Urgency surged through the United States camp this week. The travails at the CONCACAF Gold Cup during the summer arranged a winner-take-all playoff against Mexico in October. The burden of that match and the weight of falling short increased the competition for places and ramped up the pressure to produce.
The circumstances amplified the importance of the response in the 2-1 victory over Peru on Friday night. The end product -- and particularly the riposte after a poor first half -- bolstered a side trying to build belief and cohesion ahead of the friendly against Brazil on Tuesday and the date at the Rose Bowl next month (live, Oct. 10, 8:30p.m. ET, FS1, FOX Sports GO).
"For the whole team, it was important after that Gold Cup that we showed that we can beat a team that played a good Copa América and that always plays well in South America," U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones said. "It was not easy. In the first half, I think they played really good. In the second half, we changed a little bit and we came out better in the game."
The second-half reply provided an important marker for a group trying to sort itself out. This performance highlighted some of the ongoing selection issues in the side, but it also permitted this group to work through some of the teething issues and yield the benefits from working through them as the match progressed.
Absent stars led to structural issues early
The bright opening period brimmed with energy, but it eventually faded as the Americans struggled to find themselves without Michael Bradley in midfield or Clint Dempsey up front. Bradley's absence loomed as particularly influential because he played every minute of every match this year before missing out here due to club duties with Toronto FC.
It took the Americans a while to figure out how to perform without them and locate the necessary direction and drive. Jones picked up some of the slack by dropping deep, facilitating the play and surging forward upon his return in central midfield. Alejandro Bedoya carried out his duties earnestly, too. But the steady array of long diagonals and direct service toward the channels needed the nuance usually injected by Bradley.
Those initial issues manifested as the first half unfolded and the initial tempo dropped. Every lost chance to keep the ball or string together a series of passes conceded possession and permitted Peru to find its rhythm. The problems blossomed as the Americans dropped deeper and deeper to compensate.
Lack of pressure creates uncertainty at the back ….
Most of the problems stemmed from the changes in the team and the unease with the corresponding responsibilities. There were too many times in the first half where players were caught thinking too much and responding too slowly as they ticked through their responsibilities.
There were few threats over the top given the way the Americans set out their stall and squeezed the back four, but they were also too many instances where Peru operated freely through midfield and sliced through two or three players by playing around them.
"The first half was a little, I'd say, so-so all over the field, really," U.S. defender Tim Ream said. "We weren't putting enough pressure on the ball. In the second half, we made a little bit of an adjustment and made a real effort to put more pressure on the ball. It made everyone a little bit more comfortable, didn't it? That was the goal in the second half and it came off well."
… and center backs struggle to adjust as necessary
The lack of pressure in midfield placed too much of a burden on center backs John Brooks and Omar Gonzalez to make decisions. Both players function most effectively when they remain compact and stay within themselves. Their issues usually start when they are enticed to close in midfield and pull into wide areas (and both of them jump out too readily). Brooks found his footing more or less after one wild dive into the fray at midfield, while Gonzalez repeatedly struggled to maintain the proper spacing with Brooks and select the proper times to venture out of his comfort area.
Gonzalez paid dearly for those wobbles on Peru's opening goal. The play itself posed little danger at first glance even after Daniel Chavez collected from a tidy infield run. There were enough numbers behind the ball to cope. Chavez had few players running off him. And yet Gonzalez's curious choice to retreat on the edge of the penalty area permitted Chavez ample room to shoot. The resulting deflection off Gonzalez -- moving forward and turning after a belated step to the ball -- looped over Brad Guzan and underscored the improvements required.
Commitment and energy provide the bedrock of the second half response …
The final few minutes of the first half hinted at the second-half riposte. The energy increased. DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes (always a lingering threat as Ream found him repeatedly with balls over the top) located more of the game and started to use their pace in the wide areas. Jozy Altidore and Zardes forced Pedro Gallese into important saves, while Brooks somehow skied over the bar from six yards.
Klinsmann noted his halftime talk urged the players to continue those steps after the interval. The halftime alterations -- Ventura Alvarado for Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron for Michael Orozco and Mix Diskerud for Bedoya -- consolidated the measures. The decision to move the line up the field and place Peru under pressure inevitably reaped dividends.
"We started to step a little bit higher," Jones said. "With Jefferson Farfan, we know he's a guy who always tries to play on the line and come from high. In the second half, we controlled that a little bit better. It was a chance for me and for Mix to step a little bit higher and press them a little bit more."
By moving the entire shape forward, the Americans located more and more opportunities to play Yedlin and Zardes into threatening areas and strengthened the supply lines to Altidore and Bobby Wood. Those measures -- plus a bit of cleverness from Altidore and a vital double save from Brad Guzan after the hour -- paved the way to victory.
… as Altidore reinforces his enduring utility
Altidore emerged as the hero after the interval with a combination of application and movement. He toiled willingly in the first half without receiving much in the way of service, but he used the improvement after the break to his advantage by imposing his willing on the game.
Those qualities emerged most notably on the equalizer. Altidore dashed onto Cameron's intelligent long throw and made the absolute most of it. His clever flick tempted Carlos Zambrano into an ill-advised challenge. The resulting contact prompted a tumble inside the penalty area and a chance to convert from the spot. The equalizer secured at the second attempt -- Gallese made a fine block on the spot kick -- proved a fitting reward for an opportunity manufactured from very little.
Altidore eventually benefited from good work by Yedlin and Zardes -- plus a dreadful attempted clearance -- to turn home the winner at the back post. His movement placed him in the right place at the right time and rounded off his double with a straightforward finish. It capped off a good night for the striker as he returned to the fold after a difficult summer.
"It was a really good sign," Klinsmann said. "It's just great to have him back."
Altidore stands out as a particularly importance presence over the next month. This is a team desperately short of options up front. His continued return to form offers another dimension to a side in need of variety. It is an encouraging sign for him and for the prospects of the team on the whole ahead of the friendly against Brazil on Tuesday.