The aftermath of the latest round of post-World Cup friendlies has been dominated by the sharp, if brief, conflict between the commissioner of Major League Soccer and the appointed head of the United States’ Men’s National Team. Jürgen Klinsmann’s opinions on the career choices of some of his most vital players struck a chord that resonated deeply with the American soccer community. Don Garber quickly leapt to the defense of his (relatively) fledgling league, rebuking the threatening rhetoric coming from the man commanding the pinnacle of American soccer.
And yet, sidestepping all discussion of the validity of the comments made by both sides, the national team currently remains in an underwhelming state of flux. Following a pair of October draws on the heels of a knife-edge victory over a surprisingly stout Czech Republic team in August, the American senior team finds itself confronted by several glaring deficiencies. In the most recent pair of games, Mikkel Diskerud and Jozy Altidore gave the Americans a one-goal lead following impressive bits of play, only to see their efforts thwarted by defensive lapses in the waning minutes.
Given the nature of the opponents, and in spite of these matches “only” being of the friendly variety, these results are concerning. The national team has become bogged down in its most recent transitional stage and, acknowledging that results will worsen as a result before they improve, Klinsmann must finally make his mark on the program in pushing it forward. More change, not less, is the answer to the readily apparent ills afflicting the team.
Offensively, the United States has been decidedly subpar following its ouster from Brazil at the hands of Belgium. Each match since the end of the American run at the World Cup has seen only a single tally in the positive ledger. Inconsistency and missed opportunities have been the cornerstones of the American attack thus far, facts that have led to a conspicuous dearth of goals. On a good note, the United States has found its solution to the lack of creativity at the point of the midfield trio in the form of the aforementioned Mikkel Diskerud, who has been a revelation in each of the post-World Cup matches.
Diskerud should have scored on the shot that led to Alejandro Bedoya’s goal against the Czech Republic, and he finished well off a short pass from DeAndre Yedlin against Ecuador. The rotating faces around him in no way slowed Diskerud in his role as the engine of the American offense centrally.
Rather, it is the lack of players out wide that has hurt the United States in transition and the final third. Klinsmann is attempting to make do with the same players from the last World Cup cycle, shoehorning various names into roles they are either unaccustomed to or ill-suited for.
The most recent generation of American talent is simply too used to playing in the confines of a system like the 4-4-2 or 4-5-1, where defending is the priority and a bunker mentality is a virtue, not a vice. Rather than attempting to cobble together a mutant hybrid with talent not suited for the system he envisions, Jürgen Klinsmann needs to wipe the slate clean and call in younger, more malleable talent that suits the system he wants to utilize. This is especially true for the three forward positions in the 4-3-3, where wing talent is vital to the success of the team.
The American pool, as described earlier, is decidedly shallow when it comes to wingers, though there are several prospects that have shone brightly with various youth squads out wide. More specifically, Haji Wright is a player who deserves to bypass the U-20 and U-23 teams as soon as this January to try his hand at the senior level of international competition. With 28 goals in 31 caps with the U-17 and U-18 teams (the recently departed Landon Donovan had 35 goals in 41 caps at the same level), Wright has demonstrated lethality in front of the goal that is markedly absent from players not named Jozy Altidore.
At six feet tall, with pace, creativity and flair to burn, Wright is an exciting wing talent that has the potential to be a mainstay for the senior team. Additionally, Klinsmann needs to cease calling in talent that has yet to prove itself worthy at the club or international level. For whatever reason, Jozy Altidore continues to be an effective CONCACAF forward while languishing on the bench for Sunderland. Players like Brek Shea and Bobby Wood have not shown much for their clubs, let alone enough to warrant extensive playing time in the American shirt.
Jürgen made a splash by selecting Miguel Ibarra, then capping him with a three minute or so cameo. Ibarra has demonstrated serious skill at the NASL level, he deserves another look over Shea and Wood out wide. Rather than attempting to make do with ill-fitting pieces and hybrid formations, the German skipper needs to install his new system with the players to make it work. The 4-3-3 has shown tremendous promise for all of the United States’ youth teams, it is time for the senior team to reflect the new direction in more than simply appearance.
On the defensive side of the ball, the United States continues to be unable to produce consistently sound play with any sort of frequency. All four defensive positions remain in flux, with new starters seemingly every match. Injury and inconsistent play have resulted in late concessions during the past few matches, as well as a plethora of near misses that should have resulted in additional goals being scored.
Greg Garza remains young, though his position as a natural left back is unique. Centerback remains a question mark, as no player aside from Matt Besler has staked a legitimate claim to a starting role. With his injured hamstring, Besler removed even that small comfort. Right back is the most stable position in the back, though the decision between Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin as starter is a tough one. Unfortunately, the numerous questions have few real answers, at least in the short term.
Consistency is a product of talent and experience, yet few American players have experience at the highest levels of the game at a club level, let alone internationally. Besler, Omar Gonzalez, John Anthony Brooks, et al have varying degrees of experience, none of it against the world’s best. Brooks has yet to entrench himself as a starting centerback, Gonzalez has flaws galore, and Besler is good, but not great. Defensively, the United States would benefit greatly from the emergence of a force at the back, a player to organize the defense and provide technical skill as a complement to the physical.
Unfortunately, at the present time, there is no player truly setting himself apart to take such a role for the United States in defense. Yet again, as in the case of the offense, Klinsmann needs to cast a wider net to uncover more options. Domestically, Matt Hedges for FC Dallas has had a stellar season at centerback, a position crying out for stability. With decent pace, lots of length, and the ability to tackle without demolishing an attacker in the box, Hedges has done more than enough to earn a call up soon, perhaps in November with the end of his MLS season.
Abroad, an exciting development is the emergence of Cameron Carter-Vickers as one of Tottenham’s best youth players. Young Cameron played very well against a thoroughly talented Brazil side with the United States U-23s a short time ago at the tender age of 16.
While this is not an assurance of superstardom, a call up in January is deserved in the same vein as that of Haji Wright. Expectations are low, the system in place would be nearly identical, and a senior cap would serve as an excellent recruiting tool to secure Carter-Vickers’ services.
Carter-Vickers is a player that Klinsmann can build his defense around for the future, and as a prospect in Tottenham’s academy, Carter-Vickers is on the precipice of playing in the most high profile league in the world. That sort of pressure-filled environment and experience against some of the world’s best forwards will only serve to make Carter-Vickers better, or show his lack of quality for the senior team. In either case, there is little to lose by evaluating him, Hedges, and other new defensive players early in the cycle, then building a more concrete roster as qualification for Russia 2018 draws nearer.
Klinsmann took the reins of the entire American setup with an eye towards reformation along the lines of Germany prior to the 2006 World Cup. It is time for him to back his vision with action. Bold selections for the upcoming friendlies against Colombia and Ireland would be an excellent start.