Decisions, Decisions

Tuesday, June 07, 2011 | View Comments
By Jason Kuenle

Over the weekend, Jason Davis and Jared DuBois discussed the merits of having the Spain match three days before the start of the Gold Cup on The American Soccer Show. In doing so, they inspired my Devil’s Advocate side. In reflecting on what Spain brought to the table and what possible benefit it could have on for a US team in preparation for the Gold Cup, I was left with this thought; more than anything, playing Spain was a test of decision making. In that view, the match is much more than the throw away friendly or, more cynically, money grab that many have claimed it to be.

First, two assumptions about Spain: 1) Spain is capable of playing as quickly as any team in the world and 2) after losing to the US in the Confederations Cup, Spain would be motivated to play at the caliber that they are capable of. Second, an assumption about the global game: having played regularly in one of the Big Four leagues exposes a player to the speed of play equivalent to playing against Spain. This is the list of players on Gold Cup roster who have not played regularly in the Big Four: Rimando, Onyewu, Ream, Goodson, Lichaj, Bornstein, Edu, Kljestan, Rogers, Bedoya, Adu, Agudelo, Wondolowski. To me, this looks a lot like what the US threw out against Spain. Especially because, if I remember correctly, Bornstein was a late scratch which moved Lichaj to left back and Spector into the lineup.

The US advantage over other members of CONCACAF is often reduced to the size, strength, and speed of its players. While physicality is an advantage, this oversimplifies the issue. With the exception of Mexico, the US “A” team can play at a higher speed of play than any other CONCACAF nation. That advantage; however, only extents through the “A” team. At the “B” team level that speed of play advantage disappears against nations like Costa Rica and Honduras, and even other MLS heavy countries like Jamaica and Canada. If speed of play has been a point of emphasis in the run up to the Gold Cup, then pushing that level with a match against a motivated Spanish side drives home that point. Not even the “B” team playing against the “A” team can simulate the speed at which Spain plays.

The speed of play from Spain fell in the second half and the introduction of US "A" team players brought the sides closer together in this regard. So, a couple of notes on the first half about the non-Big Four players and what I took away from the match about decision making.

Onyewu – I do not understand all of the abuse that Onyewu gets, especially the accusation that he’s had a huge drop in form. In my eyes, he is what he has always been, great in the air, good blocking shots, and a terrible organizer of a defense. It’s not a coincidence that Gooch’s best performances have come when paired with a centerback with demonstrated leadership skills. Pair him with a Bocanegra (US captain) or DeMerit (Watford and Vancouver captain) and he does fine. Make him the leader in the back and pair him with someone inexperienced and you get multiple sources of defensive breakdowns. On an individual level, Gooch makes good decisions, on a team level, he struggles.

Ream – I haven’t yet become a Tim Ream fan. Yes, he can pass better than any of our current centerbacks and yes, he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet, but his tackling and defensive positioning are only MLS quality and his decisions making can be a little slow and too often bad. I have a feeling he’ll grow out of it, especially with Marquez as a mentor, but his performance in this match did nothing to relieve my fears that his decision making make him not yet ready for international level play.

Lichaj – I really would have rather seen Lichaj at right back and Spector played on the left than what happened. It’s a bit hard to be fair when the player in question is out of his natural position. However, like Ream, he did not answer the question of whether he is capable of decision making at the speed of the Premier League and not the Championship. Though for most of the opponents in the Gold Cup, Championship speed is good enough.

Edu - I don't know how this is possible given the number of matches that I've seen of Edu's, but he still perplexes me. It seems that I've seen him play in three types of situations 1) in an attack minded position (in a sub role with the US when trailing or with Rangers with a 5 man back line in European competitions that pushed him higher up the field), 2) in a box-to-box role against mediocre competition (most Scottish league matches, US matches versus minnows), and 3) playing a defensive midfield or box-to-box position against decent competition (Paraguay, Spain). In the first two scenarios he seems to do well; however, in the third (the role he best fits for the US), he seems to struggle. I don't know if this is a sample size problem or if the length of his first European with substantial playing time has hurt his performances of late, but his defensive positioning in senior team matches has not impressed me.

Kljestan, Rogers, Altidore, Agudelo - everyone up front suffered from a lack of role responsibility, chemistry, and decent service. The odd thing about this group is that I can't say that anyone's decisions were wrong, just slow with some lack of execution.

So maybe there was something to be evaluated, though none of these observations are new, but maybe that's the point. Slow decisions in possession lead to turnovers and bad decisions in defense lead to goals against. If the US cruises through the first half of the Gold Cup, it will primarily be because of speed of play. We've seen that difference in speed of play already play a large role in Mexican, Costa Rican, and Jamaican blowouts in the first two days of the competition. For the US to win the competition, the advantage in speed of play and accuracy of decisions will have to run through our "B" team as well.
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