USA 0 – Ecuador 1: As Bad as it Looks?

Just after seeing the USMNT fall yet again in a 1-0 scoreline the narrative seemed obvious: A strong, energetic and positive start by the US was deflated by Klinsmann’s careless, if experimental, substitutions in the second half. Our rhythm and shape was lost, and one case of really poor marking by one of said subs cost us the game. When I sat down and took a close look at the stats and chalkboards, however, the numbers weren’t backing up my storyline. More on that in a minute.

Positive Midfield Adjustments

Granted, there were some obvious differences between the halves, not the least of which was the formation. The Gringos started the match in a new variation–a 4-1-3-2.

USA's starting XI vs. Ecuador. Edu settled higher to support a slightly withdrawn Dempsey.

One of our big criticisms of the Honduras match was the ineffective job of holding midfielders Edu and Beckerman, as both seemed stuck in the same role. This new formation firmly planted Beckerman as the primary holder in front of the centerbacks and unleashed Edu to give Dempsey and Altidore the support they had lacked on Saturday. In fact, Edu did support high up the pitch, and it gave the impression of USA always having numbers in the attacking 3rd. At one point the Rangers man even received a comfortably placed pass from Shea at the top of the 18, but his inner striker failed to unleash and the opportunity was wasted. The following heatmap of Edu’s location throughout the match is proof of his higher positioning. He certainly did a better job of staying out of Beckerman’s hair (yeah, pun intended).

Edu's positioning throughout the match. Definitely not his traditional holding role.

The increased numbers in attack came at a price. USA sacrificed the dominant possession fielding two holders had allowed vs. Honduras. In the end possession ended about even at 50/50, compared to 60/40 in USA’s favor on Saturday. Nonetheless, the offensive approach in the 1st half left a positive impression. Ecuador played in defensive mode, relying on speedy counters. We all went into our half-time bathroom breaks optimistic about what the second half would bring.

Klinsmann Pops His Own Bubble

Certainly if this game were a World Cup qualifier or other important match he wouldn’t have made such radical switches at the break, but the fact is that Klinsmann seemed to completely deflate USA’s momentum. Beasley for Shea and Spector for Cherundolo were the most notable contrasts, but the introduction of Agudelo for Altidore also had a surprisingly negative effect. To make matters worse, the formation seemed to shift to an undisciplined 4-4-2, with Bradley sitting even with Beckerman and Beasley roaming far to the right at times. The most tragic sub, of course, came late in the game, when Ream came on for Bocanegra. Just a few minutes later Ream failed to put a decent mark on Ayovi and he handily finished a cross past Howard.

Like I said in the intro, I thought these second half adjustments explained it all, but a closer look at the stats told a more complex story. Statistically, Beasley’s performance was actually quite similar to Shea’s, Agudelo’s numbers looked a lot like Altidore’s, and Bradley even improved on Edu in a number of a ways. So what else was going on?

The Service In This Place Is Terrible

The revelation of Timmy Chandler as a left back has been a bright spot recently. He’s speedy, aggressive and seems to come from the Danny Alves school of attack first, defend if necessary. It’s true he and Shea had some positive combinations up the left flank, and he probably ran more than any other player, but what’s the primary job of a marauding fullback? To get deadly crosses, or at least passes, in the 18. Here are Chandler’s stats: 27 successful passes, 17 failed passes; 0 successful crosses, 5 failed crosses. Need I elaborate?

How about the right side of the pitch? Were Cherundolo/Spector any better? Combined successful crosses: 0. Here’s a visual which combines the pass distribution of Chandler as well as both right fullbacks:

There wasn't a single successful cross from the USA fullbacks.

Guess Who’s Back in Town?

Perhaps the most positive take-away from the Ecuador game is the proof that the Onyewu who led us to the Confederations Cup final (or something close) is reemerging. The first sign that he’s fit and confident again was his mobility around the pitch. Take a look at this heat-graph. Does that look like a center back?

Onyewu's physical distribution vs. Ecuador

And his numbers are solid: 29 out of 34 passing, 3 clearances, 2 blocked crosses, 7 headers and 4 recovered balls. As if to put an exclamation point on it, he made a few aggressive runs up the pitch that some of us like to call “Center Back Rampage.” Here’s a visual that displays his passes, crosses, interceptions, clearances, blocked crosses and recoveries.

Onyewu's mifield-like distribution vs. Ecuador

The Best Things Come to Those Who Wait?

OK, Jurgen, these are friendlies are we aren’t bringing out the soapbox yet. We’ve seen enough positive points to placate us for now, but cut a guy some slack, would you?

Gringos, let’s give him some advice for the next round of friendlies!

4 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Jessrand says:

    Love the analysis. Where do you find those heatmaps? Kept thinking that there was a HUGE gap between the forwards and central mids while on attack and am looking for a map to test my hypothesis

    • Blake Owen says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Jessrand.

      I don’t think there was much of a gap between the CMs and Altidore. Dempsey did a pretty good job shuttling the ball between the areas. Check out his successful passes here.

  2. Ben says:

    Thanks, Jessrand! The heatmaps are a little hard to find. If you go to the official MLS site and click on the match, you can go to the “Chalkboard” tab where you can create various chalkboards. To get the heatmap for an individual player, you have to hover the cursor over his name on the roster list. It will pop up but disappear as soon as you move the cursor. There is no way to save the heatmaps but you can take a screen capture of them.

    Let us know what you find!

  3. Blake Owen says:

    Good stuff, Ben. Onyewu looked like Lucio out there. His time at Sporting has obviously done wonders.

    And while I think Klinsmann did mess up, it was when he brought on Edson Buddle. The formation moved to a 4-3-1-2, with Dempsey sitting behind the forwards and Beasley moving inside to join Beckerman and Bradley.

    As you noted, the fullbacks were already having trouble. Klinsmann’s switch put them on an island, and, sure enough, the service that led to the goal came in a situation where Spector was in a 1v1 situation.

    Obviously Klinsmann wanted to get a feel for how Buddle would operate with another striker, but leaving Dempsey in a central role – while providing an obvious offensive benefit – really stranded those fullbacks.

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