Now that the warm-up and winnowing-out-for-viable-backups games are done, it's time for Team USA to get serious about World Cup preparation. The status quo of being the hard-working team that surprises because it is continuously underestimated just won't do in the world's most competitive tournament. No team will be taken lightly, so the USA cannot hope to sneak by anyone. They must simply play better.
Yet despite the growing talent on the team, too often, the USA squad fails to play to their potential. Sometimes, it is easier to overachieve when options are so limited - there's no hesitation in tactics or effort, because the team doesn't have a variety to choose from. When improvement arrives, sometimes making best use of those new abilities lags behind.
One prime example of maximizing the available resources at hand is Everton. The English club, which features, at present, two key American players in midfielder Landon Donovan and goalkeeper Tim Howard, has had a sterling record in league play of late, even beating both the clubs at the top of the Premier League table, Chelsea and Manchster United.
Granted, other than Howard and Donovan, Everton has completely different players than the USA team, but how coach David Moyes uses them is instructive to any squad. Bob Bradley would do well to take a few pointers.
Playing through the midfield is one particular thing Everton does excellently. Despite the prowess of Louis Saha, Everton aren't a tall or big-bodied team. They succeed because they play to their strengths of capable midfield players and they keep the ball on the ground. This allows the center mids to get forward without leaving large gaps in the middle of the park in front of their back four.
Too often with the U.S., the ball is looped over the top. The Americans rush forward and leave space between the midfielders and the backs. To counter this, either both or at least one of Ricardo Clark and Mike Bradley tend to hold back, but if the buildup through the middle of the pitch is solid, the team moves forward as one. It keeps the squad's shape compact and in position to cover, while allowing numbers to get forward.
Given that arguably the USA's strongest players -- Donovan and Clint Dempsey -- are working through the midfield, it would seem to behoove Bradley to trust the middle to run the plays more.
Another aspect in which Everton excels is doing less to get more accomplished. That means not forcing the issue at a constant, monotone pace of predictable attack. The Americans tend to push forward just for the sake of attacking at times. They win the ball and spend all of ten seconds in possession before there is either a turnover, a shot, or a ball over the top that runs out of play.
With Everton if a viable attack doesn't open up, they reset. Players like Mikel Arteta and Steven Pienaar love to push the pace, but they understand that their number one job is to help control the game. The focus on not losing possession and having the patience to find the right play is the top priority. Rather than take chances they don't need to, Everton players usually make the simple pass until the 1 v 1 opens up for them, then they try to exploit it. This approach lets Donovan shine, because it suits him perfectly.
A few USA fans are a bit disappointed with Donovan's tenure at Everton, simply because he hasn't scored a lot. Yet the win record that he has contributed to is an inarguable testament to his contribution. With Everton, Donovan is not the focal point, but an important contributor who has more room to do his job because he's not constantly facing a double-team of defenders.
With the United States, the mantra for opponents has often been, 'Stop Donovan, stop the USA'. It hasn't helped that, whether through coaching tactics or just habit, the American team defers to Donovan, if deference is defined as passing the ball to him as much as possible and waiting for good things to follow.
What makes Donovan effective for Everton is his ability to exploit any player if he's put in the right situation. Staying out wide helps, rather than his tendency to tuck inside with the U.S., but it's more than that. With Everton, Donovan only gets the ball when he's the best option, not because he is the star and they're all hoping for a bit of magic. Because Everton players spread the ball around and work it laterally as much as horizontally, Donovan finds space and a single marker rather than a double team.
Another way that Moyes deflates Donovan a bit helps Everton perform, because it relieves him of the complete responsibility of the team's fortunes. Donovan can have off games, like he did in Europa League action versus Sporting Lisbon recently, and Everton's team spirit will pull them through.
"There have been some games where he has dipped," Moyes told the Liverpool Echo about Donovan. "But I showed him some stuff from the midweek game against Sporting Lisbon and he took it on against United."
Like he did in a World Cup qualifying game versus Mexico, Donovan played against Manchester United despite suffering from the flu.
"He wasn’t going to play because he felt he had the flu," Moyes explained.
The tough Scot didn't let Donovan wallow in his respiratory misfortune. "I told him that most of the players in England play with the flu four or five times a year."
Due partly to injuries, Moyes has built Everton into a versatile squad, slotting different players in a manner that presents opponents with a new look. Moyes thinks carefully about his tactics versus a rival. For the match versus Manchester United, Moyes didn't simply put Leon Osman in place of the injured Marouane Fellaini. Moyes shifted Donovan as well.
“We swapped him over to the other side, then for 20 minutes, we put him in the hole behind the striker," Moyes explained.
Though Donovan didn't score or get a direct assist, he helped unsettle United's backline and keep control of the game in Everton's hands.
With such an effective midfield core and style on Everton, Moyes is able to integrate the young players on his team very smoothly. He trusted Dan Gosling and Jack Rodwell to play important roles as substitutes versus Manchester United, and they rewarded his confidence with goals.
On the USA team, some young players with verve and creativity appear stifled in the few opportunities they are given. The oft-defensive mindset of the Americans against big teams seems to leave them more afraid of making a mistake and thinking less about how to positively impact the game. Even against a smaller team like El Salvador, nervous play marked the USA effort the entire game.
What Moyes has done to turn Everton into a giant-killer is remarkable, but it isn't revolutionary. It can be duplicated, and the USA would do well to emulate the example.
Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of Goal.com North America
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