Just over two years ago, FFG presented former USMNT manager Bob Bradley with a very specific to-do list in order to adequately prepare for the 2014 World Cup. Obviously, the chore is now out of Bob’s hands, but with WC qualifiying set to resume this week vs. Jamaica, we thought it the perfect time to give a status report on Jurgen Klinsmann’s progress through the list.
First, in summary, here are the 4 straightforward objectives we tasked Bob with:
- Adjust the formation to deal with 3-man central midfields
- Permanently replace Charlie Davies
- Incorporate young defenders
- Find understudies for Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan
Now we’ll go point-by-point and reflect on how well each need has been addressed.
Adjust the Formation to Combat 3-Man Central Midfields
Even before Bradley’s exit, the USMNT began to embrace world futbol’s evolution toward one striker formations. So while it has to be said that Kilnsmann scores high marks on this one, he took advantage of the tactical momentum kickstarted by Bradley. The central midfield, in fact, has looked solid, if not always spectacular, in almost every match under the German, whether the formation was 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2, 4-3-3, or even 4-4-1-1. Many commentators, FFG included, cite the depth of USMNT’s central midfield as on of its greatest asset of the past few years.
Although some impressive performances have been churned out by the center mids, one big question remains. Who is the best fit as the attacking mid? We’ve got our destroyers – Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu – and passer – Michael Bradley – but no one has regularly produced in the ‘poet/dreamer’ role so vital in a one-striker setup.
Clint Dempsey has the vision for the part, but likes to go a little renegade and drift, not to mention that he’s had his best moments for club and country coming in from the left. Jose Torres has shown flashes of brilliance as the trequartista, but seemed to disappear from the pitch recently vs. Mexico. Sacha Kljestan is yet another hopeful who has shown merit as a creator, yet, despite the lack of options, he hasn’t convinced Jurgen to give him a regular place on the roster. On the other end of the spectrum is Graham Zusi, who keeps earning call-ups despite having yet to impress for the Nats, though he certainly has the skill to do so.
Additionally, there’s still the possibility that Stuart Holden, who is expected to return from injury this year, will be able to provide some guile in the attack. Holden would be an intriguing option as the third center mid, given his propensity to provide both hard-nosed tackles and gilt-edged passes in the same sequence of play.
Permanently Replace Charlie Davies
Davies, the talented speedster whose career was set back in an October 2009 car crash, was deadliest as a second forward playing off a more traditional striker, especially on the counter. For this reason he was the ideal cog in Bradley’s 4-4-2, and Bradley spent all of the build-up to the 2010 World Cup trying to figure out how to replace him. He never quite succeeded, which was one of the many reasons we suggested he move to 1-striker formations, which, eventually, he did.
So, simply put, our evolution into the one-striker formation essentially eliminated the need to replace Davies. So in a sense, this one was scratched off the list, rather than checked off.
That doesn’t obviate the need to find a world class striker, however. In that regard, Herculez Gomez, another Bob Bradley project, is playing well for club and country and U-23 star Terrence Boyd has emerged as another possibility. Jozy Altidore is undoubtedly maturing and consistently impacting at the club level, which compels us to still consider him our best hope for 2014.
Incorporate Young Defenders
At the back, Klinsmann has produced a mixed bag. He’s found two gems in fullbacks Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler (Chandler’s waffling notwithstanding). While it’s possible Chandler may end up playing for Germany, Johnson still provides an attacking punch not seen since Tony Sanneh. Steve Cherundolo may have outplayed Ashley Cole in the USA-England 2010 World Cup match, but he is going to be hard-pressed to hold onto his starting spot if both young fullbacks end up on the roster.
Despite Klinsmann’s success on the defensive wing, he hasn’t been able to fully incorporate young center backs to complement and eventually replace Carlos Bocanegra, Clarance Goodson, and Oguchi Onyewu.
Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream have both been given shots at the back, and it looks like Klinsmann trusts the former more than the latter at the moment. Omar Gonzalez, the other potential star, has just returned from a lengthy injury, though Klinsmann had only called him up once before Gonzalez tore his ACL. The currently injured Zak Whitbread will also be in contention when he makes his return.
Bocanegra made some poor decisions in the recent friendlies but remains the best center back in the pool. The issues are A) which defender is the best fit alongside him and B) will Captain America be able to play in 2014? The second question can’t be answered yet. Answering the first isn’t much easier.
On paper, Cameron and/or Ream are the best fit. They’re big, relatively quick, and great passers, all of which complement Bocanegra’s best quality – his fine positioning. Top-class competition in England won’t hurt either Ream or Cameron and it will be fascinating to watch how their club play translates–or doesn’t–into national team attention.
And at a second glance, even the fullback situation could be more settled. If Chandler ever comes completely into the fold, his speed and knack for pushing forward are a tremendous asset. If not, Eric Lichaj is a good option with similar attributes. A lot may depend on Lichaj’s minutes and performance this season at Aston Villa. But, as with Kljestan, Lichaj hasn’t earned call-ups despite the obvious lack of depth at the position.
Find Understudies for Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan
The most troubling lack of progress for Klinsmann is in his inability to find understudies for Dempsey and Donovan. The biggest names in US soccer can’t perform at a high level indefinitely, and, although both are sure to figure prominently in 2014, the clock is ticking for the USMNT to fill their boots, so to speak.
Both Donovan and Dempsey have made their presence known in the middle, but the legacy for both will be as masters of the flanks. Not traditional wingers, but creative outside mids with the versatility to move centrally and even play as substitute forwards.
A few different options have been trotted out, but Klinsmann certainly hasn’t found a go-to guy for a spark off the bench. Brek Shea, Danny Williams, and even Robbie Rogers have received opportunities to impress on the wing. Shea provided a nice offensive threat early in Klinsmann’s reign, especially when combining with Chandler. The FC Dallas man’s international stock dropped as his club form suffered, although much has to be said for his continuing ability to impact games, as he did as a late sub in the victory over Mexico. As Shea matures as a player, he may possess a Dempsey-like attacking aggression on the pitch, but time will tell if a spell in Europe (undoubtedly in his future) will inject him with wisdom and confidence.
Williams has looked good defensively – and is a decent alternative in a defense-minded personnel grouping – but contributed little going forward. Rogers, unfortunately, has long proven that he’s not an international caliber winger. Neither of these two options seem realistic to provide an offensive spark in the near future.
José Torres is the only other player to receive significant playing time in lieu of Dempsey or Donovan, and he’s been, as noted, impressive at times and invisible at others. Against Canada, he struggled to coexist with Dempsey; while against Scotland, he displayed an almost instinctual link with Donovan. Long term, we think he will fit better as part of the destroyer/passer pairing, rather than a creator. He is more Xavi, a deep-lying metronome, than Iniesta, a roaming playmaker.
But don’t despair, gringos. Long term, there is talent coming. Winger Alejandro Bedoya impressed under Bob Bradley, though his career took a minor stumble in timing when he moved to Glasgow Rangers just before their relegation. He’s now on-loan with Swedish champions Helsingborgs IF, however, and some good minutes in Europe may bring him back into the picture by 2014. Mix Diskerud offers a calm presence on the ball, and Joe Gyau – a player we saw in person at the Mexico-US U-23 friendly – possesses the blistering pace necessary to trouble any defense.
Klinsmann has to find a way to get someone, be it Shea, Bedoya, Diskerud, Gyau or some yet to be seen gem to develop as a top-class outside mid, if not all-out winger.
What does this all mean for the Jamaica matches?
Oddly enough, all four questions from the to-do list could come into play against Jamaica. With Donovan and Bradley out injured – and Dempsey on a long did-not-play streak due to his beleaguered transfer from Fulham to Tottenham – the squad is certainly not the strongest. Here’s the roster:
- Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, Sean Johnson, Nick Rimando
- Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra, Geoff Cameron, Steve Cherundolo, Maurice Edu, Clarence Goodson, Fabian Johnson, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Michael Parkhurst, Jonathan Spector
- Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman, Joe Corona, Jermaine Jones, Brek Shea, Jose Torres, Danny Williams, Graham Zusi
- Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Terrence Boyd, Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez
We could see the formation going any number of ways, a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1 with a front four chosen from Torres/Dempsey/Shea/Zusi/Gomez/Altidore/Williams; or even a straight 4-4-2 with some pairing of Boyd/Gomez/Altidore up top. The shape depends on 1) Dempsey’s fitness (ie will he start) and 2) Klinsmann’s trust in Torres. If neither starts, a 4-4-2 is likely. If one or both make the eleven, a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 looks like a lock.
While the attacking quartet is a bit of a mystery, the rest of the squad should be fairly easy to predict. Jones and Edu should start at center mid, Bocanegra and Goodson/Cameron behind them, and Cherundolo and Johnson will man the defensive flanks.
And, of course, that guy from the Allstate commercials will be in front of goal.
Gringos, we know that was a mouthful, but what do you think of the to-do list? Is Klinsmann making progress? What’s the squad going to look like against Jamaica?