Commentary: USMNT returns home shorthanded, facing tough choices over Zusi, Jones replacements
KINGSTON, Jamaica – In light of players' and coaches' abiding tendency to mix military metaphors into discussions of their sporting affairs, it's hard to resist noting the irony of US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his troops returning Stateside from a draining overseas mission only to find themselves shorthanded on the home front this week.
Friday's last-gasp win in Jamaica, while an admittedly flawed performance, has inspired the Yanks and improved their position in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying standings. It also seems to have robbed Klinsmann of several of his most valued performers for Tuesday's clash with Panama at CenturyLink Field (9:30 pm ET, ESPN, UniMas), at the very moment when he'd started the same 11 in back-to-back games for the first time.
Between that and the new wrinkle presented by Panama and FC Dallas striker Blas Perez's gastroentiritis-caused absence from Los Canaleros' starting lineup, that leaves a few questions for general Klinsmann to consider as he seeks to build on a three-game Hex unbeaten streak.
1) Who replaces Graham Zusi, and how?
Thanks to a caution received on the foul that led to Jamaica's game-tying goal, the Sporting KC star is definitely out for Tuesday. Do the USMNT make a like-for-like swap by plugging in Sacha Kljestan or Stuart Holden, or is striker Eddie Johnson the next one up? Is lefty Brad Davis the best crosser (and set-piece taker) to fill Zusi's boots, prompting a left-right switch?
Bear in mind that Fabian Johnson got a “must do better” grade from his coach for his stint at left midfield Friday.
But that sort of shift would also seem to open up possibilities for Joe Corona, likely the most in-form Yank who has yet to get an extended chance this year. Or perhaps Brad Evans will move up from right back – though Klinsmann seems mighty enamored of him in his new role.
2) Is Jermaine Jones out, and if so, who can possibly replace him?
If the fierce Schalke 04 destroyer is sidelined by Friday's concussion in Kingston, there's simply no one on Klinsmann's current (and shrinking) roster with the same bite and physical presence. A caution-minded setup would probably feature his replacement in Jamaica, Geoff Cameron.
Yet a desire to “go for it” against Panama, who seem likely to set out a defensive shop in hostile territory on Tuesday, would lead to a forward-leaning creator like Kljestan, Holden or Corona paired with Michael Bradley.
3) Is this back four good enough?
Klinsmann already made clear that his answer to this, for now, is “yes.” DaMarcus Beasley still has a “pressed into service” look about him at left back, and last week he admitted to MLSsoccer.com that he still considers himself a left midfielder at heart, despite his eagerness to do a job for his country. But his coach sang his praises even after Reggae Boyz live-wire Jermaine Johnson gave him fits.
“I mean, he had one of the best players against him, that really challenged him in a lot of one-against-ones runs and battles,” said the USMNT boss, noting that Beasley suffered when Fabian Johnson got “disconnected” from him and expressing satisfaction with the cure provided by substitute Edgar Castillo. “That was the reason why we brought in Edgar, to help Beas manage that defensively. Also we know that Edgar can go forward too, but I think that helped Beas get a little bit more of a breather, and then he really got back into the game. Right now he's doing a tremendous job for the team, and so as of today he's locked into that position, and he deserves it.”
Center backs Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler got strong marks for their latest stint together, though another galling set-piece goal was conceded to a wide-open opponent deep in the US penalty box, one of several clear chances conceded to Jamaica.
They got the job done in Kingston, and will probably get at least one more match together as a group. But Geoff Cameron remains a compelling center back candidate and if he continues the solid work he showed off the bench, Klinsmann may be compelled to shuffle the deck to keep him on the field in the future. The same goes, to a lesser extent, for left back candidated Castillo and Fabian Johnson.