Thursday July 16th, 2015

With the United States’ recent success against big-name international competition, the team and its fans could be forgiven for thinking the CONCACAF Gold Cup would be a breeze. The U.S. did win the toughest group of the competition, but the results were far from comfortable.

A draw with Panama in the meaningless group finale followed one-goal wins over Honduras and Haiti that secured Group A, but the U.S. never looked entirely comfortable in its trio of matches. After smash-and-grab victories over the Netherlands and Germany in June, the Americans continued a troubling pattern of inability to dictate matches when opponents sit back.

Mexico found similar trouble in its group after blowing past Cuba. Guatemala frustrated El Tri in a goalless draw, before Trinidad and Tobago traded goals with Miguel Herrera’s side in a crazy 4-4 draw on Wednesday.

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It’s nothing new in CONCACAF competition in particular: the opponent sits back in a disciplined defensive shell, waits for the U.S. or Mexico to concede possession and bursts in the opposite direction. Individual quality usually takes over—this time it was Clint Dempsey’s three goals and vital role in a fourth in three games for the U.S.—especially as the opponent tires, but the wins can seem against the run of play even against much smaller nations.

Secrets are hard to come by in any intra-confederation competition, as the familiarity between nations and frequency with which they play one another eliminate many surprises. Perhaps in CONCACAF more than any other, though, competitions turn into a fight for survival for the bigger nations until they get to play each other, when they turn into less of a grind and more of a cerebral battle again.

Both Mexico and the U.S. experimented tactically through the group stage, looking for their best player pairings and systems for a potential final matchup, which didn’t help their struggles. Herrera set his team up in a 4-4-2 for the first two games, but even after returning to the 5-3-2 that saw Mexico succeed at the World Cup, it failed to get the necessary result.

Mexico’s biggest problem was the chaos created by Herrera’s experimentation, and the U.S. also suffered from a lack of familiarity. Rather than being confused by the system, though, the Americans often looked as if their collective design simply hadn’t been properly choreographed despite playing similar formations as in the past.

In attempting to build up from the back, poor spacing often isolated players one-on-one in difficult positions, and all they could do was look for long balls into the forwards and wingers. Michael Bradley, whom manager Jurgen Klinsmann continues to play in more of a No. 10 role, dropped too far back to look for the ball at his feet, throwing the midfield into confusion.

Above: USA spacing vs. Honduras | Below USA's shape vs. Haiti

Failing to support the player on the ball also set the team up poorly for a quick transition to defense, eschewing the compactness that would allow for quick recuperation of possession or at least limit the immediate danger of losing the ball in the back.

A frustrating disconnect among players in possession followed, with a high-pressuring, physical Honduras causing problems as well as a patient Haiti making it difficult to play through a compact middle block. The U.S. could only score on two set pieces against Honduras and a fast break, similar to a counterattack, against Haiti.

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The Americans’ best example of proper spacing and build-up created their goal against Panama, with Alejandro Bedoya polishing off a combination near the penalty area by driving a pinpoint cross to Bradley at the back post. Bradley’s run was reminiscent of many of his late, surging runs from midfield that resulted in his goal against Slovenia at the 2010 World Cup, among others, and another rallying cry for those imploring Klinsmann to play him farther back.

The positive aspect of playing Bradley outside his best role is his ability to string the whole team together with his work rate. He connects defense to attack when much of the team looks disoriented, but he often falls into the trap of running simply to run instead of moving with a purpose.

He also hasn’t been paired consistently with anybody to help rein in that tendency with Jermaine Jones’s recent injury concerns. When Dempsey plays as a shadow striker underneath one or two higher partners, it mitigates that concern a little, but another strong central-midfield partner for Bradley would further disperse his work load.

Herrera also played key men out of position, with Andrés Guardado and Héctor Herrera starting wider than normal in El Tri’s first two games. Rather than the top points of a central triangle, they played as wingers with two midfielders between them.

As such, Mexico was often outnumbered as opponents crowded out the middle of the field and forced it to change the point of attack with big, diagonal switches toward Guardado and Herrera. Mexico could not circulate the ball through the middle as quickly as it usually does, and the forwards became simple targets in the box rather than outlets for possession.

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Herrera and Klinsmann’s experimentation magnified the chaos of playing teams with less skill that will kick and scratch to keep the U.S. and Mexico from getting into the attacking third.

A system of play’s influence is often marginalized until at least the knockout round of the Gold Cup, and the group stage becomes about simply being in position to move on.

Listening to members of both teams talk about their early performances, the frustration has been palpable. However, now that they pulled through the uncertainty of round-robin play in a tournament such as the Gold Cup, they can build toward the final, 90 minutes at a time.

The U.S. won its group, regardless of whether it went as smoothly as planned, and Mexico is still on course to meet the Americans in the final, although a quarterfinal against Costa Rica and potential semifinal against either Trinidad & Tobago or Panama won't be cakewalks. With three matches remaining until the trophy is lifted, both of CONCACAF’s perennial powers have plenty of time left for redemption on the field.

GALLERY: U.S. Soccer in 2015

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