Arena still tinkering with formations
If the U.S. national team learned anything from its 1-0 loss to Morocco on Tuesday night it is that you break down a wall with strength and patience, not with speed and finesse.
If it was a first quiz for the American attack before the big final exam in Germany then it failed. Aside from John O'Brien, who showed impressive vision for having been out of action for the better part of five months, the rest of the U.S. attacking players failed repeatedly to find ways to create buildups. The loss of Claudio Reyna to a strained right hamstring injury in the 12th minute didn't help matters but the fact that none of the team's other attacking players could match O'Brien's cleverness and creativity has to concern U.S. coach Bruce Arena.
This makes the potential loss of Reyna all the more frightening. For all the speed and aggressiveness of the U.S. team's younger attacking players, the squad desperately needs Reyna's ability to stabilize the midfield, maintain possession and switch gears to keep opposing defenses honest. O'Brien provides this but one player isn't enough.
Without Reyna, the American offense seemed incapable of stringing together buildups that could poke at the Moroccan defense long enough to find an opening. Instead, the U.S. attack was limited to a handful of erratic half-chances sprinkled in with O'Brien's moments of inspiration, which were too often met by his teammates inabilities to think and function on his higher technical level.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Tuesday night's match was the formation Arena chose to unveil. Whether you call it a 4-5-1, 4-3-3 or 4-2-1-3, the formation and lineup used may have offered a good glimpse of the players Arena has in mind for his first World Cup match, on June 12th against the Czech Republic
The back line of Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Eddie Pope and Corey Gibbs was solid, although rarely tested against a Morocco team more interested in defending than building up attacks. Gibbs was competent at left back but Eddie Lewis would have been a better fit in the lineup and would probably have started if he hadn't just returned from playing in a English Premier League promotion match for Leeds last weekend.
The Onyewu-Pope central defense tandem looked like a natural fit as Pope looks more like the Pope of old than an old Pope. Cherundolo was solid at right back, but looked less comfortable when Arena switched to a 3-5-2 formation for the match's final 16 minutes. Pope didn't really struggle but he looked a bit slow as the center back in the three, making you wonder if he or Onyewu could really anchor a three-man defense against forwards such as Milan Baros, Alberto Gilardino and Luca Toni. Actually, only Gibbs looked like a natural during the team's short span in the three-man defense.
What we did see from the 3-5-2 was an increase in attacking pressure. If the midfield can make the most of possession and keep pressure on the opponent then Arena would have to consider using a 3-5-2, particularly in situations when the U.S. team finds itself behind. Whether Arena has enough confidence in the formation to use it against the Czechs or Italians remains to be seen. We should have a better idea by Sunday, after the team plays Venezuela and Latvia.
One thing we didn't see on Tuesday night was a dangerous Eddie Johnson. The young striker had one of the team's best scoring chances when he sent a free header over the crossbar off a corner kick, but he did little else despite finding himself one on one against Moroccan defenders on multiple occasions. Johnson will get more chances to show he can be an impact player but you have to wonder if the formation Arena used on Tuesday, which basically left McBride alone up top, is a sign that the coach is losing confidence in finding a forward capable of complementing McBride.
In the end, it was just one game. Some will see the result and the lack of quality chances and start to panic, but this week's trio of games was never about results. Arena is tinkering with formations and testing the players who have yet to prove that they can deliver on the game's highest stage. The 1-0 loss was disappointing but all the players who played will have at least one more chance to redeem themselves in the team's remaining two matches before departing for Germany.
Now the U.S. team heads to Cleveland, where a much different kind of opponent awaits on Friday. Venezuela boasts the kind of attacking players and style that should give the American defense a much better test than Morocco's attack did. Venezuela also has the kind of vulnerable defense that should give the U.S. attack a chance to erase the memory of Tuesday's failed quiz.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.