Stars and Gripes

Occasionally interesting insight (and gripes) about the USMNT

Defensive Frailties Haunting the United States

with 5 comments

As a way of wrapping up the numerous Slovenia recaps, we’ll take a minute to look at the United States’ defensive frailties that were exposed in the first 45 minutes–stubborn problems that that must be solved if the Stars and Stripes want to survive the Algeria match and move out of the group stage.

At times the backbone of the team, the central pairing of Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu labored through a miserable first half against Slovenia, though they were aided and abetted by an unusually naïve performance from Michael Bradley, and a sloppy World Cup entrance from Jose Torres.

Fundamentally, there are two issues that must be remedied.  First, far too much space is being given in the danger zone—the roughly 20-yard area stretching from the box in the middle of the pitch.  Cracks began to show midway through the second half of the England game, when Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard in particular were afforded far too much freedom over the last 20 minutes, and nearly made the United States pay dearly towards the final whistle.  Against Slovenia, they reprised that poor work, giving Novakovic and Ljubijankic, the two forwards, room to roam, which led directly to both Slovenian goals.

The second issue is the lack of communication and proper positioning, which has in turn bred a disturbing inability to track runs into the box by opposing forwards and midfielders.   We saw this against England when Steven Gerrard popped free in the fifth minute to score, and throughout the second half, as Wayne Rooney repeatedly slipped behind the American back line.  Against Slovenia, it was no better, with Ljubijankic making a textbook run between Onyewu and Steve Cherundolo, before calming slotting home the second strike.

It was that second goal that exposed both weaknesses in one incompetent display.  From a defensive perspective, the entire sequence was a comedy of errors, commenced when Michael Bradley curiously overran a ball at midfield.  Instead of stopping to track back, he continued on, leaving young Jose Torres alone in the middle of the park to stop the emerging Slovenian counter-attack.  With Milijove Novakovic set free by Miso Brecko in midfield the defense was already in trouble.  Jay DeMerit was caught out of position to the right; Steve Cherundolo was preoccupied with Valter Birsa on the wing; and Carlos Bocanegra had just begun to trek in from the left side.

Thus, Oguchi Onyewu, lined up a good eight yards behind the rest of his defensive line, was presented with a choice.  He had already played Ljubijankic onside, and needed to determine whether he would follow his run to the left side of the box, or step up to defend Novakovic, recently in possession of the ball.  Instead, he simply remained stationary, allowing Novakovic to play a quick ball through to Ljubijankic, who slotted home past Tim Howard.

Onyewu bore the brunt of blame for this goal, and in truth, he was at fault for playing Ljubijankic onside.  Yet the rest of his team shares the burden.  Bradley completely removed himself from the play, and made no effort to come back and help.  DeMerit got caught in no-man’s land, when he should have been in a position to mark Novakovic in the middle of the field, allowing Onyewu to track Ljubijankic’s run (or simply play him offside).  So, the United States committed two graves errors: they provided space for the attack in the middle of the pitch, and failed to track Ljubijankic’s run in.

The first goal resulted from an equally bizarre lack of action from the United States defense.  Again, it was Bradley and Torres who are partially at fault, as Valter Birsa was given bags of space in the middle.  The defense remained completely stagnant, with all four defenders sitting flat along the 18-yard line.  DeMerit had tracked out to the right side earlier in the play, while Cherundolo and Bocanegra marked Novakovic and Ljubijankic.  Onyewu again failed to come out and close down Birsa, allowing an unperturbed strike from 22 yards, leaving Tim Howard stranded in goal.  Some have contested that the presence of Ricardo Clark would help to shut down the space, but that ignores his dismal performance in doing just that against Turkey a few weeks past.

If the United States wants to avoid similar errors against Algeria, two things must change.  Tactically, there needs to be a true holding midfielder in the lineup.  I am firmly entrenched in Torres camp, though putting him into the lineup as holding midfielder who didn’t receive much help from Michael Bradley—and one who was patrolling in front of a suspect back line, no less—was asking for trouble.

Bradley—usually excellent at collapsing the space, was abnormally poor on the two Slovenian scoring chances, caught out of position and leaving Torres to grapple with the situation.  In the unlikely event that Torres gets the nod again versus Algeria, Bradley will need to stay more disciplined.  The more likely scenario is that Clark or Maurice Edu, who impressed throughout his second half stint on Friday, will reclaim the role.

Second, the communication between Jay DeMerit and Oguchi Onyewu—as well as between that pairing and whoever is lined up in front of them in midfield—must improve.  In key moments they’ve been caught out of position, confused about roles, and lost on defensive assignments.  Maybe it’s the vuvuzelas, but something is clearly happening.  Tim Howard has never been the quiet type, but the sheer frustration he’s shown (verbally) over the last four matches has been noticeable.  Time and again, runs have gone unmarked, and attacking players have managed to find space in the box.  As the defensive leaders—and really, DeMerit has taken the role of defensive marshal over the last year, with Bocanegra now on the left side—it’s their responsibility to ensure it doesn’t happen going forward.


Written by Pete Kavanaugh

June 21, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. The first goal, Bocanegra is marking, DeMerit is marking and Onyewu is free. Donovan is defending a zone with Birsa just behind him. While Bradley steps too far out to pressure Koren, out of the picture, Brecko (RB) makes a dummy run up the flank which pulls Donovan out wide, opening up the space to slide Birsa the ball and for him to turn and shoot.

    The US players don’t seem to get the concept that if one of the player’s is pulled out of up the pitch, you must fill the vacuum by tucking in. Instead Donovan leaves the danger area to track the run of a player 45 yards from goal near the sideline. Again, Onyewu needs to do step out more aggressively here.

    Onyewu’s positioning on the second goal is literally bizarre – 10 yards behind the rest of the back four? What on EARTH is he doing there. Still, all he needed to do was step out aggressively and Ljubijankic would’ve been offside but he hasn’t moved between the first and second pictures. Just frozen. Sums up his World Cup.

    In the midfield it really was Mikey Bradley that had the appalling first half, not Torres. Bradley got sucked way too far up the pitch on both goals.

    i like tuesday

    June 21, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    • I agree with everything, I think we’re (generally) on the same page. DeMerit was indeed pulled out–by “pulled out wide” I had meant to indicate that, though it would be confusing since I specifically said Dolo and Boca were marking. I didn’t mean to indicate that DeMerit was out of position on the first goal. On the second, he shared some blame there.

      Donovan was defending zone, though ineffectually so.

      As for Gooch, I agree–he shares a good deal of blame, but “shares” is the operative term. There’s just no reason for them to have that much space.

      Pete Kavanaugh

      June 21, 2010 at 3:40 pm

  2. If we were willing to put Torres in the middle why not Holden? Holden can hold up the ball, shoot from distance, cover a decent amount of ground, and I haven’t seen him radically out of position in his times with the national team.

    The only benefit to doing what I think Bradley is going to do, go with Clark, is that Clark can at times shoot from distance(Trinidad & Tobago), a trait that I think is going to be very valuable with the way Algeria will defend in the final third.

    I’m not sure how much we should be surprised by the communication issues with the back four… Onyewu didn’t play with these guys or anybody for 7 months, Demerit would probably be better suited doing what Onyewu has been doing, charging up middle and making challenges all the way to the midfield stripe. Both of our outside backs are doing everything they can not to get whipped on pace alone since they may be the slowest pair we’ve had since 1990.

    I’ve heard some people say the solution is Spector, but he was awful with West Ham’s disorganized defense.

    I’m tempted to go 3-5-2.. We haven’t seen any benefits of having Demerit and Onyewu sit in the middle.. they don’t talk and they don’t cover for each other so why not stick only one of them in the middle.. Get Demerit off the field, take the pressure off the outside backs by having Donovan and Holden out wide… pair up Edu with Bradley in the middle and sit Dempsey up front behind the strikers.


    June 21, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    • Patrick–thanks for the comments. I’ve actually championed Holden for a role in the middle (he lined up there for Bolton, albeit briefly), so I’m with you. I also agree that Clark probably gets the nod, although I think Edu’s temperament could be better suited against ALG. Clark (seemingly) remains the first-choice defensive mid, and you need to go with your first XI.

      As for the communication issues, I can see your point, but it does seem odd that a pairing that was so successful throughout the Confederations Cup and the late stages of qualifying is suddenly unsure of roles. Those issues usually present themselves with new pairings, not so much after breaks. I’m a Spector fan, but he’s not the answer right now (although I do think is future is in central defense). I hear you on the 3-5-2, but don’t think that’s the answer. Dempsey, Donovan and Bradley have done an awful lot of running already, and a 3-5-2 would only increase the pressure on them. Furthermore, a 3-5-2 creates more communication issues than a four-man back line. When you’re trying to mark instead of play (mostly) zonally, it leads to even more breakdowns. Finally, I’d go with DeMerit over Gooch in a three-man back line.

      I do think (for reasons that will be explained on tomorrow morning’s post) that Dempsey will get the nod up top.

      Pete Kavanaugh

      June 21, 2010 at 11:50 pm

  3. […] As far as Group C is concerned, our hearts and minds are focused squarely on Team USA,  and their fight to advance out of group play for the first since 2002 and for only the third time in the last 60 years. The Desert Foxes of Algeria are the Americans remaining hurdle to the Knockout Round. Despite the lack of modern World Cup pedigree, the Yanks are actually favored in the game today with Algeria. A US National Soccer team laced with favored expectations? Yikes. We saw that almost blow up on the boys last week before a stirring comeback to tie Slovenia kept not only their tournament hopes alive, but their pursuit of the top spot coming out of group. Can they handle the mantle of chalk better this time around? Or will the early, yet persisten defensive breakdowns continue to haunt the Americans? […]

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