It's been hard finding much to smile about regarding the US national team over the past six months.
The picture they've painted is a grim one: One win from eight (a span that includes the final three games in Brazil); a penchant for coughing up late goals in both friendlies and at the World Cup; and a general backing off of the "proactive possession" identity Jurgen Klinsmann had come into the job with three-and-a-half years ago. The US have looked more often than not out of ideas in attack, fragile in defense – especially when defending in space – and have even seen some serious vulnerability on set pieces.
As I said above, these aren't just "friendly" issues. Five of the six goals the US gave up last summer came after halftime, and four of those were in the 80th minute or later. When the games get fast and desperate, Klinsmann's squad has been trampled.
All of that makes it something of a fait accompli that the US boss is now tossing about the idea of playing a 3-5-2, trying out three-at-the-back formations in practice. It looks very much like it'll be a revamped USMNT for the upcoming friendlies against Chile (Wednesday, 6 pm ET; FoxSports 1) and Panama, an idea that will require some positional rearrangement and an on-the-fly shift in zonal responsibilities from front to back.
3-5-2 has been one formation USMNT has been practicing, with Jones in the middle of the 3.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) January 20, 2015
Klinsmann has earned any number of adjectives in his three-and-a-half years in charge, and right here he may be adding "pragmatic" to the list. The 3-5-2 is designed to A) absorb pressure, and B) make it difficult to build through the midfield. This iteration of the US need help in both of those areas, so why not turn to the formation that for nearly 20 years was de rigeur for teams who wanted to sit deep and counter?
Yes, the 3-5-2 fell out of favor in the early 2000s against the onslaught of 4-2-3-1s that have dominated most of the last decade, and the truth is I expect the upcoming games to be ugly no matter what formation the US play. But I also think it makes sense to get a look at the 3-5-2 now, early in the cycle, since four at the back has not really worked for the US for the better part of a year.
Q: Why the 3-5-2?
A: Numbers in central midfield & simplicity on the flanks
Despite playing with as many as five guys who are naturally central midfielders of some stripe, the US have struggled to get pressure to the ball in the midfield danger zones where opposition playmakers thrive. David McGoldrick looked like a superstar as the US midfield came apart again and again in a 4-1 loss to Ireland back in November, creating a pair of gorgeous goals and generally finding spaces where the US just weren't. Teo Gutierrez did the same a few days beforehand, and we're probably all suffering varying levels of PTSD after the performance of Kevin De Bruyne in the Round of 16.
It's a story that's been repeated since the Ghana game, especially when the US have tried to go toe-to-toe and maintain possession. One of the big problems with constantly shifting formations and personnel as Klinsmann has is that in doing so, he's neglected the need for chemistry and partnerships in the run of play. This is particularly disastrous in the diamond midfield, which relies upon a series of complex rotations in both defense and possession in order to maintain shape against teams with numerical superiority in midfield.
Scrapping the diamond – and nothing here says Klinsmann will do that permanently or even primarily – for the 3-5-2 will quite simply give the US one more body in the most important sector of the pitch. It's just math, and a natural way to get Michael Bradley, a more attacking midfield player (Lee Nguyen or Mix Diskerud) and a pure d-mid (Wil Trapp or Perry Kitchen) onto the field at the same time without sacrificing a striker.
The sacrifice is instead made on the wings, which is acceptable in the modern game for a team set up to play reactively. Costa Rica mastered the form last summer in their run to the quarterfinals, as they usually left a single wingback to deal with opposing flank forays while relying upon superior aerial play to deal with the surfeit of crosses they coaxed out of opponent after opponent. For the record, Costa Rica played a 5-3-2 that was often called a 5-4-1, but for teams that are counterattacking in nature there's little appreciable difference between that and a 3-5-2.
Other teams – the Netherlands and Mexico – played generally more attacking versions of the same, though the main principle (let the wingback deal 1-v-2) remained intact.
If that sounds familiar, remember that the the US played a 3-5-2 in this game:
At the two minute mark of the above highlights, after Landon Donovan's coup de grace, the announcer says "All the pressure's come from Mexico, but the USA now have a two-goal lead after 65 minutes."
Q: Why not the 3-5-2?
A: Shifting positional responsibilities
The US were under the gun for nearly the full 90 in Korea 13 years ago, but because of the way they were set up Brad Friedel only had to make two saves that day. Bruce Arena basically drew a line 35-yards out and said "none shall pass," in the process forcing Mexico to the flanks. El Tri took the bait and earned their most famous loss.
Teams became both more patient and more clever in attacking the 3-5-2 after the 2002 World Cup, and are better equipped to tease central defenders out to the flanks then beat them with combination play. The winger in the 4-2-3-1 works wonders compared to a winger in the 4-3-3 because in the former, the winger is more withdrawn. Playing deeper pulls the opposing wingback higher, creating room in behind for either an overlapping fullback or the No. 10 to get into space on a diagonal.
The wide central defender has to pop out and deal with that. The middle man of the back three (often called a sweeper, but almost certainly not in the classical sense) has to have anticipated the whole thing and shifted over, all the while barking orders to his weakside central defender and wingback, as well as the central midfield. If one of those don't cover for the middle man, there are usually two forwards in the box to make the defense pay for late rotations.
It's a lot to keep track of. (Chile, for what it's worth, have played mostly a 3-4-3 that pedants call a 3-3-1-3 over the past 18 months.)
That's one danger of the three-man backline. Another comes when the wide defenders pinch too tight and get no tracking help from the wingbacks – exactly what happened to Arena's Galaxy in a 2-2 draw with Montreal last September. They attempted a 3-5-2 for the first half of that one, and it was a bloodbath.
Both of those major problems start with a lack of discipline and recognition from the wingbacks. They are compounded by a lack of familiarity along the backline.
Q: So... what to expect?
A: A mess
The struggle is real. Klinsmann clearly agrees and is now, in his own way, trying to crack the code. Fate may have led him invariably to a three-man back line, may have demanded he trade in "proactive" for "proactively reactive," an experiment born of both pragmatism and peer pressure.
Say it with me again: reading too much into friendlies is always a risk. But as I've also said, you'd be a fool not to pay attention to the problems that crop up in those games and try to address them before the results really matter. Doubly so if those problems you see in the friendlies are the same that showed up in the World Cup itself.
Klinsmann is showing he's no fool. Now he just needs to show he's found a solution or two, and start painting a picture that's not quite so grim.