United States midfield experiment goes awry in Brazil loss
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Brazil may be at a low ebb at the moment in terms of results, but it's still a team with an immense amount of quality in its lineup, and that proved to be more than enough to rout the U.S. 4-1.
Hulk opened the scoring in the ninth minute, second-half substitute Neymar scored twice, and Rafinha added another. Danny Williams scored a consolation goal for the Americans on a long-range strike in stoppage time, but this was a match that was never really in doubt.
Here are three thoughts from a humbling night for the Americans.
1. Klinsmann's midfield experiment blows up in his face
With Michael Bradley returning to the lineup, a huge question prior to the match surrounded the construction of the U.S. midfield. Instead of persisting with the four-man alignment that was used against Peru, Klinsmann opted for a five-man midfield with Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya sitting behind Michael Bradley, and Gyasi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin maintaining their spots on the wings.
It seemed a peculiar setup given that Jones' tendency to freelance meant Bedoya would be relied upon heavily to screen the back four. While Bedoya has historically been a conscientious defender, he lacks the bite to really excel in that role. Compounding matters is the fact Bedoya isn't fully fit after battling a hamstring injury he picked up with club side Nantes in preseason, which impacted his mobility.
It proved to be tactical blunder of the highest order, and it was no surprise that Brazil's ninth-minute opener exposed the folly of Klinsmann's midfield alignment. A sloppy ball by Yedlin not only ceded possession but caught Jones running forward, leaving Bedoya to try to track Willian. It was no contest, as the Chelsea attacker rode Bedoya's challenge, glided by Tim Ream, only to see his attempted cross carom off the woodwork. The ball fell kindly to Hulk, who deked his way past Yedlin to hammer the ball past Brad Guzan.
Willian continued to run rampant for the rest of the half, and seeing the error of his ways, Klinsmann pulled Bedoya out of the match in the 36th minute, replacing him with Danny Williams, a player much better suited to a holding role.
Klinsmann's choice of a five-man midfield also had the effect of stranding Jozy Altidore, who seemed to take a step backward from his performance against Peru.
Generally speaking, there's nothing wrong with experimentation, especially in a friendly. But with next month's CONCACAF Cup tilt against Mexico just more than four weeks away, now wasn't the time to put Bedoya in a position in which he was unlikely to succeed. There is precious little time to cement on-field relationships. This match was an opportunity squandered.
2. Rough night for the U.S. defense
With John Brooks hobbled by a strained right hamstring he picked up in training on Sunday, Klinsmann was forced to rely on Michael Orozco and Ventura Alvarado in the center of defense, and for 60 minutes, the duo held up well. Both players were tidy on the ball and put out their share of fires.
But beyond that point, the level of both players dropped noticeably. Orozco in particular struggled, putting in some half-hearted challenges. Alvarado's play also eroded, and appeared to concede a penalty late in the match when he upended Lucas, though replays showed it occurred outside the box.
The U.S. outside backs had difficulty the entire night, though the injuries to Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley limited Klinsmann's options in this area. Brazil found plenty of joy attacking the left side of the U.S. defense. Tim Ream is a solid defender and passer, but he was no match for the right-sided combination of Willian and Fabinho, who consistently beat him for pace.
Geoff Cameron didn't fare much better at right back. While his athleticism allowed him to fare marginally better than Ream, his takedown of Neymar for a penalty just five minutes into the second half was perhaps the easiest call of the night for referee Joel Aguilar. Neymar duly dispatched the spot kick to make the score 2-0, and there was no way back for the U.S.
Ream's monumentally difficult night was made complete when Rafinha latched onto a pass from Lucas, turned him easily, and slotted his shot past Guzan. Neymar added the coup de grace with a fourth.
3. How much momentum has been lost?
Looking back at the past two matches, there were some positives. Guzan looked sharp in both games, despite getting pummeled against Brazil. He has more than justified Klinsmann's continued faith in him. Jones showed he can still play an important role for the U.S., so long as he has someone like Williams to provide cover behind him.
But in terms of answering questions ahead of the Mexico match, not much more was added. Who the center back pairing will be for that game is anybody's guess. While Zardes and Yedlin showed well at times, was enough trust built up for Klinsmann to start both players against Mexico, or does he lean on more experienced heads?
Another question is what effect the result will have on the Americans' mindset. It's easy to fall back on the old "it's only a friendly" excuse. And Brazil's quality remains extraordinarily high. But after Neymar put Brazil up 2-0 there were some troubling images. The body language of the U.S. players was all wrong. The intensity level within the team noticeably dropped, and at one point, Ream and Cameron could be seen openly yelling at each other. Friendly or no, it's not a good look.
A game like this is bound to result in a heavy dose of frustration. And perhaps it's a good thing that there will be four weeks separation from this match and the one against Mexico. Certainly having a short memory after a result like this is a club that most professionals need to have in their proverbial bag.
That said, Klinsmann's motivational powers are well documented, and he'll need to rely on them heavily to build his young players back up ahead of the biggest game of the year.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.