For the many people who had the opportunity to watch the USA vs Mexico Gold Cup final on Saturday, I hope you enjoyed the roller coaster ride! The ups and downs of my emotions, complete with the 100 foot drop as Clint Dempsey smashed the crossbar with a left footed shot, which would have tied the game at 3-3 was incredible! The story of the USMNT (United States Men’s National Team) Gold Cup final run can honestly be described by simply watching Mexico’s last goal by Giovani Dos Santos, a scramble. Below is the replay of the goal. Please, take a second and watch this world-class goal. After watching it, pause it at 0:08 into the video. Count the United States players behind the ball. Six! Let me repeat that, six USA defenders behind the ball inside our own 18 and we let them score. Inexcusable. We had players scrambling behind Tim Howard for cover, players just watching Dos Santos dance on the ball inside our own box, and players stabbing at the ball just trying to get a flick on Dos Santos deft touch. Quite embarrassing if you ask me. A brilliant run in behind the USA defense (a common theme of the night) by Dos Santos, Howard flopping around like a fish out of water, and a world-class finish turned our Gold Cup dreams into a Silver Platter of questions. After going up 2-0 only twenty-three minutes into the game, we are left only to scratch our heads. How can a national team squad give up four unanswered goals and just collapse? This is a great example to all coaches out there to not be complacent when getting a lead. Here we will examine the Do’s and Don’ts of the most dangerous lead in soccer, 2-0.
Getting up 2-0 and Not Looking Back
Based on the USMNT performances throughout the tournament, I didn’t really give them a chance in this game. I remember sending Coach Jerry Mac a text saying, “What does coach Bradley have up his sleeve for today?” When we went up 2-0, I was in shock and I thought, “Wow, maybe we do have a chance.”
But then I noticed something: the strategy of the game never changed from when the whistle blew to start the game to when Donovan knocked in the second goal. This game started off very open, which worried me because I didn’t think we had the pace to keep up with a very quick Mexican side. To go up 2-0 was a dream start! But we didn’t protect the lead. Instead, we invited Mexico into our midfield so they could keep sending in their forwards behind our defense. A 2-0 lead can be debated as being the most dangerous leads in soccer. If the opposing team gets a goal, the momentum starts to shift, players begin to panic, and mistakes start to be made. So, what should have the US done in order to protect their 2:0 lead? What do you as a coach have to change tactically in order to prevent a collapse like we saw in the Gold Cup final? How can you take a 2-0 lead and not look back on it?
- Do Not Go in a Defensive Block – Many coaches when they get up two goals will change to a more defensive strategy. They may even change their formation and bring more players back on defense. The issue occurs when you go into a “complete” defensive block and just allow your opponent to keep coming down your throat (you are setting yourself up for disaster). You must adjust to the situation. With 10 minutes left in the match, yes a defensive block might be the right strategy. However, if you are going to allow your opponent to keep attacking and keep generating chances, a mistake will be made and a goal will come.
- Adjust to the Opponent – Observe and take notice of how the game has played out thus far. Has the other team created chances or have they pretty much sat back and let you attack? If they have created some good chances but have gotten unlucky, maybe you want to change to a more defense strategy. But remember, don’t go into a “complete defensive block.” Try instead to rely on a more counter-attacking approach. Tighten it up in the midfield and don’t allow your opponent to get the ball and turn. If your opponent thus far has let you come at them and attack, continue to attack! A third goal could be the icing on the cake.
- Don’t Panic – Your team will react to you as a coach. If you begin to panic, so will your team. If the other team does happen to get another goal to cut the lead to 2-1, stay positive and remember not to go into a “defensive block.“ This is the easiest way for your team to recognize that you are panicking.
What I would have done if I were coach Bob Bradley…
As I mentioned before, when the USMNT went up 2-0, the strategy of the game didn’t change and the game remained open. After Donovan’s goal, I would have changed the formation to a 4-5-1 and dropped Dempsey or Freddy Adu back into the midfield and relied on the counter attack. Mexico is too fast and too creative to allow them to keep the game open. As the game went on and pressure was added, we completely lost our midfield and possession. Going up 2-0, we needed to control the clock by keeping possession and limit turnovers in the midfield. We needed to tighten everything up in the back and not allow the forwards to make those runs in behind our defense. We needed to tighten up the midfield so they didn’t have time to get their head’s up and make those through balls in behind our defense.
What else do you think the USMNT and Bradley could have done to prevent such a stunning collapse?