USMNT defense continues to take shape after fourth HEX shutout

MattBeslerUSMNT (ISIPhotos.com)

By IVES GALARCEP

SANDY, Utah– It took a majority of the night, but the U.S. Men’s National Team did produce a goal on Tuesday night. The story wasn’t just that Jozy Altidore scored a goal for the fourth straight game, or the fact that the U.S. attack created chances in bunches. A major story lost in the wake of Altidore’s winner was the fact that his goal was all the U.S. needed to win.

Jurgen Klinsmann reconstructed the U.S. defense when the CONCACAF HEX began, benching and eventually leaving out captain Carlos Bocanegra, and giving Steve Cherundolo the summer off. He turned to a pair of unproven national team centerbacks in Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, while trying some new options at fullback in DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Evans.

The U.S. defense went through its share of growing pains, which included matches like the loss to Honduras in the HEX opener, to the 4-2 loss to Belgium, but the defense has also found considerable success in qualifying, with Tuesday’s shutout the fourth in six HEX matches.

“I think our back-line is coming along,” Klinsmann said after Tuesday’s win. “It will never be perfect. There is no back-line that is perfect. it helps them obviously to keep the nil.

“And it helps them to go through those grinds, those games where they also have to be the first contributor in terms of build-up,” Klinsmann said. “They are forced then to move the ball around quickly. It’s not only the defending side of it. If there’s a ball in front of you, your centerbacks, your fullbacks, they have to be spot-on.

“They have to release the ball quicker in order to find Clint and Jozy and the guys up front,” Klinsmann added. “That’s what they’re learning right now. They’re going through their period right now where they learn to think fast. To pass faster. To decide everything a step aster, which is a requirement on the international level.”

The left back position, long a position of concern for the U.S., has the look of a position of strength after the first half of the HEX qualifying round, with Fabian Johnson looking like a standout option and DaMarcus Beasley showing that he is more than capable of stepping in and being a reliable starter. Edgar Castillo’s excellent play for Club Tijuana has also put him on the radar at the position.

Right back is in a bit more unsettled state, with converted midfielder Brad Evans holding his own as the team’s starting right back in all three World Cup qualifying wins in June. With Steve Cherundolo expected to still be a part of the pool after the summer, Geoff Cameron having shown his ability to play right back, and Timmy Chandler still someone who should be an option, Klinsmann should have some options on the right side of the defense.

The centerback position has been the subject of more scrutiny than the other positions due to the relative newness of the tandem, and the hiccups the duo has endured as they adjust to the international level. Besler and Gonzalez have had some outstanding outings in the HEX, like their masterful effort in the 0-0 draw vs. Mexico in Mexico City, but they have also had some shaky moments. Gonzalez particularly has had his share of growing pains as he settles into a starting role.

“On those plays that haven’t gone my way I think I’ve been trying to do too much“ Gonzalez said. “I haven’t been playing simple, and as a centerback you don’t want to take chances and this year I’ve been taking a little bit of chances to do things and to grow as a player.

“What I’m finding out is that it’s not that important to make the play, just gotta be simple and keep the team off the board. I’m learning the hard way, but there’s no other place to learn.”

The pair credit Klinsmann’s confidence in them, and willingness to let them go through the expected growing pains, with helping them develop and play without fear of the quick hook.

Klinsmann’s patience with his centerback tandem has paid dividends as the duo has developed a good working relationship that continues to improve as they play more games together.

“It’s really easy to match up with him because we complement each other well,” Gonzalez said of his partnership with Besler. “We’re on the same page in the way that we think and the way we approach the position.”

“The main thing we talk about is they might get by one of us, but they can’t get by both of us,” Besler said. “As long as we’re covering for each other on every play we’re going to make it hard for the other team.”

One area the tandem has helped the U.S. team is in the construction of the attack. Besler’s passing ability has helped establish him as the best centerback in the pool at the moment, while Gonzalez continues to improve in the passing department, even if he did have his share of nervous moments in possession vs. Honduras.

“I think if you look at it today, from Omar to Besler, those guys have been great in terms of always looking for a solution and making long balls the last option,” Jozy Altidore said of the U.S. centerbacks. “When you do that against these teams, and you make them defend, eventually they’ll crack.”

While their contributions to the offense are clearly important, Besler and Gonzalez will continued to be judged by their defensive effort, and ultimately by the amount of goals they surrender. So far, in four World Cup qualifiers together, Besler and Gonzalez has helped the defense allow just one goal in four matches.

“We’ve been on a roll and it’s good for the young guys in the back,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “It gets us feeling really good about ourselves and every time you have a good performance you put it in your back pocket and save it.”

If the U.S. can continue to be stingy when World Cup qualifier resumes in the fall, the team’s ticket to the 2014 World Cup will be punched sooner than later, and as much as the U.S. team’s recent attacking success has been a major factor in the team’s success, the U.S. defense’s continued evolution, and growth, will be just as vital in qualifying, and beyond.

“I think it’s important to score goals, but I think it’s just as important to keep clean sheets and what you saw in these last two games we have two clean sheets,” Clint Dempsey said. “That’s what you need if you want to qualify for the World Cup. You need a solid defense and you need forward who can make goals.”

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53 Responses to USMNT defense continues to take shape after fourth HEX shutout

  1. Colin in MT says:

    I’d prefer to see a Besler-Cameron pairing. I think Cameron has all the athletic attributes Gonzo has, but he’s more technically sound and calmer on the ball. Last year in june during the 5 game stretch Cameron had some of the same growing pains Gonzo is having. However, Cameron seemed to adjust more quickly than Gonzo has. Gonzo is having trouble tracking off the ball movement in concacaf, but you just have to look at the Belgium and Germany games to see the trouble he’s had with better players (the same types of movement we’ll see at the WC) I understand Cameron hasn’t been playing CB for Stoke, but he plays week in and week out in arguably the top league in the world. Granted, the WC is a year away, but I for one would like to see Cameron alongside Besler going forward. That p@ss Cameron had against Panama would be a great threat for our CBs to have.

    • Eurosnob says:

      +1. Cameron is stronger technically, has better decision making and is faster than Gonzo.

      • CJinOC says:

        I agree with Eurosnob about Cameron v. Gonzo. Gonzo is not only… not quick, but he’s too slow on the ball. I remember yelling at the tv asking for him to speed up his decision making and start the build up faster. His vision needs improvement.

      • bottlcaps says:

        Disagree. While Klinsmann has finally found an offense that works, its by moving the midfield closer to Altidore. With Dempsey underneath Zusi on the wings, and Beasly and Williams making runs from the corners, there is finally some quality service to Altidore. But this has forced Bradley and Jones to move closer upfield to connect the Backline with the midfield. This is highly effective, but leaves a glaring hole behind the midfielders and in front of the backline. This is important. Why?

        With the midfield packed by the US midfielder moving into the Honduran half, it depends on fast and accurate one-touch passing and quick movement off and on the ball to get space in a tight area or to move the ball into attacking space. But what happens if the US looses the ball in it’s own end?

        You can see what can happen. When Beisler lost the ball to Andy Najar while trying to make a short quick kick up field. Najar had a clean unobstructed run to the box. Only Gonzales was the closest defender. The normal instinct here is run out and cut off Najars run. But this would leave the streaking Honduraa runner to Najars left a clear run and a simple pass across would have given him a wide open shot in the box. Instead Gonzo held his ground and simultaneously cutting off Najars shot to the far post and covering any low crosses or lateral pass. Najar had only Howard to shoot past and only a split second to do so. Of course, while it had velocity it was right at Howard who easily knocked away.

        This exposed a hole in the US defense, that a more experienced striker in a one-on-one against Howard who may have had a better shot selection, may have put one by. The hole was caused by the midfielders pushing up and a quick steal and counter by Honduras

        It took an excellent play and coverage by Gonzo. He did not obstruct Howards view of the onrushing Najar but actually forced Najar into the shot, covered the far post and also covered another onrushing Honduran attacker. It was a mistake that happened to one centerback and niftily covered by the other. It speaks volumes on how the backline and the centerbacks are jelling.

        If Klinsmann continues with successful attacking style using this strategy. It is positivly important that the backline be cohesive and ready to defend any counters. With Gonzo and Beisler we are seeing one of the most succesful pairing since the Boca, Demerit, Gooch years.

        • MN Footie says:

          I love me some Geoff Cameron, but I agree with this analysis. For those who’ve said “Look, Cameron looked shaky a year ago, but now he’s good. We should put him in CB” — doesn’t the same thing apply to Omar? I’d say let’s keep Omar on his path to improvement (and he has improved, and will continue to improve) and then we have the flexibility to use Cameron elsewhere, either DM or RB. Given time, Omar will be more than serviceable at CB, and Cameron will continue to be flexible.

    • Berto says:

      This. Why not try Bradley and Zusi in the middle with Cameron/Besler behind. Donovan can fill in at RM his fall.

      I think this will do a couple of things: better use of Zusi’s strengths, speed not being one of them; all the creativity and flow that Zusi had at Honduras on RM will be repeated more often by Donovan; better passing out of the back with Cam, forcing teams to defend and opening up the final 1/3rd; enable Bradley to push and overlap Zusi when he feels like the space is there; Zusi has a softer foot than Jones to accept and settle low hard passes out of the back.

      • Luke says:

        No to the Bradley/Zusi at CM! From what I’ve seen, Zusi has little bite on the defensive end. He seems more suited to be either an attacking mid or a winger. If Bradley was paired with Zusi, then your relegating the USA’s most important cog into being a destroyer. The current pairing of Jones and Bradley, allow either one of them to surge forward while the other covers. Let’s not tinker with what has been working.

        • MN Footie says:

          Especially if, in the next year, Cameron continues to see starts at DM. Would be a waste to take our best winger and put him at DM, especially when we have two guys (and probably a few others) who have excelled there.

          • Annelid Gustator says:

            Zusi our best winger? This is officially nuts

            • MN Footie says:

              Who’s better, right now, at making service to Jozy? You might say FJ, and I could get behind that – but, as our best LB, there’s no guarantee that he even plays wing.

    • DC Josh says:

      Why change something that is working? Centerback pairs need to understand each other, and Besler/Gonzalez clearly have something working.

      Until Cameron gets consistent time at center back at Stoke, he won’t surpass Gonzalez or Besler.

    • Luke says:

      Yes! I was saying the same thing yesterday. Cameron and Besler would dramatically improve ball distribution and speed out of the back. Aside from the Mexico game, Gonzo has looked shaky. He reminds me alot of Gooch. The good and the bad. Tall, big, not that fast but an intimidating presence with his size, especially in the air. He just doesn’t seem to offer much in passing or ball handling skills and his decision making can be suspect at times. I almost pulled my hair out when he let Najar dribble inside the 18 and rip a shot. I know he was playing the cross, but man you can’t let someone get a point black rip on goal. Looked like Timmy gave him an ear full after the play.

    • Hogatroge says:

      I think it would definitely be worth running out a Cameron-Besler pairing after the WC berth is sealed (which will hopefully be earlier than later).

      You never know when one of the 1st choice CBs will be injured, and it would be nice to have a bit of familiarity between the #1 backup and the 2 starters.

  2. jim in Atlanta says:

    I wonder when brek gets back to full health and possibly in good form could be see him and Fabian on the wings for the NT. Don’t know if he can play RW but Fabian can if he can’t. But of course that leaves is with an issue at LB. I still would like to see Castillo given a full shot there but if not DMB is an option but not ideal.

    So how about chandler at LB with Fabian or brek at LW and dolo at RB with either of those two in front?? I don’t know just thinking, forgive me random thoughts but I think it would work…..or lol, chandler at RB brek or Fabian at RW :)

    • wfrw07 says:

      I think Shea is very talented, but I see no reason to remove Zusi from the equation at that moment, and I think Shea has a LOT of work to do to get to that level right now.

      Also, I kind of feel like Fabian in front of Beasley right now might be a sum is greater than the sum of their parts situation. Beasley is not much more than a serviceable defender, but there is a chemistry brewing there that makes them both real dangerous together, and unless another LB can really steal the show, I say it is Beasley’s job.

      • kmac014 says:

        Am I the only one who thinks Shea isn’t very good, as such a heavy touch

        • Mi says:

          Shea needs to find playing time with Stoke or he could be on the outside looking in.

        • Eurosnob says:

          Shea has size and is good for galloping up and down the field, but technically and in terms of decision-making he leaves much to be desired.

        • Bac says:

          No you’re not the only one

        • Joe says:

          I’ve always looked at Shea and thought his lack of touch and vision would make him a good long-term candidate for the LB position. However, I’m not sure he would be as willing to commit himself to the role in the way Demarcus Beasley had, for example.

        • Hogatroge says:

          Shea has an inconsistent touch. He is capable of making a nice, soft trap, but sometimes he ends up sprinting 5 yards to clean up after himself.

      • jim in Atlanta says:

        I agree on the chemistry being built but I’m not the largest fan of zusi. Don’t get me wrong I like zusi and I’m even somewhat of a kc fan being from Atlanta and can’t stand dc united, so they are my closest team. Just I feel like brek if he ever gets it together and some of the other younger guys like Gatt or bedoya might have a bit more quality potential then him maybe even corona although he might be slower.

        Don’t really know just would like to see it tried in a friendly maybe.

    • Gary Page says:

      The US now has the good problem of several good players at multiple positions.

      • MN Footie says:

        Exactly. It’s a great problem to have when, on the right, Graham Zusi has assured himself of an automatic starting role for the foreseeable future, and, on the left, we have Fabian or EJ more than able to hold their own. Not to mention you’ve got Landon Donovan still able to play on the wing, and Stuart Holden available. So when you get down the depth chart to guys like Brek Shea: What if he works himself into the starting 11 for Stoke this season, and scores a handful of goals? Does he beat Zusi out for a starting spot?

        I say no, if for no other reason than Zusi’s been great, and more importantly, our offense appears to have finally gelled. I want our young guys to succeed as much as anyone, but I think we’re approaching a point where we should 1) be happy with good results, and 2) be happy that we actually, for the first time in any US fans’ life, have actual depth at several positions.

        It’s a beautiful thang, people.

        • Klinsmann says:

          ‘be happy that we actually, for the first time in any US fans’ life, have actual depth at several positions.’

          i don’t really think our depth is better than it has been the past decade.

          maybe we seem deeper because we have less obvious starters than before, but i think that’s due to only a few players really locking down their positions, rather than a surplus of international-level talent.

    • DC Josh says:

      And don’t forget about Donovan. He will be back in the team after the summer.

  3. Gary Page says:

    I was glad to see Omar’s remark about keeping it simple. I wish the rest of the team would keep that in mind. Several times in this game and in past games they have tried fancy stuff and it almost always looks real good and leads to a turn over. Players at this level can’t be easily fooled. As for playing it safe, I remember the loss to Ghana in 2006 I think it was when Bocanegra had a difficult ball near the sideline and instead of just kicking it out, he passed it back in the air to Gooch. Gooch jumped up and headed the ball and got called for a foul in one of the worst calls ever, Ghana got the penalty kick and won. After that, I have seen that Boca never takes that chance, he always just kicks it out.

  4. Mike R says:

    Omar is not good enough. Against average teams in concacaf he is just average. Against better teams his lack of quickness is exposed

    • Joe says:

      Gonzo’s errors, which he has made consistently, are the type that will seal a team’s fate at the World Cup. Ask Claudio Reyna. Ask Ricardo Clark.

    • Juan says:

      Bingo – he is big but not that good. Does he really bring more than others in the pool?. I still don’t understand why JK dresses Parkhurst but plays Brad Evans? Makes no sense and before people jump on me, Parkhurst is not that slow and surely is less mistake prone than Evans

      • Hogatroge says:

        How many goals were a direct result of Evans during the last 4 games?

        Name one.

        The fact is, even though Evans isn’t the best RB on the squad on paper, he’s played hard, with heart, and the team’s posted 4 wins and 2 shutouts with him at the position. The Jamaica game would have been a shutout if not for the blatant offsides goal the Reggae Boyz scored.

        • MN Footie says:

          Yep – it may sound hokey, but we can’t underestimate the power of chemistry. And the chemistry – it is building.

  5. Joe says:

    JK has increased depth along the back line, but is anyone else concerned that nothing seems settled? The current four have played well. So is this the group that will log the majority of minutes together in World Cup pool play? Is DMB, Besler, Gonzo and Evans any more likely than Johnson, Ream, Edu and Cameron?

    The one positive in all of this is that JK has proven that he can put together a lineup with the most in form and capable players available.

    • Kildman says:

      There is a long way to go until WC 2014 and personnel changes will be made through out qualifying up to the WC as it always is. One thing I guarantee, Evens will not be starting. He might make the team and keep the bench nice and warm, but he will not be starting.

    • MN Footie says:

      I would speculate that Ream and Edu probably ain’t gonna log much playing time in Brazil…

      And, in response to your main point: Kildman says it very well. But I would question your observation that nothing seems settled. When you’ve got a couple of young centerbacks rocking 2 (should be 3) shutouts in 4 games, I think you stick with them. (Gonzo has a ways to go, I agree, but Besler — with the exception of that mistake to Najar the other night that led to a shot — has been as good as any CB in CONCACAF over the past 4 games.)

      My point being – I don’t think it’s particularly unsettled, and to the extent that we have the personnel to get results, let’s just keep doin’ it. It’s not like B*rnstein is in the player pool anymore.

    • JDP says:

      You guys keep forgetting Chandler…

  6. Brandon says:

    This is off the topic of this post, but I figured this would be a good place to post this. USA can qualify for the World Cup on September 6. If USA defeat Costa Rica, Mexico draw with Honduras, and Panama draw or lose to Jamaica, USA will clinch a spot in the top three of the Hex. This should help decide what results to root for.

  7. Kildman says:

    The weak link on D is Gonzo. If he ever gets over his brain-farts, the U.S. would be solid on D. Man, he just simply sucks. What do I think about Castillo. PPSSS That’s what I think about him. One year from now and baring injury- if Gonzo gets his act together- the U.S. will be a force in the WC 2014. Klinsi is doing a great job so far. Glad BB is in Egypt and Klinsi here. Posters who think Chicharito is better than Jozy must have been kicked in the head by a Mexican donkey. Frijolito can’t pass for his life, can’t create and can’t blow by anyone unless they really suck or trip on a banana peal.

    • Kildman says:

      peel

    • MN Footie says:

      I agree that Gonzo needs to improve. But he’s been a centerback on a team that’s allowed one goal in the last five Hex games. Compare that to our 2009 WCQ campaign. Can’t suck *that* much.

      And, yes. Maybe just the fanboy in me talking, but Jozy > Frijolito.

  8. chris_thebassplayer says:

    I have a lot of faith in Besler to hold his own at the WC. The other three spots are still up for grabs. IMO Cameron absolutely needs to be a starter at either Dmid or CB. I think he is much more valuable as the 6 behind MB. He is the perfect hybrid player for that role. He has the size and strength, almost like having a third CB patrolling the middle of the D, but he is disciplined and all business covering for MB. Jones is not, the chemistry with MB and Jones is poor. Jones is a streaky good player but a bad fit with MB. It’s been obvious for all to see. So it’s a bit of a dilemma, if Cameron is a starter that means either Jones or Omar is going to the bench. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine JK putting Jones on the bench…so Omar looks like the odd man out with Cameron pairing with Besler. Who knows though, there’s a long ways to go. If everyone is healthy, I can’t see a scenario with Cameron on the bench.

  9. Klinsmann says:

    ‘every time you have a good performance you put it in your back pocket and save it.’

    howard always gets a weird saying in there that i’ve never heard of. is that a jersey-ism?

  10. David M says:

    We can talk all we want about four shutouts in hex play; however, 7 goals allowed in 2 friendlies against Belgium and Germany is a much better indication of where our defense is today. While many keep claiming that CONCACAF is better now than it has ever been, there is no evidence to back up this assertion. In fact, I believe CONCACAF is weaker now than in some of the years past. So, we have achieved good results against second and third tier opposition.

    • Mason says:

      Yet we scored six goals in those matches….

      Perhaps you’re reading too much into friendlies?