It is a now a familiar and wrenching tale. Someone scores an early goal to give the U.S. the lead. The opportunities to extend that lead somehow go astray. The level drops in the second half and invites the opponent to respond. The opponent procures an equalizer or a winner in the late stages to impose the punishment.
Colombia took its turn on this merry-go-round in the second half of the 2-1 victory at Craven Cottage on Friday. The common procession unfolded once more, though James Rodriguez went through the paces with his usual panache. In the end, the frustrations remained largely the same.
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The primary difference, of course, is the quality of the opposition. This is the sort of game where the Americans must figure out how to get a result to march deep into a tournament. The setback will sting for now, but it does provide necessary reinforcement of the standards required to defeat top sides.
“Any chance that we do have to play against the top 10 and work off of them to get prepared for Copa America and the Gold Cup and, hopefully, the Confederations Cup after that, it’s wonderful to get as much experience as we can,” U.S. defender Greg Garza said.
This particular encounter offered plenty of talking points to digest. This edition of Five Points will touch on the most important of those developments first before exploring the reasons behind another painful denouement.
The brightest spot in this performance: chance creation
Klinsmann and several players expressed their belief that this game presented them with a genuine opportunity to emerge with a meaningful win. The balance of play did not entirely justify those claims, but the number of chances created provided a genuine positive to take from the game.
The best part from Klinsmann’s perspective: the gilt-edged opportunities on the night resulted from different lines of inquiry. Alejandro Bedoya created the passage of play that led to Jozy Altidore’s penalty by applying high pressure inside the Colombian defensive third, claiming possession and then using it deftly. Bedoya then combined with DeAndre Yedlin early in the second half for a cross Rubio Rubin headed just wide. Bobby Wood benefited from deft work by Lee Nguyen and Alfredo Morales before forcing Camilo Vargas to block in the late stages.
Those three chances — plus a scuffed Rubin header in the first half — combined with desperate defensive work provided the Americans with a plausible, if somewhat improbable, route to victory. Their inability to take either of the openings created in the second half ultimately presented Colombia — a team that needs few invitations to attack anyways — with the chance to secure a result.
The inability to keep possession in the second half…
Most of the problems stemmed once again from the inability to control possession for extended periods of time. Colombia created considerable issues with its high pressure and forced the U.S. defenders and midfielders into difficult choices time and again. Klinsmann said after the match that he preached for the need to build out of the back, but his defenders launched long ball after long ball toward Altidore and Rubin to relieve pressure nevertheless. Those decisions supplied only a temporary salve as the Colombians quickly won back possession and came at the Americans again. The back-and-forth essentially required a second-half display filled with emergency measures and hard work in the defensive half.
It is a familiar problem with no easy solution. Klinsmann said he wants his players to learn to use the ball more deftly out of the back, but their first instinct is to hit it long under duress. He also needs his midfielders — aside from Kyle Beckerman in his holding role — and his forwards to check into the right areas to create passing lanes and provide easier outlets. The current pattern of play makes it difficult for the Americans to control the game for any length of time.
The inability to keep possession for long spells allowed James Rodriguez more opportunities to torment U.S. defenders
… and the problems managing the tempo of the game …
Those problems are compounded by the inability to carve out momentary relief through a string of safe passes. Instead of taking the sting out of the game for a few minutes to catch their breath, the Americans focused first and foremost on trying to catch out the Colombians when they finally claimed possession. There is a time and a place for charging forward (and it did work to good effect on a couple of occasions), but the second half of a match poised at 1-0 or 1-1 requires a bit more prudence from time to time to rest the legs and steel for the next wave of Colombian attacks.
“It’s tough because when you’re defending so much, you feel there’s a sense that this is our chance, we need to counterattack and get them while they’re out,” Beckerman said. “It’s something I think we can still work on: there are times when we can go right away with the counterattack on goal, there are times we can hold it up, get some possession and get our breath back with the ball. That’s definitely a work in progress.”
The cadence of the game and the troubles on the ball prompted the Americans to entrench inside their own half despite the peril associated with such a defiant line. It happened on occasion in the first half, but those moments were always followed by the ability to push out. The respites didn’t happen quite as frequently in the second half and their absence permitted the pressure to build and build to untenable levels.
“We knew they were going to push it more and more and more,” Klinsmann said. “I said in the halftime, guys, please do not back up, please do not drop too deep, please keep the game as high as possible and try to create chances for the second goal. That was the whole speech.”
… and paved the way to concede yet another late goal
All of those factors ultimately created the conditions for Colombia’s response in the final half-hour. Carlos Bacca capped a wonderful display with the equalizer on the hour. Teo Gutierrez exploited the fading Americans with his late header to seal a largely deserved result.
The manner of this particular defeat will once again raise questions about how the Americans permit leads to slip in the late stages. Klinsmann cited fitness concerns as one of the primary factors, but it is a complex issue in desperate need of solving after a conceding a goal in the final five minutes for the third consecutive game.