This past January, the annual gathering of the United States Men’s National team commenced under a cloud of discontent and doubt resulting from 2014’s final matches. Poor efforts and results to end the year left the American soccer community at large with a bitter sense of defeat that many hoped would be washed away by solid results in 2015.
Additionally, the manager of the team who came into office with such promise found himself in increasingly warm water.
An utterly shameful display against Ireland brought Juergen Klinsmann under fire, a situation only exacerbated by his continued love-hate relationship with the American soccer establishment. Klinsmann’s “supreme ruler” act had begun to wear thin following dreadful results at the close of 2014, and the first two friendlies of 2015 offered an avenue to redemption that the German gaffer suddenly found himself needing.
The results of the matches against Chile and Panama, however, offer more questions than answers to the concerns floating around the American soccer family at large. Issues with talent development and personnel have been constants for years. Those are problems that are endemic to a sporting culture that has only begun to really develop in the past 25 years, rather than over a century.
The loss to Chile and win over Panama present more pressing, solvable concerns than the ideological melee that is the development structure of the United States. While four goals in two matches is certainly an improvement over the scoring rate from 2014’s latter half, there remain serious deficiencies in personnel and management that must be improved to avoid disaster in Olympic qualifying and the rapidly approaching Gold Cup.
From a talent perspective, the United States remains woefully underwhelming in terms of attacking ability. Certainly, Michael Bradley turned over a new leaf after a 2014 international campaign that suffered under injuries and general exhaustion, while Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore showed continued scoring prowess in the American shirt.
Outside of these three players, however, there is a dearth of talent that is glaring with the now permanent departure of Landon Donovan. Player selection is an issue that will be addressed below, but the talent on display against Chile and Panama showed a glaring lack of finality in the finish that separates the good and useful from the merely mediocre. Players like Bobby Wood and Chris Wondolowski continue to put themselves in good positions, only to completely whiff on opportunity after opportunity in front of goal.
As the old saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and the international level of competition is certainly not the place for “almost”. The United States needs players that can perform, and finish, with a consistency that simply is absent from the current roster of the senior team. The American starting XI is currently rife with opportunities for new talent to emerge, and yet there is a conspicuous lack of change in the players appearing in the starting lineup.
To be fair, Gyasi Zardes finally got a real run as an attacking option moving forward and proved to be an intriguing prospect for the Gold Cup, perhaps beyond with a quality assist against Panama. Yet aside from the newly emergent Zardes, little in the way of MLS or fringe European talent threatened to upset the current status quo. Lee Nguyen, he of 18 goals in MLS last year, managed a paltry 55 minutes on the field in 2 matches competing for a spot in a weakened midfield desperately in need of creative flair.
With the mass return of many American players from overseas, MLS has never been more flush with American talent; however this has yet to translate into turnover in the starting XI for the senior national team. Against a “B” side for Chile and newly floundering Panama, the players casual and hardcore fans are universally aware of showed well, while those vying for consideration performed with decidedly mixed results.
The Chile match started fairly well, only to see the United States wilt under the pressure of Chile’s attack in a far too familiar scene. Brek Shea, goal notwithstanding, has barely seen any action for his numerous clubs the past two years and quickly withered under the Chilean heat. Wil Trapp put in a mixed effort, though his first appearance for the United States must come with the requisite caveat of lack of experience. Trapp will continue to improve and soon be a stalwart in the defensive midfield. Steve Birnbaum showed well against Chile, and was unfortunately too hurt to play against Panama.
Moving forward, Birnbaum is a name to watch for a defense that has been, to put it bluntly, abysmal. Against Panama, the team as a unit showed well, though there continue to be far too many near-misses in the final third. Michael Bradley had an excellent effort once more hitting the woodwork, while Jermaine Jones lashed a ferocious header directly into the hands of the goalkeeper. A shift of the head two degrees in nearly any direction would have resulted in a goal, yet the opportunity went wanting.
Only Bradley’s olimpico and a well-taken shot from Jozy Altidore resulted in tallies against the Panamanians. To continue beating a thoroughly pulped horse, the American team must be better in front of goal. Finishing, and solid defense, is in short supply in the current pool, and both have been lacking for far too long.
New players need to seize the opportunity in front of them, else the United States take a firm step back in its form post-World Cup. Despite the readily apparent shortcomings of this team, however, the managerial decisions made for these two friendlies must draw a far harsher critique.
At current count, the matches against Chile and Panama saw the third different primary tactical formation employed by the United States under Juergen Klinsmann. Initially, Klinsmann was adamant that the 4-2-3-1 would be the key to the American team’s future, though that plan was discarded once it became apparent, yet again, that Jozy Altidore does not function well as the sole option up front.
He has yet to do so, most likely will never do so at this stage in his development, and yet manager after manager continues to try to make him a target forward. The 4-3-3 has been newly trumpeted by Klinsmann as the formation of the future, yet only a few dreadful matches in 2014 saw that particular formation used, with starkly negative results. The 3-5-2 to open against Chile and subsequent reversion to the 4-4-2, as well as the latter’s use against Panama mark yet another attempt by Der Tueftler to find success via change. At a certain point, formation changes become change for change’s sake.
That point is now. The American team lacks an identity, something to hang its hat on match in and match out. Chile, now on its second coach in the same system, lives and dies by a 3-4-3 predicated on speed, defensive pressure, and aggressive attacking at every turn. Similarly, Panama had an identity of controlled chaos that gave bigger CONCACAF foes fits each match, though the team has since fallen into a disarray similar to that of the United States while under new management.
The United States continues to lack a formation that serves as the foundation for everything else it does on the pitch. Change that accomplishes nothing concrete actually harms the progress of the team, it does not merely impede. As a manager of a national team, Juergen is uniquely able to select the players he has to suit the system of his choosing, or at the very least tailor his preferred formation to suit the pool at large.
He’s done none of those things. Klinsmann has a pool that is long on midfielders, shallow in terms of finishing ability, and contains an assortment of defenders who need time to coalesce into a unit not plagued by miscues resulting from miscommunication.
The defense continues to be in disarray far too often to be confident of anything other than the excitement that comes from chaos. Consistency, positional discipline, and effective communication are all key to a solid defense. Running a player like Jermaine Jones, who lacks positional discipline of any sort, out at centerback is a recipe for disaster. Jones should serve to provide defensive steel to the midfield behind Michael Bradley during the Gold Cup, nothing more. At 32, his time is at an end.
Players like Steve Birnbaum and Matt Hedges deserve the opportunity lock down a spot in the starting XI to provide the defense with stability that has been sorely lacking for ages. Klinsmann’s reliance on the same known players to fulfill roles they are ill-suited for and unfamiliar with is puzzling at best, incompetent at worst. Juergen has managed to recruit players distantly linked to the United States to play for his team, yet consistently overlooks domestic players more worthy of an opportunity than the Brek Sheas of the world.
A player like Ethan Finlay, who scored 11 goals for the Columbus Crew in 2014 from the wing, not only has played more first team minutes than any winger in the pool, he added 7 assists, a solid indicator that his skillset would add dramatically to the American attack. And yet, Finlay has received as many caps as the average American Outlaw: zero. Given Klinsmann’s stated preference for an attacking, aggressive team, the lack of attention given Finlay is incomprehensible.
Surely Finlay was worth more of a look than the known Wondolowski, who has proven to be mediocre at best on the international stage. Finlay offers dangerous width to a team that has no true winger in its ranks, and which is in desperate need of a player with his particular talents. The 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and even a 4-4-2 would benefit from a player with speed, skill, and finishing ability on the flanks.
Finlay fits all of Klinsmann’s stated requirements, yet still has not been capped. Change certainly needs to occur, but towards consistency, not chaos. Juergen must decide the future of the national team now, tactically, in order to determine the proper personnel to make his team work.
The win against Panama bought Klinsmann a little more time to do so; however the Gold Cup must be a fairly resounding success in order to defuse the discontent brewing in many circles of the American soccer landscape. Upcoming matches against Denmark and Switzerland should result in a more varied selection of talent, especially if the MLS season is still on hold due to ongoing troubles with the collective bargaining agreement.
Provided Klinsmann can come up with a plan and stick to it, positive results against those teams would do much to reassure American soccer fans and stakeholders alike.