Formation switch sparks U.S. win
When the U.S. national team thinks back to this game, Tuesday's 3-2 win over Slovenia might feel like a fog. There was the dense air, severely restricting visibility and making for a spooky scene in Ljubljana. And then there was the action-packed, helter-skelter game itself.
After mostly implementing a 4-1-3-1-1 formation in recent games, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann opted to lift the central midfielder wedged at the center of his midfield diamond for a second advanced striker in this, his seventh game in charge. This made a certain amount of sense, given that the U.S. produced just two goals in the old scheme. And while it was at times capable of creating flurries of chances, it left target man Jozy Altidore isolated all too often.
The new ploy paid dividends in the opening and closing phases of the first half. The U.S. took advantage of having an extra man in the attacking half, pressuring high and aggressively and setting a quick tempo, stumping its counterparts early in the game. The game was not yet a minute old when Fabian Johnson got off a warning shot by clipping a dropped off ball from Edson Buddle at goal, necessitating a save from Samir Handanovic. In the ninth minute, good pressure from Clint Dempsey yielded both the ball and enough room for Buddle to scissor in a shot from 25 yards that went in off the post. Not two minutes later, Johnson slipped in behind the defense and served Altidore a potential 2-0 ball on a platter, only for the striker to shank the chance over from close.
After its jarring start, Slovenia started tapping its way out of the U.S. pressure and found wide pockets of space -- opened either by a malfunctioning offside trap or poor communication on diagonal runs. This had already led to a golden opportunity for Zlatan Ljubijankic in the second minute, only for him to waste his chance. In the 26th minute, left back Timmy Chandler, who had kept Ljubijankic onside on his early chance, allowed Tim Matavz to slip through and equalize the game. But as the half neared its close, the U.S. regained control by settling down on the ball, setting up high on the field and allowing wing backs Chandler and Steve Cherundolo to forage forward to provide crosses. A Michael Bradley corner subsequently found Dempsey, whose header in the 41st minute made it 2-1. And a shrewd ball into the box from Chandler to Johnson forced a rash tackle that offered a penalty and the 3-1 halftime scoreline off Altidore's boot.
If the lack of cohesion and organization in the U.S. defense in the first half was worrisome, the back line turned downright shambolic in the second. That man in the midfield the U.S. sacrificed for the extra attacker it had so enjoyed in the first act was now sorely missed. The U.S. put together fewer spells of possession, causing the back to be overrun often as holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman was no longer able to hold the line by himself. This forced Bradley to help out even more than he had in the first half, removing a crucial link from the U.S. offense.
Sloppy defending created a flurry of Slovenian chances throughout the first 20 minutes of the second half, resulting in a second goal for Matavz in the 61st minute. A series of defensive breakdowns, in which Slovenia hit the bar and the post, eventually culminated in a nice ball in the box from Ljubijankic to Matavz, who rounded Beckerman all too easily and slipped in the 3-2 goal. The U.S. recovered briefly, circulating well as the Yanks again took advantage of their freedom to roam. But the tide had irreversibly turned and the U.S. was forced into conservation-mode.
As Klinsmann began fielding more defensive midfielders, the gaping holes in midfield were plugged. One-way traffic persisted, but the chances became less frequent or prominent as the U.S. rode out its first road win and first win over a European team under Klinsmann.
Spacing out its formation created an open game for the U.S., making for an exciting game. More manpower up front begat more possession and chances, but it surrendered more space in the back, exposing a vulnerable defense.
Ultimately, the new formation supplied solutions to many of the problems Klinsmann's team had suffered from on offense. But it opened up a fresh batch of issues in the back, as well.
Grades: 1-10 (1 is lowest; 10 highest)
GK Tim Howard, 6.5: A solid game for the Timbot, who wasn't to blame on either goal.
D Steve Cherundolo, 6: Made some good runs forward, but he was sometimes sloppy in the back.
D Clarence Goodson, 5.5: Goodson didn't get off entirely scot-free on Matavz' first-half equalizer, but he had a strong performance in the air and was collected under pressure.
D Carlos Bocanegra, 6.5: Earning his 100th cap, Bocanegra was sturdy for much of the game, putting a crucial stop to a long Matavz dribble through the box. But even he was prone to the odd wobbly moment.
D Timmy Chandler, 4.5: Kept Ljubijankic onside early and frequently let down his team when called upon on defense, as he was accountable for the first Slovenian goal. His attacking play was strong yet again, but it didn't compensate for the failure in his primary task.
M Fabian Johnson, 8.5: In his first start for the U.S., the German recruit was a sensation. Between a surprise shot in the first minute, an 11th-minute run that set up what could have been a 2-0 lead, an earned penalty and dangerous runs into the opposing box, Johnson's 60 minutes of work were among the best on the U.S. side.
M Kyle Beckerman, 5: Covered a lot of ground, but his distribution was shaky and he came up short in the second half.
M Michael Bradley, 8: Back into the lineup at last, Bradley distributed well, was strong on set pieces and did hugely important work on defense.
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M Clint Dempsey, 7.5: Won the ball that Buddle turned into a 1-0 lead and took advantage of the room created for him in the middle by fielding another striker well. His runs and distribution were among the main ingredients to the Yanks' attacking success.
F Jozy Altidore, 6: As usual, some good and some bad from Jozy. Converted a penalty and held play up well, but he should have scored in the 11th minute on that Johnson cross and put the game out of reach. Was isolated late in the game.
F Edson Buddle, 8: In 77 minutes of work, Buddle played himself squarely back into the national team picture, holding up play well, scoring off a great 25-yard shot in the ninth minute and linking up well with the advancing midfielders.
M Brek Shea, 6.5: Shea brought good energy after coming on in the 61st minute but became less and less involved as the U.S. bunkered in.
M Maurice Edu, 6: Helped plug gaps in front of the defense but could have cost his team a late penalty in the box with an uncalled handball.
M Danny Williams, 6: Also helped keep Slovenia out of the box late.
M Jermaine Jones, Incomplete: Brought on in the 90th minute to help waste time.
F Robbie Rogers, Incomplete: Likewise.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.