During the months leading to the World Cup, Team USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann spoke to Cameron Abadi of the New Yorker about his desire that America develop a “national style” of soccer. He left open what this style would be, but he said he wanted it to be assertive rather than reactive. ““Americans are proactive,” he said. “You want to be world leaders in everything you do. So, on the field, you shouldn’t just sit back and wait.”
I do not bring up this quote to shame the American performance against Germany on Thursday. It was reactive, but it was effective. In need of either a draw or a thin defeat, Klinsmann set his team up to ensure that Germany could not win a blowout margin. The Americans let Germany pass and pass and pass. Germany completed 686 passes. No other team in the tournament has even attempted as many passes in one match as Germany completed against the United States.
Team USA was willing to cede the midfield area to Germany to hold the defensive line at the top of the 18-yard-box. Klinsmann deputized his midfielders to drop into the back line rather than try to disrupt the German’s pattern-weaving further from goal. The result was a German side that had scored four and two goals in their previous matches being held to just one score and only one big chance.
What is striking to me about this performance is not that it failed to live up to some ideal. Rather, it is notably different from the way the Americans played against Portugal. Where the United States ceded possession easily to Germany, they played Portugal to a draw in midfield. Portugal completed 436 passes, and the Americans nearly matched that total with 389. They had found themselves pushed back against Germany and Ghana, and attempted to press forward quickly with long balls. Long balls accounted for about 13 percent of American passes in those two matches, but only about 8 percent of American passes against Portugal.
These different tactics reflected, again, a different situation. Portuguese Manager Paulo Bento set up his team in a wide-open 4-4-2 formation with two true strikers staying ahead of the ball. Given room to work, USA could build up play slowly. Nearly 80 percent of American passes were attempted outside the final third, one of the lowest rates in the World Cup. This patient attack took time to develop, but by the second half Portugal were worn out and the chances came.
Given different needs and different opponent tactics, America played a different style effectively. I think perhaps the most notable effect of this improvisatory approach is how the US reacted to losing Jozy Altidore. Against Ghana, the loss of Altidore looked like an awful blow, as Team USA struggled to retain possession or to create chances without its line-leading center forward.
But Klinsmann and the team adapted. Instead of trying to shoehorn a very different striker into a role he was not made for, the USA changed tactics. With natural second forward Clint Dempsey at striker, the team had no target man to aim at. Instead, Dempsey would drop back and either look to make a later run into the box or enable other players to make dangerous runs out of midfield. Jermaine Jones in particular took to these new tactics, and with a better first touch he might have created the equalized against Germany with a run down the center.
I noted in the build-up to the World Cup that Team USA had one of the most cross-heavy attacks among World Cup teams. This has not been the case in Brazil. The United States has actually attempted the fewest open-play crosses of any team with just 17. Even when normalized for possession, by looking at the percentage of final third passes, the United States still relied on crosses the least of any team in the group stages.
I began with that Klinsmann quote because it seems that the search for a fixed national style was mostly abandoned at this World Cup, but perhaps it was replaced by something better. The side’s approach was pragmatic but also improvisational. Team USA could play reactively if necessary, but it also adapted in the moment to opposition tactics or to its own personnel changes. When Portugal defended with just eight men, the United States wore them down with effective possession soccer. When the US only needed a draw and Germany was pattern-weaving through midfield, the Americans sat back and defended the penalty box. Jozy Altidore went down, and the United States switched the focus of its attack from crosses off the flanks to more direct runs through the center. The United States has advanced through the Group of Death not by executing one plan, but by changing the plan as the situation has merited.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.