On July 7th the United States Men will play their first competitive match in nearly a year, and in so doing begin their defense of the Gold Cup. A successful run through the final in Philadelphia would guarantee their place in the Confederations Cup in 2017, and confirm them as the dominant force in CONCACAF. Failure to win would not be the end of the world, but it would put a damper on the momentum the team has recently built with a positive World Cup run followed by overall strong performances in this cycle’s friendlies. In the end, a Gold Cup win keeps the U.S. on Jurgen Klinsmann’s aggressive path to improvement. An exit of any kind will start to raise doubts if the team has the talent to make a serious run this cycle.Read More
US Mens National Team
During the United States' game against Germany on Thursday, it was hard to go 10 minutes without hearing Ian Darke or Taylor Twellman mention Manaus and its effect on the players. The US Men's National team played its previous game against Portugal in the "Jungle City," as did Italy, England, Croatia and Cameroon, before each dropping three points in their next games.
Business Insider pointed out that those first four teams to play in Manaus lost by a combined score of 10 - 3, though it conceded the tiny sample size. A Washington Post article cited the same statistics, and pondered the possibility of a curse in Manaus. The Independent, based in the United Kingdom, noted on June 24th that each of the seven teams that played in Manaus lost its next game. That was confusing since only six teams had played in Manaus to that point, and only four of those had actually played a "next game." But whatever. #stats Graham Zusi, Sporting Kansas City's All-star midfielder and starter for the USMNT, wasn't having any of it, stating "I don’t think it was that bad to be honest. When it got down to it, at night it cooled off and the humidity wasn’t as bad. I think after about 24 hours the bodies felt great." Hugh Laurie would tell us that everybody lies, especially athletes on record, but there might be something to Zusi's statement. Below is a chart depicting the average temperature, humidity and heat index for each game site. The weather stats were taken from Weather Underground at the beginning of the second half of each game.
|Rio De Janeiro||4||75.7||71%||76.6|
It's reasonable to theorize that more extreme environments take their toll on the human body, even professional athletes. But if we're going to get serious here, we need to consider all locales that were exceptionally uncomfortable. Manaus actually ranked third in average heat index, and had a lower average humidity than fourth-place Natal. Italy and England were the first to play in Manaus on June 14th and sparked the notion that it was a hell hole. But while they were duking it out in Manaus, Costa Rica and Uruguay were playing in Fortaleza, number one on that list up there. Though it was less humid to start the second half in Fortaleza, it was actually hotter, and Fortaleza's halftime heat index beat that of Manaus by a few points, 87.3 to 84.6.
It turns out that teams which most recently played in Natal, Salvador or Fortaleza---the other three extreme locations---did alright. Those teams outscored their opponents by a combined five goals. That makes it hard to believe that the conditions of Manaus were responsible for the downfalls of Italy, England and Croatia, though that still leaves the possibility of a non-weather-related curse.
To make this a legit study, there are some other factors we need to control for, and that is why God invented linear regression. Using ESPN's (Nate Silver's) Soccer Power Index, I controlled for each team's overall ability, and then I measured the effects of extra rest and past-game heat index on the goal differential outcome. The output is below:
|SPI Ratings Differential||1.01||0.1%|
|Additonal Days Rest (home)||-0.21||68.1%|
|Heat Index Differential||0.01||74.3%|
If you're not a linear regression kind of person, then basically what that chart up there says is that neither the heat index of the teams' past games nor any rest discrepancy seemed to matter during this tournament. At least not in terms of goal differential. But we know that goal differential is finicky, and Expected Goals are a better indicator of team performance. Good thing we've got our World Cup Expected Goals data up and running! If we measure team performance by some Expected Goal Differential statistics (xGD), then we get these linear regression outputs:
|Expected Goal Diff||Estimate||P-value||Even Expected Goal Diff||Estimate||P-value|
|SPI Ratings Differential||0.46||0.1%||SPI Ratings Differential||0.34||0.2%|
|Additional Days Rest (home)||0.13||57.0%||Additional Days Rest (home)||0.17||37.0%|
|Heat Index Differential||0.00||79.7%||Heat Index Differential||0.00||86.3%|
Again, regardless of whether we look at overall xGD or even-gamestate xGD, there are no statistically significant effects due to extreme heat index figures from past matches. Expected Goals data are obviously not a direct measurement of how heat impacts the athletes' bodies, but they should be a stable representation the teams' relative strengths during a match.
The Swiss were the last team (that is still in the tournament) to play in an 80+ heat index environment, but I wouldn't expect that to matter much based on what I've shown above. What will matter is that Argentina is much better. Talent has trumped the heat index so far this World Cup.
If you're like me you were pretty impressed with the first half Wednesday evening as Jurgen Klinsmann deployed a Diamond 4-4-2 in the truest sense - narrow and focused down the middle with the intent to manage the wings by channeling things to the middle. It worked really well in the first half. To give you a comparison on how well it went, here's a table on their Possession with Purpose (six steps in Attack) in the first half compared to that of the second half with the average for MLS Teams in 2013.
But before offering the here's a link to what PWP is all about in case you've missed it before.
|Team||Possession Percentage||Passing Accuracy Percentage||Penetration Percentage||Creation of Shots Taken based upon Penetration Percentage||Shots on Goal compared to Shots Taken Percentage||Goals Scored compared to Shots on Goal Percentage|
|USMNT 1st Half||59%||85%||13%||14%||80%||50%|
|USMNT 2nd Half||41%||80%||18%||25%||14%||0%|
|Mexico 1st Half||41%||75%||21%||5%||0%||0%|
|Mexico 2nd Half||59%||80%||23%||35%||44%||25%|
|MLS 2013 Average for Comparison||50%||76%||22%||20%||34%||30%|
I won't offer up anything new here that I didn't already offer on twitter during the match but in case you missed some of those streaming thoughts here they are without limiting my words to the format of twitter.
Bradley and Beckerman needed to be the fulcrum between the defending side of the pitch and the attacking side of the pitch if that Diamond 4-4-2 is to be successful - I'd offer that most would agree they were (at least in the first half).
In considering I had never seen Michael Parkhurst in a left fullback position I opined that the way this team lined up some good chances would come down the right side with Beltran running overlaps or supporting Zusi in deep penetration on the wings.
I'd offer that was also the case in the first half - nothing better as an example than the goal Wondolowski had working from the Zusi cross that Bradley flicked on for Wondolowski to poke home.
What was surprising to me (a very welcome surprise) was how effective Michael Parkhurst was in the first half working the left side with his own mix of penetration combined with Davis --- I really did enjoy seeing that Wednesday evening and support like that from Michael reinforces his ball handlling skills - and - In my view makes him a very credible selection to start at Centerback along with Matt Besler.
If you didn't already know Michael Parkhurst was my PWP Defender of the Week #1 and here's that article supporting that analysis.
I'm not sure why I've never rated Omar Gonzalez highly but I don't - maybe it's his defensive positioning that makes me nervous but I'm a defensive minded guy in football and while there are good points in having a CB who can attack the box on set-pieces my view is that they are first and foremost on the pitch to (STOP) the opponent from scoring - all else is a bonus after that.
As for the goals against in the second half - other pundits have already offered up the Capt. Obvious here that Gonzalez was directly accountable for both goals scored by Mexico - so I ask (rhetorically) did he really add value to this squad in that game in his primary role and if not - who's better?
That's not a question for me to answer but I think it is a question Jurgen Klinsmann needs to ask himself and his new staff...
Like many things in life, I'm not particularly fond of folks who offer up a problem (be it real or perceived) without also coming up with a solution/recommendation to that problem. So with that here are my options knowing that some players are simply not going to get selected that haven't already played under Jurgen recently.
Goodson - Not sure here either - I personally have not seen him enough to offer a view that (in my view) has merit - he does well for San Jose but he didn't get particularly good minutes overseas with what I feel and think is a top rated club. More information needed.
Parkhurst - I have seen him probably as little as I have seen Goodsen but in those few short games (and his impressive showing to me on Wednesday evening) it is clear he has the pace to cope with the wings and also has the passing accuracy and understanding of a broader role in positional play to make an very effective CB (starting CB) provided he can handle the more physical side of the game when teams include a more traditional #9 who plays more with his back to goal than trying to run on to through balls.
Cameron - His time overseas is seeing the game as a right back for Stoke - is that mix the right mix to settle in alongside Besler - and how is that chemistry going to take shape? He has positional awareness of how positional play works down the wings so that adds great value - just like that in seeing Parkhurst play the left side Wednesday evening.
For me Parkhurst is a first option to pair with Besler but my view is limited - call it a gut instinct - but do folks really expect a CB who has played as long as Gonzalez to say in passing he needs to be more dominant in his role as a CB in protecting the box? Wow - I hope not. That is something a CB should KNOW and understand from day 1... oh my...
Perhaps a more compelling question is how long has this weakness (lack of being switched-on to the true purpose of a CB) been or not been recognized by the USMNT staff?
And then to throw a teammate under the bus - bollocks - it just reinforces my own views that Gonzalez is not the right choice to represent the USMNT as a starting CB in the World Cup.
A winning World Cup team must be linked in and switched-on to roles and responsibilities for 90+ minutes for at least 3 games in 8 days??? in order to advance - and then it just gets tougher and tougher... that speaks to having resilience in a squad and throwing a teammate under the bus is not an example of resilience - it represents a shirking of responsibility.
As for Green - as noted in my finishing tweets for the match - in my view Green is still green - that was worthy and notable of Klinsmann to put him in as a way to begin his trail of caps - but as an option going forward now? Unless his attitude is so positive and infectious for others I just don't see him having any role of substance this World Cup - the hype is what it is - hype...
Tough question here for those who've been around footy for some time. If a real stud, do you really think Green would miss an opportunity to play for Germany in a World Cup or European Championship in the very near term?
The pedigree with the German side is simply to strong to even think for a second that (if a starter there) he would ditch that opportunity to be a starter here). Like it or not the USMNT's progress has not made it that far in being that good... if you think they have your emotions are overwhelming your senses. Bringing Green into the side is more about 2018 than 2014; and for that I tip my hat to Klinsmann...
A welcome sight to see the USMNT open in a diamond 4-4-2 and the pieces to that puzzle looked pretty good when considering who started and who didn't. I would offer that style of play speaks to some of the stronger styles we see in MLS - is that the intent of Klinsmann - to stamp a particular style of play that suits the stronger and more possession oriented sides in the MLS who are also known for closing down and giving the opponent very little space and time to work with?
I think so - and yes - width is critical to manage when working a narrow approach and the right pieces need to be there to do that. Evidence of that was very clear Wednesday evening - as the second half opened and the subs began to rotate for the USMNT the Mexican side went from offering up just 8 crosses in the first half to a total of 23 crosses for the second half.
Clearly the change in players on both sides, to include complacency and fatigue of the USMNT, directly impacted and influenced the team attacking style of Mexico.
In looking towards the final selection Klinsmann has some issues to wrestle with - how does he balance the chemistry of the "MLS Players" playing together versus those guys who play abroad - how does Altidore fit into a Diamond 4-4-2?
He's been laboring with Sunderland this year and I'm not familiar enough with that team to know what system they operate - but given their position in the League Table it would appear they are not very good in scoring goals - which for me tends to indicate their midfield isn't that strong. To paraphrase Harrison on this one - Jozy doesn't have the right complimentary pieces to go with his skill set...
And with a trend of American players returning stateside might we see Jozy make a transfer move similar to Bradley and Dempsey this summer? Hard to say now but if the USMNT chemistry continues to mature, using a majority of players from MLS, it just might mean the most effective move for him is a return to America.
Before signing off I have one final postulate for consideration. In seeing how the game went Wednesday evening - has anyone considered that - given it was a friendly - the intent of the second half might have also included studying how Mexico may adjust, in pitch activity, to the Diamond 4-4-2, in order for Klinsmann to gather data on how other opponents might adjust (real time) in the World Cup?
This also provides Klinsmann some real data to evaluate on ways he might counter the opponents counter... I wouldn't put it past him - especially since the game wasn't a real win or lose game of consequence...
That's all for me for now... More to follow on twitter as I join the crowd at Providence Park for the Cascadia clash between Seattle and Portland.
My apologies for the timeliness of the podcast being deployed. At the latest, I usually try to get it up by noon on Sunday. Of course, that didn't happen and you were subjected to my useless apologies that are as common as San Jose yellow cards. Anyway... I spent the last week out among the gentle Dallas folk spending time with family. It was the last week that my wife's doctor permitted travel out of our local area (ya' know, she's preggers). Since I was out of pocket, Drew and Matthias picked up the responsibility for the podcast and did a great job. They talked US Mens National Team, finally finished up our review of the Eastern Conference standings, added some US Open Cup talk, and closed out the show previewing the Portland Timbers and LA Galaxy match later on this week.
Have a listen: