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Frailty and fragility: young U.S. defense exposed in 4-2 loss to Belgium

May 29, 2013, 10:40 PM EDT

Belgium v United States Getty Images

The summation of spring events for a young, rebuilding U.S. back line is the very disquieting “one step forward, one step back.”

All the good work in the snow of Denver and the cauldron of Azteca, two enormously valuable shutouts in  World Cup qualifying, weren’t exactly washed away amid the Belgian foursome, but no one can feel good about a night of sliced and diced regression in Cleveland. One of Europe’s rising powers cut up a young U.S. back line, reminding manager Jurgen Klinsmann and his team that rebuilding a rear guard smack in the middle of a World Cup qualifying cycle is risky business, indeed.

Belgium’s 4-2 win laid bare all the defensive frailties, the communication issues, the limitations of the (hopefully) emerging crop of current center backs, the lack of depth that required Geoff Cameron playing out wide, the slow reactions all the way around, etc.

Ironically, the top defender was DaMarcus Beasley, the converted winger. He was identified as the biggest potential problem by fans and media before Wednesday’s muggy night at FirstEnergy Stadium; but the man earning his 100th cap was the least of the U.S. rear guard in disarray.

Two important caveats here: It’s just a friendly, and we can never assign too much value, good or bad, to results that don’t matter. And certainly this: Belgium is for reals. The midfield looked like men-against-boys stuff as a U.S. team missing its brain, Michael Bradley, mostly couldn’t cope. Plus, we’ll be hearing about this fabulous Belgian crop of attacking midfielders, spry flankers and powerful forwards for years.

That said, the U.S. defensive errors are alarming, to say the least. (And Germany is up on Sunday. Yikes!)

Everyone but Beasley looked bad as the visitors took an early lead, leaving U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard screaming in frustration.

(MORE: Belgium takes apart mistake-prone United States, 4-2)

Cameron, Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson were all painfully slow to react as Romelu Lukaku slipped through, only to be foiled by the onrushing Howard.  That “leak” was bad enough; the communication just wasn’t sharp enough all night between the defenders as they tried to pinpoint the big, physical and surprisingly slippery Lukaku and the outside-to-inside runs of Belgium’s wide men, Kevin Mirallas and Kevin De Bruyne.

When Howard couldn’t hold the ball, he needed help from … well, anyway. Gonzalez and Cameron were nearby spectators. Goodson was even more culpable, having stopped completely to wave about for the offside call. Had he simply followed the play, protecting Howard’s vacated goal, Goodson surely could have been the hero, rescuing the moment.

Was it a mistake to replace Matt Besler, who had replaced the injured Goodson for the result in Mexico? We’ll see on Sunday.

The second goal started with Brad Davis’ turnover and ended on the easiest of finishes for Christian Benteke  – with Gonzalez’s giant booboo forming the meat of this mud sandwich.

Gonzalez’s options as he intercepted a ball near replacement goalie Brad Guzan included shielding Benteke to create an easy Guzan scoop, or crushing the ball well off into the Cleveland night. Instead, he chose to play out on the dribble, and his heavy touched turned into absolute disaster.

source: Getty Images

This is where Gonzalez must grow. He is so physically dominant in league play that he doesn’t always have to “think” his way around the game. In international play, he will live or die by combining the functional brain with the brawn.

The third goal came off a corner kick – but go back to how that set piece was created. The back line was all kinds of out of shape as another turnover happened along the left, with Lukaku quickly finding himself with inside position on Goodson, who was miles away from his central partner Gonzalez. Guzan could only parry the big striker’s shot for a corner – and further disaster ensued on Marouane Fellaini’s far post header.

Klinsmann stresses getting the team in shape with the ball so the Americans are in good spots if possession is fumbled away. Well, it didn’t take on that one.

The midfield was culpable on Belgium’s fourth, as Jermaine Jones and Sacha Kljestan failed to communicate on which player should go pressure Steven Defour. When no one did, there was the fourth on Defour’s wonderful ball out to the left.

  1. mlbdolie - May 29, 2013 at 11:03 PM

    Did you file this before the last goal? The final was 4-2, not 4-1.0

    • term3186 - May 29, 2013 at 11:35 PM

      I prefer to think of it as a jab at the officiating. Our 2nd goal was a gift. Terrible call. Not a penalty. Not even close.

  2. drewvt6 - May 30, 2013 at 1:05 AM

    Are we allowed to speak of the horrible play of klejstan against high level international opponents or must we continue to believe that because he’s a player in a euro league that he has to be good?

    …which brings me to Brad Davis…Landon Donovan will be faster than Brad Davis at his peak when LD is 50. Donovan would have been a better choice to start in the middle of his furlough than Davis at his best. But anyways, klinnsman is smarter than us all.

  3. korules - May 30, 2013 at 2:21 AM

    Steve,
    Would it kill you to check some wikipedia pages before calling the US defense young?
    They average age (starting 4 + Besler) was 27,8. That’s not even close to young.

    The Belgian defense on the other hand (starting 4 + Pocognoli)….. 25.8.

    So you really should let this go already.
    They don’t lack experience, they lack talent.

    • thetomi - May 30, 2013 at 7:46 AM

      I think he’s just referencing Gonzalez and Cameron’s lack of caps at the international level.

      • Steve Davis - May 30, 2013 at 9:52 AM

        Yes, “young” in international caps/experienced. But maybe that’s a reasonable nitpik … perhaps I should be calling these guys ‘inexperienced’ rather than ‘young.’

      • thetomi - May 30, 2013 at 3:29 PM

        fair.

      • korules - May 30, 2013 at 11:37 AM

        I still prefer the term Talent-free :p.

  4. rafibomb10 - May 30, 2013 at 8:54 AM

    Sasha needed a strong performance. It seemed at times when our Center Backs had the ball he was hesitant to go get the ball from them and dictate the pace of play. Building from the back was something Klinsi has implemented, but Sasha is not capable of doing that at the international level. I thought he was the weakest player on the field. Slightly ahead of Brad Davis and Clarence Goodson. Man did we need MBradley today.

  5. bigdinla - May 30, 2013 at 9:19 AM

    I have generally supported Goodson, but it is obvious that Besler is better. The US has to find a real LM.

    • Steve Davis - May 30, 2013 at 9:54 AM

      That’s exactly why Klinsmann called in Brek Shea, even though he had played just a few more minutes at Stoke through the spring than I had.

  6. charliej11 - May 30, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    The idea that this nat team will succeed without Landon is a joke.

  7. skarfacci - May 30, 2013 at 10:57 AM

    I was at the game…the US team wasn’t even trying. Just going through the motions. Lack of pride. No fire AT ALL. Belgium just played a team that handed them the game.

  8. mkbryant3 - May 30, 2013 at 12:37 PM

    What a farce that performance was. Yeah, we don’t need Landon. Whatever. I’ve had it with JK. Just a joke. He’s had plenty of time to get this team to play ball. I see nothing.

    I agree with the “no fire” comment above. There is no aggression, no burst of speed to put the opponent on their heels. Man, usually I don’t get this worked up over friendlies, but I’m losing patience. The team does not look inspired at all and this rests on the coach.

    • wfjackson3 - May 31, 2013 at 6:57 AM

      I just watched the first half so far, and until halftime I think I disagree with everything you said. Passing has improved through the midfields and forwards. People are running channels. We were cutting up their midfield pretty well. Possession was available. When we lost the ball, people were tracking back hard and trying to win it back.

      Honestly, I think you are overreacting hard. However, when we start playing better next year and Landon is on the roster, I doubt you will see it that way.

  9. quagmate - May 30, 2013 at 3:37 PM

    There are only three players who look like they belong in an international match. Guzan, Howard and Dempsey. Bradley might be the only other player on the roster who deserves to be on the pitch.

    The US isn’t developing Soccer Players, they are developing Soccer Athletes.

  10. paxonst - May 30, 2013 at 11:56 PM

    Offense wins games, and defense keep you from losing games. The USMNT’s problem is on both sides of the ball. I would like to see LD in the squad. I believe he would be instrumental in the fluidity of the attack. Despite LD eventual presence, the current backline will lose more games than the offense can win.

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