By Andrew Winner
If the United States hopes to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, their hopes rest squarely on the shoulders of one player – defender Jonathan Spector. A late addition to the roster, the West Ham man joined the squad in Nashville Sunday to provide much needed cover in defense.
Unquestionably, the back line has to be coach Peter Nowak’s biggest concern in advance of its crucial showdown with Canada on Thursday. With the winning team punching its ticket to China, Spector’s experience will be needed to calm a defensive unit that has failed to inspire confidence in the group stage.
In the first game, the Americans were culpable of a pair of defensive breakdowns as the Cubans notched an improbable goal. Initially, poor communication on the left flank saw both Hunter Freeman and Nathan Sturgis twice close down the same player, leaving a Cuban attacker open in the penalty area. To compound the earlier error, Patrick Ianni – who was expecting a shot – flinched just long enough to see the ball slip under his foot to the grateful Cuban striker Roberto Linares, who gleefully poked it home.
The error left Ianni on the bench for the second game against Panama, with midfielder Maurice Edu manning the center of a patchwork defense with Sturgis. And although the United States didn’t allow a goal to a toothless Panama attack, there were still several needlessly tense moments that had coach Peter Nowak holding his head in worry.
Against Panama, Nowak installed Dax McCarty and Stuart Holden as two vertices of a central midfield triangle – more than anything it was their grit and industry that shielded the back line from danger. With those two playing as dual holding midfielders, Panama was forced to rely increasingly on Route One football, as the passages through the middle closed up in the increasingly chippy game. However, that decision was not without consequence – against Panama the United States once again failed to score from the run of play, a direct result of playing a pair of defensive-minded midfielders.
Spector’s presence will negate this necessity, allowing the United States to change its tactics and get forward.
To understand why Jozy Altidore has been left to labor as a lone striker, one must look no further than the inexperienced defensive line. Nowak is covering his bases first, playing five-men midfields to protect his rear-guard. With Spector in the mix, look for the United States to switch to a more conventional 4-4-2 formation, with more chances for the talented midfield to maraud into the attacking third.
Playing alongside a speedy striker like Robbie Findley or Charlie Davies will allow Altidore more room to work, something he has not seen in the group stage. It may also kick start the sluggish American attack, which has essentially failed to score from the run of play. (Of the three goals scored by the United States in the group stage, two came from penalties and one from the action after a corner kick.)
Additionally, if the United States is able to hold possession, Spector is
In the group stage, the dearth of quality defenders left Peter Nowak to plug the holes as best he could. Hill, a converted attacker, took a couple shifts at marking back while previously unknown Michael Orozco filled in admirably. However, having an EPL-caliber defender on hand to hold down a flank will save the skipper a few gray hairs, especially against a Canadian team that just notched five goals in their last game.
After Landon Donovan and company missed out on the Olympics four years ago, the United States desperately needs to qualify this time around. Having Jonathan Spector at the ready will not only strengthen the back line, but will free the rest of the squad to attack with more earnestness.
I couldn’t be more impressed with Freddy Adu. In the past year, the 18-year has stood up to be counted when the United States has needed a hero. First, it was his sensational hat-trick against Poland and now it’s his scintillating play in Olympic qualifying.
The adage of big players stepping up for big games holds true with Freddy. While wearing the Red, White, and Blue, Mr. Adu has stood up to be counted – showing himself to be every bit the player we all hoped he would be.
Other players who have impressed are McCarty and Holden, mentioned above, and Sturgis. I see Sturgis, who has represented the United States at nearly every lever, graduating to an important role for the senior national team as his maturation continues.
However, the lack of offense in the group stage is particularly vexing – as well as Davies’s disgraceful diving display against Cuba. With attackers like Adu and Altidore, the United States should be making the scoreboard look like a slot machine.
On Thursday, while most of the country smothers itself with college basketball, the United States will storm past the Canadians and earn their place in the Beijing Olympics.
United States 3, Canada 0; with Altidore and Adu running roughshod.
Andrew Winner is a freelance soccer writer based in Seattle, Washington. He can be reached at: email@example.com