USA 1:1 Argentina; half-time changes net surprising result

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - MARCH 26: Juan Agudelo #9 and Oguchi Onyewu #5 of the United States celebrate Agudelo's game-tying goal during the second half of a friendly match against Argentina at New Meadowlands Stadium on March 26, 2011 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

USA lineup and tactics: 

Bob Bradley chose a 4-5-1/4-3-3 shape with a trio of central midfielders and attacking outside mids/wingers to support a lone center forward.  The back 4 consisted of Jonathan Spector on the right, Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit in the middle, and Carlos Bocanegra on the left.  In the central midfield were Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, and Jermaine Jones.  Clint Dempsey and Landon Donvan were on the wings with Jozy Altidore up top.

 

The USA seems built for 4-5-1 formations - whether they be more 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 - since the loss of Charlie Davies, something Bradley seemed to fail to comprehend, at least with regards to his starting lineups, last summer.  Yesterday's match may be strong evidence against that, however, and the reality may be that what was missing was an adequate 2nd striker to play with Altidore.  In the Ghana match last June, once Bradley realized his lineup mistakes, it was Dempsey who actually moved into this role, and the resulting improvements to the attack were readily apparent.

 

Against Argentina, Edu was usually the highest of the CM trio, at times appearing to be between Donovan and Dempsey (heretofore D&D) in a 4-2-3-1.  I found this a bit surprising, as Edu seems a likelier candidate to be the deepest of the 3, as an ACB or 5th defender, and would've guessed Bradley would play as the highest of the three.

 

As has been the case with the national team for some time, much of the creative, attacking weight falls on the shoulders of D&D, who as wide playmakers essentially form a "2 band" of attacking midfielders/wide playmakers in the nominal 4-4-2 Bradley employed in South Africa.  

 

Match play:

It is fair to say that Argentina overwhelmed the USA for most of the first half, and almost seemed to squander chances as if they were wealthy excesses.  Only a 42' minute knock-in after a bit of a goal-mouth scramble was left to show for a fairly dominant 45 minutes.  

 

Altidore, as a lone striker, was frustrated and lacked support he needed to be successful.  D&D and Edu, caught up in the fight to just win a modicum of possession, rarely had opportunity to get forward in any meaningful way.  Altidore usually found two or even three Argentinean defenders available to impede his progress, and his frustration was apparent.  Argentina did not need a numerical superiority in the midfield to control possession, instead relying on a clearly superior pedigree of touch passes and exemplary off-the-ball movement to stamp their authority on the match.  Therefore Bradley's seemingly insightful attempt to employ three CM's backfired; although against a lesser opponent it may have worked.  

 

At half time, Jones was withdrawn for Juan Agudelo, a name familiar to Sounders fans, and Timmy Chandler was given his USMNT debut at right back.  Almost from the off, the USA looked an improved side, and begun to play some proper football and demonstrate they may be capable of appearing on the same pitch as Argentina.  Agudelo was sensational, if not at times a touch naive in trying to do a bit too much on the dribble.  He and Altidore combined on some excellent passing and interchanges, and Altidore went from overwhelmed and outclassed in the first half to looking like a capable International striker in the second.  

 

Dempsey started to show some spark, as his scrappy, bulldog mentality, which has served him well throughout his club and international career, facilitated his impact on the match.  It is worth considering that Dempsey, who has demonstrated a fair amount of class and touch to go along with that willingness and effort, has become the most pedigreed of USA players in this generation.  Donovan, in contrast, offered very little yesterday, in my opinion, relative to his stature within USA soccer; I found him strangely absent from much of the positivity in the second half.

 

Having sad that, it was Donovan which served in the ball on a free kick which Bocanegra managed to get a head to within the mixer and send goalward, forcing Argentinean 'keeper Mariano Andujar to dive to his left to save.  He couldn't quite corral the ball and Agudelo was in the opportunistic position to tap it in.

 

The rest of the match saw both teams push for the winner, and at times the action was thrilling, at others scrappy and almost cynical.  In the balance, both teams created a fair number of chances.

 

The result:

It is fair to say the 1-1 draw flatters the USA, particularly considering the clear Argentinean advantage for the first 45' which could easily have resulted in a 2 or 3-goal lead at halftime.  The second half performance is and should be very encouraging for USA supporters, however.

 

Chandler was marauding and it is likely he will be a regular in the side at fullback.  Agudelo could rightfully be seen as somewhat of a savior for the USA yesterday, as his introduction, and the resulting shape-shift, seemed to make all the difference.  Michael Bradley will always be criticized for what many feel is nepotism and his perceived lack of creative spark, but his ability as a true box-to-box player and ability as a defender needs to be appreciated.  Between him, Jones, and Edu the USA has a solid group of defensive-minded CM's, despite uninspired performances from Jones and Edu yesterday.

 

There will always be concerns about the back 4, and DeMerit and Onyewu always seem on the verge of disaster.  The career path of the once extremely promising Onyewu is on a disheartening slide, and DeMerit is at least experienced and willing enough to overcome his technical shortcomings.  Bocanegra, at least, has demonstrated a great scoring touch throughout his club and country career on set pieces.  

 

Tim Howard was likely the true man of the match.  The USA is in good hands with him in goal, and yesterday was another demonstration of his pedigree.  A handful of clutch saves, especially in the first half, helped keep the USA in it.  

 

It is worth noting this was a full Argentinean side, and only a single substitution was made in the second half.  They appeared to take the match very seriously.

 

This will be a learning experience not only for Bob Bradley and his players, but the fans as well.  We may have learned a lot about the future of this team from a tactical standpoint, and whether or not the personnel may ever truly arrive for this team to make a leap in this next World Cup cycle remains to be seen.  This summer's Gold Cup will likely be seen as a "win or bust" proposition and the pressure is certainly on the program to meet the weighty expectations for more international success.

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