The victory over Honduras is still a shining star in what has been a dark period for the USMNT. Six exhilarating goals. A brilliant veteran performance and one equaled by their young superstar. On the defensive end Tim Howard pulled off a clean sheet while the defense managed to clear 41 balls. Wait. 41 what? What are 41 clearances? That sounds like number for a desperate team and not one seems that cruised to a joyous win.
In fact the 41 clearances registered by the USMNT defense was a rare achievement. That was the largest amount in any U.S. game this cycle, by either side. That seems like an odd number for a defense in complete control, right?
The funny thing is the U.S. nearly equaled that number with 35 against Panama. But before digging further, let’s take a look at what these clearances are how they are defined. Opta tracks game data for much of the soccer world, including these qualifiers, and they define a clearance as “a defensive action where a player kicks the ball away from his own goal with no intended recipient of the ball.”
That’s a fairly clear definition of a piece of the new defensive strategy. But clearances need to be put in context. There’s no great way to do that but one way would be to compare clearances to the percentage of passes attempted by the opposition in the final third. That stat gives a sense of how much time the opposition would have been pressuring the defense. In this Honduras match the Hondurans attempted 142 passes in the final third, which is a fair amount considering they weren’t able to score. The U.S. then cleared nearly 29% of those passes (or potentially other methods of moving the ball). In the Panama game they achieved nearly the same ratio, and that rate is at the highest level during this past cycle.
It’s only two matches but these early returns highlight the more pragmatic defensive approach installed by Arena, and one that values removing the ball from danger over options like attempting tackles or maintaining possession in the defensive third.
This trend will be an interesting to watch as the U.S. will likely need a heroic defensive effort in Mexico in the next set of qualifiers.