Loss to Brazil illustrates U.S.'s need to be more courageous, more inventive
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- U.S. midfielder Wil Trapp managed to distill down to one word what was lacking from the Americans' performance in a 2-0 defeat to Brazil: courage. What that particular term means is often in the eye of the beholder, but Trapp was more than willing to break the word down into what he thought were its component parts.
"I think courage is just understanding that not only is this a difficult team to play against, but [we have to] want the ball in tough spots, want to play forward, want to make tackles. All of those things tie into courage as well as communicating with your teammate. Sometimes when the game gets hard, you don't talk as much. Being brave is stepping up and understanding that we have to continue to help each other as a team."
Armed with Trapp's definition, anyone watching the first 30 minutes of the match could see that this was one trait the U.S. didn't have enough of. Brazil dominated possession. No shame there, it does that to a lot of teams. But when the U.S. did get the ball it was far too careless with it, oftentimes failing to get beyond the middle third of the field, or resorting to aimless clearances that went straight back to Brazil.
That only invited more pressure, and it wasn't long before the bending U.S. defense broke. It took less than 11 minutes, in fact. Douglas Costa made U.S. left-back Antonee Robinson pay for taking a bad defending angle by racing down the right wing, and put the ball on a platter for Roberto Firmino to score Brazil's first goal of the night with a first-time finish.
This isn't to say there was a complete absence of courage on the night. The U.S. team did compete, even in the face of a highly dubious penalty whistled on Trapp just before halftime that allowed Neymar to extend Brazil's lead from the spot. The defense firmed up in the second half, with Robinson managing to find his feet after being run ragged by Costa in the opening 45 minutes.
"We kept more possession in the second half and a little bit towards the end of the first half," said midfielder Weston McKennie. "We got on the end of a couple of set pieces and got down into their box and got some shots off. I think that shows what type of team we are, that we can adjust and adapt and go out there and not back down from a fight."
McKennie isn't wrong, but the progress the U.S. showed within the game was incremental. The damage had also already been done, and it felt like Brazil was in cruise control for much of the night. The U.S. also benefited from the usual flood of substitutions usually found in friendlies that often results in the game becoming more open. And whatever chances the U.S. did create usually came in the form of set pieces.
So whether this performance constitutes progress from the 1-1 draw with France last June is debatable. In fact, the games looked similar. In both cases the opposition dominated tempo and the creation of chances. The big difference was that Brazil converted its opportunities while the French for the most part didn't. And the U.S. team's inability to string passes together when it did manage to win the ball was evident, preventing the home side from catching its breath.
This remains the single-biggest weakness moving forward and points to the fact that for all the positives that have been gained by interim manager Dave Sarachan playing young players, most of the good impressions have been on the defensive side of the ball. That not only goes for defenders like Matt Miazga but for the midfield trio of Trapp, McKennie and Tyler Adams.
To be clear, games against the kind of opposition that Brazil offers remain beneficial. And Sarachan should definitely persist in putting young players on the field. The risk-reward ratio remains favorable given that the World Cup cycle has just started.
"We're earning stripes, man," said Trapp. "This is a game where lessons are learned and they're learned harshly because a team like this can punish you, and they did. Understanding that we're only going to get better, we're only going to improve from playing difficult opponents is a big step for us."
But the search for attacking improvements continues. In seven games under Sarachan, the U.S. has scored seven goals, and three of those came against an overmatched Bolivia side.
Even more concerning is that the moments of inventive attacking play have been rare, confirming the sense that the U.S. continues to churn out players for the defensive and middle thirds of the field -- the attacking third, not so much. Sure, the absence of Christian Pulisic on the night due to injury didn't help, but when he does return, he'll need a creative sidekick. Who is it? Right now, it's impossible to tell.
Might that player -- or preferably players -- emerge as time goes on? It's certainly possible. Sarachan, for one, is convinced they will. But to that end, collectively the U.S. needs to find its courage more often. Tuesday's encounter against archrivals Mexico would be a great place to start.