Managing a national football team is one of the most difficult jobs in world football. Not only do the coaches have little time to work with their teams, often only seeing their players for a day or two every few months, but often those matches hold extremely high stakes like World Cup qualification.
Holding the hopes of an entire nation in their hands, a national team coach must select players from a wide range of teams and leagues throughout the world and somehow develop a coherent team strategy for the players to implement with little time to work out the kinks on the training ground.
And every decision of a national team coach is scrutinized, from his roster selection to his training regiment, from his man-management to his starting XI, from the formation he selects to the tactics he employs.
If he makes a perceived mistake, the national team manager is often vilified by fans and the media alike, and then must wait months until his next opportunity to prove himself because international fixtures are often spread so far across the calendar.
In his 20 months as coach of the United States men’s national team, Jurgen Klinsmann has had to make many difficult decisions—some that have worked out and some that have not.
Here are the five biggest decisions to define Klinsmann’s reign as the USMNT coach, so far.
Playing with 3 Defensive Midfielders
One of the most criticized decisions made by Klinsmann in the year and a half he has been in charge of the USMNT, has been his use of three defensive midfielders at the same time.
Any national team manager is limited by his player pool—it is not like managing a club where a new player can be purchased to fill a hole in a team’s lineup. And, for better or for worse, the USMNT has a plethora of good defensive midfielders. Often, when Klinsmann tries to fit his best XI all into the lineup at the same time, it has resulted in three defensive midfielders taking the field.
On occasion, Klinsmann has done this by deploying Danny Williams or Jermaine Jones out on the wing—a stopgap measure that still assures the team some width.
However, on two occasions, Klinsmann has tried to play three defensive midfielders all centrally—with disastrous results.
The first such occasion was against Jamaica in the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. Using Kyle Beckerman, Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones all in the middle of the pitch at the same time, the U.S. fell to Jamaica 2-1 and only mustered a pathetic two shots in the match. The loss forced the U.S. into a virtual must-win situation four days later in Columbus, Ohio on September 11.
The second such occasion, as if Klinsmann had not learned his lesson from the first debacle, came against Honduras this past February as the U.S. opened up the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, commonly known simply as “the hex.”
Once again, the U.S. attack stagnated and the U.S. was overrun, 2-1.
This loss, once again, put the U.S. into a virtual must-win situation against Costa Rica last month, a game which the U.S., thankfully, won 1-0.
Against Costa Rica, Klinsmann changed to a 4-2-3-1 formation with better, albeit not spectacular, results. More assuring, however, was the fact that four days later, away against Mexico, Klinsmann stayed with his 4-2-3-1 and did not revert to a three defensive midfielder set.
The U.S., while pinned back for most of the match against Mexico, held on for a 0-0 tie, in no small part due to the play of Graham Zusi and Herculez Gomez on the wings. Zusi and Gomez, in Klinsmann’s 4-2-3-1, provided the U.S. with the width—even if it was defensively—that had been missing a month earlier in the United States’ ugly loss to Honduras.
While it would be nice to believe that Klinsmann has finally learned his lesson, it is important to note that for both of the March qualifiers, Klinsmann did not have Danny Williams available. Williams was not called up due to illness, but if he had been, or if Jermaine Jones had been available for the Mexico game (he was injured against Costa Rica), would Klinsmann have gone back to three defensive midfielders?
Only time will tell if Klinsmann has finally buried the three defensive midfielder set for good.
As stated before, one of the limiting factors for any national team manager is his respective player pool. Although it may sound like heresy, one of the limiting factors for the USMNT setup is Clint Dempsey.
Dempsey is, arguably, the USMNT’s best player and without a doubt the team’s most potent goal scorer. However, Dempsey is not a true forward. Nor is he a true winger. Nor is he a true No. 10.
In Bob Bradley’s “empty bucket” 4-2-2-2, Dempsey was often used on the wing to start matches and moved up front late in the game. At the club level, for Tottenham and Fulham, Dempsey has been used as a forward, a winger and a No. 10. Oddly enough, it is Dempsey’s versatility that creates questions as to how he is best used.
Under Klinsmann, the U.S. has often lineup up in what can best be described as a 4-1-3-1-1 with Dempsey sitting underneath a lone striker (a spot most recently held by either Herculez Gomez or Jozy Altidore). That has often caused the lone striker to be isolated up top against three or four defenders—and often caused that striker to be terribly ineffective.
In Bradley’s system, with Dempsey and Landon Donovan operating on the wings, the U.S. had two world-class players to generate chances for the forwards. With Donovan hurt, or on sabbatical for much of Klinsmann’s tenure, that tandem has not been available. Dempsey’s goal-scoring prowess also makes him most valuable when deployed as close to the net as possible. Under Bradley, it was often frustrating to watch Donovan and Dempsey generate chances, only for those chances to be wasted by forwards that were not truly of international quality.
The solution to this problem is not easily identifiable. The U.S. lacks truly world-class wingers to generate chances and Klinsmann has been reticent to use a true playmaker like Benny Feilhaber, Freddy Adu, Joe Corona or Mix Diskerud. And to be honest, it is debatable to what extent any of those players have earned a chance with the national team.
Until Klinsmann finds a solution to his team's lack of creativity in the midfield, the U.S. will continue to struggle offensively.
Playing it “safe”
One thing that has opened up Klinsmann to a fair amount of criticism by fans has been his preference to stick with the “safe” players, rather than using his 25 games in charge (16 of them friendlies) to find new attacking talent for the United States.
Many fans have urged Klinsmann to give players like Corona, Adu, Feilhaber, Diskerud, Terrence Boyd, Juan Agudelo, Josh Gatt, Alejandro Bedoya, Conor O’Brien or Eric Lichaj a chance with the national team.
To be fair, some of those players’ chances have been limited by injuries or their own poor club form. But, in looking at the numbers, some of them have clearly not been given much of a chance by Klinsmann.
In a year and a half, with 16 friendlies to vet new talent, Boyd has seen 167 minutes of playing time, Agudelo 162 minutes, Gatt 108 minutes, Feilhaber 107 minutes, Bedoya 26 minutes, Corona 23 minutes and Diskerud a staggering three minutes of playing time. Lichaj, O’Brien and Adu have never been called up by Klinsmann.
While every player must earn their chance with the national team, it is scary to see some of the players who have earned more playing time than these talented youngsters under Klinsmann. A full list of every minute of playing time under Klinsmann through the Honduras match can be seen—here.
Doing his own thing
At the same time that Klinsmann has seemed to resist using some of the younger talent at his disposal, Klinsmann has shown no fear in thinking outside the box.
Klinsmann has become notorious for his use of yoga, two-a-day training sessions, “empty-stomach” morning runs, grueling fitness sessions, odd motivational speakers and “risky” player selections.
Some of these decisions have worked out, some have not.
Klinsmann must be given credit for giving Geoff Cameron, Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Michael Parkhurst and Eddie Johnson their shots to become big players for the national team over the past year and a half.
Klinsmann must also be given credit for his seemingly crazy decision to call up Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson for the October qualifiers, while not calling up Chris Wondolowski, Jozy Altidore and Terrence Boyd. This decision paid off huge dividends when Johnson scored both goals against Antigua and Barbuda with his second tally coming off an assist from Gordon.
While some of Klinsmann other risky decisions have not worked out as well—putting Timmy Chandler on an island against Honduras in February being a notable example—Klinsmann must be given credit for the decisions that have worked out in favor of the U.S.
Trusting Omar Gonzalez
It may have seemed like a no-brainer for Klinsmann to work Omar Gonzalez into the national team over the past few months. For years, Gonzalez has been touted as the USMNT center-back of the future.
However, an untimely ACL injury in January of 2012 put Gonzalez’s national team and European hopes on hold. Gonzalez recovered in fine fashion, helping the L.A. Galaxy to the 2012 MLS championship and earning for himself MLS Cup MVP honors.
However, the timing of Gonzalez’s comeback meant that if Klinsmann were to use him, it would be against Honduras in an away World Cup qualifier—not ideal conditions for breaking in a new center-back.
Furthermore, Klinsmann used Gonzalez over grizzled veteran and team captain, Carlos Bocanegra.
The result did not go in the U.S.’ favor and Gonzalez was culpable in losing his runner on Honduras’ game-winning goal. However, Klinsmann stuck with Gonzalez in the March qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico and the defender repaid Klinsmann’s faith with two standout performances.
Now, it appears the U.S. finally has the center-back it has so desperately needed and the U.S., at least defensively, looks to be in good shape moving forward.
Follow me on Twitter @JohnDHalloran
Follow me on Facebook www.facebook.com/AmericanTouchline