunners and has played “in the hole” as the quarterback for the longest running playoff squad in MLS, Real Salt Lake.
Our women’s side does not have a Beckerman, but if Lauren Holiday is going to be the choice then she must play the role of a deep lying midfielder. However, this adjustment is unlikely given that Holiday is far more comfortable as an attacking midfielder and is encouraged by Ellis to stray from the space in front of the center backs, forcing perhaps the top attacking midfielder in the world, Carli Lloyd, to rotate and prevent counter attacks. Give Lloyd credit, as her interception deep in the midfield initiated the attack that led to Christen Press’ game-winning goal against the Australians.
“I was just clipping a game and see that Lloyd and Holiday in there have really done a workman load in there in terms of covering ground and winning balls,” Ellis said prior to departing for the World Cup. “They also have the skill to play out of pressure and set things up for us. To be honest, I think gone are the days where one player can have that responsibility.”
I disagree. What you have in Lloyd and Holiday is a pair of 8s, or box-to-box midfielders. So who is the 10, the playmaker who can also run at the back four with consistency, combine with the front-runners and fire quality shots at distance? Well, we the Americans aren’t playing with one of those either.
It is understood that attacking and defending in soccer is a group responsibility – each player needs to consider both sides of the ball. Regardless, Holiday’s lack of proper angle and distance of support is limiting the link-up play that can provide early penetrating balls, a desire reiterated by Ellis, or the ability to change the point of attack. Shannon Boxx is the only experienced 6 on the roster, but at 37 years old is not capable of performing for 90 minutes – certainly not in a run to a World Cup title, which will require six total matches in less than 24 days.
Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn, the Americans’ center backs in the opening match, rarely had a notion to circulate the ball and force the Australians to chase the game or look for numbers up on the weak side of the field. It is a concept that is stressed at the youngest levels of tactical instruction and our finest female soccer players, including some of the most talented individuals in the world, fail to either recognize or be instructed to find the overloads on the flank that are often created by switching the field. It is the reason that we get so little flank service – and with Abby Wambach on the field, wide aerial crosses into the box are a necessary tactic.
In a 4-4-2, perhaps the most vital relationship is formed by the two strikers. I did not note (and I have watched the match twice) starters Wambach and Syndey Leroux connecting on a single pass to each other. There was no combination play between the two. It was rare to see either player check into the midfield or post-up to present a target to their backs or midfielders — the classic two-front moves in a coordinated effort, in cooperation with each other. For instance, if one striker were to check, the other should be timing an explosive run into the space vacated by her partner. The relationship between Wambach and Leroux was more distant than stable.
Ellis has had nearly 13 months of preparation since U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati named the former UCLA coach as head coach. The team has been in residency for a year. To lack coordination and the ability to keep the ball under pressure is baffling.
I was listening to a talk show this week and the discussion focused on the U.S. win over Australia – a team that was worn down physically by the Americans and not by the side-to-side ball movement that can exhaust and frustrate an opponent. The host asked the question – would you prefer to win ugly or lose while playing a brand of soccer that is more pleasant to the eyes?
The host and the callers, who all indicated that a win is most important, were missing the point. When Ellis was hired in favor of the vanquished Tom Sermanni, we were all assured that possession soccer was in order. We would dictate tempo through effective “speed of play,” with a focus on “more consistent penetration.” That was the portrayal to the soccer community. When you watch the U.S. play you feel a bit betrayed.
— I propose a starting lineup that includes Press next to Leroux up top and Tobin Heath in the midfield. Press is the best finisher on the team and is a natural forward. Wambach moves to a reserve role. Heath changed the opener when she entered with less than a half hour to play. The U.S. played with quality possession, triggered by the Jersey girl.
— Sweden coach Pia Sundhage played against the United States in the inaugural 1991 Women’s World Championship and coached the USWNT to a pair of Olympic gold medals and the final of the 2011 World Cup. Her well documented comments in the New York Times piece this week, disparaging Lloyd and Hope Solo, were disturbing from a single standpoint – the player/coach relationship is sacred.
— While Sundhage has advanced knowledge of the U.S. squad, Ellis, who was an assistant on Sundhage’s staff in 2011, has Tony Gustavsson on her staff to assist with preparation. Gustavsson coached seven current Swedish National Team players on his club team, Tyreso, a Champions League finalist in 2014.
— NYCFC coach Jason Kreis said Thursday after training that he was not certain if Diskerud would be available when NYCFC hosts the Montreal Impact on Saturday.
Glenn Crooks is the color commentator for New York City FC on WFAN and the former head soccer coach at Rutgers University. You can follow him on Twitter at @GlennCrooks and glenncrooks.sportsblog.com.