A porous U.S. defense allows Chile to rally in exhibition loss
The U.S. men's national team began the 2015 campaign much like it finished 2014, with the Americans fading late to fall 3-2 to hosts Chile.
The U.S. twice went ahead in the first half in Wednesday's friendly, with goals from left wing back Brek Shea and striker Jozy Altidore sandwiched around a first-half tally from Roberto Gutierrez. But a stirring fight back, punctuated by a pair of goals from Mark Gonzalez, saw the home side prevail in Rancagua, Chile.
Here are three thoughts from what was a pulsating match.
1. The new 3-5-2 formation draws mixed results
Ever since defender Jermaine Jones let it slip a week ago that the U.S. would experiment with a 3-5-2 formation, the anticipation heading into this game had been increased. Would the U.S. be able to gain more possession? How would the defense, especially on the flanks, hold up?
The results were decidedly mixed, which given the unfamiliarity with the alignment, wasn't a surprise. In fact, the U.S. experienced wild fluctuations in performance, both in terms of the team and individuals. A piercing ball out of the back from center back Matt Besler in the sixth minute found Shea on the dead run. With no targets in the box, the Orlando City man opted to shoot from a tight angle and deposited a laser past Johnny Herrera in the Chilean goal.
The lead last only four minutes, as a deadeye cross from winger Mark Gonzalez found striker Roberto Gutierrez in space and his header easily beat U.S. keeper Nick Rimando. It was a play in which Jermaine Jones and Besler didn't seem on the same page, as Jones drifted inside and Besler couldn't get goal side of Gutierrez.
That wouldn't be the last time that the new formation got the better of Jones, who appeared to forget at times that his position in defense requires a more sober assessment of risk. There were moments when he stepped up to carry the ball out of the back, but in the 37th minute he was picked clean by Diego Valdes, and only a stellar save from Rimando kept Chile from adding to its tally. He was caught in possession again in the second half.
The home side did seem to crack the code for a considerable spell in the first half, attacking the flank that Shea was attempting to defend, and finding space on a regular basis whether it was in the air or on the ground. Some scramble-mode defending saw the U.S. bend but not break at least for the moment. Shea also seemed to struggle with some of his decision-making, though the Orlando City man can still take some positives, namely his forays forward, from the game.
Right wing back DeAndre Yedlin found a better balance in terms of when to defend and when to go forward. It was his seeing-eye pass to midfielder Mix Diskerud that helped set up Altidore's goal in the 31st minute. He also more than held his own defensively for the first hour, though he needed to do better on Mark Gonzalez's equalizer in the 66th minute.
So will the U.S. try the formation again? Much of that will likely depend on whom manager Jurgen Klinsmann opts to play in the middle of the three-man back line. Jones seems to lack the positional discipline needed to play there, and while a center back such as Geoff Cameron or a Tim Ream might be worth a try, one gets the impression that Klinsmann attempted the formation with Jones in mind. Still, based on what the U.S. showed over the first 60 minutes, it's worth trying again.
2. U.S. continues habit of fading late
It's worth noting that the MLS season has yet to start, and given the fact that Chile's domestic league is about a month into its campaign, the hosts had an advantage in terms of fitness as it featured a team filled with players based in the Chilean Primera Division. This was very much a B side for Chile, and given that the U.S. had upward of six regular starters available, the sight of them coughing up a lead for the fourth time in five games remains a concern.
The new formation can't be blamed either. With 30 minutes to go, Klinsmann decided that he had seen enough of 3-5-2 and reverted to 4-4-2. Yet, the extra man in the back didn't prove to be enough. In the 66th minute, Yedlin was caught ball-watching as Gonzalez sped past him to collect Marco Medel's through ball. The Chilean then caught Rimando leaning far post to score and bring the home side level.
Gonzalez struck for the game-winner nine minutes later. The U.S. was slow to pressure Medel, whose bullet forced a fine save from Rimando. Gonzalez was quickest to react, though there was a stroke of good fortune as his shot deflected off the foot of center back Steve Birnbaum and past Rimando.
Midfielder Michael Bradley, who earlier hit the bar with a rasping shot, tried to orchestrate a comeback but the U.S. was unable to find a breakthrough. All told, game management remains an issue for the Americans. The game might have been entertaining, but there seemed little inclination to control the tempo, which played right to the hosts' strength. One would expect better when the U.S. takes on Panama on Feb. 8.
3. Uptick in form for Altidore and a pair of newcomers shine
The happiest man in North America just might be Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney after seeing his new acquisition at forward, Altidore, have a solid game against Chile.
Much has been made of the striker's miserable spell with Sunderland, but he has usually been a player that has delivered for the national team. Granted, Altidore should have done better with a 27th-minute opportunity that saw his attempted through ball to Clint Dempsey go straight to the keeper, and his link-up play needed to be sharper. But he took his goal well, thanks to a nice feed from Diskerud, and that will do wonders for his confidence.
As for the players making their international debuts, Birnbaum could still take plenty of solace in his performance. Yes, he nearly scored an own goal when a cross went off his thigh and into the grateful arms of Rimando. But he was among the more composed defenders on the night, playing simply and effectively.
Striker Gyasi Zardes also was active on the night. He entered the match in the 69th minute for Dempsey, and stationed up top alongside fellow forward Chris Wondolowski. He twice came close to scoring, including a chance in stoppage time, and his movement also caused some problems for the Chilean defense.
Birnbaum and Zardes certainly have a ways to go, but Wednesday's match represents a solid building block for both players as they get acclimated to the international game.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.