Five Points: USA increase tempo, sharpness to thump Cuba

BALTIMORE

Attitude played a considerable part in the United States men’s national team leisurely stroll to the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals. There were no allowances made for the Cuban plight. There were no shortcuts taken on the way to victory. This group wanted to lay down its marker and submit a commanding performance.

Consider the objective met. Clint Dempsey scored his first international hat trick as the Americans registered a thoroughly warranted 6-0 victory. The professionalism exhibited from the outset dispatched this straightforward task with a minimum of fuss.

“They were serious,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “They were down to business. They were focused. They got their goals early. They got a rhythm. And they showed the crowd a really good game.”

Early flourish revealed intent and pegged Cuba back

Klinsmann craved a bright start from his players after watching them muddle through the opening stages in all three Group A games. His players responded appropriately by grasping control of the proceedings within the opening quarter of an hour and never relinquishing it.

Cuba never found time to settle into the game as the Americans exhibited the sharpness and the tempo often missing during group play. They moved the ball quickly from side to side and pulled apart the Cuban shape in the process. Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley established the cadence early and then stoked it as necessary to make sure it yielded the desired end product.

“I think our first couple of passes were pretty bad and then we started to get it under control,” Beckerman said. “We really upped the tempo, which was something we focused on before the game. That was going to be important throughout the game, just really keeping the tempo and getting the ball moving fast. Things started to open up and we got the goals.”

Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes provided the necessary end product to ensure those efforts did not go to waste. Those ruthless early steps basically dashed any Cuban dreams of keeping the game tight and set the stage for the romp to follow.

“They started to open up,” Beckerman said. “You could see they were getting a little tired moving from side to side. Getting the goals definitely dampens their spirits a little bit. And then it was just about pouring it on.”

Selection choices in midfield allow fullback room to roam

Most of the early threats stemmed from the space ceded in the wide areas. Cuba struggled to maintain its shape when asked to transition from point to point defensively. By moving the ball quickly through midfield and rotating it effectively, the Americans created space for Timothy Chandler and Fabian Johnson to join the play effectively.

Klinsmann set the stage for his fullbacks by picking Alejandro Bedoya on the left and Zardes on the right in his 4-4-2 shape. There were a couple of benefits to those choices: (1) Bedoya revived a familiar World Cup partnership with Johnson (though on the left instead of the right this time); and (2) Bedoya and Zardes knew when to drift outside to stretch the play and when to tuck inside to combine.

“This field was huge,” Zardes said. “Creating space on the wings allowed us to create two-versus-one situations and penetrate their backline. It allowed us to have more opportunities."

Chandler and Johnson provided the service on the first two goals by assessing the movement of players in front of them and tailoring their work accordingly. Chandler spotted Zardes on the right edge of the penalty area and stepped into the space in front of him as the Cubans failed to adjust quickly enough. Johnson maneuvered into the ideal spot on the left to collect Bradley’s quick free kick and whip an inswinging ball for Zardes to turn home at the far post.

In this sort of game, the Americans needed to ally tempo and width to create space. They also needed a pair of strikers willing to exploit it with clever, incisive runs capable of confounding the opposition.

Dempsey, Jóhannsson movement unlocks Cuban defense

Dempsey and Aron Jóhannsson certainly satisfied those requirements with their display here. Jóhannsson claimed the spot alongside Dempsey ahead of Zardes and Chris Wondolowski because he supplied the ability to both facilitate the play and stretch it out.

Both qualities rose to the fore in this game as Dempsey and Jóhannsson meshed readily and posed a constant threat with their work off the ball. They took turns dropping off the line and checking to the ball. Those initial feints toward midfield opened up space for Dempsey to drift into spaces where he could hunt for the ball and Jóhannsson to surge behind the line at the right times.

“I think both behind the back line and also in front of the line,” Jóhannsson said. “There were a few spaces today where we could hurt them today. I think we found them throughout the game.”

The sequence in the buildup to the third goal captured the essence of the day neatly. Jóhannsson assessed the surprisingly high Cuban line, embarked on his run from deep to catch them out and then scampered into the space behind to latch onto Bradley’s perfectly weighted ball over the top. The ensuing chip proved a deserved reward for the work in that instance and the menace presented on the day.

Reconstituted defense passes modest test

There were few issues in the defensive half as Cuba floundered in its bid to create much of anything. The absence of Ariel Martinez certainly hurt matters for the Cubans, but their lack of energy hamstrung them more seriously.

On the whole, the back four did more than enough to deal with those concerns. Klinsmann partnered Omar Gonzalez and Ventura Alvarado in central defense with John Brooks suspended. The duo allowed the concentration to slip in rare instances during the second half, but both players fared well enough and Gonzalez attempted to replicate Brooks’ penchant for long diagonals. Chandler and Johnson judged the game well and made sure they did not leave any particularly inviting spaces behind them. Brad Evans submitted another solid shift after replacing Chandler (right knee injury) at halftime.

“I think the back line was not really challenged today,” Klinsmann said. “It would be wrong to [evaluate them]. I’m totally happy, it was all fine, but there’s not enough there to go into any kind of details.”

Klinsmann noted he already had a few ideas in mind for his defensive options on Wednesday, though he said he didn’t plan to disclose them. There are certainly questions to answer with Gonzalez staking his claim to partner Brooks (who is expected to return to the starting XI) and with DaMarcus Beasley hoping to compete for a place after missing out with a calf injury. The next few days hold intrigue in this particular component of the team.

Habits must persist in order to march forward

In most of the other departments, the message is simple heading into Wednesday: More of the same, please. This commanding performance marked the first time in this tournament where the Americans approached something near top gear.

At this point, the key is to figure out a way to translate that overwhelming display against an overwhelmed opponent into a more difficult test. The demands are almost entirely different against a cohesive, organized and talented opponent like Jamaica, but the principles — effective work at the back, quick combination play in possession, ruthless finishing in the final third — must persist in order to overcome the dogged Jamaicans in midweek.

“I think that habits carry over: scoring a goal, getting a clean sheet, people getting assists, people getting goals,” Dempsey added after the win. “That confidence, it grows within the team. As the tournament goes on, I think we’re getting stronger as a group. Hopefully, our best football is yet to come.”