Tuesday, July 7, 2015

U.S. Tops Honduras in the Main Course (After a Nice Appretizer)

We are the world! We are the Turkey!
"...I only laced it with PCP."

And that's why I love the bar where I watch soccer most often. Because that's quality eaves-dropping...

One other note before getting into the nitty-gritty. Like most of you, I read two (or more) things today that bunched my undies, e.g.: 1) the record-breaking number of people who watched the Women's World Cup Final; and 2) reports on the comparatively shitty pay that members of that same team made during the tournament leading up to said World Cup final. Yes, yes, women's sports don’t draw with anything like the same consistency as men's leagues do around the world, and, yes, that translates into what they get paid. Still, and even if just domestically, those same women drew a shit-ton of eyeballs for that final, so call this my (extraordinarily modest) call to see them reap some (meaningful) measure of the dollars spinning off that whirlwind. Because they earned it, goddammit. And if it's because the sponsors failed to show up, leverage that shit into the next contract because people, Americans, especially, totally watch the women's game. Make it right. I don’t care how it's done, but fucking pay these women what they absolutely earned.

And, with that, time for the two-course meal that was tonight's CONCACAF Group A kick off.

The Appetizer
Panama 1-1 Haiti
To call this game ugly borders on euphemism, because much of it was outright flailing shit. Appreciating that takes only one or two of the handful of sweeping movements managed by either Honduras or the United States in tonight's second game. To their credit, Haiti did a fine job of getting the ball up to the attacking third – though, it bears emphasizing, only up to; Panama, on the other hand, topped out at (literally) one or two field-wide (or field-long) movements that approached footballing competence – e.g. the Gold (Cup) Standard being the move where...can I pause here to state that CONCACAF's official site is absolute fucking garbage? One name, goddammit. I want one fucking name. Ah, there it is (thanks, MLSSoccer.com!), Panama worked the ball from defense over to Alberto Quintero wide on the right side of the attach; from there, he crossed it in to Blas Perez, who forced a great save out of (again, thank you MLSSoccer.com) the aptly-named Johny Placide off a one-touch attempt. Panama didn't threaten much beyond that and they scored their lone goal on straight-up slop, e.g. a swing-and-a-miss by a Haitian defender.

Haiti's 100%-deserved equalizer came courtesy of the awesomely-named Duckens Nazon. And it was entirely basic stuff – e.g. a ball over the top that a sufficiently-talented player runs onto and scores, after a couple (perfectly nice) moves. Basically, the sort of goal a team scores when they haven’t spent a ton of time together. That said, Haiti looked the better team to me overall, and I believe there are reasons for this. For one, Panama went into the game in the unfamiliar, uncomfortable role of favorites, but they still gave Haiti the ball as if looking to play an absorb-'n'-counter system. Given that Haiti isn't remotely up to that – see above, the stuff about stalling in the attacking third (and it was "utter") – this boiled down to Haitian players off the ball staring at the player on the ball to see what he would do. Whatever that says about Haiti, it speaks less well of Panama.

By way of wrapping up this game, I'll only say this: I'd rather play Panama next than Haiti. Panama looks like a team struggling with expectations, like they climbed too far, too fast. Then again, Panama will be back in its natural state against the U.S. Then again, again, neither side would stand a chance against the U.S. team that got rolling after 35 minutes tonight. Which brings us to...

The Main Course
United States 2-1 Honduras
FULL DISCLOSURE: I haven't watched a U.S. friendly in all of 2015, so none of this is informed by wins of Germany, The Netherlands, or even Guatemala. That said, I do have long-time familiarity with the USMNT and, honestly, only a couple players who started tonight (e.g. John Anthony Brooks and Ventura Alvarado) are in any meaningful way unknown to me. With that as starting point, then, let the record show that I lost all of my shit during the first 30 minutes of this game – e.g. that stretch of time when the U.S. played some of the most random, pointless shit I've seen them play in ages. U.S. players looked miles apart, perhaps by disastrous design, and that lead to a series of errant passes over the top; and to DeAndre Yedlin’s side of the field, in particular (and so many lobbed out of bounds).

Random balls over the top persisted up to the point where Clint Dempsey scored what strikes me as one of the least justified goals in the history of all sports. Immediately after Dempsey scored, though, everything suddenly appeared to make sense for the U.S.: our players re-connected, and that translated to the sort of short, inter-changing stuff that gets the ball upfield and unhinges defenses. It was good enough that everything looked all over once Dempsey scored his second, barely-marked goal, of the night.

There's something big in there, at least potentially, that bears exploring. I saw some tweets (mostly from the Armchair Analyst and Fox Sports' Kyle McCarthy) that talked about a change to the U.S.'s shape – going flat in midfield, in particular. I didn't catch that, personally (or at least not until after I read those tweets), but just the idea of effective in-game adjustments opens discussion of a fairly central argument about the U.S.'s progression as a team. Maybe the team did set out to spread the field against Honduras; if they did, the Catrachos game-planned the shit out of that. Assuming, the U.S. adjusted, it paid off and pretty clearly. I didn't see Honduras change their shape a ton after Dempsey's first goal, but the U.S. definitely played a more effective game after. So did Andy Najar, curiously, who as easily the best player on the field from minutes 30-50 (with honorable mention going to Anthony Lozano, who had a handful of moments as well). The point is, the flexibility to play multiple systems within a game bodes all kinds of well for the U.S.

If Jurgen Klinsmann introduced the shift, he deserves full credit for that. I have shit on Jurgen as aggressively as anyone during his tenure, but I can say, with complete candor, that I'd love to be proved wrong. All I know is that the U.S. looked like a pretty decent team over the 30 minutes that may or may not have followed an adjustment tonight. And that's going to be more than enough for the group stage – especially with Panama looking skittish and Haiti looking like, not to put too fine a point on it, a club that picked up 3rd place in the Caribbean national team tournament.

Give Honduras credit, too. Carlos Disco (OK, Carlos Discua) scored for Honduras with plenty of time left and the game became pretty competitive and overall intriguing from there. Based on tonight's game, they'll go through comfortably as well and give shit-fits to some other national team (Costa Rica seems likeliest).

Given the overall paucity of data, I'm going to close out this post with a series of observations on the U.S. National Team and where things appear to stand with them. I'll try to expand these into trends as the tournament progresses, but, for now, here are some thoughts:

- I thought I liked the U.S. defense until the Armchair Analyst tweeted that John Anthony Brooks looked out of his depth. After that, I figured all the credit belonged to Ventura Alvarado. Then I saw Alvarado get turned inside out on Discua's goal, as well as on a couple things after. I don't know what to think at this point, though I am glad the U.S. was good enough for the win.

- Timmy Chandler generally looked awful. I relaxed considerably when Brad Evans (a converted defender, it bears noting) came on the field to replace him. Again, why is Chandler in the mix?

- Gyasi Zardes didn't look great, at least not on the left side of midfield. And that is with me crediting him for a genuinely fantastic defensive play somewhere around the 70th minute. He's a forward, so why not play him as such? It's not like the U.S. doesn't have better options on the bench...

- ...Which is to say, we have better, steadier options on the bench, and in several positions. Here, I'm talking Omar Gonzalez in central defense, or Graham Zusi where Zardes started. To credit Jurgen Klinsmann (now, a second for this space), I think this is about blooding youth in meaningful games, which boils down to building for the future (a good thing), as well as squad rotation within the tournament. It was ballsy to do that in the first game of the Gold Cup and against what's likely to be the U.S.'s toughest opponent. In other words, I only have praise for this decision.

- Just no more Chandler, please.

- Jozy Altidore didn't look good out there. I don't know why. But he gets other chances.

- I liked how Brad Guzan played tonight, especially when Honduras started coming back into it a little. He launched off his line with purpose (or like he was getting sorta bored back there); either way, he kept shit out of the kitchen – with the exception of the one shot he couldn't stop – and that’s all a reasonable man can ask for).

All in all, and once it got going, the U.S. looked the way I expected them to. Hell, for a 10-15 minute stretch in the second half, they looked lethal and competent in all kinds of gratifying ways. Between that and how capably the U.S. defense scrambled over a, frankly, harrowing opening 15 minutes, I'm confident the U.S. will exit Group A and with a big margin. Seeing the competition helped a little, because it wasn't (that is, it didn't look like competition; Haiti looks athletic, skilled, but uncoordinated, while Panama looks overwhelmed). And that's all that matter between here and Monday.

OK, that's it for tonight. Sorry for any overly random stuff up there, but I did spend the night in a bar where PCP was a legit topic.

I aspire to update this space as often as seems relevant throughout the tournament, even if it's only to pass on word of results from the other two groups in broad and distantly observed impressions. That said, I did read all kinds of shit today, honest. I even googled Group C because no one seems to give a shit about that one.

More later...enjoying the tournament so far. Haiti's draw was particularly fun, though that could be because I only watched the first half. And if you think it didn't matter to Haiti, consider the way their players collapsed after the game. Or the visible distress of Kervens Belfort when an injury forced him to limp off early. The Gold Cup means something to a lot of countries, especially to the nations who are deeply, deeply unlikely to ever make a World Cup (though Haiti did once).

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