Arena and U.S. need attack-minded approach to cover defensive frailties
When the United States lost its first two games of the final round of World Cup qualifying, the headlines focused on the lack of defensive intensity and ability. And rightly so. In the first match against Mexico, the Americans conceded two goals, including an 89th-minute decider to sports movie foil Rafael Marquez. In the second, they turned in one of the most lackluster performances in recent memory, allowing Costa Rica to find the back of the net four times.
But if the defensive performance was concern No. 1, the lack of attacking prowess was No. 1-A. Over 180 minutes, the U.S. managed a single goal and just six shots on target. They managed less than one expected goal per 90 minutes during the two performances, 0.92 against Mexico and an abominable 0.37 versus Costa Rica. Neither of those figures will win a lot of games.
The defeats, as anyone who follows the American team knows, were the catalyst U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati needed to finally cut ties with Jurgen Klinsmann. In his place, he brought in Bruce Arena to get the team to the 2018 World Cup. The former LA Galaxy head coach has plenty to do and little time to do it, with two crucial qualifiers coming up in March. The Americans are a team in disarray, and desperate for a bit of structure on both ends of the field.
The first step toward finding a solution is recognizing the problem. The attacking issues didn't start during the last two matches. It's something that's been plaguing the red, white and blue for a while.
"The issue with the U.S. team that I've seen for about a year is that they are very one-dimensional," ESPN FC's Taylor Twellman says. "There's very little creativity or explosiveness."
Statistics bear out the former U.S. forward's observation: The American attack has stagnated. Across all friendlies in 2013 and 2014 -- the 2013 Gold Cup, 2014 World Cup qualifying and the 2014 World Cup (a total of 38 matches) -- the U.S. averaged 1.51 expected goals per 90 minutes. During friendlies in 2015 and 2016 -- the 2015 Gold Cup, the one-off 2015 CONCACAF Cup, the 2016 Copa America and 2018 World Cup qualifying matches -- however, that figure drops to 1.27 expected goals per 90 minutes. The dynamic attack Klinsmann promised didn't materialize, it regressed.
The issue is that the team just isn't creating enough chances, a mystery that Arena needs to solve. It's not as simple as adding a second forward to assist the target man, usually Jozy Altidore. It's about having a cohesive team, one that works as a unit rather than as three (or four) separate lines with poor and mismanaged spacial relations between them. Too often, Altidore has no outlets when he takes down a long ball, whether the U.S. is playing with a single forward or with two. Rather than lay the ball off to someone who is close, Altidore tries to attack, a strategy that rarely works. That's less his fault than that of the formation. A bunched in, defensive team can't get out quick enough when the ball is cleared, leaving the forward alone.
"I don't find the U.S. to be particularly threatening in one-versus-one situations in wide areas," Twellman says. "So when the ball comes to Jozy's feet, if you don't have two or three runners around him, then you're very one-dimensional."
Twellman went on to say that during 2014 World Cup qualifying, Altidore and Clint Dempsey partnered effectively even though Dempsey was, according to Klinsmann, not a forward. Rather, he was playing in the middle of the three-man line in a 4-2-3-1 formation. But it's not about what you call the formation; it's more about how the team plays on the field.
The emergence of Christian Pulisic, who's looked dynamic on the wings, offers some hope of finding a creative presence out wide. So far, though, the results have been underwhelming. In the 11 matches that he's been on the field, the U.S. has only managed 0.72 expected goals per 90 minutes and just 2.49 shots on goal per 90 minutes. While he's too talented to leave on the bench, he's clearly not a panacea.
The good news is that the Americans possess more than enough attacking talent to reach the World Cup. A combination of Altidore and Clint Dempsey or Jordan Morris up top, along with Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe and others on the wings give the team plenty of potential dynamism. The key is for Arena to impress upon his charges the need to stay forward, to not be afraid to press the game and push the pace. Yes, they need to be cognizant of their defensive responsibilities, but they can't sacrifice their attacking cohesion to do so.
The Americans lost twice in November because they were a disaster in the back. Getting that right is priority one.
"I think Bruce Arena has come into this situation saying he needs to fix the defensive side of things first," Twellman says.
And while that's certainly true, what if the issues at the backline stemmed at least in part from the offensive outage? Consider that the defensive errors, especially in the match against Costa Rica, weren't so much systemic breakdowns rather than individual defenders -- John Brooks in particular -- making individual mistakes.
Yes, Arena needs to pay attention to the backline and work to fix what went wrong, but he might find his problems solved with better individual play and a team that's appropriately spaced so the attack can function.
It's said that the best offense is a good defense, but for the U.S. in March, perhaps the opposite is true.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.