Something’s missing for the U.S. in the Gold Cup group stage and Bobby Warshaw knows what it is
There’s something not quite right about the U.S. so far in this Gold Cup. It all just looks a little slow and sloppy. There are a few factors one could pinpoint, but I know what looks the most off to me. And before I start, I’ll say this part of play is really difficult. If I could do it as well as I can talk about it, I definitely wouldn’t be sitting behind a computer for a living right now.
The U.S. needs a center midfielder—and, likely, a combo of center midfielders, as we will discuss soon—who has the bravery and comfort on the ball to take the ball in tough spots. The team is having trouble getting into a rhythm and controlling the ball in possession. It makes sense. Against inferior CONCACAF teams, the opponent’s first task will be to make life difficult for the U.S. Panama’s pre-game talk won’t be about playing some beautiful, fluid style. It will be about competing and making the U.S. work for every inch. It’s the main thing every lesser team knows it needs to do to have a chance—win the physical battle.
The onus turns to the U.S. to deal with the circumstances. They need someone to say “Fuck it, give me the ball.” I don’t care that I have someone right on me, I’m going to go get the rock. It’s a scary hurdle to overcome. You’re in the national team jersey—you’ve achieved the dream! You don’t want to let it slip—and it’s paralyzing to think of making a mistake.
Here’s the thing to remember: Once you get the ball, you don’t need to make some brilliant play. It’s perfectly okay to bounce it back to the center back. There’s a natural urge—generally from fans and mediocre coaches telling midfielders they need to pass forward more often—to try do something more than connect a pass back or sideways. Of course, at times it’s important to take a chance and go for the difficult play. But those times should be less often than the simple, barely noticeable actions. Sometimes you have to resist the urge to do more. It’s okay to feel like you haven’t accomplished anything at all. Because even though the single pass might not have made a huge difference, the play makes a huge statement.
When the ball rolls, it allows everyone on your team to breath and not think so much. When the ball is on a player’s foot, the player slows down. And when the play slows, players minds slow down. When the mind starts to slow, it starts to actively ponder instead of relying on the neurons firing from muscle memory.
When the center mids wait for the center defender to dribble forward or take a couple extra touches, everyone on the U.S. team starts to think. Where do I go? What am I supposed to do? That’s generally bad. Thinking like that in the middle of the game is unproductive. It’s the opposite of being “in the zone.” You want muscle memory to take over. And muscle memory acts when the ball is constantly rolling and players have to constantly make new decisions. So that little nondescript set of passes from the center defender to the center mid and back to the center defender might not have advanced the team, but it set the mental and emotional tone. It keeps the ball rolling, and the more the ball rolls the more likely it is for players to act rather than think.
One more small point on the idea of setting the tone. Bravery is infectious. If one center midfielder says “Give me the damn ball,” it will make other players do the same thing. Smart players recognize cajones. Even if the player gives the ball away a few times from the tough spots, smart soccer players will recognize the situation. They will acknowledge that at least he went for it, and yes he might have messed up, but he messed up doing the right thing. So it inspires teammates to step up in a similar fashion.
Now on to the point of a midfield partnership to help each other out. The idea of getting the ball in tough spots only works if the attackers have tight connections, meaning the distance between each player isn’t that far. A basic rule of soccer is that the tighter the defender is, the closer the attacker has to make a pass. So when the midfield is clogged, youth soccer lessons suggest a team needs to spread out, but it’s often the opposite. Players need to get closer to make it easier to make simple, high-percentage passes.
It’s important to have two center midfielders who can watch each other and recognize patterns. As the center defender has the ball, the two center midfielders need to be connecting on silent wavelengths. When my center midfield partner checks at an angle to get the ball, I also need to check at a specific angle to give him an option. If he’s brave enough to go get the ball, I need to be aware enough to help him; smart enough to know where to go; and also courageous enough to join him.
When Matt Hedges had the ball against Martinique, for example, Kellyn Acosta should have had one eye on Hedges and one eye on his center midfielder partner Christian Roldan. Roldan needs to be doing the same. So when Acosta goes to get the ball, Roldan is making a similar move at the same time. Ideally, one of the strikers will drop into the gap or a wide player will tuck in and take the space the center mids vacated when they checked to the ball, as well. This is when we start to get connections better than the wall pass back to the center defender. This, when players feel the game in the same way and watch each other’s movements, is when we start to get the soccer that fans crave.
Part of it, too, comes down to Bruce Arena’s player selection and the media and fanbase’s appetite for certain players. Bravery and comfort on the ball are crucial—and too often overlooked—attributes. We spend too much time talking about pace and “skill.” What does skill even mean? Skill doesn’t mean a damn thing if you can’t keep your nerve with a ball flying at you in the middle of the field with three defenders around you and 40,000 people in the stands. It’s a special ability to be able to deal with those moments.
Who can do it in the current player pool? Kyle Beckerman was the best at it for most of the last decade. He wasn’t the most talented player, but he had marbles the size of basketballs and always wanted the ball. Michael Bradley is in the top echelon, as well. Darlington Nagbe is the best in MLS at this. He will take any ball, anytime, anywhere, and make it look easy beyond any player I can remember in a U.S. jersey. Kelyn Rowe and Lee Nguyen are under-the-radar players who excel at it. It’s the main tool in Scott Caldwell and Wil Trapp’s repertoire, but they are both perhaps a little slow on the half-turn for the top level. You’ll notice I didn’t include Kellyn Acosta. I rate Kellyn Acosta as high as any player I’ve seen come through the U.S. in my lifetime, but this is the one weakness in his game. He’s not comfortable receiving the ball in tight spots, and too often he tries to force passes rather than keeping it simple and building rhythm. If Acosta adds the idea of building rhythm and tempo to his game, I see his ceiling being higher than Christian Pulisic’s.
In sum, center midfield is a fairly easy position, but sometimes the easier things in soccer are the toughest things to do (to steal a quote pretty much word for word from Johan Cruyff). Be brave. Keep it simple.
You can find Bobby’s recent book on life as a professional player at whenthedreambecamereality.com.