Five Points: USA must cope with pressure to secure result in Chile

Michael Bradley and the U.S. men's national team must cope with Chile's expansive, high-pressure setup when the two teams meet on Wednesday night (5:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go).

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This current Golden Age of Chilean soccer started with concept and philosophy. Marcelo Bielsa took charge of the national team in 2007 and tore the existing structures apart. In his own way, he assembled the pieces, molded them together and provided the framework for the aggressive, high-pressure fare still preferred today.

Bielsa eventually resigned and moved onto his next project at Athletic Bilbao four years later, but his principles remain. Current coach Jorge Sampaoli adheres to them in broad strokes and tinkers with the particulars to suit his own needs, but the identity of this expansive and relentless side remains firmly in place.

“For me, when you talk about Chile, you have to talk about the way that they play: high pressing, high tempo, very aggressive,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said in the buildup to the friendly at Estadio El Teniente on Wednesday (live, 5:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go).  “It really doesn’t matter who is on the field. It doesn’t change much in terms of their approach.”

For better or for worse, Chile grasps how it wants to play and implements the system time and again. Most of the time, it works. At other points, it comes up short. But the core processes remain largely the same.

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann wants to reach that juncture with his own side. He continues to chop and change in his own bid to implement his own vision. This friendly offers him another chance to experiment with his team and evaluate the merits of establishing a clearly defined style of play.


Is the New Year the right time for a new shape?

Klinsmann spent a portion of his press conference here on Tuesday discussing the common threads among the top teams in the world. He highlighted the energy and the tempo and noted the capability to transition quickly from phase to phase.

The emphasis on those characteristics prompted Klinsmann and his technical staff to experiment with a three-man defense and wingbacks during the past fortnight. The introduction of a 3-5-2 (or some variation on it) is a natural progression for a team often placed in positions to counter against difficult opposition.

Several top-level teams rely on three-man defenses because of the flexibility afforded to dictate the terms of the game. The setup congests the center of the park, encourages width without sacrificing the ability to soak up pressure, permits a central midfielder to drop deep if required and provides enough latitude to make room for a second forward. It also creates enough pliability to adjust to the demands of the game, though it does pile responsibility on the central defenders and wingbacks and reinforce the need for tactical discipline to maintain the shape

Klinsmann boasts enough of the necessary pieces in this camp to plump for this option if he so chooses. He did not tip his hand in the buildup to the match, but he noted he wants to see if some of the recent tactical work translates to game situations.

“We’ve trained a lot of the technical and the tactical side, too,” Klinsmann said. “We want to see some of the things we’ve implemented in the game. It’s good timing after two-and-a-half weeks of a lot of work to get a feel of where we are.”

High pressure means high stress when building out of the back

Chile — even in this makeshift form with a raft of inexperienced domestic-based players in the squad — will not afford the Americans much time to settle regardless of their setup. Sampaoli — a well-respected figure after his work with Universidad de Chile and the national side — expects his players to press high up the field and reduce the time and space afforded to the opposition. Those measures are designed to either claim the ball in good areas or force a long hoof up the field to concede possession.

In order to cope with the pressure, the Americans must act quickly and deftly as they try to build out of the back. It isn’t just on Matt Besler and Jermaine Jones to find passing lanes, either. This is the sort of scenario where other players – particularly the central midfielders and the fullbacks or wingbacks – must check into good areas to allow for quick combinations to break the first and second waves of pressure and then move onwards from there.

“Hopefully, we can all recognize that as a team and there’s a lot of movement off the ball,” Besler said. “If we’re able to play quickly and find that first pass and that second pass and get out of something, we’re going to be able to find space, especially out wide.”


Potential shift places considerable emphasis on the wide areas

If the Americans can find a way to build out of the back, then the focus shifts quickly into funneling the ball out to the flanks. Michael Bradley and Mix Diskerud boast the range of passing required to move the ball quickly and slot the wide players into good positions.

Once the ball gets out to the flanks, the emphasis falls on direct and incisive runs to create room for delivery. The entire gambit allows Brek Shea and DeAndre Yedlin (or any other options chosen in the wide areas) to rely on their pace, take players one-versus-one and use the openings wisely without leaving their team exposed on the break to a Chile side always primed to counter.

“You have to be more aware,” Yedlin said. “You have to be a little more cautious. You can’t take as many risks going forward because if you lose the ball, they’re dangerous on the counterattack. But it can also be a weakness for the other team as well. We can expose them at the back because we have great players who can find those holes and find those spaces.”

The danger increases substantially if Klinsmann opts to deploy wingbacks and positions them aggressively (think more Mexico than Costa Rica in terms of reference). If possession is conceded cheaply in a poor areas, then they leave their team terrible exposed and place themselves in a position where they must recover quickly and trust their shape to figure it out.


Keep an eye on those energy levels as the match unfolds

Tracking back won’t pose much of a concern in the early stages, but it could present some issues as the match proceeds. This group is admittedly still in the process of working toward full fitness. The rigors of this encounter against a relentless opponent on a warm Chilean summer night will provide a benchmark for those efforts after the first two-and-a-half weeks of camp.

“You just have to do it,” Besler said. “No matter how much you’ve been training with two-a-days and three-a-days, there have been days when the legs feel heavy and you’re not quite there fitness-wise. It’s an international match. You’re representing your country. When it’s time to play tomorrow night, we have to try and get the job done.”

Fresh faces look to make their bow

Eight uncapped players will hope to hear their name called at some point during the proceedings. Klinsmann opted to blend youth and experience in the buildup to this game. The combination of old and new provided the emerging options with a chance to figure out how to translate their work in MLS to the international level.

D.C. United defender Steve Birnbaum said he focused on trying to keep things simple as he adjusted to the increased demands.

“It’s more organizing,” Birnbaum said. “I’m trying to be more proactive and reading the game as best as I can. The game is a little bit quicker. I’m trying to keep up with the pace.”

The focus on tempo offers a lesson worth heeding across the board ahead of this particular engagement. It isn’t just the inexperienced players who must cope with the task at hand. The entire squad will need to cherish those principles – simple, effective work to anticipate the play and respond accordingly – in order to procure a result against a team ready to pose its familiar threat.