The joy at the second half comeback and the outrage at the mystery call that ruled out the potential winning goal now must take a back seat to fixing the problems that plagued the US in defense in the first two games and orient the side to take on Algeria in the last group game on Wednesday. Oguchi Onyewu has been exposed on the three goals, but the bigger culprit is way too much space between the two center backs and the central midfield. That problem must be solved, but the main threat from Algeria is their maurading left-sided players. Even though they are yet to score in the tournament, the US team must set up its eleven players to plug the holes from the first two games and stiffle Algeria’s attack.
All three goals the US conceded have come right through the middle of the park and resulted from way too much space between the central midfielders and the center backs. Onyewu’s positioning has been exposed on all three goals, but really only the Slovenian second was a genuine error (and what an error). On the England goal, he justifiably pushed out to mark an attacking player and opened up space behind him. On Slovenia’s first, he failed to close down a player in a similar area, perhaps still smarting from the England experience. We all know what happened for Slovenia’s second. Fortunately, this looks like rust after an eight month layoff because playing ten yards behind your line of defense thus keeping the most advanced attacking player onside is a youth soccer mistake. Let’s hope anyway.
Bob Bradley moved to shore this up in the second half against Slovenia by inserting Maurice Edu for Jose Torres and positioning him right in that space. In defense of Torres, he moved the ball well and was the instigator of a number of US attacks that genuinely looked threatening, creating the best US chance of the tournament up to that point in the moments before the second Slovenian goal. Watching the game again, it did not appear as if either Torres or Michael Bradley had been given the specific task of playing deeper as a screen in front of the central defenders. But maybe Torres was supposed to fill that role and that might have contributed to his halftime withdrawal, especially because his midfield partner was so exposed in the buildup to the second goal.
Edu did very well and he should keep his place over the other more defensive option of Ricardo Clark. It’s not just the disallowed winner that argues for his inclusion, he was also more composed on the ball and simply offers more as a two way player than Clark. His first responsibility is to provide extra cover in front of our central defenders, but he can pass with precision and he obviously can score.
Playing Edu should help solve the problems that have plagued the US team in the first two games, but Algeria’s main threat will likley come from their left flank, not the middle. Even though they have not yet scored in the tournament, they did look threatening at times against England and should be bouyed by the confidence of earning that point and go into the last game still with a chance to advance. Their two best players against England by some distance, and arguably the game’s two best, operated on Algeria’s left; left back Nadir Belhadj and left wing Karim Ziani. The US right side will be crucial if we are to win this game and advance.
Fortunately, the US back four’s best performer in the tournament so far has been right back Steve Cherundolo. He has been very solid in defense and offered something going forward. But the responsibility for slowing down the Algerian left will not fall exclusively on his shoulders, as the both players on the US right will have to work together both in defense and on attack to nullify the threat.
Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have both played at right midfield, often switching during games. But in my view, neither of those players is well-suited to the roll of wide right player against Algeria. Both players are at their best in attack when they move in towards the center, that wont put pressure on Belhadj defensively (his big weakness) and certainly wont keep him pinned back. Worse, it could expose a great deal of space for both him and Ziani to attack and no matter how good Cherundolo is playing, two against one is not a fair fight. Additionally, we want Donovan and Dempsey to be working hard to creat goals, not overly concerned about defense.
What the US needs on the right is a genuine winger, and Stuart Holden best fits that role. Having Holden hugging the right touchline will keep Belhadj back and pose a real threat in the space behind if the left back ventures forward. Energy and work rate will be as important for Holden as creativity, as he must make forward runs into space but still be able to track back and help Cherundolo in defense. But as we saw with Donovan’s run for the first goal against Slovenia, a wide player in behind the defense is very threatening and the US hasn’t had much of that except for that critical moment. Holden could provide that threat.
With Holden wide right, the question turns to where to play Dempsey and Donovan. The enforced absence of Robbie Findley through yellow card suspension (another bizarre decision from Coulibaly) opens up one of two front positions, although he may not have started anyway. Dempsey has more often played in that role with Donovan either wide left or right. But again, focusing on Algeria’s likely 4-5-1 formation with three in central midfield, I would switch that and play Dempsey on the left with Donovan playing in a free role just behind Altidore.
Having Donovan in a free role up front and Dempsey wide left solves many issues the US will face on Wednesday. He is by far the most dangerous with the ball at his feet with the chance to run at defenders or hit the key pass. Positioning him largely in the middle but giving him the freedom to go and get the ball – marooned wide he can often go long periods without being on the ball. He can also drop a bit deeper and help out Bradley who is likely to be outnumbered, especially if Edu is slotting in behind him. Dempsey’s natural tendency to pinch in or go forward should also help in the middle and the attack, while doing so wont pose nearly as many defensive problems as Algeria’s right side is nowhere near the threat of its left.
That leaves out the other second half substitute against Slovenia, Benny Feilhaber. But Feilhaber’s impact was not nearly as influential as Edu and he is also very suspect defensively. Feilhaber certainly is no winger and while his tendency to come inside could help Bradley in the middle, it would come at the cost of not orienting the US side to both nullify the threat from the Algerian left and take advantage of the space should Belhadj attack.
With Gooch hopefully shaking off the rust, Edu screening the back four, Holden raiding up and down the right wing, and Donovan roaming the middle, the US will be best-placed to counter Algeria’s strenths and take advantage of its weaknesses. Bob Bradley has shown admirable courage in this tournament to alter his game plan depending on the opponent. Let’s hope that continues against Algeria.