Jurgen Klinsmann had a low bar on Wednesday night. He didn’t have to win against Mexico, nor did he have to right all the wrongs of the past 12 months. He didn’t have to coax his team into a performance that fans would talk about for years. He didn’t have to write another chapter in “Dos-a-Cero.”
All he had to do was put out a team that gave the US fan base hope. The reality is that since Asamoah Gyan smashed that extra-time goal past Tim Howard in Rustenburg, Sam’s Army, the American Outlaws and even Joe Six-Pack have been fueled far more by angst and a sort of directionless, impotent rage than by hope.
And that’s a problem, because hope is the lifeblood of fandom. Hope is what makes it possible to endure blown two-goal leads, or 5-0 eviscerations, or any number of indignities inflicted upon your team by a hated rival.
I’ve never been a professional soccer player, so I can’t say whether the guys who wear the uniform feel the same way the fans do. But judging from body language and parsed quotes over the past few months, the US team seemed short on hope.
That changed a bit over the last 30 minutes of Wednesday’s 1-1 draw. Yes, it was a friendly and it was a Mexican "B" team at best. But there was — finally, mercifully — some hope on display from the folks in red, white and blue again.
That’s more important than any tactical analysis at this point. But we'll break it down a bit anyway:
First, let’s not pass judgment on the 4-2-3-1 yet. The players Klinsmann used for the first hour simply aren’t suited to be on the field with each other in any formation, no matter how in vogue it is. And because of that, we didn’t learn anything about Edson Buddle one way or the other. So please hold off with the torches and pitchforks.
It's also worthwhile to know José Torres still stinks on the wing. He lacks pace and doesn’t push into space without the ball, instead dropping deep, pinching and showing for outlets. That allows the defense to compress the field — not the skillset of a winger.
The flip-side is that when Torres played central in front of Kyle Beckerman, he was excellent (combined they had zero turnovers after the 61st minute). If Torres wins back a starting spot on the club level, he looks like he has a very good chance of figuring prominently into Klinsmann’s plans. His skill on the ball, comfort in traffic and passing eye are all valuable assets.
Beckerman, for what it's worth, is a true d-mid and showed as much. He may not be good enough to excel at the highest level, but he deserves a chance to prove it.
More importantly, having a guy in that specific role makes the team much more organized even if, individually, he's less talented than other options. For now, Beckerman is the US’ best bet, though at some point you’d think Rangers would realize that’s the place Maurice Edu was born to play and give him a chance to hone his craft.
Elsewhere in the midfield, it's becoming increasingly clear that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones may not be able to play together. The issue is an on-going one that didn’t get any better on Wednesday. The only conceivable way I could see it working is if Jones were tasked as a pure d-mid (instead of Beckerman or Edu, not alongside one/both) with Bradley as a forward destroyer a la AC Milan’s midfield. Otherwise, there’s a low probability of success.
Up top, Juan Agudelo does a lot of good things, but he doesn't create that extra yard of space in his brain. That’s why he's so often caught on the ball. It’s something he should hopefully develop over the next couple of years; he’s just 18, after all.
A bigger problem is that he gave up on a far-post run late in the second half that could have made it 2-1 off a rebound. The frustration there is that Agudelo has been kept on the bench for RBNY this year by Luke Rodgers (when Rodgers has been healthy) specifically because Rodgers is fantastic off the ball. Agudelo should have picked up on that by now and begun emulating it if he really wants the starter’s job back.
Brek Shea, on the other hand, was consistently dangerous off the ball and playing first-time combinations, much better than anyone had a right to think he'd be at this level. That “extra yard of space in the brain” — Shea has that. He didn’t last year, but he does now. He’s a safe bet to be at pretty much every US camp from here on out and, in the near-term, makes a ton of sense as a second-half sub regardless of the score.
Also, our readers on the live, in-game chat nicknamed Shea “The Unicorn.” I feel like that’s important.
The best US player was, once again, Landon Donovan. He's very good central, but world class on the wing because that’s where space is in the modern game. If the rest of the US midfielders can get him the ball in that space — something they’ve largely been awful at in recent times — he’ll be good for five clear-cut scoring chances a game. Last night alone he made three, even with that ad hoc lineup around him.
On the back line, Michael Orozco Fiscal looked useful and composed in the central defense. He's a good matchup against teams that aren't particularly good on set-pieces, and will be an asset if he keeps his temper. The big test will come against teams like England or Germany — or even Jamaica — that can be dominant physically.
Orozco's fellow Mexican Primera starter, Edgar Castillo, needs more time cookin’. But we’ve all seen worse from that position. Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra, meanwhile, were exactly what you'd expect from them.
The entire team struggled with rhythm and movement for the first hour, which isn’t a surprise because there were four central midfielders on the field at the same time. Even after the formation change to what was really a 4-1-3-1-1, there weren’t a whole lot of balls played into movement. That’s an area that will need constant attention from Klinsmann and his staff in the years to come.
All that said, there were two big “exhale in relief” moments for US supporters on Wednesday:
- The midfield looked very organized over the last half hour
- The US scored a one-touch goal.
Kudos to Robbie Rogers for finishing his run. Getting into position to finish easy chances? Unheard of!
So for now, hats are off to Klinsmann for bringing hope back. It may have been just a tie, but the important part is that he cleared the bar. For fans of a US team that seemed to be in decline, that feels very much like a win.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com. He can be followed at @MLS_Analyst.