While the United States men’s national team’s players, coaches and fans are still licking their wounds from the team’s poor performance and loss to Honduras earlier this month, World Cup qualifying has just gotten started and the team needs to right the ship quickly.
With the second hexagonal qualifier against Costa Rica just over a month away, here are six changes USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann needs to make to turn the U.S.’ World Cup qualifying campaign around.
Keep it simple, stupid
Jurgen Klinsmann has spent much of his first 18 months in charge of the USMNT tinkering with different formations for the team.
He tried out a 4-1-2-1-2, a 4-2-3-1, a 4-1-2-3, a 4-1-3-1-1, a 4-1-3-2 and, most recently, used a 4-1-3-2 off-balance formation that did not include a right midfielder.
However, the formation that the U.S. has seen the most success with has been the 4-1-3-2 with two wide midfielders. This is the formation that the U.S. used most recently in World Cup qualifying wins against Antigua, Jamaica and Guatemala. It is also the setup the U.S. used in away wins over Italy and Mexico and the away tie to Russia.
It seemed that Klinsmann had finally accepted the idea that this simple, if boring, formation is the one most understood by the vast majority of American players. It is also the formation they are most comfortable with.
But against Honduras, Klinsmann once again misunderstood himself for a tactical revolutionary employing the off-balance 4-1-3-2 that blew up in the United States’ face.
Klinsmann left Timmy Chandler on an island with no midfield help on the right side of the field. Chandler, who had been training in 30-degree winter weather in Nurnberg and playing in his first World Cup qualifier, was apparently expected to fly up and down the right flank with little to no cover in 90-degree heat.
Klinsmann also expected Jermaine Jones, also used to 30-degree days in Schalke, to be able to overlap the forwards on the right side, cover for Chandler when Chandler went forward and also play center midfield at the same time.
Such insane tactical assertions only complicated the already adverse conditions present in Honduras that day.
Without some consistency and, to be blunt, simplicity, built into the U.S. system, the U.S. will continue to struggle.
Abandon the idea of playing three defensive midfielders all at the same time
Look, it’s easy to understand why Jurgen Klinsmann continues to play three defensive-minded midfielders at the same time—the U.S. player pool is overrun with them.
From Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones to Danny Williams and Maurice Edu, the team has an overabundance of No. 6s. And yes, Bradley and Jones (perhaps even Edu) are also capable of playing as No. 8s, but the team does not play well when three of the aforementioned players (and that list does not include oft-capped Kyle Beckerman) are deployed centrally at the same time.
U.S. fans who were frustrated with Bob Bradley’s consistent use of two defensive midfielders must be pining for those days of Bradley’s comparatively aggressive tactics to return.
If Klinsmann insists that some combination of Bradley, Jones, Edu and Williams must be on the field at the same time, one of them needs to pushed out to the flank.
Although it would be ideal if the U.S. stuck players in their natural positions and played a natural wide midfielder on the flank, Jones did look OK as a wide midfielder against Russia. Williams, on the other hand, looked very out of place on the flank where he was deployed on several occasions early in the Jurgen Klinsmann era.
Play Eddie Johnson wide and Clint Dempsey centrally
Although Eddie Johnson has traditionally played as a forward for both club and country, the recent revitalization of his national team career came this October as a wide midfielder.
The fact is that EJ plays best with the game in front of him and has never been particularly adept with his back to goal—or with his first touch.
Playing wide gives Johnson more time and space to make decisions and allows him to use his speed to run at defenders. Against Honduras earlier this month and in the January friendly against Canada, Johnson’s lack of refinement as a forward was obvious.
But, out wide, as he played against Antigua and Guatemala, Johnson’s skill set was used most effectively. And, with the U.S.’ depth at wide midfielder questionable, it only makes sense to continuing using him there. Against Honduras, Johnson was played up top for stretches and was thoroughly ineffective.
With Clint Dempsey, the case is the exact opposite. While Dempsey has proved with the U.S. and with Fulham that he can excel as a wide midfielder, there is no doubt that he is best when he is played centrally.
As the U.S.’ best finisher, Dempsey is needed where he can poach for goals. Klinsmann’s off-balance formation forced Dempsey to drift wide in the first half against Honduras. In the second half, Klinsmann moved Dempsey into the midfield and Johnson to forward, which was clearly a mistake.
For the U.S. to be at its best, Dempsey needs the freedom to run through the middle and Johnson needs to stay wide.
Know what you are and, more importantly, what you are not
Historically, the U.S. has been most successful when it admits what it is and what it is not. In other words, the USMNT is not Barcelona. It doesn’t have the caliber of player to play tiki-taka and shouldn’t try. The U.S. is best when it focuses on the old adage of past American success: “run fast and try hard."
And while the USMNT is certainly advancing in its ability to play a more refined brand of football and players like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are proving the U.S. is capable of producing world-class players, the U.S. must still focus on what it is good at (or at least should be good at).
The U.S. needs to focus on an organized defensive effort, outworking the other team, making smart counterattacks and taking advantage of set pieces.
Against Honduras, a team with a 5’10” starting goalkeeper, the U.S. should have done much better with its seven corner kicks.
With aerial weapons like Omar Gonzalez, Eddie Johnson, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, it is inexcusable that most of the U.S. corner kick attempts were played into poor positions.
Set plays and counterattacks have been and should continue to be the U.S.’ biggest scoring opportunities.
Stick with the veterans
Every USMNT fan realizes that, at some point, the team is going to need to move on from Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo.
With both players at 33 years of age, their viability and fitness a year-and-a-half from now for World Cup 2014 is questionable.
However, both of them are still major cogs in the USMNT and without them, the team has struggled. In the three games in which the U.S.’ “A” team has been called up in the Jurgen Klinsmann era, Bocanegra has not been in the starting lineup at center-back only three times.
Those three games were the U.S.’ away loss to Jamaica in the semifinal round of qualifying, the U.S.’ away win over Antigua (Bocanegra played left-back in that game) and the U.S.’ away loss to Honduras earlier this month. In all three of those games, the U.S. back line was disorganized and leaderless.
Bocanegra has garnered the most minutes of any outfield player in the Jurgen Klinsmann era. Steve Cherundolo has garnered the second-most minutes.
The only three games that Cherundolo has missed for the USMNT in the Jurgen Klinsmann era were the loss to Costa Rica in 2011, the away loss to Jamaica in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying and the loss to Honduras.
Is anyone seeing a pattern here?
While it may be en vogue to “age bash” Bocanegra and Cherundolo, the fact remains that they are and have been two of the most consistent performers for the USMNT. In the U.S.’ home win against Jamaica in September and the win against Guatemala in October, both World Cup qualifiers, Cherundolo was many pundit’s Man of the Match.
Against Guatemala, Bocanegra scored the opening goal for the U.S.
Both are still vital to the U.S.’ qualifying hopes going forward.
While players like Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Timmy Chandler and perhaps even Eric Lichaj, Seb Hines and John Anthony Brooks are the future, World Cup qualification requires veteran leadership and experience.
Much like the Mayan calendar ending didn’t prophesize the end of the world, one loss at the beginning of the hexagonal does not necessarily spell doom for the USMNT.
In the other results of the first hexagonal round, Costa Rica tied Panama and Jamaica tied Mexico. Those results leave the U.S. only one point away from a top-three spot in the hexagonal (the top three spots automatically qualify for the World Cup) with nine games to go.
The Honduras game was, hopefully, just a blip on the radar. The Hondurans had more than a few factors going in their favor in the first game including the heat, humidity, kickoff time and pitch conditions.
Despite the obvious mistake of the off-balance formation and leaving Carlos Bocanegra out of the lineup (big mistakes to be sure), Jurgen Klinsmann did make some sensible decisions.
With the U.S. struggling in the heat and unable to hold possession, Klinsmann introduced Maurice Edu and Sacha Kljestan into the game with the score tied 1-1. Both players did well helping the U.S. establish a simpler passing game that had been lacking for much of the game when the U.S. was resorting to kick-and-chase.
It was unfortunate that Honduras went ahead late when the U.S. had little time and no available substitutes to mount a comeback. Additionally, on almost any other professional surface in the world, the through ball that resulted in Honduras’ second goal would have easily gotten all the way to Tim Howard instead of dying in the long grass right in front of him.
As long as Klinsmann remains calm and makes sensible decisions regarding the team’s tactics and personnel, the U.S. should still qualify for the World Cup.
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