Bruce Arena knew where the United States went wrong defensively in last week's friendly vs. Venezuela. After only being asked for his general thoughts on the match, he called out the USMNT's performances on restarts: "We were very poor on a couple of set pieces tonight."
Indeed, the one goal the USMNT conceded on Saturday came off a corner kick – they didn't defend the ball well enough when it was first kicked in, and they were even less organized when the ball was lobbed back into the goal area. Fabian Johnson appeared to lose his mark, and John Brooks, who was near the ball, was caught off guard too (video above).
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That's concerning because the USMNT's most recent breakdown on set pieces looks increasingly like a larger pattern that is leading to goals conceded.
The pattern started with a bang when Rafa Marquez scored a game-winner against the USMNT during a corner kick in November (video above). Jurgen Klinsmann controversially called out John Brooks for it, telling reporters after the match that the young center back lost his mark.
But then the USMNT made a similar mistake vs. Panama in March in another World Cup qualifier. On a long throw-in into the box, both Tim Ream and Michael Bradley failed to clear away the ball right in front of them, allowing it drop for a Panama tap-in.
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In all three international windows of the Hex, the U.S. have conceded from a set piece.
But there's no secret to improving how the USMNT defends set pieces, Arena said after the Venezuela match. It comes down to staying alert.
"You mark a guy and you beat him to the ball," Arena said. "When the ball's cleared and played back in, you've got to stay with your man and beat him to the ball. It's simply individual breakdowns. Players have to do better."
The USMNT is full of athletic, strong, tall players, but it doesn't matter when a player forgets to mark his man.
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There are a lot of other questions the USMNT needs to think about before their next two World Cup qualifiers – and they are important questions. Arena needs to figure out what system the USMNT should play in and which players can best execute. He also needs to think about the tight turnaround from the Trinidad & Tobago match to the Mexico match.
But if the USMNT is incapable of defending on corner kicks, free kicks and throw-ins, it will pretty much negate everything else they are doing right. They can, of course, limit those restarts as much as possible, but consider this: Venezuela only had two corner kicks against the USMNT on Saturday and La Viotinto scored on one of them.
As Arena said from training on Monday: "Saturday's game was good to show some of the issues we have and to correct them and be ready for Thursday."
You can bet that will include working on set pieces.