Photo courtesy of RSC Anderlecht
There are, presumably, a lot of little things that go into managing a soccer team. I say “presumably” because I’ve never been a manager, and given my CV, it seems pretty unlikely I’ll find myself in that profession at any point in the future.
Thus, for the next two paragraphs, I’m presuming. But I’ve read a lot, and I’ve interviewed a lot, and I’ve read between the lines a lot. So my presumptions are pretty good (or so I presume).
And what it comes down to is this: If you talk to people who’ve done the thing, and you separate out everything that means something from everything that means nothing, running a soccer team comes down to managing the egos in the dressing room, and identifying the right talent on the field.
So far, via reports on and off the record, Jurgen Klinsmann’s US national team dressing room is all sunshine and rainbows – and that’s great, because if you get a team that’s all on the same page, they can punch above their weight (see: 2002 US World Cup team). And, of course, an uber-talented team can flame out in spectacular fashion if the players and manager are at each others’ throats (see: 2010 France World Cup team).
At the moment, Jurgen Klinsmann’s ego-management looks pretty good. But after watching Sacha Kljestan steer Anderlecht to their fifth straight win in Europa League play on Thursday afternoon, I’m still feeling twitchy about The Golden Bomber’s player selection.
Kljestan is playing impossibly well right now, and has been since August. So are the Mauves – they’re the only team in the entire Europa League that’s perfect in the group stage, they’re topping the Jupiler League, and they’ve even got Milan Jovanovic (that’s Serbian for “overrated”) looking dangerous on a regular basis up top.
And Kljestan is at the heart of it all. He spreads the field early and often, tracks back well, and has even become a bit of a ballhawk in passing lanes. He can switch the field better than any other US player, and sees the final ball as well as anyone in the US pool, save for Landon Donovan.
Why he’s on the outside looking in for Klinsmann’s US, I just can’t say. I was stunned when he didn’t get off the bench against Belgium, and was stunned again when he wasn’t called for the November friendlies. I’m left simply girding my loins against another snub.
And Kljestan’s not the only one, though he is clearly – at the moment – the best. That makes him the captain of the “Are You Watching?” best XI, which will line up in a 4-3-3:
Goalkeeper: Sean Johnson – This one’s a little unfair to Klinsmann since it’s a coin-flip between Johnson and Bill Hamid right now as to who’s the best “future” US ‘keeper. Johnson does better at organizing the defense – which may be due to Cory Gibbs – while Hamid has softer hands. Can’t really argue much about this one.
Left Back: Corey Ashe – He can’t cross on the run, but he does everything else you want from a left back. He’s quick, he’s turned into a good one-on-one defender, he’s tireless, he plays safe passes and doesn’t turn the ball over. And he’ll be on the right side of 30 when 2014 comes. At some point he needs a look.
Center Back: Geoff Cameron – Easy call, even if – again – this one’s a little unfair to Klinsmann. Cameron only became a fulltime central defender in mid-September, so it’s not like there was a lot of tape to go on. But he needs to be the centerpiece of the January camp, and in the lineup against Venezuela and Panama.
Center Back: Omar Gonzalez – This has been written about at length both here and pretty much everywhere else. Gonzalez clearly still needs to work on his footskills, but he’s improved dramatically in the past 18 months. No reason to think that won't continue.
Right Back: Chance Myers – Right back isn’t exactly a position of need for the US, but it’s hard to overstate how good Myers was this year. He had one pretty awful game (against FC Dallas, during which he played injured), but other than that was the most consistent fullback in the league, and is a dynamic, field-opening passer of the ball when pushing forward.
Defensive Midfielder: Rich Balchan – Ok, not really. The one area of the pitch that Klinsmann’s vetted thoroughly is d-mid, and he’s settled on the right guy (for now) in Kyle Beckerman. But I just want to mention Balchan here since he got virtually no love during the season outside of Columbus. If he stays healthy, he’ll battle Danny Williams and Perry Kitchen for the starting d-mid role on the US Olympic team.
Center Midfielder: Kljestan – Come on. Just come on.
Center Midfielder: Benny Feilhaber – I suspect people simply stopped watching the Revs around August, otherwise there would have been more talk about how well Feilhaber was playing despite his team’s piteous results. His comfort on the ball and in traffic is something the US sorely lacks, and he uses that ability to bring others into the play and get the midfield moving as a cohesive unit.
Right Winger: Chris Wondolowski – Scored 12 of his 18 goals in 2010 from the right side of Frank Yallop’s lopsided formation. Won’t carry the ball at pace, but passes well and is masterful at getting onto the back post.
Center Forward: C.J. Sapong – Again, not really fair to Klinsmann. Sapong’s just starting his career, is three days too old for the Olympic team (sad but true), and needs to show he can improve his finishing in year two. But he’s a true No. 9 and has the highest upside of any striker in the player pool. Period.
Left Winger: Herculez Gomez – Not an ideal fit for him, but in my scheme he and Sapong would be switching quite a bit. The reality, though, is that he scores goals. Lots of them – he averages a goal every 120 minutes since moving to Mexico. The US could use that even if it takes some creative thinking to get him on the field.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com