USA v Ghana: What to do with Gooch?

Should Gooch stay on the bench against Ghana?

Shock and horror rang out at 9:25 am Eastern time yesterday when the USA lineup was announced and Coach Bob Bradley made the big decision to drop the struggling Oguchi Onyewu, move left back Carlos Bocanegra into the center, and fill his spot with Jonathan Bornstein. It was understandable but still brave to replace Gooch, but it was the insertion of Bornstein that caused the most dismay among American fans. The defense did not concede, but there were more early jitters and at least two moments when the US could have been punished for bad mistakes, saved once by the bar and another time by a dodgey offside flag. Ghana have only scored two goals in their first three games and both came from the penalty spot, but their attack is not lifeless and is predicated on quick transitions and runs from deep to create chances out of nothing. That favors a defense that is sharp and quick – qualities that Gooch has been lacking since his return from injury.

Gooch was clearly at fault for the second Slovenian goal and was at least implicated in the other two the US had allowed in the first two games. His decision making was both slow and faulty and he was repeatedly caught out. Those flaws are understandable as Gooch’s first full 90 minutes since October was the opener against England. In a must-win game in the group stage finale, Bradley decided he could afford no more mistakes and dropped the AC Milan defender. All credit to Bradley for making such a gutty decision.

How did it turn out? The US kept a clean sheet, won the game, and advanced to the knockout stage to face Ghana in the Round of 16. So it worked. But, and there is always a but, we could be looking at this entirely differently if the bar hadn’t saved us in the early going. Again, the central defenders – this time Jay DeMerit was most at fault – were exposed and Algeria striker Rafik Djabour had a free shot from 12 yards that cleanly beat Tim Howard and rattled off the woodwork. On another play, Bornstein was caught way upfield and out of position and a promising Algerian attack fizzled when the referee’s assistant flagged for offside when it looked level. And let’s remember that Algeria did not score in any of its three group stage games.

So the new formation gets a qualified passing grade, but how does it stack up against our next opponents? Ghana play a 4-2-3-1 formation that is incredibly narrow and the five midfielders don’t create much on their own, as evidenced by their lack of goals from open play so far. What Ghana is very good at, however, is pouncing on turnovers and getting runners from deep to blast forward in an instant and open up the defense to get in on goal. Our midfielders are going to have to be composed on the ball and ready to track their Ghanaian counterparts while our defenders must be able to react quickly, pick up those that do break through, and cover in behind when necessary.

Unfortunately for Gooch, those are not his skills in the best of times and especially not now. I am not a fan of Bornstein, but he does have pace and the lack of a wide attack from Ghana lessens my concerns about his ability to defend on the flank. The other option at left back would be Jonathan Spector, who is not nearly as quick and is a natural right back anyway. As much as I’ll be nervous about Bornstein throughout the match, he has the qualities needed against Ghana if he can avoid his tendency for critical mistakes. I never thought I would say this but I think Gooch should sit against Ghana and Bornstein should play.

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