Saturday, June 26, 2010

U.S. v. Ghana

. Saturday, June 26, 2010

I had intended more regular World Cup blogging, but I've been busy enough with other things that I haven't gotten around to it. But here are a few quick thoughts on the American and Ghanian teams leading up to today's match, which could reasonably be called the biggest in both nations' histories.

-- The Robert Green mess-up masked the fact that the U.S. was just as good mediocre as England in the first game. Quite frankly, the U.S. was fortunate to escape with a point, not just because of Green's fumble -- I think the U.S. would have pressed much more in the 2nd half if the score wasn't tied, and may have found an equalizer anyway -- but because of the general listlessness of England's game. Then again, England was fortunate to escape with a point as well. Other than the botched covering that led to Gerrard's gimme goal, England had no offensive momentum at all. (This continued through the Algeria game in which they didn't score and even into the Slovenia game in which they only scored once. That said, before the tourney started all the talk about England focused on their slow, old, battered defense and the question marks in goal. They only conceded once in the group stage, and that was a fluke, despite starting four different center backs.)

-- The two quick goals conceded to Slovenia revealed the U.S.'s major weakness: there is often space in between the central midfield and the central defense that can be exploited. This is nothing new: Slovenia's first goal was pretty similar to the goal scored by Giuseppe Rossi in the Confederation's Cup last summer. It also demonstrated that Gooch Onyewu simply isn't up to snuff, because of injuries or otherwise. He's great in the air, but he's too slow right now, and his reads are not sharp. Two of the three goals conceded by the U.S. were partially or fully his fault. The problem is that Clarence Goodson is probably not ready for prime time (and the knock-out stages isn't the time to experiment) and Bornstein is a ticking time bomb if he plays on the left and pushes Bocanegra into CB where he really belongs. (Credit where it's due: Bornstein was pretty good against Algeria, but then again Algeria is not a very good team, and did not attack down Bornstein's flank at all.) Bocanegra lacks the pace to be truly effective as a left back, although he makes up for it somewhat with intelligence. The U.S. doesn't have great options here, and eventually it will cost them. It nearly cost them escape from the group stages.

-- On the plus side, the U.S. has a lot more attacking power than most give them credit for, and it hasn't been fully unleashed yet. Consider this: the U.S. has scored four six four goals so far, and none of them have been by a striker. We know that Altidore can score in international play; he was fantastic in qualifying and scored a great goal against Spain in Confederation's Cup. And Buddle demonstrated that he can knock them in with his brace against Australia the week before the tournament began. Findley + Jabulani = Unmitigated Goal-Missing Disaster, but Gomez can also score, especially in his best role as 2nd half energy sub. But Dempsey should have three or four or even five goals by now rather than his one, Donovan is always dangerous and never seems to miss easy chances, and Bradley has demonstrated more than once that he is capable of coming up big. If the strikers get going, the U.S. can win a goal-fest even if the defense isn't the best. Not to mention, the U.S. has recently been known for scoring off of set-pieces, and have had no goals in those situations yet except for the mysteriously disallowed Edu goal. These chances are often created by good hold-up play by the forwards that lead to fouls, so Altidore and whoever pairs him will be very important moving forward. The U.S. should have scored three or four in the Algeria game (e.g. Dempsey's unfairly disallowed goal, Dempsey hitting the post then missing a wide-open net on the rebound, Altidore's miss from point-black, Buddle's header straight at the keeper, etc.), but they are usually pretty economical. The more comfortable and confident they get, the more likely those chances are not wasted.

-- The U.S. midfield is unsettled, and always has been. Michael Bradley is a mainstay and has been phenomenal, but he's been partnered at different times by Clark, Torres, Edu, and Feilhaber. None have especially impressed. Feilhaber has arguably been the best, but his first instinct is to join the attack, as is Bradley's. Given the concerns about the back four, one of the two central midfielders has to stay home. That's not Torres' role, as was clearly demonstrated in the first half against Slovenia. Clark might be the best candidate for that role, but his distribution and general presence on the ball is horrible and always has been. Costly turnovers and failed and missed passes are practically his calling card. Plus, his ball-watching nearly cost the U.S. dearly by handing Gerrard a goal. Edu hasn't been bad... but he hasn't been great either. If the U.S. had a solid holding midfielder that could support the defense, distribute well, and ignite the attack -- think Xabi Alonso or Javier Mascherano -- they would be a much better team. Then again, who wouldn't?

-- Ghana have scored two goals so far in this tournament, both on penalties. They've also conceded two. Their so-called forwards and attacking midfielders seem to have no finishing ability whatsoever, and this is not a new phenomenon: they haven't scored more than one goal in something like their last 14 matches. Nevertheless, they have advanced through the group stage in a very tough group (including Germany, Serbia, and Australia) after going to the semi-finals of the Africa Cup six months ago. In short, they know how to win close matches. They will be comfortable if the score is 0-0 in the 88th minute. They will be comfortable if the game is tied and goes into extra time. If it goes to penalties, well, all bets are always off, but Tim Howard (the U.S. keeper) is notorious for coming up big in those situations. Still, it wouldn't be surprising to see Ghana play a very defensive game, and try to strike on counterattacks and set-pieces.

-- That said, Ghana's strengths are the U.S.'s weaknesses. They have a very strong central midfield, and the wingplay of the U.S. isn't their greatest asset. Ghana is very fast, and could thus exploit the shaky LB position of the U.S. -- It's shaky no matter who plays there, frankly -- and the slow, foul-prone CBs. They are also very strong, thus negating the one advantage the U.S. often has in central defense. At different times, Onyewu, Bornstein, and DeMerit have all shown proclivities for conceding penalties. So far, Ghana has been able to draw them. If Ghana gets one and converts, they may be able to defend a one goal lead no matter what the U.S. throws at them. In fact, this was exactly how the U.S. was eliminate from the last World Cup: Ghana was granted a penalty on a dubious horrible call against Onyewu, and won the game 2-1. This is the U.S.'s biggest danger. They have to be quick, decisive, and careful in defense. That has never been this group's strong suit. The importance of strong defensive central midfield play cannot be overstated here. The U.S. also has a nasty habit of attracting red cards in important international games. Some of this has been poor refereeing in the past, but it has to be avoided today.

If it were up to me I'd play this line-up, including Bornstein because I just can't trust Onyewu to not blow an assignment or concede a penalty right now, and pray that he (Bornstein) doesn't combust just yet:


That line-up is the best for the counterattack, hold-up, and wingplay, which should be the U.S.'s offensive strategy. To begin the game, at least. That, and getting a goal from set-pieces. The U.S. need to score first, for two reasons. First, because otherwise they may get impatient and leave open spaces that Ghana can exploit; Second, because if Ghana scores first they are a good enough defensive team to keep a clean sheet. They aren't likely to concede multiple second-half goals like Slovenia did.

This is a winnable game for both teams, and I'm looking forward to it. Let's just hope it isn't decided by poor calls from the officials.

FWIW, 538 has the game at 50-50 odds, mostly because of a continental advantage for Ghana. Discarding that, the U.S. are favored to avenge 2006. As we've seen, home-continent advantage has been pretty inconspicuous so far in this tournament. The U.S. can only hope it remains that way.


mgod said...

How about you write a syndicated column and then take over the U.S. pathetic broadcasting team?

I played in the bundesliga and know the game. You do as well.

Kindred Winecoff said...

Thanks! Unfortunately nobody's ever offered me a syndicated column or control over U.S. broadcasts. I expect that they never will. But I do enjoy watching and thinking about the game. And I have to say... I called this one pretty well. Bradley should've taken my advice. Wasting a sub (and a goal) on Clark meant that he couldn't sub with Buddle when Findley was completely ineffective (again), or when Altidore ran out of gas. Big mistake.

Oh well.

U.S. v. Ghana




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