Five Points: Familiar issues undercut USMNT bid for result in Denmark

ÅRHUS, Denmark

U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann climbed onto a podium in the middle of a gymnasium shortly after the conclusion of the 3-2 defeat in Denmark. He sat down carefully and then started to process how this night went awry in the late stages.

Klinsmann located the positives in the setback, but he permitted the natural frustration seep into his answers, too. His team scored twice on the road in Europe, yet it suffered a defeat anyways after conceding twice in the final 10 minutes.

Context only stretches so far at that point, particularly given the penchant for similar missteps in the past. The late defeat inevitably obscures the positives and yields to frustration and resolve. It overwhelms the moment and places it firmly into the shade. And it inspires a firm response.

“We have to step it up in terms of managing the game for 90 minutes,” Klinsmann said. “We lead in Denmark. We have to get it done, the job. We have to go home with three points or at least tie. We didn’t do that, so there is still stuff to improve. But, overall, I think they did a lot of good stuff tonight.”

Klinsmann captured the entire spectrum of the proceedings on a cold, rainy night at NRGi Park in a few sentences. Five Points delves into those positive moments and examines the reasons behind the eventual demise.

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This group grasped the demands of the situation …

Denmark always expected to operate primarily in possession in this game. The Danes prefer to operate on the ball. The Americans usually set their lines deeply against difficult opponents. Klinsmann probably did not expect such a first half disparity, but the circumstances of this game always indicated the Danes would find themselves on the ball more often than not.

Klinsmann compensated by partnering Alejandro Bedoya and Michael Bradley in central midfield to establish a firm base of operations. The two stalwarts provided it in the first half with Bedoya dropping in front of the back four more often than not and Bradley roving around in a bid to apply pressure earnestly. Most of the trouble encountered in that first half stemmed from the lack of recognition when others in the wide areas needed to step and press in support of Bradley as he chased the Danes in possession.

The dynamic in the first half — and the shift to a more dedicated holding player in Alfredo Morales in the second — limited the influence of Christian Eriksen for much of the night and provided the back four with a chance to hold out against the pressure. It also allowed the Americans to transition quickly when their work permitted it.

“We knew it was going to be a scrappy game of who can close who down harder and who can run onto more second balls and make a play from nothing, who could make a play when it counted,” Bradley said. “For 80 minutes, we handled it all pretty solidly. It wasn’t perfect, but we didn’t expect it to be. The weather, the field, the conditions meant it was going to be a night where certain plays were going to get fouled up and there wasn’t going to be time to worry about it. We’re just going to be running, moving onto second balls, playing forward, moving our lines and trying to influence things as much as possible in those ways.”

In his first chance to captain the U.S. men’s national team from the start, Michael Bradley did an effective job of closing down the opposition and picking out Jozy Altidore in the buildup to the second goal.

… produced good spells from time to time …

Those measures yielded two goals on a night when Denmark enjoyed considerable dominion (60 percent possession share, per Opta statstics) over the affair. The production resulted from the Americans’ ability to claim the ball in good areas wisely and then figure out what to do with it quickly. Instead of conceding it cheaply at every turn (though there were some costly turnovers in poor areas), there were times in the game — especially early in the first half and in the aftermath of scoring the second goal — when the Americans calmed the cadence of the game and obtained a foothold.

Both goals resulted from astute recognition and precise combination work at the right times. Those traits are somewhat endemic to a side used to figuring out ways to punish the opposition without an edge in possession, but they were practiced at a high level on this occasion and provided the Americans with a chance to procure a result.

“When you go ahead in the game, there’s always that natural kind of flow to the game, which means the team that goes behind is typically trying to push things and get back on the front foot,” Bradley said. “They certainly did that. Playing at home, you know there’s always a chance that the team at home is going to try to dictate things. But I still thought — while there is no doubt in terms of statistics, they had more possession — I thought in certain moments, we were able to step up, squeeze them, win balls in dangerous spots and be dangerous ourselves. Again, the conditions always meant that it was going to be a challenging game in those ways. I thought we still dealt with it for the most part really well, but you have to know how to see things out and get the result that you’ve worked for and that you deserve.”

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and used them wisely

It is one thing to locate those times in the game to function well and quite another to make the most of them. There were not a surplus of opportunities on the night, but the Americans took the two best ones with aplomb.

Jozy Altidore judged the flight of Timothy Chandler’s cross well and then thrashed home at the back post for the precious opener. Bradley drifted into a good area in midfield and then picked out Altidore with a wonderfully clipped ball to create the opportunity for Aron Jóhannsson to turn home the second.

“It’s always important when you talk about the quality coming out,” Bradley said. “Being able to put passes together. Not just put passes together, but passes that go somewhere, plays that lead to the next play and the next play. That means you’re going somewhere and you’re starting to cause trouble. It’s not just passes where you’re putting guys in dead-end situations. There were positive moments in that sense. We were able to play forward at times, move our lines, use our athleticism, run onto second balls and control things at times in that way.”

Those sequences gave the Americans a chance to take something from the game even if the balance largely favored the home side. Their frailties elsewhere eventually sent them spiraling to defeat instead.

Denmark consistently caused the U.S. problems when it operated in the wide areas.

Compromises in the wide areas left the Americans to chase …

The organization of the side — two relatively straight blocks of four with Altidore and Jóhannsson both taking turns to drop off the line — heaped pressure on the fullbacks and the wingers to provide support, sort out their duties and supply the necessary width.

For most of the night, the work in that department did not fulfill those obligations. Fabian Johnson flickered to life occasionally on the left, but he only influenced the game sparingly and pressured the ball inconsistently. Gyasi Zardes spent most of his night acclimating to the pace of his first major European game and tucking inside to crowd Eriksen. Chandler registered his first national team assist on the cross for the opener, but he struggled to recognize the right times to press and stay connected with the back four. Greg Garza found himself isolated at times and suffered the consequences when Daniel Wass exploited the space around him on the first goal.

In order to cope with the Danish movement, the Americans needed all 11 players to pick up the right spots and slide quickly to compensate. It didn’t happen consistently enough on the night, particularly in the final quarter of an hour. And those issues eventually created the problems that led to the dropped marks, the sloppy shifting and the untimely ending.

“We knew that Denmark is a very good, possession-oriented team,” Klinsmann said. “That’s part of the style Morten Olsen developed over many, many games here. They do it really well with their technical capabilities. They move off the ball really, really well. So what we had problems with in the first half was to get pressure on the ball, to get closer to them in midfield and shut them down in terms of their passing lanes and the space that they find. I think it was a bit better in the second half. We got closer to them. We denied them those little passes between the lines. That’s stuff we have to be able to do better.”

and another late collapse underscored recurring issues

Similar sentiments apply to yet another pair of goals conceded in the final quarter of an hour. The enforced withdrawal of Michael Orozco – the most consistent American defender on the night by some distance — offers mitigating circumstances on this occasion, but the fundamental concern remains nevertheless.

At this stage, the particulars — important as they are — fall below the trend in the pecking order. The details explain the issue and supply necessary context, but they do not solve a frustrating problem. It isn’t good enough. It is incumbent on this coach and this group of players to fix it. And they know it.

“In the end, when the last 10 minutes go the way they do, everybody leaves with a very bad taste in their mouth,” Bradley said.  “Obviously, for us, it’s very disappointing because it’s not the first time we’ve let a game get away from us in the last few minutes. It’s something we’ve got to start to learn from.”