Photo by Hunter Dorton/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
HARRISON, N.J. - The U.S. men's national team might have been able to cross off winning from its to-do list after beating Honduras, but its primary goal now is to show further improvement under the new system that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is implementing.
The Americans will get a chance to show how much progress they're making when they take on Ecuador (7 p.m., ESPN2, ESPN3.com and Univision) at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday night. Defending and finishing are two of the primary areas that the U.S. team will want to demonstrate its made strides in, in order to please a fanbase hungry for improved play.
But doing that will be tough considering they are facing an Ecuador side that has won its last two friendlies by a combined score of 9-2 and is fresh off of 2-0 result in World Cup qualifying.
"We expect a very difficult game because we have an opponent that is really on the rise in South America," said Klinsmann, who is 1-2-1 in his first four games in charge of the U.S. team. "Their last couple of results they beat basically every team that came along.
"They had an impressive game on Friday night against Venezuela; they started their World Cup qualifying campaign with a win. You go through their roster and you look at where these guys are playing its not only (Antonio) Valencia that plays at Manchester United, it's other ones that play all over good places as well."
Some of those players include America's Christian Benitez, captain Walter Ayovi of Monterrey and Pachuca duo Jaime Ayovi and Segundo Castillo.
Combined, Ecuador's attacking talent will provide a stiff test for a U.S. back line that is still adjusting to Klinsmann's new system. Steve Cherundolo and captain Carlos Bocanegra are basically locks to start in front of Tim Howard, while Oguchi Onyewu and Jonathan Spector could join them (both came off the bench in the second half of the Honduras game).
"They like to keep it wide open, play with four attackers, obviously their two target men but also their wingers stay high," said Howard. "It could be more wide open than we'd like, but if we defend with numbers then it's OK."
In front of the defense, Klinsmann is rich with options. He can choose from Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman, Jeff Larentowicz, Michael Bradley or newcomer Danny Williams. But just how many of those players start will depend on if Klinsmann trots out the same 4-1-3-2 formation that he used against Honduras or something else.
That decision will be vital, because against Honduras the United States admittedly gave up too many chances that could've resulted in goals if not for poor finishing and Howard's clutch saves.
Offensively, the Americans should look similar to the match with Los Catrachos. Jozy Altidore should start again after showing confidence, improved hold-up play and dribbling runs. Clint Dempsey and Brek Shea should, too.
That trio of attacking players was responsible for much of the production against Los Catrachos, and against an athletic Ecuadorian defense, Altidore, Dempsey and Shea will need to do the same.
To do that though, the Americans understand that they need to show improvements defensively, even if they wants to dictate the tone of the game.
"We know that now you play against these kind of teams you have to be ready to compete with them on a physical level and really deal with their athleticism," said Bradley. "and know when that's taken care off then we'll have the opportunity to play and to move and to pass and to try and combine and try to do all the things that we want to do as far as unlocking them."
Finishing is another aspect of the Americans' game that needs to be sharpened. Through four games under Klinsmann, the United States has only scored twice, missing a handful of clean looks on goal in the process.
The United States acknowledges that poor finishing has plagued its attack in the early stages of the Klinsmann era, but it's something the Americans are desperately wanting to rectify.
"We only won 1-0, but we had a lot of chances," DaMarcus Beasley said of the game against Honduras. "We just need to finish those chances. You see (that) we're hungry and we want to get that extra goal."
If the Americans have one thing going for themselves right now, it's confidence. The players have said that getting their first win under Klinsmann took pressure off and lifted the team morale, which was not high after three straight games without a victory.
"Like Stevie (Cherundolo) said, winning brings confidence," said Tim Ream, who could make his debut under Klinsmann at the stadium in which he plays at the club level. "I think everyone has a bit more confidence after a win, especially when the game could've been 2-, 3-, 4-1, basically. Guys are confident and everyone's got a little bounce in their step."
Facing an Ecuador team that presents problems both physically and tactically. the Americans are aware that building on their latest performance won't be easy, especially since they're adapting to a new style of play.
But even if these friendlies are just for fine-tuning and preparing for the start of World Cup qualifying next summer, the U.S. team isn't planning on just learning from these matches.
"We're worrying about the results," said Bradley. "Friendly or no friendly, you step on the field, you want to win. We weren't happy with the way the last few results had gone, and it's a good start against Honduras as far as putting things right. But we need a good strong performance (versus Ecuador), a good win and we'll feel like now we're moving ourselves along."