For all that was positive over the U.S. men’s national team’s run of friendlies over the past two weeks, a sour aftertaste lingers in the mouth.
Initially, the friendly match portion of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's five-game “tournament," which is to be followed by the first two World Cup qualifiers against Antigua and Barbuda and then Guatemala on June 8 and 12, respectively, got off to a roaring start. On May 26, the U.S. demolished Scotland, running out a 5-1 winner in a sparkling display of movement and finishing.
But four days later, the U.S. took a beating at the hands of Neymar and Brazil, losing 4-1 in D.C. The Americans nevertheless showed promise and a penchant for creating chances against a powerful opponent, making the outcome somewhat acceptable.
Finally, against Canada on Sunday, the U.S. notched a 0-0 draw against a team it should probably have beaten handily. And in that game, much of the progress made, much of the growth achieved in Klinsmann’s grand experiment to turn a stodgy team into a lithe, fluid outfit, was called into question.
The U.S. was uninspired and sloppy on the ball and lacked the energy to pick a modest Canada side apart. The Canadians, frankly, could well have won this game as a 34th-minute goal by Nik Ledgerwood was dubiously disallowed and Simeon Jackson fluffed a sitter in extra time, whereas the U.S. came close to scoring just once, when a towering Clarence Goodson header was well-saved in the dying minutes.
While a scoreless draw with Canada on a sluggish day is tolerable for the U.S. – if a tad discomforting – the uneasy conclusion drawn from this game is not.
Thus far, the United States' new system and philosophy, espousing a proactive, high-octane attacking game, has worked well against teams willing to reciprocate in their attacking, like Scotland and Brazil. Teams like Canada, however, who are content to absorb, clutter and disturb, present a problem the Klinsmannian ploy isn’t yet equipped to handle. And as the U.S.’s bad luck would have it, the CONCACAF region from which it will have to qualify for the World Cup is chock full of that sort of team.
Truth be told, the draw was as much a consequence of fatigue as it was of faulty tactics. What made the U.S. tick in earlier games was a holding midfielder who could shield the defense and free up his two fellow central midfielders to barrel forward, which they did to great effect against Scotland and Brazil. Playing a 4-4-1-1 instead, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones were stuck playing deeper, needing to pass their way through a crowded midfield while the wingers needed to track back more as well.
But even with a formation that didn’t do the U.S. any favors, the point of this revolution is to fundamentally alter the U.S.’s approach to a soccer game. Rather than letting the game come to them, the Yanks are to take the game to their opponents. And in the execution thereof they were roundly inadequate against Canada. It’s all good and well pummeling Scotland but the Scots fancied their chances – and said as much before the game – hoping to go for the win themselves in order to boost their own confidence up a notch.
If the Scotland and Brazil games were encouraging in their own right, and showed promise for this World Cup cycle, the Canada game was a sobering lesson in what lay in wait for the U.S. as it tries to get to Brazil. Because if it fails to unlock those CONCACAF logjams, this entire process will have been in vain.