There is still plenty of football to be played before CONCACAF’s representatives at Russia 2018 are decided, but Mexico dealt an early blow to Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and the USA last night.
Rafa Marquez’s late goal sealed a 2-1 victory for Juan Carlos Osorio’s side in Columbus. Miguel Layun had given the Mexicans the lead before Bobby Wood equalised, with Altidore providing the assist.
Altidore played well alongside Wood, and Jurgen Klinsmann’s desire to get both strikers into his starting lineup led him to change the shape of the team that took to the field at Mapfre Stadium. Behind the front two, unfortunately, it did not work.
USA started in a 3-5-2 formation, with Christian Pulisic shouldering the creative burden in an attacking midfield role and Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson playing as wing-backs. Michael Bradley partnered Jermaine Jones in midfield.
Shortly after Layun scored, however, Klinsmann switched to a 4-4-2, with Johnson moving out to the right wing, Matt Besler sliding across to left-back and Pulisic playing in front of him. That sparked an improvement, and until the closing minutes it looked like the Americans had done enough to salvage a draw.
While Altidore was praised, Bradley took the brunt of the criticism after the defeat, with Fox Sports singling him out as one of the team’s weaker performers. Toronto FC’s captain has had an up-and-down year with his national team, which I would speculate is a result of Klinsmann not figuring out - unlike Greg Vanney - that Bradley’s days as the box-to-box dynamo who scored two goals in this fixture in 2009 may be over.
Bradley has subsequently played as a holding midfielder for TFC, with the younger, more energetic Armando Cooper and Jonathan Osorio flanking him in a 3-5-2 of late. That allows him to focus on protecting the defence, bringing the ball out from deep positions and creating second chances by anticipating opposition clearances and cutting out counter-attacks.
In this case, Bradley and Jones were tasked with covering a lot of ground, with Pulisic much more of a No.10 or a winger than a central-midfield playmaker. Not only does that not suit Bradley, but Jones has played less than 180 minutes of club football in the last three months. It was never a recipe for success.
What happened afterwards suggests not all is completely rosy between Klinsmann and his players.
Klinsmann puts his teams struggles in the 3-4-3 on his midfielders being outplayed, mentioned Bradley and Jones by name. #USMNT— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) November 12, 2016
USMNT captain Michael Bradley on FS2 talks of needing clear tactical ideas in first half. Sounds like indirect shots at Klinsmann. #USMNT— Franco Panizo (@FrancoPanizo) November 12, 2016
The States face a difficult match in Costa Rica, who won 2-0 away to Trinidad & Tobago, on Tuesday. Even a loss there would not leave them in a disastrous position - three teams qualify directly for the World Cup finals - but it would put a big dent in their confidence levels and leave them under pressure to beat the other three teams in the group.
Cooper & Panama make perfect start
Armando Cooper played the full 90 minutes as Panama secured a 1-0 win in Honduras that they will be thrilled with. Fidel Escobar decided it with a free-kick that flew through a porous defensive wall.
Panama look likely to battle it out with Honduras for fourth place - and a spot in the inter-confederation play-off match against an Asian team - so this result is already a huge one for them, but they will also have half an eye on any slip-ups made by Mexico, Costa Rica and the USA as the favourites to take the top three spots.
In the Asian qualification system, a play-off match to get into the play-off match (still following?) is played between the third-place teams in two groups. As things stand after four games of 10, that game would be between South Korea and Japan. They would both pose a tough test for Panama, but seemingly more beatable teams like Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan could yet drop into those positions.