The Americans pulled through to the quarterfinals as Group C runners up in a not-so-tightly-contested 1-0 victory over Guadeloupe. The scoreline flattered the defeated, as the U.S.—and Clint Dempsey in particular—squandered a handful of easy scoring chances.
The changes Bob Bradley promised beforehand came, though not as drastically as might have been expected. Carlos Bocanegra slid from left back to central defense and Eric Lichaj took the place of Tim Ream. Meanwhile, Chris Wondolowski stepped in for Juan Agudelo. The rest of the side remained the same.
The changes worked, as the Americans dictated the game. The team came out with more energy and were quicker to the ball, and other than another early-minute mental lapse saved by Lichaj (more on that later) and some poor finishing (more on that later, also), Bradley and the Americans, in general, should be commended for taking care of business and setting themselves up for a run to the final.
First, some key changes made by the Yanks and their effect on the outcome:
Against Panama, the U.S. were caught offside as many times as this writer was: zero. That means there was no pressure on the Panamanian back line (which, admittedly, set up quite deep after getting the early lead). I attribute that to first, a lack of effort, and second, a lack of experience.
Both of those factors were absent Tuesday, as the American attackers made smarter, more timely runs and the American distribution found them.
Clint Dempsey, in particular, made some spectacular driving runs from the midfield, forcing the Guadeloupe keeper of his line more than once. Altidore made some of those runs early, but faded toward the end of the game, and Wondolowski, while not a striker known for getting behind defenses, made more intelligent runs than the talented-but-green Agudelo.
The intelligent running became even more apparent as the unorganized Guadeloupe defense began chasing the ball after Altidore's cracking goal. This opened up the backside, and stellar cross-field balls from Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley led to easy goal chances for the Yanks.
But who were those balls to? The answer after this segue...
Width from Fullbacks
While this forces the opponents' defenses to compress, it requires a wide outlet to be effective—otherwise, you have in the middle of the field what my high school basketball coach would call a clusterf....er, nevermind. Modern football demands energetic, attack-minded fullbacks, especially modern football with American personnel. Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are not wingers. Rather, they are what some may call interiores, wingers who move centrally when in possession (thanks, Zonal Marking).
Regardless, one of the primary problems in the first two group stage matches for the U.S. was a lack of space in the middle. Both Canada and Panama—the latter, in particular—funneled the American attack into the middle of the field like Trojan forces, and while Cherundolo on the right did his share of getting forward, the less-mobile Bocanegra on the left was less a threat.
The introduction of Lichaj—coupled with the swapping of sides between Dempsey and Donovan—changed all of that. Lichaj was relentless, quite possibly the U.S. Man of the Match, constantly barraging forward and providing width to the offense while shutting down every right-sided attacker Guadeloupe had to offer.
Referring back to the above subsection, Lichaj and Cherundolo made some of the most effective and intelligent runs, finding themselves on the receiving end of Jones' and Bradley's cross-field passes. If not for Dempsey's poor night and Donovan's uncharacteristic lack of composure, both would have had an assist or two to show for their efforts.
Second ball dominance
Perhaps the biggest reason the Yanks put up another shutout (mind you, the only goals conceded so far by the Americans are an own-goal and a questionable/silly PK) was the determination to win every second ball.
Generally, America has always been aerially gifted. Clarence Goodson will win most of his challenges in the air thanks to his size and leaping ability. But against Panama, those victories were short-lived, as the Panamanian midfield jumped on every second ball they could.
Tuesday night was a different story. Jones, in particular, was scooping up ball after ball in the midfield, but even Bradley, Dempsey and Wondolowski were winning secondary balls and keeping Guadeloupe from sustaining any sort of attack.
There's nothing tactical about this sort of victory. It's all about determination and work ethic, something most of the Americans displayed against Guadeloupe and something they'll need to keep up, especially against a dangerous Jamaican side in the quarters.
Not everything was peachy after the 1-0 win, though. Two sore thumbs stick out:
- Another early minute meltdown: There's something seriously concerning about the way Bradley's men are starting games. Once again, they should have been down 1-0 after Michael Bradley and Goodson failed to clear a corner, and only the diving effort of Lichaj deflected Ronald Zubar's effort to the top of the crossbar. I've never been one to bash Bob Bradley (not that I'm a fan, but I think he's done as well as he can with what he's got, for the most part). However, this is getting ridiculous. All of these breakdown leading to early chances for the other team point to a serious lack of mental preparation. I've no doubt that Bradley is trying to address this issue, but he's not doing it well enough. I have an eerie feeling we haven't seen the last of the early game breakdowns—let's just hope it doesn't cost the Americans a Gold Cup title.
- Dempsey and Donovan struggle: You can't win a CONCACAF title when your two best players don't show up. Mexico won't win if Chicharito and Guardado don't produce, nor will the Yanks if Dempsey and Donovan aren't at their best. To be honest, the latter has been more disappointing than the former. Dempsey's casual efforts in front of goal Tuesday are rare and will probably not be repeated again. On the bright side, he was working hard and putting himself in great positions to score. I'll take that sort of game, because it means he'll pop up in those positions again later -- and make no mistake about it: he won't miss again. Donovan, however, has been casual all over the field this tournament. He did reasonably well against Canada, but was a no show for Panama or Guadeloupe, and he's been anonymous in the Red, White and Blue since the World Cup. It's like he's sleepwalking out there. Even his set pieces are coming up shorter than a Carl Lewis fastball. If he doesn't wake up, it'll be "So Long, Mon!" on Sunday