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Despite seeing less of ball, U.S. focused on ‘possession with purpose’

Despite seeing less of the ball, U.S. focused on having ‘possession with a purpose’

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Heading into Friday’s friendly against Peru, members of the U.S. national team seemed to be in agreement about what needed to improve following their failure at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Asked independently and without any leads or hints, they came up with the same general answer.

“Possession,” Gyasi Zardes said. “In training, the drills we do, it’s been a lot of possession drills … We’re just really working on just keeping the ball.”

Said Omar Gonzalez: “One thing that was mentioned to us was that our possession needs to get better.”

Added Mix Diskerud: “We want to be, [Klinsmann’s] talked a little bit about being more possession based. When we have the ball, that’s when we have the opportunities to score the goals ... Moving forward I think we want to see that more.”

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The Americans then took the RFK Stadium field and lost the possession battle to Peru by a 59%–41% margin. And yet, the U.S. deservedly won the game. The visitors demonstrated how effective possession can be over the course of the first 40 minutes or so, pinning the U.S. back and moving the ball with ease as they waited for the hosts to make a mistake. And the U.S. obliged in the 20th minute, when Gonzalez was late closing down a shot from Daniel Chávez.

But the tide turned toward the end of the first half as the Americans stepped up their pressure and denied Peru the space it was exploiting in midfield. The U.S. back four pushed higher up the pitch and several U.S. players forced turnovers or intercepted passes in the offensive end. Instead of worrying about keeping the ball, the hosts attacked quickly, before the opposition was set. In the 39th, Jermaine Jones dispossessed a Peruvian in midfield and surged forward before unleashing a leftfooted blast that was tipped over the bar by goalkeeper Pedro Gallese. Zardes and Jozy Altidore created subsequent quick-strike chances.

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The trend continued after halftime, as the U.S. pressed, pushed the ball forward faster (even when at a numerical disadvantage) and put Peru on its heels. Altidore scored twice, once on the rebound from his own missed penalty kick and later off a deflected shot by Zardes, and the Americans held on for a satisfying 2–1 win. Their possession and passing accuracy were no better in the second half than they were in the first. It was the approach that changed.

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“It’s easier for us to attack when we’re able to win the ball higher up,” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “What was happening in the first half was it was tough for me and Jermaine, especially for me because I was a little bit more advanced, to pressure their two defensive center mids when our defensive line was too deep.”

He continued, “The second half, that changed. Our defense was able to step higher up and when you’re able to do that, press higher up and win the ball higher up, it’s easier to make counterattacks and to get our attackers on the ball.”

Since he took over in 2011, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has preached possession and proactive play. He wants to change the way Americans learn, play and coach soccer and has been trying for years to get his players to feel more comfortable and confident on the ball. It hasn’t been easy and the reasons are myriad, encompassing culture, economics, geography and just about every facet of the American game.

“In counterattacks we already know we’re pretty good and now we want to learn to keep the ball,” Jones said.

“We’re trying to develop a different style of play,”​ Altidore said following his two-goal performance. “There’s no secret about that ... We’re going to have growing pains through that. But I think our foundation is aggressive, tough to beat, press together, put our bodies on the line. When we do that, that opens up avenues to do other things, to open up the play.”

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It’s possible to be proactive without the ball. So while the U.S. continues to try to conform to Klinsmann’s preference for possession, it can win games, even against good teams, with pressure and daring. Years of dominance by Barcelona and Spain showed the world how devastating possession can be. But creating turnovers, taking space quickly, dribbling at the opposition and playing one-touch passes behind defenders can be effective as well. While the U.S. tries to master the former, it’s going to have to rely on the latter.

It’s worth noting that possession hasn’t had much impact on the bottom line in several big U.S. games over the past couple of years. Ghana held the ball for 62% of the 2014 World Cup opener but Klinsmann & Co. triumphed, 2–1. Both the Netherlands (62%–38%) and Germany (64%–36%) lost to the Americans in June despite significant advantages in possession, and Mexico held a 52%–48% edge in September 2013 when the U.S. clinched a World Cup berth with another 2–0 win in Columbus, Ohio. Remember how many more shots and scoring chances Belgium had in the World Cup’s Round of 16? The U.S. had 54% of the possession. And the Americans had more of the ball than Jamaica (60%–40%) in June’s Gold Cup semifinal loss.

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Having less of the ball isn’t a recipe for long-term success. Chasing the game will come back to bite you against elite teams. But that aforementioned slice of statistical history, as well as Friday’s performance, imply that what you do with the ball is just as important as how frequently you have it. By focusing on its strengths and fielding players who can press, run and pass quickly, the U.S. will buy a bit more time, and win more games, as it develops the technique, composure and tactical awareness to play the soccer to which Klinsmann aspires.

“Definitely, it’s a good thing even if you have less possession that you know you can win a game,” Klinsmann said Friday. “[But] you’d rather have the ball than running after the ball, simple as that … At the end of the day, you’re losing a lot of energy chasing the ball."

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One way to avoid wasting energy chasing the ball is to win it back faster, which was the focus on Friday. That will have to remain the goal as the U.S. faces Brazil on Tuesday in a friendly in Foxborough, Mass. and then Mexico in the crucial Confederations Cup playoff in October. The U.S. is unlikely to out-possess either of those teams. Instead, it will have to use Friday’s second half as a blueprint.

Absent Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, Klinsmann fielded a lineup against Peru that wasn’t likely to win the possession battle. Outside backs Tim Ream and Michael Orozco, stay-at-home defenders who typically play centrally, weren’t going to do much overlapping in a 4-4-2 that featured Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin on the wings. Jones is more force of nature than metronome. He was effective on the whole but completed only 59% of his passes. Zardes and Yedlin certainly can pass, and did so with decent accuracy on Friday, but they’re more dangerous when they run at defenders. They’re out there to exploit brief seams and lapses in the opposing team’s shape, to defend and to serve as an outlet for players behind them.

“We weren’t particularly sharp today, but [Zardes] and DeAndre, getting down the flanks, their speed just creates havoc,” Altidore said.

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Klinsmann called Zardes “an endless worker,” adding, “he has his speed. He has his dribbling. He can take people on. He gives us a new element that we didn’t have in the World Cup last year because with that speed and that flank play and with his tremendous workload going back and defending and helping out, we definitely have another kind of option there … Now we have on one flank [Zardes] and on another flank DeAndre. That makes it not that easy for opponents.”

The permutations will change as Bradley and Dempsey join the U.S. for the Brazil game. Bradley typically is more accurate when passing from deeper positions and Dempsey retreats into midfield to assist the build-up more frequently than other forwards. The constant churn, however, makes establishing the chemistry required for better possession difficult to establish.

[Editor's note: Since initially announcing Dempsey would join for the Brazil game, U.S. Soccer elected on Sunday to have him remain in Seattle and continue his recovery from injury.]

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“I would say we try [to have more possession] and we see like always maybe a new formation and sometimes it’s difficult,” Jones said.

And it may not be how the U.S. plays its best soccer. Since Landon Donovan burst onto the scene in 2001–02, the Americans have been at their most dangerous with a target forward (Brian McBride, Altidore, even Dempsey on occasion) and with fast, mobile attackers hitting an opponent on the break.

As the U.S. becomes more comfortable pressing higher, the opportunities to exploit a team in disarray should increase. To hang in against Brazil and beat Mexico next month, the U.S. will have to focus on what it does well now, rather than what it hopes to be long term.

“We're not a Brazil or maybe an Argentina in terms of keeping possession,” Bedoya said. “I guess we’re about possession with a purpose. That means playing the ball forward, trying to play it quicker, one-two touch and get forward. When we’re able to attack like that, it’s because defensively we’re pressuring higher up and winning the ball higher up the field. That gives us the opportunity to go, get the ball out wide faster or get the ball to our strikers a lot quicker.”