To the average fan, the United States men's national team's 1-0 win over the Czech Republic on Wednesday night in Prague appeared to be business as usual.
Against the Czechs, the U.S. scored on a counterattack, relied on some excellent goalkeeping and defended for its life in the final minutes of the game on its road to victory.
However, to the more sophisticated fan, the game against the Czechs revealed some subtle changes that could help lead the USMNT to finally begin playing a more proactive style.
A Change in Philosophy?
Against the Czech Republic on Wednesday, the U.S. repeatedly showed a desire to build from the back and hold possession of the ball.
On nearly every occasion when the U.S. had possession in the defensive third, it looked to hold the ball rather than simply whack it up the field. In the game against the Czechs, the U.S. used goalkeeper Brad Guzan (and Nick Rimando in the second half) for back passes—sometimes even on multiple occasions in the same sequence.
It must be admitted that, on the attack, the U.S. generated few good chances in the game, but those simple spells of possession in the defensive third between its back four and goalkeepers represented a subtle change in intent from the Americans.
The danger, of course, in playing out of the back, are the miscues and, ironically, the U.S.'s lone goal in the match was scored on a such a mistake. But the benefits of such a system far outweigh the potential negatives.
Playing out of the back helped relieve pressure on the U.S.'s defense—something the U.S. was unable to do for long stretches this past summer in Brazil and something that forced the team to run itself into the ground in nearly every World Cup match.
Time and time again against the Czech Republic, the U.S. moved the ball around the back until space opened up in the midfield so that the team could move the ball up the field under control.
A Change in Personnel
Because many of the U.S.'s MLS-based players were unavailable for the match against the Czechs, the U.S. fielded a largely experimental lineup on Wednesday night. In the midfield, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann used Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya and Joe Corona as his three central players—with no true holding midfielder in the lineup.
The end result was a free-flowing style as Bedoya and Diskerud did a fantastic job of interchanging in the midfield. Diskerud, more often than not, took on the role of the deep-lying playmaker, but Bedoya also did his part.
Over and over against the Czechs, Bedoya came back to win the ball and start the U.S. attack and also covered nicely for Diskerud when necessary.
Playing such an aggressive style is one thing in a meaningless friendly to start off a fresh World Cup cycle. But if the U.S. can replicate this style in more important matches, and if Klinsmann is willing to play without a true No. 6, U.S. fans could see some impressive football over the next four years.
The Individual Performances
On an individual level, several Americans stood out in one way or another.
Nick Rimando was, of course, excellent in the net for the U.S. He came on for Brad Guzan to start the second half and had a number of fine saves to help the U.S. hold its 1-0 lead.
Fabian Johnson also had a strong performance playing excellent defense and, as usual, was one of the U.S.'s best attacking players.
On the other end of the scale, Joe Corona's performance in the midfield left much to be desired. Partnering with Diskerud and Bedoya—who were both excellent—Corona struggled to make an impact in the match and had several poor giveaways that could have easily led to an equalizer from the Czechs.
Having finally been given a chance to play centrally, rather than on the wing, Corona failed to impress.
Brek Shea was also unimpressive in his 30 minutes as a second-half substitute, giving the ball away on multiple occasions. It's not surprising considering Shea's lack of playing time at the club level, but his performance on Wednesday was similar to many of his past games with the U.S.
Joe Gyau's performance on Wednesday night was the tale of two halves. In the first half, Gyau was excellent, starting numerous American attacks. He pushed the ball up the field on the dribble, held possession in traffic and looked dangerous in the final third.
However, in the second half, Gyau became a turnover machine and struggled in his defensive responsibilities.
Somewhere in the middle between good and bad were the performances of Jozy Altidore and Julian Green—both of whom played the full 90 minutes.
Altidore had a few good sequences, especially in his holdup play, but didn't do much to influence the attack in the final third. Green, for his part, was active, but he also gave the ball away too often and struggled at times defensively.
American fans should come out of the match against Czech Republic feeling pretty good.
While the U.S. did have to ride its luck at times, the subtle changes in its desire to hold possession of the ball and the attacking lineup fielded by Klinsmann were positive changes. It's a stark contrast to the team that often fielded three holding midfielders in the 2014 World Cup and couldn't hold possession to save its life at times.
The 1-0 scoreline should also keep expectations realistic as the U.S. begins the 2018 cycle. Had the U.S. picked up a lopsided win, as it did in the summer of 2012 in a 5-1 win against Scotland, pundits would have been tempted to draw too many conclusions from this one game.
As it is, the match simply appears to be a good start as Klinsmann and the U.S. begin the long journey to Russia four years from now.
Follow me on Twitter @JohnDHalloran
Follow me on Facebook www.facebook.com/AmericanTouchline