The Throw-In: Trying to guess what Klinsmann's thinking
Not long after Jurgen Klinsmann named his roster last week for the US national team’s pair of upcoming friendlies, Sacha Kljestan tweeted the following:
12/12 points in Europa League and qualification for the knockout stages. Well done boys! Are you even watching???
Who was the "you" Kljestan directed his question toward? Given the timing and the fact that the Anderlecht string-puller didn’t make Klinsmann’s squad, you can make your own guess. Perhaps reconsidering his tone, Kljestan deleted his tweet a few hours later.
Klinsmann has now been in charge of the USMNT for three months. The team’s record with him at the helm is now 1-3-1 heading into Friday’s friendly against France, and it’s been outscored 4-2.
The program is, of course, in the middle of a re-imagining with the former German star in the captain's chair. From the senior team down through the youth ranks, we’re learning to play a new style of sexier football, if you will, and that may take some time.
Still, US Soccer finally got the girl after a five-year courtship. It’s safe to say the honeymoon period is officially over. We’re starting to see what types of players Klinsmann wants in the squad and what kind of talent he believes is the best to implement his vision. And the second-guessing by fans has never been louder.
So let’s take a moment to try to climb inside Klinsi’s head – a complicated place, to be sure. Here are three different examples of big snubs from this roster, and our best guess as to why the Big Man has decided to pass on them.
Fitting the mold: Herculez Gomez
Seven goals in 16 appearances for Estudiantes Tecos during the recently completed Apertura 2011, including four off the bench as a second-half substitute – that’s a goal every 126 minutes, a ratio even better than the Mexican Primera División’s top scorer.
To put it simply, put Gomez on the pitch and he will figure out a way to score by any means necessary. It’s nothing new from the 2010 World Cup veteran. And last we checked, the US have scored exactly twice in five games since Klinsmann took over.
Yet Herc was not among the names called for the France and Slovenia friendlies, nor has he heard from US Soccer. What does the man have to do?
“It’s frustrating,” Gomez admitted to MLSsoccer.com this past weekend. “I’m only human. It’s one of those things where if they said, ‘Hey, win the scoring title every year,’ at least I’d know what I have to do.”
But no matter how many times Gomez crushes one into the net, he may never be able to do enough to be what the US gaffer wants. Klinsmann is the first manager in USMNT history who isn’t coaching based on the players at his disposal. He’s finding the players the fit into his vision of how he wants the US to play. And Herc, sadly, may not fit.
Klinsmann’s offense – call it a 4-3-3, a 4-5-1, a 4-2-3-1, whatever – calls for a single, big forward up top, a target man who can take a beating in the box, hold up the ball for other attackers and occasionally deposit it himself.
Jozy Altidore would seem to be that guy, with Edson Buddle and Juan Agudelo behind him. That’s in line with Klinsmann’s previous beefy strikers from his Germany and Bayern Munich teams: Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski, Luca Toni.
Gomez is a fantastic finisher in his own right, but at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, he’s no banger in the box. He’s a sharpshooter, a fantastically opportunistic poacher and a player driven by some of the most stubborn will you’ll ever see.
What he’s not is a center forward as Klinsmann envisions it. Maybe play him on the wings? Forget it. That’s where Klinsmann wants creators who like to play the ball at their feet – your Landon Donovans, Clint Dempseys, Brek Sheas. And that may be the reason Gomez is on the outside staring in.
Playing politics: Omar Gonzalez
The newly minted MLS Defender of the Year has been, hands down, the most dominant center back in the league this season. According to Opta, no player in MLS won more 50-50 duels than Gonzalez (a 71.5 percent success rate). He also led the league in clearances (252) and headed clearances (148).
His positioning in 2011 has been unreal, too. Gonzalez's presence on crosses and set pieces has made the LA Galaxy back line impenetrable. That sort of dominance is the reason many fans were up in arms when they saw Michael Orozco Fiscal called in yet again.
But there’s evidence Gonzalez doesn’t fit into Klinsmann’s system either, much like Gomez. The Shin Guardian did a fascinating statistical look into why Orozco Fiscal keeps getting called in, focusing on Klinsmann’s constant desire for distributing defenders.
And in sifting through more Opta statistics, we came up with this damning stat: Gonzalez had the fourth-worst passing-accuracy rate of any starting center back in MLS (his 74.1 percent is better than only Vancouver’s Alain Rochat, Portland’s Eric Brunner and Philadelphia’s Carlos Valdés).
Yet this is frustrating, too. As former US national team center back Eddie Pope explained to MLSsoccer.com, what Gonzalez doesn’t do right can be taught. What he does do right is far more valuable.
“I was awful as a distributor of the ball,” the two-time World Cup vet said last month. “But I learned it. When I first got on the national team, the pace was so fast and the pressure was so high. It takes a while to get used to it. What’s hard to teach is positioning. And you see that some guys [Klinsmann is calling in] are struggling.”
It’s hard to deny Gonzalez’s physical presence as a back-liner. He would seem to be the heir apparent to Oguchi Onyewu, and it’d be a fool’s errand to think he’s out of Klinsmann’s picture entirely.
And this is where I believe Klinsmann the politician is in full gear. When he was hired, he signaled his intent to have lengthy conversations with every MLS coach. The German is a shrewd diplomat and master negotiator, and he carries weight all over the game.
I would be shocked if he and Bruce Arena don’t have some unwritten understanding in place over Gonzalez as the Galaxy march toward MLS Cup. If Gonzalez isn’t in January camp, we’ll know for sure that he’s not Klinsmann’s type of player. Until then, I can only assume the former is the case.
The buck stops here: Sacha Kljestan
This is the murkiest one yet. The former Chivas USA man is one of the best players on an Anderlecht team currently on a tear, atop the Belgian league and stomping its Europa League competition. Kljestan has chipped in with a pair of goals and four assists in those competitions for the Mauves.
The strangest part is that he is exactly the sort of player who seemingly fits into Klinsmann’s system: a central playmaker who is constantly looking forward, searching for seams, opening passing lanes and able to deliver to wingers and overlapping fullbacks.
In Kljestan’s one appearance for the US under the new guy, he played 25 minutes against Costa Rica in September and injected loads of life into a listless attack. Three days later, when the US played Belgium in Brussels, he didn’t even get off the bench – in a stadium seven miles down the road from his own club’s home.
There is, as they say, no accounting for taste. Maybe Klinsmann simply doesn’t like what Kljestan brings and prefers others. Every coach does it. And that may be all there is to it.
He is most certainly watching, Sacha. But no matter how much Klinsmann says to media about how minutes and form are crucial elements of what he wants, he is going to play who he wants to play. Period. And that may be the biggest criteria there is.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.