While watching the United States-Cuba matchup last Friday, a 2-0 win for the USMNT, I was reminded of my fledgling soccer playing career. Back in high school, most of the fields I played on I would describe today as very CONCACAF-y.
They were bumpy, patchy, uneven and generally not good. But I still enjoyed every minute I played at the freshman, JV and varsity levels because well, there's a reason I'm typing and refereeing now instead of playing.
So for the opeing forty-five minutes in Havana, I saw a US team the reminded me a lot of my high school days. A lot of disjointed soccer, mediocre to bad field conditions and overall boring soccer. Which is fine, because when it comes to CONCACAF play this generation of younger players needs to learn not only how to play at the international level but also how to play on the road in this region.
Winning road games in CONCACAF is hard. No really, it is. During the 2014 Hex the USMNT went 2-1-2 on the road for a total of 7 points, which was the most road points of any team in the final round. Costa Rica, the second place finisher in the Hex, won all of their home games like the USA, but only claimed three draws for three points on the road in five games. Honduras had the best road result of them all, actually going into Estadio Azteca in Mexico and claiming a victory for three of their total five road points in the Hex.
It's no surprise that those three teams had the most road points in the region and qualified directly for the World Cup and forced Mexico into a playoff with New Zealand. El Tri's struggles in the Hex last cycle aside, road points are a premium in CONCACAF and always will be. By the next World Cup cycle going into 2022, a lot of the current USMNT veterans will be done with their international careers and it's going to be up to the youngsters like Christian Pulisic, Julian Green and even Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore to keep the USA at the top of CONCACAF.
So while we have criticized and chastised Jurgen Klinsmann for struggling on the road and poor tactics, we also have to recognize that last week he won the game - to the surprise of no one and yet everyone - by putting in Chris Wondolowski.
1. Dare To Wondo
Look, I know that USMNT fans, myself included, will always be a little bummed out every time we see Wondo called into camp. He missed a sitter against Belgium, he's too old, he's keeping someone else off the roster - but at the same time there is a specific role that Wondo fills with this team right now, and it's not just off the bench.
You might not like it, but you always need a guy like Wondo.— Graham Ruthven (@grahamruthven) October 7, 2016
Obvious quote from "Miracle" aside, Wondolowski is the right player for this US team at the moment and it might be his on field contributions that are a bonus. Behind the scenes and in the locker room he's probably adding value there as well that most of us will never see. Right now, with the tremendous amount of attacking talent the USMNT has seemingly waiting the in the wings and already getting first team minutes, having a guy like Wondo around - who didn't earn his first cap until years into his pro career - is a nice reminder that you have to work hard as well.
For the longest time Kyle Beckerman was the "right" midfielder for the USMNT. He knew his job, kept things simple and opened up the field so Michael Bradley can go be Michael Bradley. Jermaine Jones may inherent that role when he's healthy and both Jones and Wondo share similar characteristics. They work hard every time they're out there and they do the little things that make others around them better.
Wondo is who he is, a very solid if not great MLS striker, and if you want to see he tends to score a lot of "garbage" goals then that's fine. I like garbage goals, made a decent high school career as a player scoring those and I can assure you that it is not a mistake Wondolowski keeps finding himself on the end of rebounds and crosses that go through the box. My dad after one of my first AYSO games was even able to figure out that someone always needs to be at the back post waiting to clean up the trash. Positioning inside the box is a skill, and very possibly an art form that Wondo has mastered, and against the chaos known as CONCACAF it is even more important.
The younger generation of the USMNT must learn the wicked ways of CONCACAF, the dark arts that befall these great lands - time wasting, monsoon rains, poor fields. But there are those who can fight the good fight and counter these miserable forces of evil and while talent is important, you need a few grinders to get dirty as well. Guys like Chris Wondolowski will always have a role on the national team for just this reason.
2. Speaking of the youth...
Julian Green was by far and away the best player for the Americans in the first half, and for a team that was desperate for anything in the final third to start the game, Green's creativity and effort were a bright spot in an otherwise brutal half of soccer. But I did notice a bit of a trend with Green as the game went on. It's something that many of us in New England notice every week. He always goes inside.
*cough* Diego Fagundez *cough*
Now, I mention this because even against Cuba, Green got stuffed more often than not when he tried to beat someone in a one-on-one situation. Yes, he worked his own shot that lead to the save and rebound for the Wondolowski goal and yes, he did make the back post run for the USA's second goal, but just because you show up on the scoresheet twice doesn't mean you're immune to criticism.
Green also had what could've been the biggest mistake of the match when he opted not to find a wide open Altidore or Wood and instead gave Cuba a counter attack that lead to one of two Cuban shots off the post in the match. Last Friday was a big match for Green and he played really well but there are times to be selfish and times when you need to play team soccer. His flank mate, Fabian Johnson at left back, was mostly invisible on offense and was caught upfield a bunch and I attribute a some of that to Green. The more soccer the Bayern Munich player gets for both club and country though, the better he's going to be.
Fagundez has been a pro forever, or so it seems in New England, and two years ago basically got benched for lack of defense. Now he's a solid all-around player and Green will certainly be that fairly soon (if he's not already) and at this point is just lacking first team minutes. In Cuba, he was too selfish, but understandably so for a young player looking to make an impact, which he did in the second half. When Green channels that aggression properly and gets his teammates involved because of the space his attacks have opened up, he will be a force.
That being said I think he and Pulisic are better wingers than true wide midfielders, but with the USMNT using two strikers currently we may have to settle for both of them in more of a two way role if they're going to crack the starting lineup together.
3. Ethan Horvath Will Be The USMNT #1 Keeper
I don't know when this will be, but I'd be willing to wager a decent amount (if gambling was legal) that after 2018 in Russia, this will be Horvath's team for the 2022 World Cup cycle if not sooner.
Particularly in the first half, I though Horvath commanded his area very well and was quick to come off his line when needed. The second half was a little crazier, with each post assisting his first international shutout. I would expect him to be the third keeper for the current cycle behind Tim Howard and Brad Guzan before claiming the top spot at the latest right after the World Cup in Russia two summers from now.
The biggest advantage for Horvath right now is he's getting a ton of minutes with his Norwegian club Molde and his standout performances for the U23 Olympic team despite an aggregate playoff loss to Colombia. While Bill Hamid, David Bingham, Sean Johnson and Luis Robles are among a solid group of MLS keepers, Horvath's younger than all of them at just 21 years old. At some point, another 21 year old in Zack Steffan, now with the Columbus Crew, could enter the mix as well as well as Revolution keeper Cody Cropper.
Jurgen Klinsmann may have shed a little bit of light on the current depth chart earlier as well.
When asked, Klinsmann named (in order for what it's worth): Howard, Guzan, Horvath, Yarbrough, Bingham, Rimando, Hamid, Johnson #USMNT— Seth Vertelney (@svertelney) October 10, 2016
The United States will never have a shortage of good soccer keepers, whether or not you agree with that list above.
4. Is Juan Agudelo the 4th striker for the USA right now?
I mean actual striker, not that weird, winger position where Klinsmann plays his strikers sometimes. It's pretty clear that Wood and Jozy are the top two but after that you're left with a grouping of Wondo, Jordan Morris, Agudelo and then two recovering players in Terrence Boyd (also called in with Juan which is great news) and Aaron Johannsson (I miss The Iceman). If we mostly think that Wondo is a role player right now, that would mean the USA's second striker pairing is Morris-Agudelo and that's not exactly a bad thing.
Agudelo has flourished in New England after Jay Heaps switched to a two-striker/diamond midfield setup, the same formation Klinsmann has the USMNT playing pretty well in. Agudelo has three goals and three assists in five MLS games dating back to the start of September and has six goals and five assists in 22 total appearances this year but has been limited to just 12 starts for the Revs. Morris meanwhile has scored 12 goals for the Seattle Sounders while making 29 starts as a rookie. If the USMNT's second striker tandem, who are both 23 and younger, are able to get productive minutes during the Hex and next summer's Gold Cup, one or both could be in Russia in two years.
5. Yeah, about that Steve Birnbaum play...
I'm not going to show the video but someone needs to explain to me how in 2016 a player, in midair, gets kicked in the head and there's no foul called. Forget the fact that all head injuries require immediate stoppage by referees now, the high boot is a youth soccer rule.
So while I'm not all that mad at Cuba's Duxney Espinosa for the play in question, it's a bad decision with an unintended result I'm sure, most of my ire is directed at center referee Jafeth Perea. For a referee at any experience level, this is a bad mistake - and I'm not talking about missing the foul call. Had this been just a simple clash of heads with no foul, but the same injury to Birnbaum, a stoppage of play is still mandatory. This is, I hope, going to be a learning experience for him and a lot of other referees about identifying this types of injuries regardless of where the play is.
Just because Cuba in this case has a promising attack doesn't mean that play continues until there's a chance to stop play. A few years ago this might have been the rule but as far as I'm concerned for an injury of this magnitude, play should always be stopped to allow a bleeding player to receive treatment. Overall I thought Perea and his crew had a fine game, but just like for the players and their teams, one bad mistake can taint the performance for a referee team as well.
The United States takes on New Zealand in a friendly tomorrow, October 11th, at 8pm EST at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C.