With three matches before the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the United States tested itself once more against top European opposition in two March friendlies. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann continued to experiment in a 3-2 loss to Denmark and a 1-1 draw with Switzerland, with the same mixed results that have characterized his tenure.
After trying a three-back system against Chile in January, the U.S. returned to variations of a 4-4-2 against Panama and in the two most recent matches. It seems the foray into playing with three center backs is over for now, with the diamond midfield returning to the forefront after the Switzerland match in particular.
Against Denmark, Michael Bradley and Alejandro Bedoya comprised the central-midfield double pivot, in theory allowing one at a time to step forward and complement inside movements from the wingers. One of two forwards, usually Aron Jóhannsson, also pulled into midfield.
In the second match, Klinsmann gave Danny Williams his first cap in a year, underneath Bradley at the point of the diamond. However, Bradley’s return to the primary playmaking role again demonstrated the team’s lack of a true No. 10.
The void was more obvious in the first match, as the U.S. forced play vertically toward its forwards and down the wings.
The Americans had no choice but to play direct, as their steadiest presence in the No. 10 space was normally a forward dropping deep.
On the opening goal against Denmark, Jóhannsson dropped almost level with the holding-midfield block to effect a one-two with right back Timmy Chandler. As Chandler advanced, with no option ahead of him where a playmaker would normally reside, he lumped a hopeful ball forward.
Altidore latched onto it, fought off a defender and finished well, but the goal seemed to come out of nowhere because it did—it wasn’t the result of sustained pressure or a rehearsed team build-up.
On the right, Chandler offered the U.S. an option for getting into the attacking third, helped by Bedoya pulling wide as Gyasi Zardes concentrated on forward runs toward the penalty area instead of providing an outlet for possession.
Against Switzerland in the second match, the U.S.’s diamond midfield matched up well against the host side’s similar system. Bradley became the focal point again, in a free role underneath Altidore and Zardes, who played in his natural forward position after an invisible match at right wing.
Playing a diamond midfield gave the U.S. a better organizational framework defensively, as Bradley could pop up between the forwards, who split to prevent simple passes across the Swiss back line. The rest of the midfielders matched up one-for-one, with Williams holding his own against Xherdan Shaqiri.
Not finding success centrally, Shaqiri pulled wide too often and disrupted Switzerland’s own attacking organization. He, and the rest of the team, did much better after switching to a traditional 4-3-3 at halftime.
Despite seemingly being in more control against Switzerland than Denmark, the U.S. actually kept less possession, attempted fewer passes and connected on a lower percentage of its attempts in Zurich.
Even with Bradley in a higher role, the U.S. struggled to penetrate the Swiss penalty area from central areas. Service into the box came from the flanks again, and players aimed a remarkably low number of passes from Zone 14 (directly on top of the 18-yard box) into the area.
The problem has plagued the U.S. frequently since the World Cup, as Klinsmann cannot seem to find a playmaker capable of pulling the strings in attack the way Michael Krohn-Dehli did for Denmark.
The highest number of individual touches in Zone 14 in Aarhus came from the forwards pulling back, which meant they could not get into more dangerous scoring areas.
Defensively, the U.S. again conceded multiple goals in the final 10 minutes, dropping what would have been (in competitive matches) all three points against Denmark and two against Switzerland.
Even accounting for the multiple substitutions stunting the team’s rhythm in both games and Altidore’s foolish red card against Switzerland, the pattern remains the same: the U.S. cedes control of the match to the opposition and ends up picking the ball out of its own goal.
Against Denmark, possession remained near 50-50 after the 80th minute, but the Danes were more efficient with the ball. They completed eight percent more of their attempted passes than the U.S.
The U.S. struggled to kill off the clock, alternating between calm circulation in the middle—the central midfielders and center backs completed 93 percent of their passes during the crucial time frame—to aimless vertical balls from wide players.
An inability to keep the ball, coupled with moments of atrocious penalty-area defending, doomed the U.S. to conceding eight goals in the last 10 minutes of the last eight matches.
Most have come on basic errors: failing to pick up runners, scuffed clearances and a team shape and lack of possession that invites opposition pressure when minds and legs are at their most strained.
In the last two matches, Klinsmann’s team continued the same recent patterns. The promising moments in the second match were mostly down to the defensive organization, which evoke images of previous U.S. teams more than the new direction Klinsmann has been tasked with carrying the program.
Even with the desire—and need—to become more proactive in attack, the U.S. shouldn’t lose its core identity from the past of being difficult to play against and tough to break down. The best teams in the modern game aren’t just attacking machines; they are also air-tight in the back.
It almost seems as if the team doesn’t know on which aspect to focus its energy, leading to breakdowns both ways. It’s a delicate balance that the U.S. hasn’t been able to strike recently.
As Pep Guardiola put it in Martí Perarnau’s Pep Confidential, “When we attack, it is important to defend as well, and when we defend, it is important to know how to attack. Football is attacking and defending. It is about attacking a lot and conceding very few opportunities.”
An organized defense gives a team better chances to win, regardless of how few opportunities it creates. If the U.S. can build on its defensive performance against Switzerland, with the addition of a solid final 10 minutes, it would provide a framework on which to build forward.
Before becoming a team that causes opposing defenses trouble, the U.S. must return to being a team that frustrates opposition attacks. At least then, the worst it could do is a scoreless draw.