U.S. defense shows its inexperience as Robinson and Saief struggle on the left
TAMPA, Fla. -- For much of Dave Sarachan's time in charge of the United States men's national team, the focus has been on how to generate a more consistent attack. Heading into Thursday's friendly with Colombia, the U.S. had scored just eight goals in its last eight games.
But in the 4-2 defeat to Los Cafeteros, it was the U.S. defense that furrowed more brows and caused more heads to shake. From the opening whistle, Colombia decided it would test the left side of the U.S. defense, manned by left-back Antonee Robinson and left midfielder Kenny Saief, and it proved to be a productive line of attack.
Radamel Falcao should have put Colombia up inside of three minutes, only he somehow managed to volley Santiago Arias' cross wide. No matter. The path down that flank had been identified, and even as the personnel changed during the match, there was still time and space to be had.
"In the first half they had a good interchange with James [Rodriguez] coming into the middle and Arias going out wide and crossing the ball," U.S. defender Matt Miazga said. "We tried to nullify them but they found ways [to get through]. What we have to do now is go back, review some video, make some adjustments in training and learn from it. That's all we can do."
Robinson, 21, has the most learning to do, given his overall lack of experience and how the space between him and center-back John Brooks (as well as that of Saief) was pierced time and again. The Wigan defender did make amends to a degree when his cross -- with the help of a slight deflection -- was volleyed home by Kellyn Acosta, sparking a brief second half-revival. But Robinson's defensive struggles continued and he was duly substituted after 76 minutes.
These kinds of difficulties are expected to a degree. Robinson also suffered during last month's game against Brazil, only to bounce back against Mexico. Sarachan is hoping for a similar revival.
"These games are ideal for everyone [on the squad], but for a guy like Antonee, these games are critical in terms of his growth," Sarachan said during his postmatch news conference. "He's by no means moved himself into a position where you'd say he's a highly experienced guy, but I really believe he's intelligent, he's got qualities and he will learn from all of these games. And that's the investment we make now for the future. We still believe in him and hopefully he gets more run-outs."
Compounding matters was the fact that Robinson got precious little help from Saief and Brooks. This is more distressing because both players are older -- Saief is 24 and Brooks is 25 -- and ought to have done more to shore up the U.S. defense.
Granted, Saief's skills are more on the attacking side, and he's also working his way back to full fitness after a preseason injury, but he can't be a passenger on defense and expect to see the field. The fact that he ended up switching sides with the 18-year-old Tim Weah spoke volumes.
Colombia is no doubt a ridiculously talented side. The fact that the U.S. was missing Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams is also worth noting. What was unexpected was that Adams might have been missed most of all. His ball-hawking and mobility were needed when the game opened up and became more stretched, especially when Falcao sprinted past Michael Bradley and scored Colombia's third goal.
Such was the enormity of the U.S. team's defensive struggles that it was easy to overlook a few attacking bright spots. Julian Green was solid once again playing as a second striker, and it was his tackle -- a heretofore unknown attribute for Green -- as well as an incisive pass that helped set up Bobby Wood's goal. Green is not going to replace Pulisic when the Dortmund midfielder returns, but he's at least evolving into a decent second option.
Weah's deadeye pass was just as instrumental on Wood's tally. Not bad for player who is usually scoring the goals rather than setting them up. And Wood is beginning to show some signs of life for club and country after a brutal club season in 2017-18.
Lessons get absorbed by different players at different rates of speed, and it doesn't take much for the balance between attack and defense to go awry, especially on a team this young. The good news is that a match against Peru in five days' time offers another chance to improve and apply those experiences.