Now that the United States is in the midst of its holiday season, it's a good time to look back on the U.S. Men's National Team and figure out just what fans can be thankful for under new coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Like a Thanksgiving dinner at which not everything on the table is desired by everyone (or, for the more forward looking, like a Christmas stocking full of gift cards—and a stick of deodorant or pack of razors you could have gotten at the local drugstore yourself), Klinsmann's early reign has been a mixed bag.
Here are some of the more noteworthy happenings:
Klinsmann's early comments promised an increase in the Latin presence on the national team. He felt the team should reflect the much more diverse soccer-playing population in America.
He kept that promise, but what was gained?
The two most promising Hispanic players, Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco Fiscal, have struggled at the national level. Fiscal, whom Klinsmann has given every opportunity to shine (and then some), can't seem to make the most of his chances.
The failures of these players might have done more harm than good to the reputation of the Hispanic-American role with the current team.
Part of the problem isn't Klinsmann's. Jose Francisco Torres (Klinsmann's strongest Latin candidate) has been unavailable due to injury.
But Omar Gonzalez (arguably one of the expected replacements in the defense) hasn't had a call-up and there are rumors he might consider Mexico if they'd be interested in his service.
Joe Corona, a Mexican-American youngster with potential hangs between two countries. He has been included in the U-23 camp, but until he plays for the senior team in a FIFA-recognized competition, he could still defect.
Instead, Klinsmann's best gains have come from his inclusion of German-American players. Fabian Johnson had a strong debut against Slovenia, and Timothy Chandler appears to be a replacement along the back line (even if he can't manage an offsides trap).
Overall, many expected a shake-up to the national team roster (there's no way Bob Bradley could have gotten it right, right?).
A large number had opportunities (46 called-up and 28 saw the field—this includes veterans), but there were few revelations—certainly no miracles—and like any other coach, Klinsmann has his eyebrow-raising favorites (Robbie Rogers, Kyle Beckerman and Michael Orozco Fiscal).
Still, aside from a few omissions (Gonzalez, Bedoya and perhaps Mixx Diskeruud—Klinsmann did say he wanted technically talented players), Klinsmann has given himself a large pool of "serviceable" choices—but which players should start? What roles should they have? What's the best recipe for success?
These questions seem to plague the USMNT, and they haven't disappeared under Klinsmann.
On a side note, the inability of Klinsmann to tweak the roster and make "magic happen" has made Bob Bradley's tenure look a little better. It wasn't as if Bradley was overlooking one or two players that were going to fix everything.
Grade: B (not for the Latin influence, but for his overall player selection, the pieces available and the team chemistry; they seem excited and happy to play together for the new manager).
4-5-1/4-3-3/4-4-2: What Exactly Are We Playing?
It's almost as controversial as player selection; fans, critics and analysts alike love to argue over a team's best formation.
Many clamored for a new formation instead of the defensively focused 4-4-2 Bradley employed.
Plus, there's the age-old adage that a manager should craft his formation to accommodate the talent he has, and the bulk of the U.S. talent still remains in the midfield.
But neither Klinsmann's 4-5-1 nor his 4-3-3 (Klinsmann and Dempsey said they played it at some point, but the team never looked to be playing a true 4-3-3 at any point) have produced many goals.
The Slovenia game, in which the U.S. changed back to a 4-4-2, seems to have ended the debate. The U.S. scored more than a goal, won the game and looked to maintain some offensive pressure for the first time in a long time.
Also, the team seemed to be more comfortable pressing with two forwards rather than one.
It looks like it wasn't so much that Bob Bradley's 4-4-2 was the wrong formation—it simply wasn't the right type of 4-4-2.
Bradley's 4-4-2 was a shell; two defensive midfielders and a tremendous focus on defensive positioning.
Klinsmann's 4-4-2 against Slovenia was almost a 4-3-3, with three defensive midfielders supporting Dempsey, Buddle and Altidore (Fabian Johnson plays defensive-mid for his club).
Both Fabian Johnson and Michael Bradley were interested in pushing forward (as were full-backs Timothy Chandler and Steve Cherundolo). The defensive support freed the forwards and Dempsey to attack, and the natural movement and offensive aggression of the midfield and defense supported the offensive line.
The new formation confirmed a couple of questions raised with the U.S.'s 4-5-1.
The Americans don't seem to have the midfield playmakers/forwards that other teams who play a 4-5-1 possess.
The midfield-heavy formation became trendy with the likes of Steven Gerard and Frank Lampard—attacking midfielders that played and scored like forwards—and forwards that could hold the front line like Didier Drogba and Thierry Henry (I'm going way back to the beginning of this trend).
With players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Nani and Wayne Rooney displaying the ability to play in a more fluid positional system (and the talent in the system/players at Barcelona), the belief was that the 4-5-1 got the most out of this new generation of players.
And that's true as long as your team has those players.
But teams around the world are going back to other formations to accommodate the players they have.
The United States has to do the same. The U.S. just doesn't have the midfield scorers needed to make the 4-5-1 work at this time.
Outside Dempsey and Donovan, there really aren't consistent midfield scorers on the team. As the Slovenia game showed, Dempsey thrives when two forwards take up most of the defensive focus so he can sneak in behind them (this is what he does at Fulham), and Donovan needs space to run, which doesn't always happen if two forwards aren't pulling defenders out of his lanes.
Brek Shea is more of a creative force, producing attacks but not finishing them, and there isn't a central attacking midfielder scoring regularly for the U.S. or for his club (Jose Torres hesitates to shoot, and both he and Stuart Holden are currently injured).
That goal-scoring midfielder needed for a successful 4-5-1 doesn't exist for the United States.
Even Altidore, the only American forward with an established role, plays better with a partner.
For now, it looks like a 4-4-2 is the best system, but not for the reason that ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman claims: that it produces more goals.
No formation magically produces more goals, or every team and manager would play that formation. It's a combination of many elements.
Right now, the U.S. 4-4-2 might have the best chance of producing the most sustained offensive chances, but that has to do with a number of elements all working together.
It remains to be seen if Klinsmann can replicate what he produced in the Slovenia friendly, especially with a different lineup. At the very least, Donovan will be included, and that makes the starting 11 a little crowded. Still, the German may have fallen upon a form of the 4-4-2 that gets the most out of his American team.
Interestingly, Klinsmann's formations expose the defense, but this may have more to do with the style of play rather than a problem with the formation or players. For the foreseeable future, fans should expect strong counterattacks against a Klinsmann side.
Is it about Tradition or about the Win?
From the moment Klinsmann was hired, he's been about instilling ideas of national identity and style of play into the team.
He's claimed the U.S. needs to play in a manner that respects and even utilizes the aggressive, offensive-minded nature and individualism Americans embrace.
His team has certainly demonstrated these qualities. They've displayed runs of possession, beautiful passing and movement, and a desire to press, get forward and support the offense.
This change in the national style of play has benefited independent-minded and flair-oriented players like Brek Shea and Clint Dempsey as well as offensive-minded full-backs Timothy Chandler and Steve Cherundolo.
This has been a complete reversal from the style of play under Bob Bradley.
However, the new approach has also left an aging and average-at-best defensive line vulnerable to counterattacks (which are now massively employed by other CONCACAF teams that don't have the resources to play the U.S. straight-up).
But is this team underperforming, and are the results more important than establishing a national style of play?
Without marquee players in key positions (read: right down the middle of the field at center forward, midfield and defense), what should be expected of Klinsmann's team?
This is a team in transition. Yes, Donovan and Dempsey are in their primes, but who else?
The defense needs to be rebuilt, and there are no star forwards.
Was the team supposed to beat Belgium or France?
This team, like all U.S. teams, will need to play better than the sum of its parts, and that's difficult for a national team since national teams do not get a lot of time to play together.
As has been the case in recent times, this remains a competitive Top 25 team that can lose to inferior teams if its players aren't careful and has the chance of beating better teams if everything goes right.
Has this team regressed from where it was after the final of last year's Gold Cup? Hardly.
Instead, Klinsmann has instilled some hope and potential. There are youngsters that may develop, there's a more exciting style of play—and when all of that goes right, there are moments of attractive, rather than negative, American soccer: This is a success that wasn't expected until Klinsmann came along.
Also, he has found at least one defensive replacement, has extended Bocanegra's career, Onyewu might have a few years left and Cherundolo is still producing. It would be nice to have one or two more defenders that look to step up, but Fiscal, Goodson and Ream have not taken advantage of their opportunities, so the search continues.
And Klinsmann is actively trying new candidates.
All the while, he's instilling a more diverse idea of the American player and helping to institute a more offensive-minded, attacking tradition.
Are the current results, the current state of the roster, the potential and the ideology a failure?
Once all of this is considered and the realistic talent level of the current squad is assessed, I disagree with the assessments of most analysts that put so much emphasis on unrealistic results.
While the goal may be for the United States to be an elite soccer team with a tremendous soccer tradition, the infrastructure, talent and support isn't there yet.
Klinsmann's tenure remains a mixed bag.
Some of these grades may not appear to reflect that, but a B could easily become a C or an A with one or two choices.
I value what may become lasting traditions in the U.S., but others may value the goals and results (ESPN and FOX Sports analysts sure do).
And yet, so many questions remain.
The current national team has a number of players, but they're simply mixed pieces. When everyone's available, who will play?
And how will the team handle the demands it places on its defense with its new attack-minded approach? The U.S. defensive line—new and old—is average at best.
Remember, qualification starts next year.
A large amount of uncertainty surrounds the current state of the USMNT, but the Slovenia game seemed to instill a good amount of hope—something truly missing at the end of Bob Bradley's reign.
With the potential there, the beginnings of an American tradition instilled, a number of experiments and players tried and a possible formation decided upon—plus the qualification process still in front of the team with no true upsets yet—the end of 2011 grade has to be an Overall B+.
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