By Jared Young (@jaredeyoung)
Hey U.S. fans, look on the bright side. We get an extra soccer game this fall! The USMNT will be in a one game playoff against either Mexico or Jamaica for the privilege of representing CONCACAF in the 2017 Confederations Cup. That bit of fun was brought to you by a loss of stunning proportion to Jamaica. The U.S. gave up two goals in five minutes off of set pieces in the first half and couldn’t mount a useful attack against a determined Jamaican defense. The 2-1 loss, the first to a Caribbean side on U.S. soil since 1968, will sting for a long time, especially for yours truly who was looking forward to going to the Gold Cup Final to watch the U.S. with his son. Not all stories have Hollywood endings. And certainly sports wouldn’t be sports without the heartbreak.
This game was a perfect example of why soccer statistics can sometimes lie. If you didn’t watch the game and just looked at the box score you might think that the U.S. was simply unlucky. They held 60% of the possession and completed 82% of their passes. They outshot the Jamaicans 20-10 and put 7 more shots on goal (10-3). The U.S. won the expected goal battle by a score of 2.3.-1.0, but looked up at the scoreboard at the end and saw the final score was actually reversed.
If you had watched the game you weren’t surprised at the outcome. The U.S., coming out in a brand new 4-2-3-1 formation, were consistently turning the ball over in the middle of the field. They failed to link on key passes in the final third and the Jamaican’s seemed to have a foot on every pass that was on the verge of breaking through. In the end, Jamaica’s Giles Barnes put in a clinical strike off a free kick and those are the moments of brilliance that can decide soccer games. The soccer statistics we usually look at to determine domination don’t tell the truth. The U.S. weren’t sharp, and the Jamaicans were.
Were there any statistics that help to tell the actual story? I think one is the level of crosses. Here is a chart of the U.S.’ crosses divided by final third passes in each game of the tournament.
The U.S. attempted 25 crosses in the game. A higher percentage could indicate a tactical change but more often than not they indicate an opposing team with a well contained center of the field. Teams would rather penetrate a team’s defense from the center as crosses have a higher level of difficulty. This is the first sign the Jamaican defense was stout.
A similar statistic is defensive clearances as a percentage of passes in the final third.
Not all clearances occur in the final third, but the vast majority do. This statistic again shows the difficultly that the U.S. was having penetrating the Jamaican defense. When one of every four passes is getting cleared, you will struggle to put together a formidable attack.
Part of the U.S.’ struggles also fall on Jurgen Klinsmann. The lineups and formations were constantly shuffled, and now that the U.S. have failed in their goal, some questions can be rightfully asked. He implemented a new formation for this game which had to keep the team a bit unsettled. What was the thought process of tinkering against a Jamaican team against which they could expect to easily control the ball. Would Jozy Altidore have been a better target option in the last 20 minutes than an Alan Gordon who hadn’t played international soccer since 2012? Was a shaky Ventura Alvarado the right choice over a seasoned Omar Gonzalez? Were there simply too many changes from game to game to allow the team to gel and build the confidence needed to win a tournament like this? Outside of the statistics are choices that deserve scrutiny and hopefully answers.
Statistics can give us a sense of control the U.S. had of the ball, but also the struggle the U.S. had and the quality of the Jamaican defense. But the game was decided by key moments that made the difference. There was the brilliance of Barnes on the Jamaican 2nd goal. On the opposite side, there was the missed header by Aron Johannsson off of a rebounded shot in the 2nd half. There was Michael Bradley’s strong strike from the corner of the box that seemed to find the chest of the Jamaican goalie, who may not have otherwise been able to stop it. Even though these statistics describe the abilities of the teams and help describe the general flow of the game, they fail to capture the successes and failures that occur in fractions of a second that decided who wins and loses.
In this game, those moments belonged to Jamaica. In this game, those moments were earned. The U.S. have a lot of questions to ask themselves as they look forward to their next key moments this fall.