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Saturday, September 8, 2012
Problematic U.S. midfield must improve

By Jeff Carlisle

KINGSTON, Jamaica -- As the U.S. players headed toward the team bus parked just outside Jamaica's National Stadium, a common refrain was heard to explain the Americans' deplorable 2-1 defeat by the Reggae Boyz. Set pieces, set pieces, and set pieces.

On the surface, it's an accurate explanation for what transpired. Both goals by the home side came courtesy of free kicks, with Rodolph Austin striking midway through the first half and Luke Shelton firing home the game winner in the second.

But there are occasions when the official cause of death doesn't always point to the actual disease. In the case of the U.S., an abject performance in midfield was the root cause of the defeat.

Granted, the absence of injured duo Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan had a massive impact, but it didn’t stop the Americans from getting off to precisely the start they wanted. Clint Dempsey fired home after a mere 35 seconds, latching onto a loose ball in the box after good work from Maurice Edu and especially Herculez Gomez. It turned out to be a poisoned gift.

"This is going to sound stupid, but I hate scoring early," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "You never really get into the rhythm of the game. I think any time you see a team score early, they come back and they go into a shell. Early on, you want to try and get into a rhythm of the game. I know that sounds dumb -- you want to be winning the game, of course -- but I think you get my point.”

Indeed, the U.S. took up a more defensive posture after the goal. By itself, this wasn't problematic -- the Americans knew they needed to blunt the impact of Jamaica’s speed -- but when the Americans did have possession, not only was their off-the-ball movement poor but they were playing a game that didn't fit the circumstances. A bumpy field made slick by an afternoon deluge is not the time to try clever combinations and slick one-touch passes, particularly in the unfamiliar surroundings of the stadium they call "The Office."

It was a point that was not lost on U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann.

“I think when we got the lead, it gave some of the players the feeling that they can just play the complicated way,” he said. “I told them at halftime this is not the way it works. You’ve got to keep the things simple on the field. Every time we played simple passing, combined maybe six or eight or 10 times, we created chances. In between those moments, we made things far too complicated.”

Afterward, defender Clarence Goodson rightly pointed out that Jamaica rarely got behind the U.S. defense and that, from the run of play, the Reggae Boyz only threatened from long distance. Without question, the Americans got solid games out of Goodson and Geoff Cameron in the center of the defense, as well as a surprisingly effective performance out of stand-in right back Michael Parkhurst.

But the Americans' struggles in the middle of the park had a subtle, debilitating effect. It was Jamaica's midfield (Austin, in particular) that, for the most part, dictated the tempo, gained confidence and, yes, won set pieces. It wasn’t until Klinsmann threw everything into attack with some offensive-minded substitutions that the game seemed to tilt back in the Americans’ direction.

It all points to Klinsmann making some changes for Tuesday. Afterward, the U.S. manager refused to single out any particular player for criticism; to be fair, the entire midfield three that played behind Dempsey struggled mightily on the night. But playing Kyle Beckerman as the lone holding midfielder against a team as quick and athletic as Jamaica is asking too much -- he seemed to be chasing the game all night.

At this point, it would behoove Klinsmann to play more of a 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders, the better to counteract Jamaica's superior midfield numbers and provide Beckerman with more defensive support. Such a switch need not be just defensive in nature as Klinsmann could tip the balance toward attack elsewhere by starting Brek Shea out wide.

Either way, the pressure is now firmly on the U.S. to play better on Tuesday, especially in light of Guatemala's 3-1 defeat of Antigua & Barbuda, which pulled Los Chapines into a second-place tie with the Americans. Certainly an improved playing surface will help the Americans' overall distribution, but Jamaica stands to benefit, as well. The Americans must simply dig deeper.

“We've got to go out and get three points,” Dempsey said. “We've got to just go out and take care of business.”

Howard added, “I don’t think we'll come out and play any worse on Tuesday. It's up to us to respond. I think we will."