Dempsey, Jóhannsson charged with fueling USA Gold Cup success
It took about a half-hour to see why Aron Jóhannsson stepped into the starting lineup to partner Clint Dempsey in CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal victory over Cuba on Saturday.
United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann made the bold decision to release Jozy Altidore from his roster last week and thrust Jóhannsson into a prominent role for the remainder of the tournament. The swap -- focused on the usual responsibilities, if not the direct roles after Chris Wondolowski and Gyasi Zardes started at forward in the final Group A match against Panama -- exchanged established production for largely untapped potential. It represented a gamble, even with Altidore working his way back to top form after a recent hamstring injury.
The energetic and incisive start justified the decision for this match and reaped immediate dividends. Jóhannsson partnered with Clint Dempsey to provide the sort of constant menace often missing during the group stage. Dempsey continued his one-man quest to fire the Americans to the final with his early goal en route to his first international hat trick. Jóhannsson dashed behind the line with a perfectly timed run and lobbed onrushing Cuban goalkeeper Diovelsis Guerra to increase the lead to three after 32 minutes on the way to the 6-0 triumph.
Production is the crux of the assignment for any forward, but the chemistry exhibited between Dempsey and Jóhannsson provided perhaps the most encouraging sign for the final two matches of this tournament. The interplay between the front two flummoxed the Cubans for much of the afternoon as the two forwards slid seamlessly into different spots and stretched the back four in the process.
“We find each other well,” Jóhannsson said. “When he goes deep, I come in for the ball. And [it works] the other way around -- when I go deep, he goes to get the ball. I think we connect on a good level. In the next coming games, I think it’s just going to go better and better.”
The chemistry must continue to improve against Jamaica on Wednesday night (live, 5:30p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go) in order for the Americans to overcome their sternest test to date and secure a place in the final.
Jamaica presents an awkward test for any forward duo given its compact shape and its robust back four. Central defenders Michael Hector and Wes Morgan manage a back four designed to limit the space in the channels with a central defender on the right (Adrian Mariappa) and a traditional fullback on the left (Kemar Lawrence). Reggae Boyz captain Rodolph Austin ensures the midfield line remains within a close distance to compress the space between the two departments and restrict the supply accordingly.
The effectiveness of those tactics rose to the fore against Haiti in the semifinal. Jamaica conceded possession at times in the second half and relied on its well-drilled shape to blunt the Haitian attack. The narrow, tight 4-4-2 formation made it difficult for Duckens Nazon to mine the areas he exploited during group play and set the stage for a third consecutive shutout.
Most of the pockets Dempsey and Jóhannsson explored in the romp over Cuba aren’t readily available against a team like Jamaica. It is what makes their versatility so crucial. Jóhannsson -- much like his former AZ teammate Altidore -- functions earnestly as a conduit with his back to goal (see: the foul drawn in the buildup to Zardes’ goal) and as a figure capable of sprinting behind the defense (see: his ability to latch onto Michael Bradley’s ball over the top). The possibilities created by those traits are critical to pull Hector and Morgan out of the position and slice through that dogged Jamaican shape.
“To be honest, Jóhannsson can hold up the ball pretty good and use his body really well,” Zardes said. “It’s not only that: He’s not afraid to step behind defenders and test them a couple of times. If you do that a couple of times, the defenders don’t know whether you’re going to come in behind or check for the ball. He manipulates the defenders very well.”
Jóhannsson’s incessant movement and selfless approach in the buildup frees Dempsey to do what he does best: roam in search of the ball inside the attacking third.
Dempsey poses the greatest threat when given the license to seek out the game wherever he sees fit and use his imagination and technical ability to influence it. His willingness to drop off the line allows him to combine effectively and place himself in positions to hurt the opposition consistently. His yield in this tournament -- six goals in four matches to lead the Golden Boot chase -- reflects how well those components are coming together at this stage.
“I feel good,” Dempsey said after scoring his first international hat trick against the Cubans. “My teammates have given good service and have put me in good positions to get good looks in front of the goal and I’ve been able to put them on target.”
Dempsey’s continued potency in front of goal reflects his comfort level with this assignment and underscores his enduring value to the team. It is now up to Jóhannsson to consolidate his own place in the starting XI. This is his first extended experience in a major tournament after an ankle injury limited him to one substitute appearance in Brazil last summer. It is one he must take with both hands to ward off challenges for the next two matches and wriggle his way into a more permanent berth in the lineup.
“For Aron, he’s not there yet where Clint is,” Klinsmann said. “It is important to keep growing and get an opportunity to score goals. And then when you have them, put it in. Throughout the entire game, he was hungry. He was waiting for the next opportunity. That builds more confidence. It gives you a little bit more standing within the group.
“When you know somebody is leaving a camp and somebody else comes in, it’s always about re-positioning within the hierarchy of the team,” Klinsmann continued. “He wants to move up in the ranking, there’s no doubt about it. This was a really good opportunity. He scored a beautiful goal.”
Klinsmann will hope for more of the same from his front two as the semifinal approaches on Wednesday. This newfound partnership marks a significant change from the status quo. The early signs are promising, but they must carry through the remainder of this week to ensure the necessary success in midweek and the desired outcome in the final on Sunday night.