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Conservative Tactics Against Panama May Haunt Arena And US

Thursday 30th March 2017
Wrapped in euphoria following the United States' six-goal romp against Honduras, I did not fail to remember the difficulty in winning on the road in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Therefore, it was no surprise to see the US Men's National Team struggle to a 1-1 draw in Panama on Tuesday evening. It was even less startling when mounting injuries at the back were taken into consideration. Conservative tactics were probably to be expected.

The result leaves the Americans in fourth place in the Hexagonal, level on points with Honduras, one above Trinidad and Tobago, with a significant advantage in goal difference over both. They had already reached that position over the weekend, however. Failing to win in Panama was a lost opportunity to further their progress by overtaking Los Canaleros for the third guaranteed place in the 2018 World Cup.
When you look at Panama's line in the table, it seems out of place. The Central Americans are joint bottom in goals scored with Trinidad, well behind everyone else. Their saving grace is a strong defense that has only conceded more goals than Mexico. On the other hand, while they have yet to win at home, the Panamanians have played to draws against the US and Mexico, two of the region's three acknowledged powerhouses. With only Costa Rica yet to visit, it isn't beyond the pale to project the Canal Men reaping another seven points from their remaining dates at Estadio Rommel Fernández or to begin scoring against lighter opposition. That said, Panama's three outstanding travel dates are to CONCACAF's power trio. Fourteen points, typically projected by pundits for direct qualification, could be slightly beyond them.

The Americans, by contrast, must only visit the Azteca. Mexico's stronghold is the only destination at which the Yanks cannot realistically rely on a result. Happily, the ugly defeat to Costa Rica at Estadio Nacional is behind them. The US tends to play the Ticos much better stateside. With a further four matches to come against Honduras (away), Panama (home), and T&T (both), Bruce Arena's squad is still poised to earn the points needed to finish in the top three. Of course, a two-point cushion over Panama rather than a one-point deficit would have been more comfortable.

The ex-LA Galaxy boss' first dropped points in his second stint with the USMNT have emboldened critics. Familiar cries Arena is a managerial dinosaur have again been sounded.

His reliance on thirty-five-year-old Jermaine Jones draws particular rage. Arena trusts the former Bundesliga standout in a similar fashion to José Mourinho's bond with his thirty-five-year-old, Zlatan Ibrahimović. While neither player is shy regarding rough and tumble play, the key difference is Jones is a rampaging bull whereas Ibra is a king cobra. The German American stampedes about, wreaking havoc. Zlatan lets the game come to him, then strikes, either playing a teammate through on goal or attacking himself.
Worse, Jones' knees are feeling their age. He can no longer get back into position as he once did. As US captain Michael Bradley is also best used as a marauding defensive mid, partnering them is counterproductive. Chances are one is out of position when the opponent regains possession.

Considering Arena started both to compensate for his patchwork back four, pushing number ten prodigy Christian Pulisic to the outside, critics may have been justified. Both Central American sides enjoyed a slight possession advantage against the US. Both targeted the teenager for physical abuse. However, when Pulisic was in the middle against Honduras he made them pay with a goal and three assists. On the flank, he was far less influential. We will never know whether the BvB wunderkind's continued central deployment would have acted as an effective deterrent against Panamanian aggressions, the best defense often being a strong attack. The two points have already left the barn.

Still, it's easy to see Arena's perspective. John Brooks and Geoff Cameron, his first choice center halves were not available. Neither were DeAndre Yedlin, Timothy Chandler, or Fabian Johnson, his right back options. Jorge Villafaña is also just settling into the full back role on the other side. It might seem wise to adopt conservative tactics, provide support for Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream, Villafaña, and especially misplaced winger Graham Zusi, drafted to do a job, considering the quartet had never played as a unit previously. If at least one between Jones and Bradley were the stay-at-home type, it may even have been an effective strategy.

Instead, the ploy displaced Pulisic, disconnecting the American's attack. Jozy Altidore, better at hold-up play than finishing, was wasted as Clint Dempsey's forward sidekick. This was a match where one striker would have been better than two. A 4-2-3-1 would have been the ideal formation. Get the ball forward to Altidore. Let him lay it off to Darlington Nagbe, Dempsey, Pulisic, or whoever between Jones and Bradley had decided to storm the battlements, as their runs overlap him. Unfortunately, the one distinctive trait in US soccer is its comfort with an attacking partnership. A lone striker would be seen as reverting back to Jürgen Klinsmann's failed experiments. So, Sam's Army was saddled with a 4-4-2. The prolific attack that feasted on Honduras starved in Panama City.

In June, the US host Trinidad's Soca Warriors then travel to the Azteca. Mexico have struggled at home in recent years but four points would be anything but a disappointment from the next international window. Cutting into El Tri's six-point advantage would be a bonus. After a quick start to Arena's USMNT turnaround, it's beginning to look like a slow, stuttering march towards qualification is more likely.

Given abject performances in its opening two qualifiers, just making the World Cup may seem satisfactory to supporters. Not winning the Hexagonal could come with a stiff price, however. The USMNT's comparatively high FIFA ranking, likely to be exacerbated by the strong finish they require, will affect them in the group stage draw. They could find themselves the strongest team in the third pool. Should that occur, potential for the US to be assigned another group of death is significant. While Arena is a very capable manager, the old school conservative tactics he displayed in selecting his line-up at the Estadio Rommel Fernández may have condemned the United States to a long, hard road.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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